AUGUSTA, Maine — Outrage is all the rage these days in the State House. Indignation has become a form of political capital as, for the first time in more than two decades, a Legislature controlled by Democrats shares state government with a Republican governor.
During his Feb. 5 State of the State address, Republican Gov. Paul LePage joked about his anger management issues. But since then, he has been one of the more tranquil players in a political power struggle that has manifested itself during the past three weeks as a contest between Democrats and Republicans to convince voters that they have a stronger claim for being mad at the other party.
LePage is “frustrated,” a point he made repeatedly in a video released Friday to rally support for faster legislative action on his plan to tap proceeds from renegotiating the state’s wholesale liquor contract to finance $186 million in revenue bonds that would be used to pay Maine’s share of the $484 million Medicaid debt to the state’s 39 hospitals.
The governor continues to make provocative statements to advance his plan, but he has largely passed the rage card to legislative leaders and state party officials. And they have grabbed it, with Republicans and Democrats — in the “War Room” style of President Bill Clinton’s campaign — vying to win each day’s public relations battle by out-outraging LePage.
Since Feb. 21, the day the Legislature passed a supplemental budget that won unanimous bipartisan support from the budget-writing Appropriations Committee and overwhelming endorsement in both the House and Senate, Republican and Democratic legislative leaders have engaged in a public war of words — delivered mostly via prepared statements, social media or during hastily scheduled press briefings.
The House Republicans on Feb. 21 issued a statement criticizing Democrats for being slow to schedule a hearing on LePage’s hospital debt plan. The next day, the Maine State Republican Party joined the fray, with GOP Chairman Rich Cebra accusing the Democratic majority in the Legislature of “either lacking leadership or putting politics before good public policy.” In subsequent statements, in a video and on a Tumblr research site unveiled the following week, the Maine State Republican Party intensified its pressure, with increasingly pointed attacks targeted at the Legislature’s Democratic leaders, specifically Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland.
In their attempt to regain the umbrage upper hand, Democrats seized on a statement made by House Republican Leader Ken Fredette of Newport. During a television appearance on Feb. 22, Fredette raised the possibility that a future impasse over the two-year budget set to take effect July 1 could cause a state government shutdown, similar to one that occurred in 1991, the last time Maine had a Republican governor and Democratic majority in the Legislature.
Within hours, the Maine Democratic Party issued a statement condemning Fredette for mentioning the possibility of a shutdown before the start of negotiations on the biennial budget. Less than a week later, the party sent out a fundraising plea based on Fredette’s statement. Democratic legislative leaders also chastised Fredette for raising the specter of a state government shutdown. On March 1, they reiterated their indignation with what they perceived to be the GOP’s threat of a government shutdown after LePage told radio talk show hosts that he would not sign any legislation until the Legislature passed his hospital debt plan.
Since then, the Legislature’s majority and minority offices — aided by the state Republican and Democratic parties and their surrogates — have been locked in a cycle of almost daily attacks and counterattacks based not on policy differences but on what legislative or party leaders said, did or didn’t do — sometimes as far back as five years ago.
As legislative leaders fire salvos back and forth to express outrage over their opponents’ statements, actions or inaction, a growing number of rank-and-file lawmakers privately express frustration that leadership’s sniping inhibits their ability to do what constituents asked them to accomplish. They also fret that it exposes them to a blanket “do nothing, politics as usual” condemnation that will damage their credibility in their districts and hurt their re-election chances.
Leaders of the 126th Legislature, who put great emphasis on establishing a positive tone for this session, now face the possibility that their recent conflicts could lead to a mutually unhealthy atmosphere of hostility in the State House as lawmakers work through key policy initiatives and craft the 2014-15 budget.
Despite pressure to end the brickbats that threaten to leave all parties politically damaged — and provide ample campaign fodder for State House outsiders or independents like Eliot Cutler, who has formed a 2014 gubernatorial campaign committee — neither camp seems willing to quit, because the lack of a response could be interpreted as weakness or acquiescence to their opponent’s message.
A chance to break the cycle comes Monday, when the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee holds hearings on a bill that would implement LePage’s hospital debt payment plan and an alternative wholesale liquor contract bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, D-Richmond. The hearings won’t result in passage of either bill, which will have to go through a process that includes committee work sessions and votes, but they do offer an opportunity to refocus attention inside the State House on how lawmakers want to govern, not how they behave.