ANALYSIS

Shadow of a divided government looms over LePage’s State of the State address

Posted Feb. 04, 2014, at 11:10 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 05, 2014, at 5:23 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — For someone whose ideology is so solidly rooted in the notion that government can’t create economic prosperity and a brighter future, Gov. Paul LePage used his State of the State address on Tuesday to tout a host of government solutions.

Tax breaks and lower energy costs for big businesses who come to Maine, $2 billion in Department of Transportation infrastructure projects that LePage said are “putting Maine to work,” and heavy intervention in the law enforcement and court systems to combat drug abuse are just some of the government solutions that LePage proposes for the future.

But the majority of LePage’s speech focused on the past, particularly the past three years, which happen to coincide with his term in office. Key topics included paying off past Medicaid debt — which LePage called “welfare” debt, a term that progressives argue propagandizes health care for needy Mainers — along with cuts to income and gas taxes and correcting a state employee pension system debt that was spiraling out of control.

This State of the State address, by design, takes on a different form depending on the timing. This year, with LePage’s re-election campaign revving up and Republicans hoping to re-take majorities in the Legislature, the major question leading into the speech was to what degree LePage would be in campaign mode.

The presence of Brent Littlefield, LePage’s chief political strategist and de facto campaign manager, at the State House on Tuesday affirmed that the administration has an eye tilted toward the election. Many of the same themes that LePage the candidate covered, often voiced by Littlefield, showed up in LePage the governor’s State of the State address.

Distinguishing campaign speech from a politician’s personal goals is tricky business, but there’s no question that LePage was telling Mainers on Tuesday that his vision for the future should also be theirs — and that he’s fighting for them against an enemy that, even if well-intentioned, wants to make it harder for them to get ahead.

“Having spent my career in business, I know what grows an economy. But there is a major push by many in this chamber to maintain the status quo,” said LePage early in the speech. “Liberal politicians are taking us down a dangerous path, a path that is unsustainable. They want a massive expansion of Maine’s welfare state. Expanded welfare does not break the cycle of generational poverty. It breaks the budget.”

And with that, LePage landed square in the middle of what will be the chief issue of the campaign, regardless of what happens during the current legislative session: Medicaid expansion. LePage and the Republican caucus for the most part portray it as a financial disaster in waiting.

“Shame on you,” said LePage to lawmakers who support Medicaid expansion, in one of the relatively rare instances in which he departed from his prepared remarks.

Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant said after the speech that LePage’s opposition to Medicaid expansion could be what sinks him.

“This is the last gasp of a failed administration,” said Grant. “He and the Republicans are in a jam on a couple of issues. The people of Maine want Medicaid expansion overwhelmingly.”

Another issue that LePage has championed throughout his first term is economic development and job creation. His biggest announcement on Tuesday evening was the creation of what he called “Open for Business Zones.” Though the speech was short on details — those will likely be rolled out in the coming weeks for consideration by the Legislature — the proposal will be a hornet’s nest for LePage and Republicans politically.

LePage said the initiative, which will be aimed at companies that invest more than $50 million and create more than 1,500 jobs, will avail them of discounted electricity rates, employment tax benefits and assistance with recruiting and training workers. Those elements alone — though Democrats said they are strikingly similar to the state’s Pine Tree Development Zone program — would likely attract widespread support if they were proposed on their own with a plan to pay for them.

However, there’s another element of LePage’s Open for Business Zones that could become a political poison pill, at least among Democrats: LePage wants to bar labor unions from charging workers union dues or fees within those zones.

“This will allow Maine to compete with right-to-work states,” said LePage, who has tried and failed to implement right-to-work legislation in the past.

The AFL-CIO was quick in its condemnation of the proposal, calling it “part of a national agenda to undermine the middle class and lower wages and working conditions for all workers.”

Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, has been an outspoken opponent of right-to-work initiatives.

“Right to work isn’t what it sounds like,” said Jackson after the speech. “It’s shorthand for driving down wages so hardworking Mainers earn less.”

LePage used his speech to call for the political parties to work together to solve some of Maine’s toughest challenges, but the address will likely have little effect on business at the capitol. As soon as the governor and lawmakers left the House chamber, Democrats and Republicans moved back to their respective corners — where they had fought viciously all day over Monday’s Appropriations Committee vote — and returned to launching the familiar ideological salvos that will mark the rest of this contentious session and the campaign season that follows.

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