AUGUSTA, Maine — Last week, Matt Gagnon, head of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, compared Republican Gov. Paul LePage to — of all people — Ed Muskie.
LePage’s supporters envision him inheriting the transformative role played half a century ago by Muskie, the Democrat whose leadership propelled his party to four decades at the top of Maine’s political food chain
Mixing a “damn the torpedoes” public persona with his aggressive agenda, LePage is establishing a doctrine that Republicans believe will change Maine’s political landscape for decades.
A political doctrine is defined as “a policy, position or principle advocated, taught or put into effect concerning the acquisition and exercise of the power to govern or administrate in society.”
Eight years of the “LePage doctrine” will reverberate well beyond his time in office and are likely to weigh heavily on the Republicans’ choice to run as his successor. It also will carve out a new course for the Maine GOP as the party strives to hold onto the political momentum that LePage has so effectively wrested from Democrats, who maintained it — with few exceptions — since Muskie’s heyday.
A little more than halfway through his tenure, what does the “LePage doctrine” look like as a work in progress?
He wields executive power in ways that no Maine governor has in decades.
— In 2014, when state revenues weren’t matching budgeted expenses, LePage refused to issue a supplemental budget bill and for months did not allow executive branch commissioners to testify to legislative committees. He weathered months of attacks from Democrats, who argued he was abdicating his constitutional responsibility. However, LePage was able to draw attention to the faults he saw in a compromise biennial budget that the Legislature enacted in 2013 over LePage’s veto (he vetoed the supplemental budget, too). That budget used temporary tax increases to balance the books and scale back LePage’s proposal to eliminate municipal revenue sharing. LePage said in his veto letter that Mainers couldn’t afford higher sales and use taxes.
— During his first term, LePage defied the will of a majority of Maine voters more than once when he refused to issue voter-approved bonds, using them as pawns to make the Legislature bend to his will. He did it in 2012, demanding an end to what he called out-of control government spending; in 2013, demanding that the Legislature agree to his plans for a $100 million prison bond and to pay off Medicaid debt to hospitals; and in 2014, when he wouldn’t release tens of millions of dollars in bonds until the Legislature put $60 million in the rainy day fund. With the exception of the $100 million prison bond, LePage was successful on all of these fronts.
— LePage staunchly opposed tax increases during his entire first term and said during both of his campaigns that he wouldn’t support any tax increases whatsoever. Yet this year, in his biennial budget proposal, LePage caused jaws all over Maine to hit the floor when he advocated for increases in a variety of taxes, from raising and expanding the sales tax to allowing cities and towns to tax large nonprofit organizations. LePage argues that a corresponding cut in the income tax will yield a net decrease in Maine’s tax burden, but his Republican colleagues, to date, have not shown enthusiasm for the plan.
— One of the issues LePage has taken the most heat over was shooing international energy conglomerate Statoil out of Maine in 2013. Statoil was developing plans to test new floating wind turbine technology in the Gulf of Maine and possibly invest more than $100 million here until LePage stepped in and unraveled the deal. This move by LePage supports his overall opinion that wind power is too expensive and won’t help Maine lower energy costs. Last month, LePage’s most recent appointment to the Public Utilities Commission, Carlisle McLean, cast the deciding vote to reconsider the terms of two long-term wind energy purchasing deals which the PUC had preliminarily approved in December. This particular needle is moving in the direction LePage wants it to.
He pushes the boundaries of his authority.
— LePage, who was the mayor of Waterville before being elected governor, has repeatedly tried to force his will on areas of government where he has no statutory authority, such as towns and cities. His persistence in cutting municipal revenue sharing, which he has called municipal welfare, is part of an effort to force towns and cities to reduce spending. His oft-repeated refrain is that local control is great but expensive.
— Displeased with a bill enacted last year, over his veto, to fix a range of problems with county jails, LePage has simply refused to comply with the new law. Even though it gives him authority to appoint the majority of the Board of Corrections and thus control the board by proxy, LePage has refused to make any appointments. That resulted in the dissolution of the board and the resignations of its two staff members earlier this year. And it completely thwarted efforts to reform the county jail system, leaving lawmakers with the task of finding a solution he’ll agree to by the end of June. All indications are that LePage will again achieve what he wants, which is to transfer oversight of county jails — along with funding responsibilities — back to the counties.
— Since his re-election, LePage has intensified efforts to assert dominance over Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat with whom he has clashed frequently and notably. Mills, for the most part, has been as aggressive against LePage and his initiatives as he has been against her. She has refused to legally represent LePage’s efforts to sue the U.S. government over Affordable Care Act provisions and refused to defend his cuts to General Assistance for immigrants. Possibly complicating the situation is that Mills is being mentioned by some as the possible Democratic candidate for governor in 2018, which she has not ruled out. LePage, in turn, has said he will propose to make the attorney general and state treasurer elected by statewide vote and has for months refused to issue financial orders that would allow Mills to fill vacant positions in her office.
— LePage has no authority over the state’s public higher education institutions, but in January he called for the ouster of long-time Maine Community College System President John Fitzsimmons and then said that the system’s trustees would feel his “wrath” if Fitzsimmons didn’t leave. That threat was legitimized by the fact that LePage has proposed to flat-fund community colleges while giving the university system a modest funding increase. He has said openly that the flat-funding proposal results from what he says has been Fitzsimmons’ failure to implement programs that LePage favors. Fitzsimmons resigned, and the system is launching a national search for his replacement.
Is this the way effective chief executives should act?
— “Any good executive will try to stretch the bounds of their authority,” said Jim Melcher, a political science professor at University of Maine at Farmington. “Any president will try to use the powers of their office assertively. How much the governor seems to seek conflict with other people is what’s distinctive, especially for a governor of Maine. … You can debate about whether or not [LePage’s initiatives] are good things, but he’s changed state government, how it works more than any other governor in my memory.”
— If LePage has a modern-times rival in terms of instituting controversial changes as governor, it was probably Democrat Ken Curtis, whose first term started in 1967. Curtis led the implementation of Maine’s income tax in 1969, even though Republicans controlled the House and Senate. Ironically, LePage is trying to repeal the income tax.
— LePage is not the only recent governor who has challenged other branches of government and risked irritating his party’s loyalists. Democratic Gov. John Baldacci exerted his influence on local governments when he tried to consolidate public school administrations. When financial times were tough, he didn’t always conform to traditional Democratic principles. In his second term, he angered many of his supporters when amid a national financial crisis, he led a successful effort for state employees to pay a portion of their personal health insurance premiums for the first time in years. He also froze their salaries.
— Independent Gov. Angus King challenged norms — and still does as Maine’s junior U.S. senator — with the very fact that he is not enrolled in a political party. King also went against labor unions who otherwise were supportive of him when he instituted a “Total Quality Management” program in state government, which relied on increased use of technology and angered the unions.
OK, so what is the ‘LePage doctrine’?
After more than two decades combined in the Maine Legislature and Congress, Baldacci governed by pulling his allies together to come up with solutions. As someone whose government experience was shaped by the emphasis on legislative process, his style relied on government by committee to reach collaborative solutions.
Without a party to do groundwork for his initiatives, King had to build State House alliances to achieve anything. Like Baldacci, he was forced to yield some power to the Legislature as a way of avoiding stalemate.
That’s not the LePage way. Years of staredown negotiations in the private sector have conditioned him to seek leverage, not consensus, when working to advance his agenda.
That experience and worldview boils the “LePage doctrine” down to simply: “I’m the CEO and I know what is best for Maine. Follow me or get out of the way.”