Editor’s note: This story is part of a series examining Gov. Paul LePage’s legacy as his tenure comes to a close, including his impact on the economy, politics and more. You can read the rest of the series here.
AUGUSTA, Maine — After an eight-year tenure presiding over a divisive era in Maine politics, Gov. Paul LePage, elected in 2010 on a Republican wave after a recession, will leave office this week on the heels of a Democratic wave and a stretch of record-low unemployment.
Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, will take the oath of office to replace the term-limited Republican governor and give her first inaugural address on Wednesday at the Augusta Civic Center. LePage did it at the same place on Jan. 5, 2011, in a speech that lasted just more than 30 minutes.
It was a relatively straightforward address, laying out his broad goals for education, welfare and regulatory reform that would guide much of his administration while striking a hopeful chord for collaboration with the Legislature that mostly never came to pass.
Here are three excerpts from LePage’s first speech as governor and how he fared in addressing those key issues during the past eight years. You can read a full transcript of the inaugural address at the bottom of this document with annotations that look forward into his tenure.
“Approximately one in every three Mainers is on some form of state or local government assistance for food, shelter, income or health care. … While we are a very generous people, we do have not the ability to pay for everyone and we do have limits on our resources.”
When LePage took office in 2011, there were 350,000 Mainers who received Medicaid, 25,000 children in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and 246,000 Mainers who received food stamps. By this fall, those figures were at 261,000, 7,600 and 176,000, respectively, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation and state data.
That’s attributable to a better national and state economy and the eligibility standards that the LePage administration tightened, largely during the governor’s first term that made Maine a model for conservatives nationwide. LePage also blocked Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, which was approved by voters in 2017.
LePage campaigned on reining in welfare in 2010 and did so even more in 2014. At an event last month in Bangor, he called this “ the greatest thing I have done,” though child poverty increased during the first four years of his tenure, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
“Our standards need to be higher, administrations must be leaner, the dollars must go to the classroom and most of all, we have to find solutions to make Maine the No. 1 that shows the standard for education in this country.”
LePage had a point. Maine pays more than just about any other state to administer its schools. In 2016, about 3.5 percent of Maine school costs were allocated to district administrators, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Only North Dakota, Illinois and New Hampshire spent a higher share.
However, Maine has a long history of local control, and costs were actually down overall and percentage-wise from 2011, when Maine spent 4 percent on administration. In 2017, LePage’s administration handed out grants to districts for consolidation projects aimed at savings, a well-regarded but small program.
He also made ham-fisted efforts to take on school administrators. One item in his 2017 two-year budget proposal to zero out state funding for superintendents was dead on arrival at the Legislature.
“Maine is the hardest place in the country to start and grow a business. Consequently, Mainers earn on average 80 percent of the per capita income in this country and we are failing to make the investments needed to grow our tax base.”
LePage’s reference likely comes from a Forbes magazine ranking in 2010. After ranking last nationally for multiple years, Maine’s business climate rating from Forbes rose to 48th by 2015. Many business leaders mostly praise LePage’s management of the economy, including attentiveness to growing industries and decreasing taxes.
Maine has fallen a little bit on LePage’s stated scale. In 2011, Mainers earned around $39,000 in per capita personal income, which was actually about 92 percent of the national average, according to federal data. Amid a better national economy, the state’s per capita income was up above $46,000 by 2017, though Maine was down around 90 percent of the U.S. average.
But October marked the 35th consecutive month that Maine had an unemployment rate under 4 percent, which is the longest streak on record, so LePage leaves on positive economic news.