Gov. Paul LePage returns to the podium Tuesday for the last State of the State address in his tenure and will likely tell the legislative and judicial branches that despite his lame duck status, they should expect him to push his agenda aggressively until his last day in office.
The speech comes less than a year before term limits push LePage out of office, in the middle the short session of the Legislature and during an election year. With Democrats still holding majority control of the House of Representatives, that confluence of factors would spur many governors to set low expectations, but LePage has proven already to be the exception.
In the past year, LePage has toned down the passionate outbursts and rough rhetoric that defined much of the first six years of his time in the state’s highest elected office. Since August, he has appeared seldomly in public and when he does, it’s to deliver scripted remarks at events or to weigh in with lawmakers on specific policy proposals he has pending in the Legislature.
The State of the State, which the governor in 2016 delivered in writing so he wouldn’t have to appear in the same room where an impeachment attempt had failed just weeks before, has traditionally been a vehicle for LePage to celebrate his past accomplishments, deliver arguments in favor of pending legislation and hint at new initiatives. That’s pretty standard fare and what is expected to unfold beginning around 7 p.m. Tuesday when LePage is scheduled to deliver the speech.
LePage used his first inaugural address to announce policy goals that have endured — and some promises that quickly became just empty words. LePage pledged lower taxes, a more efficient government, a better education system and to “work constructively with anyone committed to honest solutions that benefit all Maine people.” LePage has in fact lowered taxes and reduced the size of state government, at least as far as the number of employees is concerned. He also has created more choices for students by creating a charter school system. Though there are examples of the governor collaborating with others, the fact is that he will be perhaps most remembered for circumventing the Legislature or ignoring the results of statewide referendums to accomplish his priorities. Examples of those executive power plays include last week’s sudden closure of Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport and LePage’s continuing refusal to release $15 million in senior citizen bonds approved in 2015.
LePage’s next few State of the State speeches showed a widening set of goals. By his 2014 speech he was talking about investing in public infrastructure and new actions, mostly on the law enforcement side, related to cracking down on Maine’s then-exploding opioid addiction epidemic. A year later, he was focused on budget matters, such as eliminating revenue sharing with towns and cities — which ended up being turned back by the Legislature — and prioritizing taxpayer dollars for the “most vulnerable,” in Maine instead of for welfare programs. It was by this point that LePage and many Republicans has started their years-long blockage of expanding the state’s Medicaid program, which endures today.
The speech in 2016, delivered by letter, was arguably LePage’s most virulent. The speech was less a gauge of the condition of Maine and more a platform for attacks on “socialists, career politicians and their allies in the media.” It came during LePage’s perhaps most explosive year in office, including what was arguably rock bottom from a rhetorical and statesmanship standpoint. The 2016 address came about a month after what became a viral comment about drug dealers and “white girls,” which his office spent months explaining. Later that year, he took global heat for leaving an obscene tirade on a Democratic lawmaker’s voicemail and then publicly challenging him to a duel.
LePage stayed on the offensive for his 2017 speech, spending some 80 minutes attacking “liberal special interest groups” for championing 2015 referendums that raised the minimum wage and put a 3 percent tax on upper earners to benefit schools. After an intense legislative slog that ended with a three-day state government shutdown, LePage and his allies were able to soften the minimum wage law and eliminate the surtax.
Tuesday’s speech comes as LePage has taken a less visible approach in his governorship and amid repeated trips to Washington to weigh in on national policy initiatives. However, he is embroiled in major issues at home.
In the wake of federal tax reform late last year, the governor is expected to follow up soon with proposals for cuts and major changes to Maine’s tax code. We expect some at least broad-brush passes at what he’ll propose to be included in the State of the State. Medicaid expansion is still on the table, with the difference being that following a 2017 referendum, expansion is now the law.
The executive branch faces deadlines that are just weeks away to start the expansion process, though LePage has shown no sign that he is taking any steps. With that battle likely headed to court and his arguments years old and well-worn, LePage is likely go gloss over the issue in his speech.
LePage touched off a new conflict with legislators. On Friday, he ordered the sudden closure of the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport — along with the layoffs of all of its staff. The fate of that prison is another long-simmering issue, with a bipartisan coalition in the Legislature having so far been able to stop it.
On Monday, lawmakers were struggling with how to move forward, though the chances to reverse LePage’s unilateral action appeared to be slim. LePage has argued that the prison costs too much and is too far gone structurally to make fiscal sense, which feeds into the austerity message he is sure to continue hammering. That the closure was Friday, four days before his final State of the State may not be a coincidence.
That’s not all. LePage is sure to bring up energy prices, and probably blame governors in Massachusetts and Connecticut for impeding his wish to pipe natural gas to Maine from Pennsylvania. He is also going to talk about easing financial pressures on Maine’s senior citizens in support of his pending proposals to implement a system to help them avoid tax lien foreclosures and another to reduce the amount of tax-exempt conservation property in Maine.
When LePage is out of office, how he will be remembered? Touting accomplishments will obviously be at the core of the speech, but LePage is never satisfied. He’ll likely say he cut taxes, but not enough, and that he reformed welfare, but was blocked from further progress by liberals.
We’ll hear again about how he paid off Medicaid debt to hospitals and strengthened domestic violence laws — and possibly about how neither Medicaid expansion or a sales and regulation system for recreational marijuana, both approved by voters, are likely to happen on his watch.
Most of the signs point toward a stately, if not subdued affair. LePage signaled that first by agreeing to do the speech at all — remember 2016? — and for another unusual step: He has invited legislators to join him for a reception before the speech in the Hall of Flags.
Within the walls of the State House, civility is expected so when it’s all over late Tuesday evening, LePage will have had one last chance to present himself to a captive Maine audience as a measured, conservative statesman in a way that balances his legacy as a partisan firebrand who agitated and emboldened his angry, loyal base with a controversial rhetorical style rarely heard in the State House.
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