AUGUSTA — The ink had barely dried on her inauguration papers in early January when Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, began shifting state government in a far different direction than that taken by her Republican predecessor, Paul LePage.

Working with her Democratic allies in the Legislature, Mills embraced a Medicaid expansion that LePage had blocked for years; supported new treatment and prevention programs in response to the opioid epidemic; resurrected Maine’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions and respond to the impacts of climate change; and retreated from a number of LePage’s welfare reform policies, such as requiring MaineCare recipients to look for jobs and pay premiums for their health insurance coverage.

Still pending in the Legislature are other measures sponsored by Democrats that would further dismantle the conservative approach to state government that LePage built with Republican support during his eight years in office.

Meanwhile, many of his achievements remain in place, including cuts to the state income tax, state pension reforms that reduced unfunded liability to future retirees, and education reforms that introduced charter schools to the Maine landscape.

Democratic leaders say Mills is governing in a way she thinks will benefit Maine and meet the needs of her constituents, and that rolling back LePage’s accomplishments is not an expressed goal of her administration.

“We don’t have that mindset at all here,” said Kathleen Marra, chairwoman of the Maine Democratic Party. “It’s more she is fulfilling the promises that she made to the people of Maine and she is acting in the best interests of the people of Maine.”

Republicans, including some of LePage’s former associates, contend that many of Mills’ accomplishments have little substance, and that she is gambling with Maine’s financial stability by proposing too much government spending.

“She’s done a few things that are relatively small in the grand scale of initiatives,” said Julie Rabinowitz, LePage’s former press secretary. “They seem more symbolic and are kind of superficial.”

As examples, Rabinowitz pointed to an executive order issued by Mills in February to end a wind energy commission and moratorium on new wind development, and another order last month that discontinued LePage’s policy of encouraging photos on electronic benefits transfer cards used by recipients of food stamps and other welfare programs.

Rabinowitz is now the director of policy and communications for Maine People Before Politics, a nonprofit formed in 2011 after LePage became governor. LePage serves as the organization’s honorary chairman.

Neither Mills nor LePage would comment for this story.

The Democratic governor has been reluctant to criticize her predecessor publicly, while LePage, in talk radio appearances early in Mills’ term, said he is keeping his eye on her and may run for governor again in 2022, if he doesn’t like the way she does things.

On issues across the spectrum, Mills has taken a distinct, if not opposite, approach than LePage. From climate change to the state’s opioid crisis to relationships with the Legislature, the opposition party and the media, Mills has been the yin to LePage’s yang.

LePage said he wasn’t convinced that humans caused climate change, and in 2013 he vetoed a bill to study the matter. Two months ago, Mills announced a new agenda that puts the state on a path to get 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources and said she would join a group of U.S. governors who were committing their states to the goals set out in the Paris Climate Accord.

Last week she announced the formation of a 30-member Climate Change Council that will develop the plan for reaching the renewable energy goals and reducing Maine’s greenhouse gas emissions.

LePage successfully vetoed bills to expand the use of residential solar power through “net metering,” which allows homeowners who generate their own energy to earn credit for any excess power they don’t use. Mills signed a bill into law last month establishing net metering. She has also vowed to have solar panels installed on the lawn of the Blaine House, the governor’s residence in Augusta.

As the opioid crisis worsened and Mainers died of drug overdoses at the rate of one a day, LePage focused on law enforcement to curb drug dealing. He repeatedly vetoed bills to expand access to naloxone, an overdose antidote, arguing that it enabled drug use.

Mills has emphasized treatment, prevention and a much broader response to the crisis. She has promoted the distribution of naloxone, created a new office to coordinate the state’s efforts, and devoted more money to treatment, especially through Medicaid expansion.

At points during his eight years in office, LePage told members of his Cabinet not to appear before legislative committees without permission, and he directed lawmakers to put in writing any questions they had about state agencies that were under their jurisdiction. The policy cut off the flow of information between the executive and legislative branches, worsening an already tense relationship that made it difficult for the Legislature to do its job, even on bipartisan measures.

LePage also vetoed over 600 bills – more than all previous governors combined – including legislation supported by members of his own Republican Party. He had a combative relationship with the media, rarely gave interviews or held press conferences, and had little regard for the Freedom of Access Act, leaving dozens of requests for public records unfulfilled when he left office in January.

