SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Former New Hampshire House Speaker William O’Brien told a South Portland audience Friday afternoon Maine lost its economic edge over his state after World War II, when it added cumbersome taxes and watched as the Granite State passed it by.
O’Brien’s appearance as the keynote speaker for the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center’s annual Freedom and Opportunity luncheon attracted the ire of Maine Democrats, who blasted the New Hampshire politician for a high-profile comment he made in August comparing President Barack Obama’s signature health care law to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act.
Republican Gov. Paul LePage attended the luncheon but did not speak during the portion of the event open to the media. LePage also has a reputation for sometimes making inflammatory remarks, most recently saying at a Falmouth event that “47 percent of able-bodied people in the state of Maine don’t work,” a comment that was quickly attacked as inaccurate and offensive by Democrats.
“Bill O’Brien and Paul LePage are perfect for each other. Ultra-extremists with a propensity for offensive remarks who their respective voters couldn’t wait to vote out of office,” said Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant in a statement. “With the MHPC in the room, the echo chamber of tea party talking points will be deafening, and I’m sure LePage will have some new ‘facts’ to share with us after.”
O’Brien, a Republican state representative who sat in the speaker’s chair from 2010 to 2012, on Friday said his comment about Obama’s Affordable Care Act was about how in both laws, the federal government intruded on state rights. He said Democrats are avoiding policy and government issues by focusing on comments like his and LePage’s.
“The conversation that liberals want to have basically begins and ends with name-calling,” he told the Bangor Daily News after Friday’s luncheon.
During his keynote address, he said, “There isn’t one conservative leader in America nationally who hasn’t been criticized as a bigot, a racist, a buffoon, as Islam-phobic, as a fascist. … That’s a conversation that the left has. If you’re going to step forward with an aggressively conservative agenda, you have to have a tough hide.”
The conservative agenda O’Brien pursued in New Hampshire included $1.2 billion in state spending cuts and the repeal of the so-called evergreen law, which kept public employees receiving step increases after their union contracts expired and until new contracts were in place.
O’Brien said he lamented that he and other New Hampshire Republicans were unable to make Maine’s neighbor a “right-to-work” state, a measure he said both states should strive to achieve.
Right-to-work legislation allows employees to work at unionized businesses or organizations without paying union dues, if they decide. Labor unions and Democrats have traditionally opposed such bills because they say they would weaken the unions, which provide important counterbalance to employer demands.
Two right-to-work bills were shot down by the Democratic-controlled Maine Legislature in the most recent session.
“There’s a reason Boeing put that [manufacturing] plant in North Charleston, [S.C.],” O’Brien told the Friday crowd. “We wish we had that plant. We wish we were a right-to-work state.”
Maine Heritage Policy Center CEO J. Scott Moody echoed that comment after the address.
“‘Right to work’ is something we really need as a state to talk about if we’re going to compete at a national level,” he said.
O’Brien, Moody and others on hand Friday also trumpeted the center’s Free ME initiative, which proposes to eliminate personal income, corporate income and sales taxes in the state’s most economically challenged county — currently Washington County.
“States provide 50 laboratories of innovation,” O’Brien said. “I’ve traveled to a lot of different states and have seen a lot of different approaches. This [Free ME initiative] is the sort of thing that’s innovative and that you look for.”
During his address, O’Brien said that after World War II, Maine was better off than his home state of New Hampshire. But he said the Pine Tree State lost its way by adding taxes, while the neighboring Granite State resisted.
“In many ways, Maine had advantages over New Hampshire after World War II,” he said. “Your per capita income exceeded that of New Hampshire. You were a more prosperous state than New Hampshire. But since then, Maine and New Hampshire took off in different directions.”
O’Brien said Maine added sales and income taxes in the 1950s and 1960s, while New Hampshire “stayed with the tried and true course of limited government.”
Now, he said, the Granite State trumps the Pine Tree State in a range of categories. He said New Hampshire has a higher per capita income and lower rates of overall crime, high school dropouts, poverty, childhood poverty and unemployment.
“Choices made by legislators have long-term effects,” he said. “They can either enhance the lives of our people or they can diminish the lives. In those statistics — in the double the amount of children living in poverty — are real people. Years ago, even though the legislators didn’t know they were making those choices, they made the choice that their lives would be diminished in that way.”