Gov. Paul LePage deserves credit for delivering a State of the State address that avoided the combative tone and harsh partisan pronouncements that have been typical of many of his public appearances.
He struck a tone of empathy, particularly when he was talking about the scourge of domestic violence. And his call that we find ways to increase the median family income in the state is on track.
The governor’s speech avoided an emphasis on policy and specifics that would give his critics easy targets. It was reminiscent in content — if not in form for its lack of bluster — to his campaign stump speech.
He stayed true to familiar themes about government regulations, taxes and welfare that helped to carry him to the Blaine House, sticking with the broad rhetorical strokes that many people can agree with.
But it’s at this point that the speech suffers a break with reality.
While many people seem to believe that Maine’s system of public, anti-poverty programs are overly generous, when they are confronted with the actual cuts that Gov. LePage is presenting, they are opposed. As the more than 125 people who attended a candlelight vigil outside the State House before the governor’s speech — including me, as one of the participants — can attest, the governor’s plans to take health insurance away from people who make less than $11,000 a year are unpopular.
His plan to end funding for housing and medical care for people with disabilities and the elderly have been rejected even by otherwise supportive members of his own party. His goal to cut funding for prescription medicine for seniors is despised.
And his proposed cuts to Head Start, ugly and unnecessary, already have been partially rejected.
On and on and down the line, the compact and neat rhetoric that draws applause runs into fierce opposition when the discussion moves from the general to the specific.
And while the governor talks about protecting the most vulnerable and sustaining the safety net, in truth his proposals would deny the very poor predictable health care, sending them to emergency rooms and uncertain futures. He would give up federal dollars for health care and pass the costs of caring for these very poor and often sick individuals onto families with private insurance, onto hospitals and onto communities.
And the cuts could cost Maine more than 4,000 jobs on top of the 7,200 jobs that have been lost since the governor took office last year.
The same can be said about energy, taxation and education.
The idea of lower energy prices is appealing. Despite the fact that Maine has the lowest electricity prices in New England, our rates are high compared to states outside our region, especially those with large publicly funded energy projects or deep reserves of coal.
But the solution to our energy costs is not to discover coal in the North Woods. Instead, the most cost-effective way to cut costs is through energy efficiency and increased competition and expansion of new, local renewable energy.
According to the Efficiency Maine Trust’s annual report for last year, the cheapest and best way to reduce energy costs is to invest in energy efficiency, which creates jobs as an additional benefit.
On taxation, the governor is proud of his accomplishments. But the overwhelming percentage of the benefits of his policy go to the top 1 percent, who have an average annual income of more than $733,000 a year. While middle-class families need relief and the poor are desperate for opportunity, it’s the rich who benefit the most.
And on education, the governor is exactly right when he says that our policy should start with a straightforward question: “What is best for the student?”
But then he takes aim at teachers, who along with parents, are the linchpins of successful education. Whether raiding their pensions or attacking them as union pawns, he misdiagnoses the problem with education today.
As I listened to the governor’s speech, I was impressed with his tone and delivery and with work done by his speechwriters and staff to appeal to a broad audience, who might otherwise pay little attention to political speeches.
But the policies hiding behind the words are wrong. They hurt too many, leave too many behind. They seek to divide our state and to benefit those who need help the least.
The governor said during his speech: “It’s time to be outraged.” He’s right. But the outrage should be directed at his policies.
David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. His clients include Maine Equal Justice Partners and EngageMaine. You can reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @dfarmer14.