LePage delivers impassioned call to improve Maine

Posted Feb. 05, 2013, at 8:59 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 06, 2013, at 12:52 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage used his second State of the State address Tuesday to unveil several new initiatives and argue for ones he has been pushing for the past two years.

In a speech that spanned more than an hour, LePage wound through energy, education, health care, taxes and numerous other topics, all of which he said were linked to his central goal to bring more prosperity to a state that’s at or near the bottom of most economic measures.

For a governor who is known widely for his brash and sometimes abrasive tone, LePage framed his arguments gently. Even members of the Democratic leadership said after the speech that they appreciated LePage’s tone — in the State of the State address as well as in a long-awaited meeting he held Monday with legislative leaders — though they want his “rhetoric” to match his actions.

LePage referred to his own anger more than once during the speech and said it shows itself when he thinks of all the monumental problems facing Maine.

“That’s why I’m angry: education, domestic violence, energy,” said LePage to laughter from the assembled legislators.

“But I’m doing better. I’m working on it,” he said near the end of his address. That brought a standing ovation.

LePage spent a lot of the speech talking about education, which has been one of the hallmark issues of his administration. He said his passion in that area stems from the fact that public parochial schools improved his life as a homeless youngster in Lewiston.

“I speak passionately because education is what saved my life and I cannot accept any child not being given the same opportunity I had,” he said.

The governor voiced what is now his familiar support for more charter schools, reduced spending on school administration, and better accountability for teachers and schools.

In a new initiative, he proposed a rating system for the state’s schools in which each school would receive a grade somewhere between an A and an F, with details to be worked out by the Department of Education.

LePage also talked at length about the issue of school choice, taking the opportunity to introduce 17-year-old Alexander West, a student at the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Fairfield, one of the state’s first two charter schools. LePage said West has found educational success at the charter school after having been near failure in a traditional school. LePage said both he and West are examples of how important education can be, which he used as an explanation for his bruising and often-repeated comments about Maine’s education system.

“I cannot accept, I cannot listen to and I do not have the patience to accept children falling through the cracks and nobody doing anything about it,” said LePage. “Why am I so hot about charter schools? There’s one simple reason. It’s just another option that may work for some students.”

LePage said he has studied education systems from all over the world and there are good ideas out there. In an effort to bring those ideas to Maine, LePage said he will hold a summit in March in which education experts will present their ideas. He also repeated a prior pledge to introduce legislation that will require high schools to pay for remedial higher education courses if students require them.

Connie Brown, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said she first learned of that proposal Tuesday during LePage’s speech.

“We certainly want to participate in that,” she said in a press release. But Brown wasn’t so supportive of LePage’s grading system for schools, nor his financial support for schools.

“The path to a great school is not to erode funding to communities but to ensure that all communities have funding they need to make sure all kids go to a great school,” said Brown.

LePage urged lawmakers to pass legislation he has proposed to repay money owed to Maine’s hospitals through a renegotiation of the state liquor contract. He framed it as an issue of fiscal responsibility.

“People say I have a temper, but let me tell you, it is embarrassing to work for a state government that doesn’t pay its bills,” said LePage. “We can’t expect prosperity when we hold back hundreds of millions of dollars from people who provide us medical services. For the sake of Maine families, for the sake of our children, please, I plead with you, act on my bill. … We need it now.”

Another issue Maine must deal with if it is to ever pull itself to economic prosperity, according to LePage, is the cost of energy, which he said was 24 percent higher for Maine families than the national average. Citing steep savings for homeowners who convert from heating with oil to natural gas, LePage said he will unveil a new initiative in the coming weeks that will help homeowners afford the conversion. LePage did not provide any details about how that program would work.

LePage, who never has voiced much support for renewable energy programs championed by former governors and legislatures, continued that Tuesday night.

“My predecessor fast-tracked permitting of wind,” said LePage, referring to former Gov. John Baldacci’s efforts in support of wind-based energy. “We’re going to do the same for natural gas. … All energy alternatives are on the table and fair game but they have to be cost-effective. They have to be able to help lower the cost of living and the cost of doing business.”

Patrick Woodcock, who directs LePage’s energy office, said the administration plans to use Baldacci’s Wind Energy Act as a model for streamlining approval for natural gas infrastructure. That law opened up virtually the entire state to wind development and fast-tracked permitting for wind power developers.

“We need to make it a priority to streamline all environmental reviews,” Woodcock said.

Democrats said after the speech that LePage struck on many important topics and that his intentions were noble. But as House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, put it, the governor was “thin on details and thick on rhetoric.”

Eves said LePage defies his own priorities — from improving education to cutting taxes — in his own state budget proposal for the next two years. Among other things, the proposal flat-funds public education and suspends municipal revenue sharing, which many legislators say will shift the tax burden from the state level to individual communities on the scale of hundreds of millions of dollars.

“There was a real inconsistency between what he said this evening and what his budget does,” said Eves. “This speech was about rhetoric versus reality.”

Republicans cheered the chief executive. House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, said the governor struck a positive tone.

“He was not contentious or adversarial,” he said. “Quite frankly, he was reaching out to the Democrats. I thought it was a good place to be starting.”