October 25, 2013

Two sides of LePage: He sometimes offends, but his focus is unwavering

Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting

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Gov. Paul LePage has emerged as an anti-politician with his disdain for the sometime necessary tact required of political leaders.

Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting

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Dana Connors, the president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, cites specifics in praising LePage’s policies, such as approval of a bill that “opens the door to mining,” the governor’s veto of a worker’s compensation bill the Chamber said would have added millions to premiums and his veto of a hike in a minimum wage.

Connors said LePage “has been pretty spot on in terms of staying true to doing what he set out to do.” But there was a qualifier to his support – while his members like the governor’s policies, “where you find the falling out,” Connors said, “are over his comments … It’s the style and not the policy that has people scratching their heads.”

One of the state’s leading environmentalists said LePage’s policies are bad for jobs and the economy because that economy depends in a large degree on the state’s “brand identity.”

Pete Didisheim, the longtime lead lobbyist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM), said, “Our sense is the environment is nowhere on his radar screen … underlying that is a lack of understanding of the importance of Maine’s natural resources to all aspects of the state’s economy,” including attracting new businesses.

While environmental groups like NRCM had easy access to the governor’s office going back at least to Baldacci and Angus King, Didisheim has never met with LePage.

He said LePage “came in with a sharply hostile attitude towards the state agencies involved in implementing Maine’s environmental laws that marked him in our eyes and the eyes of many as the most anti-environmental governor ever.”

He cites many examples, from the Portland Press Herald’s series accusing LePage’s head of the Department of Environmental Protection of favoritism towards business to trying to take authority over development in the north woods away from a state-appointed agency known as LURC.

‘That would have been the end of the north woods as we know it,” Didisheim said.

(LePage eventually signed a bill reforming LURC based on a bipartisan study.)

As a candidate, LePage struck a chord with business people with his promise to reduce red tape so they can expand and add jobs. LD1 was one of LePage’s first initiatives and was crafted by advisor, corporate lobbyist and Preti Flaherty partner Robinson. The legislation proposed rolling back some of Maine’s pioneering laws that limited the public’s exposure to toxic chemicals, including the chemical BPA, abolishing the state Board of Environmental Protection (BEP) and other steps.

It was greeted with outrage by the state’s environmentalists.

"This list is reckless and appalling. It puts our health at risk, it puts our environment at risk, our clean air, our clean drinking water at risk," said Maureen Drouin, executive director of the Maine League of Conservation Voters.

The bill that LePage ultimately signed was dramatically scaled back by lawmakers, but still streamlined permitting processes, cut the number of members on the BEP, established environmental self-auditing programs for businesses and instituted business assistance programs at the state's economic development department.

Many of its most controversial environmental proposals were split off from the original bill and sent to legislative committees for further review.

Beliveau sees LePage’s attitude towards the traditional liberal interests groups as a refreshing change.

“I think this is the first governor in ages that is not indebted to the MSEA, NRCM and MEA,” he said referring to the state employees’ union, the environmental advocacy group and the teachers’ union.  Both unions are major contributors to Democratic candidates.

LePage, Beliveau said, “has succeeded by challenging them, confronting them and in many ways provided balance where it had not existed earlier.”

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