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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His firm represented Plum Creek Development when it applied during the Baldacci administration for LURC permits to develop around Moosehead Lake. If LePage had been governor, Beliveau speculated, it would not have taken three years “and millions and millions in counsel fees, expert witnesses … and a whole slug of experts we had to pay.”

The plan was eventually approved with modifications, “but it was torturous,” he said.

And to those who say agencies like the DEP have become less environmentally sensitive and more business-oriented, the 75-year-old Beliveau had the classic response of a veteran political hand: “Elections have consequences.”

The idea that LePage has put good business practices into place in state government grates on Cutler, an attorney, a former budget official in the Carter administration and an international business consultant.

While Cutler cited some areas where LePage has succeeded  -- pension reform, charter school legislation, questioning state spending – he said the governor’s style “is a slap in the face to most responsible business leaders.”

“I’ve put good practices in place in government … It’s hard work and it’s collaborative,” Cutler said. To succeed, it needs to be “a shared enterprise and have a common sense of purpose. And we don’t have that in Maine today.”

When it comes to measuring LePage’s track record on jobs and the economy, there is also empirical data, such as the employment rate.

Two-and-a-half years into LePage’s four-year term, Maine’s unemployment rate stood at 6.9 percent and the U.S. rate at 7.4.

During that period, the Maine rate dropped 1.1 percentage points, or about 14 percent. That’s not as good as the national drop of 1.7 points or almost 19 percent. But in July, the US rate had gotten a bit worse and the state’s rate a little better.

The Maine unemployment rate has been better than the U.S. rate throughout LePage’s term; but it was worse than the U.S. during parts of Baldacci’s two terms.

Another widely-cited statistic is the percentage of the population with jobs. Here, Maine does better: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national rate has ticked up just three-tenths of a point while the state has gone up nearly a whole point since LePage became governor.

The Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank produces a monthly report called the State Coincident Index that takes into account four economic indicators: non-farm employment; average hours worked in manufacturing; the unemployment rate; and wage and salary disbursements.

Until the recession, Maine had been doing better than the U.S. on this measure, but then Maine slipped deeper and faster than the nation. Both started to turn around about the time LePage took office, with the US numbers going up 9.4 percent and the state’s 4.1 percent in the last 2.5 years.

But the Philadelphia Fed sees a rosier picture ahead for Maine – it is one of only 17 states projected to grow faster than the nation over the next six months.

When it comes to job creation, The Business Journals said Maine ranked 43 of 45 states measured as of May, adding private jobs at about half the national average over 12 months. A report by the Pew Center said Maine added about 200 private jobs from April 2012 to April 2013.

In September, Forbes magazine  -- for the fourth year in a row -- ranked Maine the worst state in the nation for business expansion, the driver of private job creation.

“Not much has changed,” Forbes said. Maine “is still burdened with an aging population and a weak economic forecast. Job growth projections are the worst in the U.S …”

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