AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage tore into “liberal” political opponents in a State of the State address Tuesday that sought to delegitimize the Legislature and accuse special interest groups of preying on needy and elderly Mainers.
In one of the most aggressive speeches of his tenure, which lasted more than an hour, LePage spared none of his political opponents while turning up the volume on a conservative populist message based on his belief that he’s the last line of defense for “hardworking Mainers.”
“Our economy and our way of life are under attack,” said LePage early in the speech. “The taxes Mainers have paid all their lives fund the organizations that throw them on the street. It has to stop. We owe it to our elderly to protect them.”
Many of the governor’s statements echoed comments he’s been making for weeks: How his budget seeks to counteract the effects of two referendums that passed in November — a minimum wage hike and a 3 percent surtax on income over $200,000 per year to benefit education.
Echoing a statement he made on the radio Tuesday morning, LePage took a swipe at outside groups “making each and every one of you in the Legislature irrelevant by going straight to referendum,” while calling for changes. He has already backed legislation to force signature gatherers to collect proportional numbers of signatures from both congressional districts.
“As written, the law to raise the minimum wage will wreak havoc,” LePage said.
It was the Republican governor’s first time in front of the Legislature since rolling out a January budget proposal that would shift Maine to a flat income tax by 2020, broaden the sales tax and expand on past welfare cuts to trim another 18,000 people from MaineCare and potentially 1,500 children from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
LePage also seeks to provide financial incentives and penalties designed to prompt school district consolidation and wants to trim at least 500 state government positions and launch a study of how to cut more.
But the budget must pass with a two-thirds majority — a difficult threshold with Republicans and Democrats narrowly controlling the Senate and House of Representatives, respectively. LePage’s last two biennial budget proposals haven’t gone far, with the Legislature passing compromises over gubernatorial vetoes in 2013 and 2015.
That may well happen again by the time the next budget is finalized in June, with Democrats already taking stances against his tax proposals and countering his assertions that he wants to help older Mainers with criticism that he has not released a $15 million senior housing bond approved by voters in 2015.
On Tuesday, Democratic leaders said LePage told only half of the story and didn’t address issues such as austere budgets that have put too much pressure on municipal property taxes, saying homeowners deserve a tax cut before upper-income earners.
“They’re the ones that lived here all their lives,” said Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, whom LePage mentioned several times as someone he has been working with this year. “They’re loggers, they’re fishermen, they’re farmers, and they feel like they’re going to lose their homes. … An income tax cut for the wealthiest is not going to help them.”
House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, said LePage brought up several initiatives that lawmakers can agree on but that negativity tinged the speech.
“The governor really did bring up a lot of issues based on that negative frame and based on a very partisan divide instead of really introducing conclusive ideas that would move us forward as a state,” she said.
Republicans had a different interpretation. Senate President Mike Thibodeau of Winterport and Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason of Lisbon said that despite a gruff tone, LePage succeeded in laying out accomplishments of his tenure.
But they were less sure about specifics in the budget: Mason said LePage’s budget will take time to consider, but that he appreciated the governor’s comprehensive vision.
“This is a huge document. We’re learning new things from it every day,” he said. “As for the governor’s vision tonight, it was nice to hear how positive he was about some of the work we’ve accomplished.”
As LePage’s speech went on, he veered further off script, and his tone became at times more gentle and populist. He repeated a prior pledge to propose legislation that would prevent cities and towns from seizing elderly Mainers’ property for unpaid taxes, calling it “unethical and immoral to take away a senior citizen’s home.”
Yet he was also harsh. He said the Legislature should expect “tough” bills aimed at “deadbeat dads.” Rather than taking away driver’s licenses, he said the state should monitor them to make sure they work and pay child support.
If they don’t, he said, “Let’s bring them in to house them in our care for a couple of days,” implying that they should be jailed.
The speech illustrated a conservative vision for Maine, but it also suggested that “liberals” — which was a label he used many times — would not support him or give him credit for his accomplishments.
He closed with one of his most common themes this year — telling the Legislature “do no harm” to Maine’s economy. But it’s likely that they’ll have a different definition than he does.