Controversial Maine Governor Touches on Welfare, Unions, Drugs in Annual Address
By Eric Russell
Before a chamber filled with Democratic and Republicans lawmakers who only hours earlier were calling each other liars, Gov. Paul LePage delivered his third State of the State address Tuesday evening by highlighting his biggest policy achievements and then pledging additional reforms.
The Republican governor, who spoke passionately and animatedly during a 50-minute speech, talked most about welfare reform -- an issue of continued passion for him and one that will be a hallmark of his re-election campaign nine months from now.
"Liberal politicians are taking us down a dangerous path -- a path that is unsustainable," he said. "They want a massive expansion of Maine's welfare state. Expanded welfare does not break the cycle of generational poverty. It breaks the budget."
He said "shame on you" to those who want to expand the taxpayer-funded health care system known as Medicaid.
LePage proposed limiting the types of purchases allowed under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits. He said he wants to prohibit funds from being used for alcohol and tobacco and to make sure funds are spent only in Maine.
TANF is a federal program that is administered as cash to eligible recipients, so some of his proposals may be tricky.
Another major but likely controversial proposal announced by the governor Tuesday was the creation of so-called Open for Business Zones, which would offer reduced energy rates and other tax benefits for companies that located in those areas. Additionally, employees in these zones would not be forced to join labor unions -- a sort of mini right-to-work initiative.
The $50 million proposal would create more than 1,500 jobs, the governor said.
Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant said LePage couldn't even get right-to-work legislation passed when he had a Republican legislature. Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said the proposal would create "lawless areas."
Addressing Maine's ongoing drug problem, LePage proposed adding 14 new Maine Drug Enforcement Agency positions, along with four special drug prosecutors and four new judges to sit in drug courts in Portland, Lewiston, Bangor and Presque Isle.
"We must hunt down dealers and get them off the streets," LePage said. "We must protect our citizens from drug-related crimes and violence."
Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, said she appreciated the governor's attention to Maine's drug problem but said, "We're never going to arrest our way out of our drug problem."
Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said he would have liked to hear more about treatment.
"The governor does not have a track record of supporting treatment," he said.
In another bold move, LePage also said he plans to launch a statewide referendum that would ask Maine voters if they would support $100 million in tax relief in exchange for $100 million in reduced government spending.
House Minority Leader Alex Willette, R-Mapleton, said he sees nothing wrong with asking voters to decide how much government they want.
Democrats, however, said there have been attempts to set tax policy through referendum in the past and they have all failed For all of the governor's bold initiatives, he'll need support from Democrats to pass anything since they control both the House and Senate.
LePage even acknowledged that at the end of his speech.
"In closing, I welcome common-sense solutions from anyone who wants to put Maine on the right path," he said. "Bring me bold solutions. Put your politics aside."
Prior to the speech, the tenor inside the State House was more partisan than usual thanks to a surprise Appropriations Committee vote the night before on a plan to restore $40 million in cuts to municipal revenue sharing that featured only Democrats.
Republicans on the committee had left for the night after they said they were told no vote would happen until Tuesday. Democrats, however, said Republicans "took a walk," to avoid a controversial vote.
Democrats and Republicans spent the hours leading up to the speech pointing fingers at each other over who was to blame for Monday's vote.
Republicans, in particular, fumed. House leader Kenneth Fredette called it an "unprecedented breach of trust."
"Last night, Democrats acted disrespectfully, in a manner completely unbecoming of Maine's political tradition," Fredette said in a statement. "Maine people expect better. Maine people deserve better."
One Republican member of the budget committee, Sen. Patrick Flood, took responsibility for his part and characterized the incident as a misunderstanding. While dozens of Republicans gathered early Tuesday afternoon to denounce the other party, Flood was absent. Later in the day, when the Appropriations Committee met, members appeared to have mended fences.
(c)2014 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)