Mills, on the other hand, has made her top Cabinet members or their representatives regularly available to the Legislature as it works to craft the state’s next two-year budget or other policy and funding changes for state government.

As of Thursday, she had signed 102 bills into law and vetoed only one: a measure that would ban the sale of gasoline in Maine that contains more than 10 percent ethanol. Mills said that fuel isn’t sold in Maine, and the evidence is lacking that it adversely affects health.

Mills’ office has produced public records, often without requiring a formal request in writing, and her staff has also worked to respond quickly to media inquiries or requests for interviews with the governor. Her office is still processing dozens of FOAA requests that were left unfinished under LePage.

Following her election, Mills has said repeatedly she intends to govern with an “open door, an open mind and an open heart.”

Scott Ogden, communications director for Mills, said that remains her approach as she heads into her fifth full month in office.

“It continues to be her goal to interact with and be responsive to the press and to communicate openly with the people of Maine,” Ogden said.

Some of LePage’s achievements, especially a reduction of state income tax rates, will likely stay in place under Mills, who has vowed not to raise taxes – at least in her first budget proposal now before the Legislature.

LePage, during his eight years in office, pushed Maine’s top income tax rate down from 8.5 percent to 7.15 percent. He also saw the exemption on the state’s estate tax increased from the first $1 million of an inheritance to the first $5 million.

Many of LePage’s welfare reforms, including one putting a five-year, lifetime limit on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, as well as work requirements for that program, remain in place.

Mills has also not diverted drastically from LePage’s pro-gun positions and has rejected calls for a state law that would require background checks for all gun sales, including private sales.

But a plethora of bills, many of which could further roll back LePage-era policies or enact laws that he blocked with his veto pen, are still pending before the Legislature.

Among them is a so-called “red flag” bill that would allow police to temporarily confiscate guns if a judge issues a court finding that the gun owner was a danger to himself, herself or others because of a mental health crisis. Conservatives have opposed the bill, saying it strips due process rights and gun rights protected in both the state and U.S. constitutions.

Rabinowitz, the former LePage press secretary, said the tax cuts initiated by LePage are still helping Maine’s economy chug forward, even as conservatives see a new era of  liberal politics unfolding in Augusta.

She pointed out that other things LePage pushed for remain in place. These include the law that set up charter schools in Maine, and an executive order that overturned a directive by his Democratic predecessor, John Baldacci, that Maine law enforcement not cooperate with federal agents on the capture and prosecution of undocumented immigrants who may be facing criminal charges.

Rabinowitz said she believes many of LePage’s welfare reform initiatives are popular not just with far-right conservatives but also with moderates and independent voters who saw some of the new constraints on welfare benefits as common-sense requirements.

Among the LePage welfare reform initiatives that remain in place are the 60-month limit on TANF benefits and prohibitions on using EBT cards at certain businesses, such as liquor stores, strip clubs and tattoo parlors.

Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, said Mills inherited a state government that was on solid financial ground, and she could have followed LePage’s lead by holding the line on spending or even reducing taxes further.

Instead, he said, she sent the Legislature an $8 billion two-year state budget proposal, up 11 percent over LePage’s last budget.

“That’s really a big missed opportunity for the people of Maine,” Savage said. He said Democrats in the Legislature could push spending even higher with a number of bonding proposals.

But with solid Democratic majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, Mills is in a position to further undo, if not erase, LePage’s legacy while she continues to turn the wheel of state government to the left. In November’s election, she received more votes than any candidate for governor in the state’s history.

Marra, the Democratic Party chairwoman, said Mills’ final vote tally was “a very clear message” from voters about what they want. “Health care, schools, clean energy,” she said, “and a government that embraces civility.”

Marra said the election of Mills brought a new atmosphere of civility, respect and kindness in the State House that was restoring Mainers’ faith in their government, an accomplishment that was just as important as undoing LePage policies the Democrats disliked.

“The excitement and the inclusion of everyone there and the enthusiasm of everybody there in the State House, it does a couple of things,” Marra said. “It makes people proud of their government, but it also causes them to want to become more involved. We didn’t have that before.”

 

 

 


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