AUGUSTA, Maine — The focus will likely be on job creation and economic development initiatives Tuesday evening when Gov. Paul LePage delivers his annual State of the State Address before a joint session of the Legislature.
The governor’s press secretary, Adrienne Bennett, said Monday that LePage will unveil concrete legislative initiatives aimed at economic development and fighting Maine’s drug addiction crisis, among other topics.
The Republican governor and his staff have been working on the speech for weeks, said Bennett, and details continued to be hammered out Monday. The address will focus on “connecting with Mainers on issues that truly mean something for them,” she said.
Though specifics won’t be known until the governor gives the speech, Bennett also made clear that welfare reforms, specifically curbing Medicaid spending — long a key priority for LePage — would factor into the speech, and she hinted that the governor may once again push what he calls right-to-work legislation, which was rejected twice last year by the Democrat-controlled Legislature.
The governor is also expected to highlight recent signs of Maine’s economic recovery, including an unemployment rate that continues to trend downward as more Mainers enter the workforce. The most recent figures put the state’s unemployment rate at 6.2 percent in December, down from a peak of 8.4 percent in 2010.
Republicans in the Legislature are applauding the positive signs in the economy, which they attribute to LePage’s efforts to make the state more business-friendly. Among LePage initiatives they cite are passing the largest income tax cut in state history and creating a hotline for businesses looking to open or expand in Maine.
“The governor’s policies are working,” said Sen. Ronald Collins, R-Wells, in a meeting with reporters Monday. “A lot of people criticize the governor for being outspoken, but his policies are working. … We’ve dissolved a lot of the barriers that handicapped businesses from locating and prospering here in Maine.”
Democrats, however, said Maine’s post-recession recovery is more a factor of national economic trends than LePage’s policies.
House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said during a news conference Monday that while Maine’s unemployment rate may be down, other economic indicators remain troubling.
Citing statistics from liberal-leaning Maine Center for Economic Policy, Berry said Maine has recovered only about one-third of the jobs lost in the recession, and the state’s unemployment rate is only about halfway to reaching its prerecession unemployment rate of 4.5 percent. Homelessness is up, and one in four Maine children younger than 5 years old lives in poverty, Berry said.
He also questioned LePage’s recovery bona fides. He referenced the governor holding off on authorizing millions of dollars worth of voter-approved bonds for three years, using them as a bargaining chip in a pitched political battle to repay more than $490 million in state and federal Medicaid debt to Maine’s hospitals. The governor released the bonds after the debt was paid last year.
“He disregarded the will of the voters and refused to jump-start our economy because he wanted to play political games,” Berry said. “Maine can’t afford any more of this.”
Democrats are also urging the governor to address a range of crises within the Department of Health and Human Services that Democrats claim result from failed management, including a document-shredding scandal about which LePage has remained silent.
Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said that for all the successes the governor may claim in his speech Tuesday, Mainers should be mindful that LePage’s administration is now the subject of two federal investigations — one for the above-mentioned document shredding and another for allegedly pressuring unemployment staff to make more decisions in favor of employers.
Jackson said LePage “hasn’t done right by Maine people.” He criticized the governor for imposing a five-year lifetime limit for households that receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and for his opposition to expanding Medicaid eligibility to roughly 70,000 low-income residents under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Rep. Ken Fredette of Newport, the top Republican lawmaker in the House of Representatives, on Monday waved off Democrats’ criticisms.
“When the national economy tanked, Maine was in a tailspin, and quite frankly, since the governor’s taken office, we’ve really dug our way out of that,” he told reporters.
Fredette said he doesn’t think the State of the State address is an appropriate time for the governor to address the problems that may exist at DHHS or any other political controversy du jour. He said LePage should take stock of where Maine’s been and present his vision for the state’s future.
“There are going to be opportunities to look into those other issues later,” Fredette said.
LePage’s senior political adviser and campaign consultant Brent Littlefield also dismissed criticisms of the governor’s job creation record.
“Economists at the [state] Department of Labor have noted that while the United States has had no improvement in the share of employed population in four years, Maine is doing better with a rising employment ratio as people find work,” he wrote in an email response to the Democrats’ assertions. “The fact is that Gov. LePage spent his lifetime creating private sector jobs and under his leadership, Maine’s economy is improving.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly cited a study by the Maine Center for Economic Policy. The citation has been corrected.