Only one person from Maine can belong to the National Governors Association. If that person, Gov. Paul LePage, derives no value from membership, then it makes no sense to pay the $60,000 annual dues. But he should still find other, meaningful ways to connect with other states.
In explaining his decision not to budget for the organization’s dues, LePage described meetings of the NGA, a bipartisan organization open to governors of the nation’s 55 states and territories, as “too politically correct” and said that he “wasn’t getting anything out of it.” Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s communications director, confirmed that “at this time, the Office of the Governor is not financially committing taxpayer dollars to national or regional organizations.”
In light of a new report that projects a $756 million structural gap between anticipated revenue and expenditures for the biennial budget cycle that begins July 1, 2013, LePage’s decision not to pay dues to the NGA and similar organizations represents a reasonable — albeit largely symbolic — act of fiscal prudence.
Jodi Omear, the NGA’s communications director, said the association still considers LePage a member, even if Maine doesn’t pay its dues. The governor can attend meetings, but some expertise and association services won’t be available to the state.
In that sense, the short-term risk of declining to pay dues seems minimal. If more states opt out, however, the association will likely find it more difficult to serve as a central location to which state leaders can turn for policy guidance on the type of government reform that LePage has advocated for since he took office.
Lee Umphrey and David Farmer, who both served in the administration of LePage’s predecessor, Gov. John Baldacci, argue that opting out of the NGA will cut Maine off from a valuable resource. They cited opportunities to build alliances with other governors and access to experts on health care policy, education reform and transportation funding as benefits of NGA membership.
As a former legislator and congressman, Baldacci thrived in that consortium-building environment. By his own account, LePage does not.
Instead, LePage relies on his Cabinet, bolstered by “input from the people of Maine,” to implement best practices in state government, according to Bennett. The test of that approach will come in how the governor responds and to whom he turns if the public determines that his policies inhibit Maine because they lack the objectivity that comes from outside perspectives.
Commissioners and department heads must resist the temptation to tell the boss what they think he wants to hear. Legislative oversight committees will have to ensure that decisions made in the name of zero-based budgeting do not result in isolationist policy-making based on zero input from outside LePage’s inner circle.
On matters such as Statoil North America’s ongoing exploration of wind energy generation off the coast of Maine, LePage would benefit by reaching out to Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chaffee, whose states recently negotiated offshore wind deals. They, and other governors, could provide LePage with valuable insights into the particulars of offshore leasing and the culture of the global energy industry.
Umphrey also noted that attending NGA meetings puts governors in the same room as entrepreneurs, industry leaders and heavy hitters from the private sector.
Walking away from this forum to establish personal connections between Maine’s chief executive and influential job creators removes a powerful opportunity to market the state’s efforts to become more “business-friendly.”
LePage determined that what he called the “lovey-dovey” nature of NGA gatherings makes it impossible for him to derive fair value from the investment of state dollars in membership dues. But to prevent that assessment from placing Maine at a competitive disadvantage with other states, his administration must find new ways to connect with business leaders and policymakers from outside Maine and eliminate a perception — fed in part by national coverage of some of the governor’s past statements and decisions — that the state is content to go it alone.