April 10, 2013

Greg Kesich: LePage still drives the agenda in Augusta

The governor seems more comfortable in a divided government than he did when he had majorities.

OK. Maybe it's too soon, but I'm ready to crown Gov. Paul LePage as the big winner of 2013.

With word that legislative Democrats are coming around to his idea of issuing bonds to retire old hospital debt while tapping revenue from the state liquor contract to pay the bonds off leaves only details to quibble over. The governor will get his hospital bill and a tailor-made campaign issue. Everyone knew what he wanted, knew what he was willing to do to get it and will give him all the credit when it's done. He wins.

This is not a prediction for the election next year, just an observation about this year.

The governor, not always thought of as a deft politician, managed his top priority issue like a master. After an election that took away his legislative majorities, making him -- at least on paper -- a weaker figure, he came out stronger than ever.

Instead it's a major policy win that will have long-range results.

LePage's plan shovels something in the neighborhood of $500 million of public money (state and federal) into major Maine businesses that have been supportive of his leadership. He managed to do this without looking like he was giving a handout to fat cats, crafting it as an economic justice issue of paying what we owe.

He has also made sure that the liquor business revenue won't be used to support schools or health programs for a long time in the future, because, at least for the life of the bonds, it's all tied up. That's going to lead to more of the budget crises that LePage has used as justification for cuts to programs.

You may not like his style or agree with his priorities, but you've got to appreciate his ability to get his way.

How did he do it? One thing is clear: The guy likes to fight, and he's a lot better at fighting than he is at cooperating.

Two years ago, when his party had majorities in the Legislature, Republican senators sat him down and told him his bombastic style was getting in the way of their ability to legislate. They said as much in an op-ed piece published in this newspaper that eight of them signed.

Gov. LePage left the country for his annual Jamaican vacation, and they worked to pass a budget without him.

Now, no one can tell him to be quiet. LePage bashes the Democrats for not wanting to pay back the debt, but they haven't made that argument, even though they could have.

Look at the hospitals -- they're not exactly hurting. Many are building new facilities or expanding. Maine's largest hospital is part of MaineHealth, a health-care network that pays its top administrator a seven-figure salary.

And since Maine adopted a pay-as-you-go policy under the Baldacci administration, the hospitals have been paid billions while every public-sector program has been cut. Some would even argue that the hospitals have already paid themselves back by shifting costs and charging private payers more.

But that discussion did not happen, and the Democrats agreed with LePage's assessment that the hospitals needed to be paid back and the liquor money was a good way to do it. All we heard was the governor talking long and loud about how he planned to use the liquor money and how he would veto every bill that crossed his desk until it happened. Now it's going to happen, and who cares if he didn't follow through on the veto threat? He obviously doesn't. (He signed 10 bills Monday.)

Some predict LePage will "lose" on the budget because his version won't pass, but that assumes that someone else will win.

In January, LePage dropped an ugly budget on the Legislature that would be balanced by flat-funding schools and higher education and cutting programs like revenue sharing, general assistance and property tax rebates that help keep municipalities afloat.

He didn't touch his signature tax cuts, which, among other things, lower the top rates for the highest wage earners and exempts the first $2 million, instead of $1 million, of an estate's value from taxation.

Democrats immediately called the LePage budget a shift to property-tax payers, and they're right, but it's up to them to find a way around it, not the governor. And the combination of tax hikes, program cuts and gimmicks they are bound to come up with to replace LePage's budget won't be pretty.

As one Republican told me, "The governor doesn't have to pass a budget, he just has to present one."

It may be premature to declare LePage the champ of 2013, but I've been hasty before (like when I wrote in 2011 that he had made himself irrelevant with his intemperate public speaking).

Maybe he will have to pay a price for being inconsistent. Maybe it might come back to haunt him that he's often wrong on the facts or that he will usually sacrifice the little guy to help big business.

But until then, you've got to admit, he's having a good year.

 

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at gkesich@pressherald.com

 

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