January 21, 2019
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How LePage’s State of the State helps set up the race to succeed him

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Gov. Paul LePage delivers his final State of the State address before a joint session of the Maine Legislature in Augusta on Tuesday night.

Gov. Paul LePage said very little in his nearly 90-minute speech that we haven’t heard before, and instead of focusing on the past, the governor sought to connect his legacy to the future.

Listening most keenly, perhaps, were the Republican gubernatorial candidates who must decide to what degree they want to follow LePage’s lead or strike a new course.

LePage laid out his vision for the future, which conveniently provides Republican candidates with sticks and carrots for the campaign to keep control of the Blaine House in GOP hands.

Changing the property tax landscape

Minutes into his speech, LePage tore into the Natural Resources Council of Maine and other groups who favor putting more Maine land in conservation, eliminating it from property tax rolls. LePage claimed that municipalities have lost more than $330 million in tax revenues from conservation land and said each legislator will receive figures specific to his or her district today.

His call for protected land to be subject to property taxes shifts pressure to municipalities as irresponsible fiscal stewards beholden to progressive special interests, while his call for an 18-month process to protect senior citizens from losing their homes to tax liens painted municipal tax collectors as heavy-handed on the other. Reforming those processes has emerged as primary goals for LePage.

In the campaign, whether to emphasize the former will be a gamble for Republicans, and Democrats are sure to cast that argument as hypocritical in light of the many ways LePage has sought to increase pressure on property taxes by reducing municipal revenue sharing and shifting millions of dollars of education costs to the local level.

Medicaid expansion

LePage said he will uphold the expansion law enacted in a 2017 referendum, which was quite a statement from the governor who has used every tool in his arsenal to stop it, but it was just rhetoric. LePage repeated a list of conditions — that there be no new taxes, no cuts to other social services, no use of rainy day funding, and that the funding source for expansion be ongoing — which are basically too difficult to be realistic. However, he entrenched talking points for all conservative candidates to frame progressive opponents as unrealistic about the fiscal side of the equation.

While Democrats argue the costs aren’t as much as LePage claims and the benefits are well worth the cost, their core arguments are muddied. LePage’s ongoing efforts to frame Medicaid expansion as a fiscal nightmare allows Republicans to campaign against social service program expansions put in place by Democrat John Baldacci’s administration. Blasting Democrats for those changes and giving LePage credit for fixing fiscal problems they caused have been successful campaign tactics for Republicans since 2010.

Tax conformity

We haven’t seen details of what LePage will propose — presumably soon — in terms of aligning Maine with the federal tax reform package enacted last year, but it lurks as the gorilla in the room for this year’s legislative session. LePage said that in order to implement some of the tax deductions that have been eliminated at the federal level, he’ll propose a corresponding tax cut at the state level to make sure Mainers don’t pay more.

LePage and his allies are set up already to argue that anyone who doesn’t support the conformity bill wants to raise taxes, though, let’s face it, that’s twisting the facts and order of events here. On a more basic level, it does allow Republican candidates to tout the tax cuts LePage secured earlier in his tenure.

Citizen initiatives

The chorus among Republicans and some Democrats unhappy with Maine’s citizen initiative process, which has proven itself to be an easy hurdle to the ballot for any well-organized or well-funded group, has grown to deafening levels but the Legislature has so far been unable to agree on any of a number of proposals to raise the bar. Given the split majorities in the Legislature and the fact it’s a campaign year, adjusting the process this year is likely impossible, but it spurs or perhaps forces candidates to talk about, making this an issue for Maine’s next governor and the 129th Legislature.

The campaigns

Republicans running for higher office themselves attached themselves to the governor following the speech. That included four gubernatorial candidates. Former Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said in a video that she watched the speech with “great pride and admiration” for what LePage has accomplished. House Minority Leader Ken Fredette called it a sign that LePage will continue to be “a strong chief executive.” Even Senate President Mike Thibodeau, who has warred with LePage, said “our state is better off” because of LePage’s tenure. And businessman Shawn Moody, whose campaign is run by key LePage aides, said in a statement LePage’s work should be continued.

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