Ambivalent might best describe the relationship state government is likely to have with Washington over the next four years.

On the one hand, Maine Gov.-elect Paul LePage said during a visit to the nation’s capital last week that working with the Obama administration is “going to be easy for me.”

The comment supported his effort to put behind him a controversy that erupted over his campaign pledge to make headlines by telling Obama to “go to hell.”

On the other hand, the governor-elect said during an interview that he has significant concerns about what he called the overreaching policies of the federal bureaucracy. Specifically, he said, the government goes too far in setting standards for education and health care and does a poor job of distributing federal money to the states.

“I am going to be sitting with our attorney general and asking him to join the (health care reform) lawsuit against the federal government,” he said, adding he just learned that if 35 states join the suit, the law “dies, automatically.”

Twenty states so far have joined the suit, filed in federal court in Florida, to repeal the provision in health care reform law that requires individuals to purchase health insurance.

On education, LePage said he was encouraged by his meeting with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, but remained wary of a revived No Child Left Behind, the education reform law passed by the Bush administration.

“They did say they are going to work very hard at raising the standard of education and that was welcome news because that’s what we feel, that in Maine, the education has been dumbed down quite a bit,” LePage said.

“There’s some talk about bringing back No Child Left Behind, a new version and that scared me. Because in Maine, I haven’t heard any educator tell me that No Child Left Behind was good for a rural state. I think it’s more of a large, metro, inner-city type program.”

LePage has also been critical of the relationship between the federal government and states over money, which he addressed several times during the campaign.

In November 2009, LePage told a tea party rally: “Our Constitution is written in a way that we have states’ rights, but the only way that Washington can take it is with money. They tell you we’ll send you this money and you do it our way if you don’t agree with them, you don’t get the money. But then they invade our freedoms, our liberties and our rights and it’s time for them to go away.”

And during a campaign interview with Jared LeBlanc, for the website Maine Web News, LePage said Maine should not accept more in federal money than it pays into the system via federal taxes.

During the trip, however, LePage was quoted in Congressional Quarterly as saying he would “take all the money the federal government gives us, as long as they don’t tell me how to spend it.”

LePage said the sentiments were not paradoxical.

“What I am saying is, if I took all the money that has no strings, I would never get to how much I put in,” he said, adding that nearly every dollar given to states by the federal government comes with policy demands that undermine state sovereignty.

LePage also restated his belief that states should not collect more in federal funds than they contribute.

“If, for instance, we put $1.5 billion into the federal coffers and we get $2 billion, somebody else on the other end is losing. I have a problem with that,” he said. “I don’t think you should get more than you put in, unless you earn it.

“There’s no free lunches. But what we put in now in terms of federal taxes and transportation taxes, it comes back to us with strings attached and that I have a problem with.”

David Farmer, deputy chief of staff for outgoing Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, said Maine does receive billions of federal dollars in many forms, and acknowledged that accepting some of the funds means Maine must sacrifice certain controls and policy flexibility.

“Billions of dollars flow into the state, from health care expenses, to Social Security, to veterans’ benefits to Togus, to Bath Iron Works, to contracts with some of the defense contractors in Saco, to grants to the University of Maine system. It’s across the board,” he said.

“For example, all those social safety net programs are driven largely by the federal government. There is room for waivers and specific changes and things like that, but the base is built by federal rules.”

But, Farmer said, a positive relationship with Washington is critical. He identified certain developments — like the saving of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard — as a benefit from a close relationship with the federal government.

“If you look at the saving Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. If you look at the redevelopment of Brunswick Naval Air Station. If you look at the railroad or the infrastructure dollars that came in the recovery act,” he said. “Part of it has to do with the good relationship that the governor has with the administration and part of it speaks to the power and influence of our congressional delegation.”

LePage said he left Washington optimistic that the president’s overtures about partnering with states were sincere, but prepared for disappointment.

Obama told the new governors, most of whom are Republican, during their Washington meeting that he would prefer they reach out to his administration with issues they are having, rather than him finding out about problems by reading the headlines.

“I think that is the first, fair way to approach it and if it works, hallelujah, that’s great,” LePage said about the president’s desire. “But if I call him tomorrow and he doesn’t answer the phone, then I guess I’ve got to go to the press.” 

MaineToday Media State House Reporter Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

[email protected]