June 30, 2013

Dan Demeritt: LePage must seize chance for change

Maine Gov. Paul LePage sounded frustrated and pessimistic when meeting with reporters last week following the Legislature's vote to override his veto of a $6.3 billion budget bill. He sent signals that suggested a lack of policy direction and sincere indecision about whether to seek re-election in 2014.

"I don't know what else I can do," LePage said uncharacteristically. "I can continue working, but until the Maine people send people to Augusta who are willing to work on their behalf, this is what we are going to have."

LePage has been on his heels before. And, once again, I am here to help.

LePage's principles, steadfast resolve and passion are his greatest strengths as a leader. These strengths provide the clarity and conviction needed to set a direction and stand fast. But as we have seen in LePage's 2½ years in office, believing your path is the only way forward can also lead to confrontation and conflict in a political system built on a need for compromise.

Especially when you are prone to speak your mind as freely as LePage does.

The Legislature did its job in passing a budget that was reflective of the economic times and the political makeup of Maine -- both at the State House and across our state's cities and towns. We are a state that last November gave Democrats overwhelming majority control in the Legislature and a state that continues to place far too high a value on an outdated system of local governance and service delivery.

The governor often laments the makeup of the Legislature and the choices made by the voters. His tone is almost fatalistic. But as it has been his whole life, the governor's fate is his to make. And I believe he is the one person in Maine with the political power, personality, and resolve to convince voters to upend the establishment and reconfigure the political landscape.

But he has to stop com- plaining about the makeup of the Legislature and own the fleeting opportunity he has to shape the opinion of the voters who ultimately decide Maine's direction. That's the kind of leadership I want to see from LePage.

LePage is at his best as an anti-establishment populist. He needs to focus this passion not just on Augusta but on our inefficient system of local government that places such a huge burden on local property tax payers and state tax revenues.

The push to restore revenue sharing is the primary reason taxes were increased in the just-enacted biennial budget. The political reality in Maine is that revenue sharing equates to property tax relief. Fiscal conservatives like the governor who disagree have to convince voters otherwise.

Voters also have to be convinced that our system of local government and service delivery can be altered while maintaining local control. But it is not a question of changing things on the margin. We need structural reform that powerful interests across Maine will resist.

Steve Woods of Yarmouth, a Democrat hopeful for governor, has expressed the boldest ideas thus far about right-sizing Maine for the times. LePage should be equally bold and get to work now making his case and using the political and policy tools at his disposal to show voters a new direction is both possible and far more affordable. It would be great politics in a three-way race for governor.

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