AUGUSTA, Maine — One hundred days into his term as Maine’s chief executive, Gov. Paul LePage has generated plenty of headlines.
But is Maine’s brash, tell-it-like-it-is governor living up to the campaign pledges that helped him lead a Republican sweep of state government?
As is often the case in politics these days, that depends on whom you’re asking — or, more importantly, to which party that person belongs.
To Maine Democratic leaders, the list of LePage’s foibles during his first 100 days is overshadowed only by what they say is a lack of progress on the key issue of the 2010 gubernatorial campaign: job creation.
“In the past 100 days, Democrats have had to answer over and over again why this administration is focused on everything other than getting Maine people back to work,” Sen. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, said Wednesday during a midday “100 Days of LePage” press conference.
To Republican leaders, however, three months is far too little time to clean up what they say is the regulatory mess, anti-business climate and “welfare system” that they claim Democrats created or enabled over the years.
“This is the party that drove us to No. 50 as the worst business climate,” said Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, referring to a Forbes national ranking released last year. “You cannot turn that around in 100 days. Over 30 years, they destroyed the economy of the state of Maine with the policies they put in effect.”
There is no disputing that, during his first 100 days, LePage has sparked more fiery debate within Maine and drawn more national attention to the state than any other governor in recent history.
From telling the NAACP to “kiss my butt” to joking that the chemical BPA would merely cause women to grow “little beards” to removing a mural depicting the history of Maine’s labor movement from the Department of Labor building, LePage has reignited the passions of a “progressive left” obviously outnumbered in last November’s election.
He also has caused some heartburn within his own party, as evidenced by an op-ed piece signed by eight Republican state senators who criticized the governor for actions and statements that distracted from the tough issues confronting the state.
But LePage since has pledged to curtail his fiery statements and focus on the key issues, a pledge that Republicans leaders are taking to heart.
“We are like a family: At times we are going to squabble,” said Rep. Andre Cushing, a Hampden Republican and assistant House majority leader. “But when it comes to the important issues, we are going to pull together and focus on what is important for the citizens of Maine: creating jobs and lowering their taxes.”
Political posturing aside, LePage’s policy proposals have been largely consistent with his campaign emphasis on fewer regulations on businesses, welfare reform and lower taxes.
The question is how many of those proposals — some of which are intensely political — will survive the legislative process, even with Republicans in control of both the House and Senate.
LePage’s $6.1 billion budget proposal contains more than $200 million in tax cuts, including increasing deduction and exemption levels, reducing the top income tax rate and doubling the “death tax” exemption to estates valued up to $2 million.
But Democrats complain the governor’s estate tax proposal primarily benefits the wealthy while, elsewhere in his budget, LePage has proposed changes that would reduce tax breaks that benefit the elderly and lower-income families.
His budget also seeks to address the estimated $4.3 billion unfunded liability in Maine’s pension system for state employees. But critics contend the administration is grossly inflating the gravity of the situation while using state workers and retirees to pay for his tax cuts.
On the issue of regulatory reform, LePage proposed an ambitious agenda heavy on eliminating environmental regulations the administration or businesses deemed harmful for economic growth.
But a legislative committee reviewing the bill has substantially rewritten the measure and removed some of the thorniest issues, including LePage’s proposal to eliminate the Board of Environmental Protection.
And in a high-profile policy loss, lawmakers voted 35-0 in the Senate and 145-3 in the House to ban bisphenol-A, or BPA, despite LePage’s clear opposition to a state-level ban.
But with the legislative session only half-complete, many other aspects of LePage’s reform agenda are still pending and could pass the GOP-controlled Legislature.
On Wednesday, however, the 50 to 60 Democrats gathered outside the governor’s office accused the governor of spending much of his first 100 days causing distractions through rhetoric or misplaced policy proposals.
The Democrats said no jobs would result from LePage proposals that dismissed as efforts weaken worker rights, erode child labor laws or roll back regulations protecting Maine’s natural resources.
Instead, they called on the governor to reverse his stance against taking on additional debt through bonds, which Democrats said would support a “jobs package” and infrastructure investments.
“Maine people sent all of us to Augusta with a mandate to create jobs,” said Rep. Emily Cain of Orono, the House minority leader. “Democrats know that jobs are not created by anecdotes, by rhetoric or by scapegoating.
“And no matter what this administration would lead you to believe, it is a fact that Maine has made fiscally responsible investments, with all credit rating agencies giving them good, strong backing,” Cain said.
LePage, in an interview with Capitol News Service’s Mal Leary on Wednesday evening, had his own blunt assessment of the Legislature’s efforts thus far.
“Nothing, haven’t done a damn thing,” LePage said. “The Legislature hasn’t passed anything worthwhile.”
Aside from the governor’s brief review of the Legislature’s first 100 days, the LePage administration declined to comment on his first three months in office or the Democratic event. In addition to taking a weeklong vacation in Jamaica last week, the governor has maintained an extremely low profile in recent weeks, with relatively few public events and even fewer media appearances.
Republican lawmakers and party officials, however, were eager to reply to the Democrats’ assessment of LePage’s first 100 days.
Maine GOP Chairman Charlie Webster quipped, “100 days of LePage was a lot better than eight years of Baldacci and 35 years of the most liberal Legislature in the country.”
Webster added that, setting aside the high-profile distractions, LePage’s budget does most of the things Maine people asked him to do.
“It changes the welfare state, it cuts taxes, deals with the reasons why people are leaving Maine,” Webster said. “It is a good budget.”
Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, called the press event “political theater.”
“Frankly, they had four decades to enact their policies that brought us to No. 50,” Raye said, adding that he believed the 100-day mark was premature for such “harsh condemnation.”
“I think it is unfortunate given the amount of work that we have to do together that will require a bipartisan approach that we heard the harsh rhetoric that we heard today,” Raye said. “I am disappointed in that.”