When the Maine Legislature last year overrode Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of the two-year state budget, the Republican governor appeared dejected and ready to throw in the towel.
“I’ve done a lot of turn-arounds, but this is an obstacle,” he said. “That’s like having a massive hole in the bottom of your ship when you’re trying to get across the river.”
More than seven months later, LePage appears to have all but given up. His State of the State address Tuesday night sent the message that he’s given up on engaging in the legislative process that could allow him to fulfill some of his priorities. It sent the message that he’s given up on adapting his style to fit the job to which he was elected and the political circumstances in which he finds himself. And it sent the message that he’s given up on new ideas and initiatives that could make his rhetoric more than, well, rhetoric.
In fact, the speech showed the one part of being Maine’s governor LePage hasn’t given up on is the platform that allows him to lob hollow, bombastic rhetoric at his opponents while they listen.
LePage started the speech off on the right note.
“I love my state, and I’m proud to call myself a Mainer,” he said. “I want everybody in Maine to prosper and succeed.”
But the high note didn’t hold. LePage framed every policy in overly simplistic, black-and-white terms that masked his hypocrisy and signaled he has no plans of letting up on his “my way or the highway” approach to governing.
“I ask everyone here tonight, whose side are you on?” LePage said during a segment of the speech in which he trashed, in not so veiled terms, proponents of wind energy. The lack of nuance was on display throughout the address.
He castigated proponents of expanding Medicaid under the federal health care reform law, portraying the debate in dualistic terms. “Liberals believe that giving free health care to able-bodied adults while leaving our most vulnerable out in the cold is compassion,” he said. “I disagree.”
LePage exhorted lawmakers to first fund services for elderly people and people with disabilities on state waitlists for community and home support services. “We must set priorities on who gets services from our limited resources,” LePage said.
The nuance he was missing? The state budget LePage vetoed included funding to shorten those waitlists within limits allowed by the federal Medicaid program. At this point, if Maine wants to eliminate those waitlists, the costs will be entirely borne by the state. Meanwhile, Maine could very well save money in the long term from expanding Medicaid.
LePage proved during his State of the State address that the community service waitlist issue is little more than a rhetorical priority to him. Notice that the Legislature has no LePage-issued proposal before it to address the issue.
Similarly, LePage continued to make welfare reform a rhetorical priority. “I will not sit back and allow the abuse of welfare benefits,” he said. Absent during the speech was the revelation of any new details on what he plans to do to address what he characterizes as widespread welfare fraud — other than mentions of two proposals he’s already said he intends to introduce.
Even LePage’s purportedly new proposals are nothing new. His “Open for Business Zones” appear to be little more than union-free Pine Tree Development Zones with a few added features. His suggestion for a voter referendum on lowering taxes and restraining growth in government spending appears to be nothing more than a rehash of Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, campaigns that Maine voters have rejected twice.
LePage’s third major initiative — increased funding for the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency and drug crimes prosecution — points to his hypocrisy. He drew attention to disturbing increases in the number of drug-affected newborns and drug overdose deaths in Maine. Meanwhile, due to LePage’s staunch opposition to expanding Medicaid, hundreds of recovering addicts have lost their Medicaid coverage that pays for methadone and Suboxone addiction treatments. Without treatment, some are doubtlessly relapsing and could end up in jail, where they’ll cost the state much more than they would on Medicaid.
Such is the reality obscured by LePage’s hollow rhetoric.