The moral high ground Republicans believe they occupy in Augusta may turn into quicksand if they stand by their speaker-designate, Robert Nutting. Mr. Nutting, a six-term legislator from Oakland, emerged as the expected speaker of the House last week from a five-way race among Republicans, the new majority party. While colleagues say Mr. Nutting is temperamentally and intellectually suited to serve effectively as House leader, a problem from his past will undermine his — and the GOP’s — best efforts to bring change to state government.
Earlier in the decade, Mr. Nutting, who owned and operated a pharmacy in Oakland, used a different reimbursement formula from what MaineCare used for products such as adult diapers, latex gloves and bed liners. The state Department of Health and Human Services determined that Mr. Nutting’s business owed the state $1.6 million. In 2003, he closed the business and paid the state $433,000, about 26 percent of what was owed. The remaining $1.2 million never was paid.
Had Mr. Nutting repaid the reimbursements in full, he might be able to serve as an example of someone who takes responsibility for his mistakes, a character trait lauded by Republicans. Mr. Nutting has tried to spin his offense as evidence of a confusing, multilayered bureaucracy that contributes to a regulatory climate unfriendly to business — a familiar Republican refrain. But the other side of that coin is that, as a business owner and operator, Mr. Nutting was responsible for negotiating his way through these regulations, a skill he needs to negotiate through the intricacies of legislation.
Whether they are right or wrong to do so, Democratic legislators will remind Mr. Nutting, other House Republicans and the public of this failure each time the majority party proposes measures to bring more accountability to state assistance programs and to go after those who are defrauding those programs. Gov.-elect Paul LePage made the reform of welfare programs in Maine a centerpiece of his campaign. He said he especially wanted to target those who receive state and federal benefits and are of able body and mind — those who, essentially, defraud the state by drawing benefits they don’t need.
A speaker of the House who was able to walk away from a $1.2 million debt to the state begins resembling, on a grander scale, the welfare deadbeats that candidate LePage and tea party activists railed against.
If the party sticks with Speaker Nutting, they effectively hand Democrats a case of ammunition that they will use to shoot holes through GOP proposals relating to social safety net reform and other related measures. The Republican agenda that seeks to rethink state government with an eye toward transforming it into a leaner, smaller but more effective entity is right for the times. Starting this long, hard march with an ethically tainted and politically wounded leader is inadvisable for the new majority in Augusta.