Gov. Paul LePage is entrenched in a budget fight with no shortage of opposition.

Lawmakers, local officials, advocates for the poor and even former allies such as the hospital industry are skeptical of his plan to decrease the stream of state money that flows to local coffers. So the governor needs a whipping post — an example of municipal largesse run amok, to prove that taxpayer dollars would be better kept in Augusta, and not doled out to towns and cities.

For LePage, Portland is that bogeyman. The city provides a target and a rhetorical device. Its decidedly left-leaning politics mean that when the governor puts the city in his sights, there’s only upside.

Speaking to a friendly audience recently in Bangor, LePage painted a foreboding picture of Maine’s future if he couldn’t convince the state to adopt the vision presented in his budget.

“If we don’t do something, we aren’t going to have our kids live here and survive here. They’re going to be forced, like all the Chinese people are, into the urban areas,” he said. Silence fell over the room as the governor continued setting the scene. “Just think about this: Everybody in Maine living in Portland.”

For conservatives in Maine eager to align themselves with the state’s rural population, not-so-subtle digs at Portland, like that one, are de rigueur. There’s Maine, they say, and then there’s Portland.

When politicians talk about Portland, they’re not just talking about the state’s largest city and service center, its economic engine and, some say, its cultural capital. Portland represents a set of values and ideas with which they can align themselves or against which they can contrast their own positions.

It means youth, the arts, innovation and the diversity needed to save Maine from demographic winter. Or it stands for bloated government, overly generous welfare programs and a vision of Maine at odds with its heritage.

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Attacks on Portland provide the rhetorical cover LePage needs to argue for controversial budget proposals.

In recent weeks, the governor and his human services chief, Mary Mayhew, have criticized the city for its General Assistance program, which provides temporary financial aid to people who can’t afford to cover basic life expenses.

They’ve also attacked the city over an audit that revealed 13 regular users of the city-run Oxford Street Homeless Shelter in 2014 each had assets north of $20,000, saying that taxpayers should not be on the hook for people who can afford lodging. The shelter assisted more than 2,200 people that year.

In a recent OpEd, Mayhew said Portland needed “an intervention.” Meanwhile, LePage insinuated the problem with Portland was pathological. “The most recent news out of Portland shouldn’t surprise anyone,” he said.

Finding ways to make Portland’s social welfare programs look bloated provides the necessary cover for one of LePage’s most controversial budget proposals.

During last year’s election, LePage’s campaign worked to portray Portland’s General Assistance program as wasteful. The program, required by state law and funded in large part by state dollars, provides temporary cash to people struggling to pay their bills. LePage blasted the program for helping nonresident immigrants, including asylum seekers who are in the country legally while waiting for the immigration courts to decide their asylum status.

Portland is the largest distributor of General Assistance money in the state, and it has the largest population of immigrants and asylum seekers.

The governor’s political opponents could easily paint LePage’s efforts to slash General Assistance as an attack on Maine’s most vulnerable residents, and they have. But by framing General Assistance as a program that gives hard-earned taxpayer dollars to “illegals” — as LePage calls them — it’s a lot easier to stump for cuts.

Not only would his budget dramatically slash state reimbursement for the General Assistance program in large cities like Portland, LePage is making another attempt this year to eliminate municipal revenue sharing.

The program is supposed to divert 5 percent of state tax revenue to towns and cities in an effort to keep property tax rates down, but it’s been underfunded for years. Local officials say the lack of funding has caused property tax spikes and endangered crucial services.

That’s a compelling argument for lawmakers who must return to their towns every two years for re-election. LePage’s own Republicans have had a hard time with the plan to gut revenue sharing entirely. To argue the state shouldn’t subsidize local government, it helps to show that local government can’t be trusted with taxpayer dollars.

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Subjecting local issues to statewide scrutiny cements LePage’s role as the guardian of taxpayer dollars.

State audits of local programs and administration are routine and often go unremarked upon in the public sphere. The state works with local leaders to address any issues and moves on.

Portland’s General Assistance budget is large — about $10 million in 2014. Much of that spending was reimbursed by the state, but it’s a drip in the bucket of total state spending. The current biennial budget contains about $6.3 billion in spending.

Still, the alleged problems provided talking points for LePage and Mayhew, who made the local issue into a statewide debate.

“The utilization of the media with respect to the audit is very unusual,” Geoff Herman of the Maine Municipal Association said. “The audit isn’t supposed to be the end of the process. It’s the beginning.”

