AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage set out an ambitious but familiar agenda during his first State of the State address on Tuesday, defending the achievements of his first year while pledging to tackle high energy costs, create more educational opportunities and continue government belt-tightening.
He also met his critics head on, particularly those who have opposed his proposed cuts to the state’s Medicaid program, and said in order for Maine to succeed, “we must put politics and gridlock aside.”
“My administration did not create this problem and did not invent it,” LePage said of the state’s Medicaid funding shortfall. “Many of you did not create this problem nor did you invent it … Regardless of who is responsible, we must fix it.”
The governor spent the first part of his more than 45-minute speech talking about the accomplishments of his first 12 months. He touted charter school legislation, regulatory reform and fixes to the state’s pension system.
He also spoke at length about the tax cuts that were included in his $6.1 billion biennial budget that passed last June.
“I’m pleased to report that in the last year, we have taken a right turn on the road to economic recovery,” he said at the start of his speech. “In a bipartisan effort, we passed the largest tax cut in state history for hardworking Maine taxpayers.”
LePage took credit for increasing funding for K-12 education by $63 million and for capping certain welfare benefits at five years. He also gave a shout out to Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt for saving his department more than $100 million without sacrificing infrastructure improvements.
LePage said the biggest accomplishment, though, has been his administration’s push to change the attitude in Augusta.
“We’re changing the culture of state agencies from ‘no’ to ‘can do,’” he said.
The governor moved from past accomplishment to current issues, most notably the DHHS budget proposal. He said the estimated $220 million shortfall was created by “overly generous welfare programs that we cannot afford.”
He said his energy strategy will focus on all forms of energy but he reiterated his opposition to a citizens’ initiative that would require 20 percent of Maine’s energy to come from renewable sources by 2020.
The governor said hydropower is the key to lowering Maine’s energy costs and he downplayed energy efficiency as a “bill of goods.”
LePage moved from energy to education.
“We must reform education. We cannot afford to fall even further behind,” he said. “Most international assessment of student performance place the United States at best as average. Average is not leadership. Average will not get us prosperity.”
He said he soon would release reforms to improve teacher effectiveness. He also stressed the need to improve technical education in Maine.
From education, LePage shifted to the economy as a whole. He said that as governor, he cannot personally create private sector jobs. What he can do, he said, is make it easier to do business in Maine.
“Last year, we passed the largest tax cut in state history. But that is not enough,” he said. “I will return to the Legislature with further proposals to reduce Maine’s tax burden.”
During the final part of his speech, the governor touched upon domestic violence, something he said was very personal to him. As a boy growing up in Lewiston, the governor escaped his own cycle of domestic violence.
“Those memories are not pleasant but I share my past to help end domestic abuse today,” he said.
The governor recommended closing loopholes in the state’s bail system and he acknowledged House Minority Leader Emily Cain of Orono for sponsoring a bill aimed at cracking down further on domestic violence.
In a light moment, LePage then turned to Cain and asked, “Is my tone all right?” — a reference to a challenge issued Monday by House and Senate Democrats for LePage to focus less on ideology and extreme policies.
“You’re awesome,” Cain replied, giving him two thumbs up.
LePage closed his speech by saying Maine is at a crossroads and the “road to economic recovery is a challenging one.”
He then called on both parties to work together in the year ahead.
“It’s time to roll up our sleeves, get to work and fight for the Maine people,” LePage said.
At an event shortly before the State of the State, members of the Maine Can Do Better Coalition held a vigil outside the State House. The Rev. Jill Saxby of the Maine Council of Churches was among those who spoke, mostly about the governor’s proposed supplemental budget for the Department of Health and Human Services.
“We’re not just isolated boats adrift at sea; we are the tide and we are rising,” Saxby said to a crowd of more than 100 who had gathered.
The postspeech reaction by Republicans and Democrats alike was largely positive.
House Speaker Robert Nutting of Oakland said he was encouraged by the governor’s speech.
“He provided a positive, clear vision for the direction our state needs to take,” Nutting said. “Job growth, the reduction of energy costs and education reform should be common goals for legislators on both sides of the aisle.”
Senate President Kevin Raye of Perry called it an “excellent speech.”
“I can’t imagine anyone could criticize the tone,” Raye said.
Senate Minority Leader Barry Hobbins of Saco, who was among the Democrats who called on the governor to strike a positive tone, agreed that the governor kept the partisan rhetoric to a minimum.
“But we haven’t seen all the details of his policies and with all proposals, the devil is in the details,” Hobbins said.
Cain said the governor’s speech was “much more positive than we expected.”
Members of both parties were particularly touched by the governor’s emphasis on domestic violence awareness, a wholly nonpartisan issue.
University of Maine political scientist Mark Brewer watched the State of the State on television and agreed with others that LePage succeeded.
“I thought his tone was relatively forceful but not antagonistic,” said Brewer. “I’m not sure if it was deliberate or not, but he’s shown a tendency to have expectations set pretty low and he generally exceeds them.
“I thought this was a pretty effective speech.”