Once again, Gov. Paul LePage is broadcasting his talking points from a TV in his office in the State House. The TV screen, facing through a window of glass to the well-worn Hall of Flags, is unfortunately a rather apt image of the administration’s communication style. People get the message, but they don’t get to talk back. They don’t get to have a conversation to try to solve Maine’s problems.
The governor’s communications director described the TV as “a way to communicate directly with the public without the filter of the media or the sound and fury of political distractions.” We don’t particularly care whether LePage keeps the TV — with its rotating, overly simplistic statements about welfare. Talking directly with the public is part of what politicians do, and LePage has plenty of those opportunities, whether at events, through speeches, in his weekly radio address or, now, with his TV.
But just as with most political statements, we’d urge anyone who happens to watch the TV’s slides to balance them against the facts and LePage’s actions. LePage’s TV is awfully similar to what we imagine state-run media would look like — with its spin and self-aggrandizement. Be attuned to how that mode of communication informs governance.
First, see how one-way communication affects accountability. LePage is notorious for not responding to reporters’ requests for comment on important issues, which is a problem not just for journalists but voters who have a right to know how their governor is reasoning through decisions.
Second, see how a communications wall hinders cooperation. The administration has barred department heads from testifying before some legislative committees, preventing lawmakers from getting the information they need to make good laws. The governor has usurped the process, requiring committees to send written requests for department heads to testify, which he might approve or not.
Over the last several months, dozens of requests have been denied. In some cases, department heads have instead offered to answer questions in writing — again removing the administration from direct communication with those who might challenge its point of view.
Third, productivity. If LePage is serious about actually doing what his TV says he does, then he must communicate and work with the Legislature. For example, if he thinks Maine’s Medicaid program is crowding out other spending, as one slide reads, then he’ll have to help craft a budget plan or legislation that requires the Legislature’s approval.
Along the way, it would be helpful if he portrayed the problems he’d like to fix in an honest way. It’s hard to get details and context from simple apparent statements of fact on a TV screen broadcasting what the governor wants you to hear.
For example, one slide states, “Welfare reform removed Maine’s status as a ‘sanctuary state’ ensuring that Maine’s limited welfare resources are reserved for Maine people.” However, little evidence exists to show that welfare recipients relocate to maximize their eligibility for benefits. Also, there’s no reason to think an influx of out-of-staters has been sapping Maine aid — because Maine’s payments to recipients are the lowest in New England. It’s Maine residents who feel the brunt of cuts.
The full truth doesn’t fit nicely on a TV screen: Getting welfare recipients into a job that ensures a decent living or cutting MaineCare costs — without eliminating people’s health care coverage in a way that causes the state to incur greater costs later on — is complicated. Any efforts to reform the system and realize true savings take years — and require communication that doesn’t underestimate listeners’ intelligence or skew the facts to suit a political ideology.
Maine does need to reimagine how it delivers programs. And there are many ideas out there for how to proceed. But if the state is going to be successful in its goals, it will have to start with a bit of honesty — and preferably without a piece of glass in the way.