By highlighting a relatively small issue, LePage connects statewide anxiety over high taxes to what would otherwise be a Portland issue. The governor tells taxpayers far from Casco Bay to look at Portland to see how their taxpayer dollars are being spent — or “wasted.”

In this way, the governor cements his image as the defender of taxpayer dollars. During his whistle-stop tour of the state to pitch his budget directly to Maine voters, he’s said that while elected municipal officials care about their towns’ bottom lines, he cares about the bottom lines of the people in those towns.

That’s important because he’s fighting a budget fight centered on tax reform that his opponents say will cause a spike in property taxes. Nobody has sounded that alarm louder than municipal officials.

If LePage can successfully cast municipalities as wasteful while casting himself as the prudent guardian of taxpayer dollars, he gains public opinion leverage needed to convince lawmakers to support his plan.

“If you’re a lawmaker, and you’re on the fence, and all of a sudden you start hearing from constituents who have seen this audit, and who think it’s perfectly clear the spending is wasteful, that can only help [LePage],” said Mark Brewer, a professor of political science at the University of Maine.

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Lashing out at Portland’s welfare system puts Democrats on the defensive on a losing issue for them at zero political risk to LePage.

LePage won his re-election bid with roughly half the statewide vote but in Portland, just two of every 10 voters supported him. Democrats won seven of the eight legislative seats in the city, with the last won by an independent who caucuses with Democrats. Include Green Independents, who like Democrats favor the social welfare programs the governor criticizes, and more than half of Portland’s voting population is enrolled in a political party opposed to LePage’s proposed cuts.

All that is to say that Portland is a city LePage can afford to criticize.

“Portland is an easy target,” GOP strategist Lance Dutson said. “Its position as a service center exaggerates the financial implications of what it provides for General Assistance, but it’s also part of the state where Republicans aren’t particularly competitive. If you’re going to alienate one part of the Maine to gain support in the rest of the state, Portland is it.”

Welfare reform was the campaign theme for Republicans running in 2014. LePage harnessed the strength of the anecdote to win voters over to his side, and Democrats were left defending spending that proved unpopular. But the party can’t turn its back on the low-income Mainers who benefit from programs the GOP cast as wasteful. It’s not only a core constituency, but represents a core value of the party — that government should do what it can to help those in need.

“How they [Democrats] respond to this is important,” said Ted O’Meara, a former chairman of the Maine GOP who is now an independent. “They’ve got to be careful how they respond because you don’t want to just feed into his narrative.”

That’s frustrated some leaders in Portland who say they’ve been willing to work with the governor’s administration but that LePage has been more interested in attacking than working together.

“GA is a small part of Maine’s budget,” said Jon Hinck, a Portland city councilor and former Democratic lawmaker. “So he’s driving a wedge with a vanishingly small amount of allegedly wasteful spending. There are plenty of people in Portland, on the city council, who would like nothing more than to discuss what that might be and to fix it. But that’s not where he’s going. When our mayor asked for a meeting, he said ‘ Sure, in a month.’ That’s after making it sound like this big emergency.”

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Critics fear attacks on Portland and other service centers will have far-reaching consequences

General Assistance budgets in Portland, Bangor and Lewiston-Auburn represents the vast majority of total state spending on the program because those large communities provide services not only to their own residents but to those from surrounding communities.

Cathy Conlow, city manager in Bangor, said there’s a “boatload” of unintended consequences in demonizing how service centers run public assistance programs.

Low-income people head to Bangor or Portland for affordable housing and jobs that aren’t available in the bedroom communities, she said. The homeless, mentally ill and destitute converge there because cities play host to the services that can help them.

Conlow said she worried about the effect broad-stroke criticism against Maine’s service centers will have on business development.

“We know we’re not perfect and there are things we can fix, but if you constantly tell people how bad we are, pretty soon people don’t want to come here, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she said.

Dick Woodbury is an economist and former independent lawmaker from Yarmouth, a suburb of Portland. He said he’d like to see a more collaborative, less-combative approach that recognizes Portland’s unique role in providing services to a broad population base unlike any other in the state.

“Portland has a leadership role in dealing with issues of homelessness and poverty that don’t exist everywhere” in the state, he said. “I admire everything Portland is trying to do. … Are there some financing issues that need to be addressed? Probably. But I think Portland, on the whole, is working hard on something that’s important to do.”

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and,...