After more than 40 years in the wilderness, Maine’s Republicans have reached the Promised Land. They will, very shortly, take complete control of the state Legislature, and with Gov.-elect Paul LePage’s stunning victory, will soon control the executive branch of state government as well.
The last time Republicans controlled both the Legislature and the governor’s office was 1964. Lyndon Johnson was president, gas was 30 cents a gallon, and the Beatles were on the Ed Sullivan show.
That’s how long it’s been, and that is how monumental last week’s election was.
Tradition dictates that those of us in the business of political commentary are supposed to caution this new Republican majority against overreach. We are to encourage moderation and remind Republicans that politics is about consensus and conciliation.
My advice is slightly different.
To my fellow Republicans, I say it is time to lead. It is not the time for half measures, not the time to adopt squishy, middle-of-the-road reforms and not the time for fence-straddling compromise.
Maine confronts a series of immense challenges. Thousands of Mainers are out of work, and thousands more struggle to make a living in what Forbes magazine says is the nation’s worst state for business. Mainers pay more for health care and energy than residents of most states, and despite the high gas taxes its residents pay, the state’s transportation infrastructure is crumbing. Maine’s public debt is out of control, and the incoming administration is inheriting a massive budget shortfall caused in no small part by the fact that 30 percent of the state’s residents are on some kind of welfare program.
The path we are on is unsustainable, and Maine voters have, at long last, had enough.
Democrats are already grumbling, of course, that Gov.-elect LePage’s win with only 38 percent of the vote does not constitute a mandate for change. Another 36 percent of voters, though, chose Eliot Cutler for governor, who wasn’t exactly running as a defender of the status quo.
According to the handy “20 questions you want answered before voting for governor” guide the Bangor Daily News published right before the election, LePage and Cutler had far more in common than some might think. Both candidates supported time limits for welfare programs, both called for reform of public employee pen-sions and both thought the state’s environmental regulations hurt its businesses.
LePage and Cutler both supported buying health insurance across state lines, and both opposed the failed Dirigo Health program. Both backed the creation of public charter schools and merit pay programs for teachers, and both thought that raising taxes in the current economic climate was a bad idea.
On most of these issues, Cutler and LePage were opposed by Democratic candidate Libby Mitchell, a 24-year legislative veteran and consummate Augusta insider. She barely got 19 percent of the vote.
The message from Maine voters, then, is loud and clear: The course we’re on isn’t getting us anywhere. It is time to put the helm hard over and turn the ship of state around.
I do not mean to suggest, it is important to say, that Republicans should run roughshod over the Democrats or act in a partisan way just for the sake of it. Having witnessed firsthand the petty and partisan bullying that characterized Democratic leadership during the 121st Legislature, I know how poisonous and counterproductive such an approach can be.
Republicans, though, must lead — and lead decisively. They must confront the state’s lousy business climate, they must deal with high energy and health insurance costs, they must reform welfare and retool our schools and colleges, and they must squeeze every ounce of productivity out of every tax dollar at every level of gov-ernment.
They also must maintain a laserlike focus on the state’s economic recovery. Just because they are running the show doesn’t mean they should start acting like Democrats by trying to use government to solve all the world’s problems. If the legislation Republicans propose isn’t going to improve the state’s business climate or cre-ate jobs, they probably shouldn’t bother with it.
Since 1964, when Republicans last controlled Maine’s Legislature and governor’s office, total nonfederal state spending, adjusted for inflation, has quadrupled. We have tried to tax and spend our way to prosperity — tried doing things the Democrats’ way — for nearly 50 years.
It is high time to try something else. It is time for vision and boldness, and it is time for determined leadership from Maine’s Republicans.
Stephen Bowen of Rockport directs the Center for Education Excellence at the Maine Heritage Policy Center. His blog can be found at www.GreatSchoolsforME.org