The problem that stymies effective state government, as illustrated by Thursday’s latest blowup between Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic legislative leaders, isn’t the majority party’s “censorship” of Republicans, as the governor alleged in a statement issued after a contentious meeting Thursday morning. It’s that LePage continues to manufacture reasons not to govern collaboratively. Thursday’s conflict is the latest example of his apparent preference for fueling partisan rancor over seeking ways to represent the best interests of all Maine people, not just his loyal supporters.
First, LePage led Democratic legislative leaders to believe that he would move his office out of the State House by July 1 after being reminded that he needs permission from the Legislative Council to place a television screen flashing messages about his political agenda in a public area of the State House. Then he pre-empted Democrats’ scheduled news conference about passage of a bill linking Medicaid expansion to repaying hospital debt with his own event to veto the bill.
The governor set a contentious tone for this legislative session by refusing to meet with Democratic legislative leaders when they first took office because he took umbrage at a Maine Democratic Party tracker recording his statements at public events.
He later threatened to veto every bill the Legislature sent to him until a plan to pay Maine’s outstanding Medicaid debt to hospitals arrived on his desk. The Legislature passed a bill doing so, using LePage’s preferred method of financing the repayment with revenue bonds associated with a reworked state wholesale liquor contract, but he vetoed it Thursday because Democrats attached to the bill a provision to expand Medicaid eligibility as allowed by the federal Affordable Care Act.
The bill included two of the three key components the governor sought, yet that was not enough to spur LePage to accept the Democrats’ compromise.
On Sunday, he showed up unannounced and sought to speak at an Appropriations Committee work session, again injecting politics into the delicate bipartisan process that committee members have committed to in working toward the difficult goal of crafting a balanced budget that can win support from two-thirds of a divided Legislature.
Then on Thursday morning, he erupted when legislative leaders refused to allow him to flout State House rules by displaying television messages that mock them outside his office. When they suggested a discussion, he responded with a threat to “remove myself from the toxic climate of censorship by Democrats in the State House.”
Doing so wouldn’t “defend taxpayers,” as LePage claimed. It would further distance an already bunkered-down governor from his constituents and lawmakers who share equally in the responsibility to make state government function.
After proposing legislation to sell the Blaine House and effectively strip LePage of his pension, legislative Democrats aren’t blameless in this showdown. But by consistently suggesting discussion, as was the case during Thursday morning’s spat over the television screen, they can claim the high ground.
Diversionary outbursts, misplaced bravado and an “I’ll show you who’s boss” approach to nearly every major and minor governing question on which Democrats and Republicans differ is the opposite of what Maine needs as the state’s elected leaders approach a June 30 deadline to pass a biennial budget, enact policies that address the problems Maine faces and create opportunities for its people.
LePage doesn’t have to like the Democrats who lead the Legislature. But he does have to work with them. A pragmatic leader, which is another label LePage likes to claim for himself, would recognize that and work to improve a “toxic climate” rather than threatening to flee it.