AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage, emboldened by what he sees as a voter mandate, has some explaining to do Tuesday, when he delivers his annual State of the State speech.
First and foremost, he will need to continue to justify his biennial budget proposal and the sweeping tax reform scheme it contains, which neither political party is exactly rallying around.
Democrats are questioning whether the income and estate tax cuts it contains will benefit working Mainers and are screaming loudly that the budget is a giveaway to corporations and the upper class. Republicans are scrambling to determine whether they can stand behind LePage’s proposed increases in the sales tax after campaigning on “no new taxes” last year.
That’s where all the conflict is at the State House right now, but LePage is likely to focus on other topics. If there is any single, impenetrable truth about LePage, it’s that he’s unpredictable.
— Remember welfare reform? The topic has been front and center for LePage, starting in late 2013, but it mostly has been absent from the conversation after being ever-present during the governor’s 2014 re-election campaign. LePage has made it clear he has unfinished goals in this area. “Browbeating Democrats” — in the Legislature and Obama administration — has been a familiar LePage refrain, so expect more of it in Tuesday’s speech.
With more Republicans in the new Legislature and his belief public sentiment is behind him, LePage and his allies likely will bring back proposals that failed to win passage in the past, such as barring food stamp recipients from buying junk food and creating a tiered system to help recipients of social services transition to independence in stages.
— It’s about time for a detailed energy policy. LePage has been saying for years that the answer to Maine’s energy problems — and boosting the economy — is by bringing more natural gas to the state. He proposes piping more natural gas from new reserves in Pennsylvania; but that’s a regional plan, not a state one. And while a steady supply of natural gas would help big industries, it is unlikely to do much for private homes. Some lawmakers speculate LePage will take steps to tilt the state from its pursuit of renewable energy — wind power, namely. He also might renew efforts to lift the 100-megawatt cap on hydropower as it exists in Maine’s renewable energy portfolio, even though that proposal failed last year amid bipartisan opposition.
— Someone needs to ramp up the fight against drugs. The increase in the abuse of drugs, including heroin and methamphetamine, in Maine has been so sudden in the past year or so that data to quantify the problem aren’t fully available. With law enforcement sounding the alarm, LePage is proposing new spending to hire more prosecutors and drug detectives. But many lawmakers and substance abuse treatment groups relentlessly have been calling for him to invest more in treatment and prevention, which he so far has been unwilling to do. His budget proposal eliminates funding for methadone treatment as part of an effort to steer recovering opiate addicts to Suboxone.
— What LePage says has more impact than ever before. In early January, when LePage presented his biennial budget proposal to a roomful of reporters, he went on a tangent in which he called for the resignation of Maine Community College System President John Fitzsimmons. A few days later, LePage told BDN community college trustees they would “feel the wrath” if they didn’t oust Fitzsimmons. A few days after that, Fitzsimmons announced his retirement, citing the damage LePage could do to the system’s reputation with his words and its budget with his actions. LePage already has proposed flat-funding community colleges for the next two years while giving modest increases to the university system and Maine Maritime Academy. Will wielding power outside state government become more normal for LePage?
— Will he elevate his scorn for municipal leaders? A growing refrain for the governor is his suggestion that if there is too much pressure on the property tax, local leaders should cut spending, consolidate and otherwise tighten their belts. LePage consistently has advocated for measures that shift costs to municipalities — and the property tax — ranging from cuts to municipal revenue sharing to forcing towns and cities to pay more for public education in order to receive state funding. He has suggested taxpayers revolt against local leaders. These efforts border on LePage overstepping the bounds of his authority; but on the other hand, they’re evidence the governor has a wider vision for Maine that will require cooperation right down to your board of selectmen.
— LePage has changed, maybe. Since the election, LePage has made himself more available to reporters and the public, and for the most part he has maintained a convivial tone. “More relaxed” is the description some lawmakers at the State House have used to describe the chief executive. He has said more than once he wants to work with lawmakers from both parties, though that simply could reflect the fact that he has a stronger power base.
With Republicans in the majority in the Senate and Democrats with a slim edge in the House, any bill that makes its way to LePage’s desk will require bipartisan support.
— There’s evidence he’s going to work with some Democrats. The word at the State House is that LePage will hold a reception at the Blaine House after the State of the State address to which most of the Republicans are invited — but also a handful of Democrats. At least three names are floating around, but the only one who confirmed to the BDN that he received an invitation from LePage was Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland. “He thinks I’m a moderate, I guess,” Dion said. LePage inviting Democrats to his home is interesting. Because of the balance of power, Republicans will need the votes of only four or five House Democrats to attain a majority.
The State of the State address begins 7 p.m. Tuesday.