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LePage fires back, blames Democrats for inaction

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Gov. Paul LePage speaks Thursday, March 3, 2011 in Augusta. Today LePage accused Democratic lawmakers of stymieing work on his reform package and called on his “loyal opposition” to either vote on key issues or offer alternatives.
By Kevin Miller, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — Republican Gov. Paul LePage accused Democratic lawmakers of stymieing work on his reform package and called on his “loyal opposition” to either vote on key issues or offer alternatives.

In a broad-ranging press conference held in the governor’s mansion, a fired-up LePage acknowledged that few, if any, of his administration’s key policy initiatives have emerged from the Republican-controlled Legislature.

He also joked about his habit of making headlines on his own. But in an apparent response to Democrats’ stinging critique on Wednesday of his first 100 days in office, LePage sought to put the blame back on the minority party.

“For the last 64 days, we’ve been sitting around selling newspapers because nothing is coming down from upstairs,” LePage said. “Not because the Republicans aren’t trying. Because what’s happened with the loyal opposition is they say ‘no’ to everything, but they have not put anything on the table.”

Democrats said they were puzzled by the governor’s remarks.

“I don’t know what he is talking about,” said Rep. John Martin, an Eagle Lake Democrat and formerly a longtime House Speaker. “That’s certainly not been the case on this committee,” Martin added, referring to the budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.

LePage’s comments came one day after Democrats accused him of neglecting his campaign promise to create jobs and, instead, wasting most of his first 100 days ostracizing Mainers with rhetoric and extreme policy initiatives.

LePage responded Thursday that he has put forward concrete solutions to cut taxes, reduce red tape and improve Maine’s business climate, which Forbes recently ranked as 50th in the nation. The problem, LePage said, has been kickback from Democrats.

“If the loyal opposition wants to create jobs, vote on my budget,” LePage said. “If the loyal opposition wants to move the state forward, vote on my LD 1, on the reform package. And don’t say ‘no’ before you read it.”

Democrats scoffed at the notion that they have not offered suggestions or alternatives on the issues LePage and legislative Republicans are trying to address.

As part of their “100 days” press conference on Wednesday, Democrats distributed a list of more than two dozen bills they said are focused on creating jobs, lowering taxes, reducing energy and health care costs and using bonds to invest in infrastructure or business development.

Democratic Rep. Emily Cain, the House minority leader, said Democrats are “pulling more than our fair share of the weight on key issues.”

The real reason many of LePage’s proposals have failed to emerge from the GOP-controlled Legislature, Cain said, is because they don’t even have support within the governor’s own party.

“What we have seen come out of the governor’s office is primarily extreme proposals that have been rejected by both sides of the aisle, both on the budget and on regulatory reform,” said Cain, D-Orono.

LePage made his comments on a day when a legislative committee held a public hearing on a regulatory reform package known as LD 1 that is substantially different than the proposal put out by the governor’s office. After several months of hearings and workshops, the bipartisan committee rewrote the governor’s draft bill and, in the process, removed, scaled back or referred to other committees many of the most controversial issues.

On Thursday, LePage said the contents of his regulatory reform proposal came directly from the more than 1,000 people who attended “red tape audit” meetings held throughout the state. The governor said he “didn’t do a damn thing on LD 1” except send it to the office that writes legislation.

“It was these fine people here, Maine people who create jobs, who sign the front of the check, that are looking for relief,” LePage said, motioning to the crowd of business owners behind him.

Republican lawmakers were proceeding with one of the governor’s other priorities: tax relief.

On Thursday, GOP leaders of the Taxation Committee outlined a proposal embraced by eight of the panel’s 13 members that would cut $203 million in state taxes, as the governor insists. Among its components are reducing from four to two the state’s income tax brackets, eliminating the 7 percent tax on meals served at retirement homes and creating a state tax “holiday” for purchases up to $1,500. The plan would drop 70,000 filers from the tax rolls.

But the tax cut proposals likely will face a tougher test in the Appropriations Committee, which would have to approve any tax changes as part of next biennium’s budget.

LePage devoted a portion of his 20-minute-long venting session to the budget process. The governor said he went along with Republican legislative leaders when they opted for a budget process that requires a two-thirds majority in both chambers rather than the simple majority.

“Early on in the game, the Republican party said to me we are going to get a two-thirds budget because we do not want to treat the loyal opposition the way we have been treated for 35 years with a majority budget,” LePage said.

Contrary to LePage’s suggestion, however, there have only been two budgets in recent decades — in 1997 and in 2005 — where Democrats passed the biennial spending plan with a simple majority instead of a two-thirds majority.

Some lawmakers suggested, instead, that the governor was unfamiliar with the lengthy budget-writing process in which the Legislature typically takes months to review every aspect of budget.

“We are proceeding on a timetable … and are right where we ought to be,” Martin said.

Democrats also pointed out that most of the nonbudgetary items that the LePage administration has proposed would only need a simple majority, which the Republicans have.

Sen. Jonathan Courtney, the Republican Senate majority leader who is co-chairing the committee charged with trimming red tape in state government, told LePage and reporters that he understands the governor’s frustration. He was frustrated himself as a new legislator at how slow the legislative process can be.

But he said Republicans in the Legislature are “focused like a laser” on pursuing the party’s policy agenda and are actually ahead of pace compared to two years ago.

“We are moving very expeditiously. I know it doesn’t feel it,” Courtney said, placing his hand on LePage’s shoulder.

On numerous occasions on Thursday, LePage acknowledged his own rocky relationship with the press and his tendency for making news that riles up the opposition — and, in some cases, members of his own party. The most recent example was his decision to remove a mural depicting the history of Maine’s labor movement from a state building because some viewed it as too one-sided.

But LePage made no apologies for his gruff style, saying he isn’t politically correct and speaks his mind, even if he isn’t always correct. But the governor said he has had to learn that making changes in government takes longer than making changes in the business world.

“So over the last 65 days, I have been waiting and I’ve been selling newspapers,” he said. “But now I’m tired of selling newspapers. I’ve come back from vacation. I’m ready to go to work.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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