Paul LePage probably is fond of the cliche, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” We can infer as much from his first State of the State address Tuesday night.
The governor, even according to his Democratic critics, dialed back his usual pugnacious delivery. And he refrained from beating up those Democrats as he outlined the problems the state faces.
But inciting legislators to join him in his outrage does little but skate across the ice of ideology. Instead, a more sophisticated understanding of the dynamics of the problems he lists is called for, as are practical approaches to addressing them.
The governor can have plenty of sway by merely identifying a short list of challenges on which the Legislature should focus. If he sets the agenda in this way, he has gone far in stamping his influence on the legislative session. But by trying to persuade legislators and Maine residents to respond as he does is to swing for the fences rather than aim for a base hit.
The budget shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services and the Maine economy got top billing.
In a span of a minute or two, the governor used the word “welfare” six times. It’s a term so broad and so loaded with disdain by those who use it that it has become a pejorative, not a descriptive term. The governor seems to believe that health insurance for poor, elderly and disabled Mainers, food and heating assistance programs, rent vouchers, early education programs like Head Start and aid for families with young children are all part of what he called “a free lunch.”
He likely doesn’t see the myriad of financial breaks for businesses as part of a free lunch.
And he never acknowledged that heavy reliance on government assistance programs comes in large part because of the worst national economy in 75 years. Our older, less healthy population is also a factor, yet there was no initiative for improving health.
The second thrust of his speech, the economy, certainly deserves the Legislature’s attention. But pointing to the relative prosperity enjoyed by New Hampshire and Massachusetts residents — respective median household incomes of $60,734 and $64,057, compared to Maine’s $45,708 — is only part of the picture. Living in those states costs a lot more, and unless Maine inherits a city from another state, the Greater Boston economy will always produce higher incomes.
“So I ask all of you, where is the outrage? Why should Mainers live in poverty while our neighbors who live on the other side of lines drawn on a map earn a far better income and lead much more prosperous lives?” he asked.
Maine’s small but far-flung population, its historical reliance on natural resource industries and seasonal tourism economy are far more influential in keeping wages low than the causes the governor cites: too many regulations on business and high energy costs. Of course, regulations must be streamlined and more clearly tied to valid threats. And energy remains a disincentive for businesses here (though Maine has lower electric costs than its New England neighbors).
“My friends in the Legislature, it’s time to be outraged,” the governor said, implying that the State of the State demanded it. But good governance isn’t fueled by outrage. It relies instead on clear, practical goals and the ability to compromise in achieving them.
Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo once compared the political process to leaning on a giant millstone being rolled slowly; the effort of a good governor can alter its course only slightly, but that effort is always worthwhile. Gov. LePage seems to want instead to shake his fist at the stone.