AUGUSTA, Maine — Republican Gov. Paul LePage continued to defy tradition Wednesday when he used his second-term inaugural address to hammer home his policy priorities for the upcoming legislative session.
The speech, delivered to the Legislature and more than 3,000 supporters at the Augusta Civic Center, came across more like what we’re used to hearing in LePage’s annual State of the State addresses, which are delivered in February: A quick look back at accomplishments followed by a list of goals long on conservative ideology and short on details.
On Friday, LePage is expected to present his biennial budget proposal, which, far more than any other bill in the Legislature, will reflect his vision for a Maine with smaller government and lower taxes.
Two years ago, the Legislature — with Democrats holding majorities in both the House and Senate — overrode LePage’s budget plan and passed a $6.3 billion two-year budget over his objections and veto. With Republicans now holding a 20-15 majority in the Senate and fresh off his solid re-election triumph, LePage enters this year’s budget deliberations in a much stronger position.
In his speech on Wednesday, the governor appeared to offer a preview of the major themes of his budget proposal, which leaves the State of the State address as the forum to defend and elaborate upon it.
Most of the initiatives voiced Wednesday by LePage echoed what he’s been saying for four years, but it’s clear that the man who went from mayor of Waterville to the Blaine House has evolved considerably since voters put him in office in 2010.
He still wants to drastically reduce taxes. Much has been made of the tax cuts LePage led into enactment in 2011, including constant criticism from Democrats who say he created a revenue chasm that threatened crucial social services and state departments. Those criticisms failed to gain any traction with voters in the 2014 gubernatorial election, and LePage said Wednesday that his biennial budget will “go after the income tax.” He has previously said he favors total elimination of the income tax, which pumps roughly $1.4 billion annually into state coffers. Conventional wisdom says he’ll likely propose some kind of tiered draw-down of income tax rates.
He still has education reform in his sights. After making education reform a core priority during his first two years in office — including a successful push to allow charter schools in Maine and the creation of a new teacher evaluation system — LePage was relatively quiet on the issue in 2013 and 2014. On Wednesday, he talked at length about how there are too many administrative units — i.e., superintendents — in Maine. Whether he’ll manage to consolidate school administrations — as Democrat Gov. John Baldacci tried and largely failed to do during his second term — remains to be seen.
His main focus is creating more jobs. Despite claims during his campaign, LePage’s job-creation record compares poorly to other governors and to the nation as a whole. He took office at the economic lowpoint of the Great Recession and as the country has recovered, so has Maine, though not as quickly as many other states. LePage acknowledged that the state has a lot of work to do and said, as he has consistently, that lowering energy costs and taxes will be key to Maine’s prosperity.
He remains aggressive on welfare reform. A mantra for LePage has been to move people off social services such as food supplements, Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — which he accomplished in his first term by essentially kicking people out of the programs — and into the workforce. It’s a stance that many political observers believe helped propel him to re-election. He repeated his goal of creating a tiered welfare system that allows benefits to ramp down as recipients become more independent. The problem is, the Legislature already has tried and failed to implement such a system under LePage.
He’ll lead the charge to sell voter-approved bonds. After years of holding back bonds until the Legislature agreed to his goals — such as paying off Medicaid debt to hospitals and depositing a certain amount in the state’s rainy day fund — LePage said Wednesday that his administration will be the first in many years to outline a specific capital expenditure plan for how projects funded by the bonds should be prioritized.
He knows how to appeal to the masses. For a governor who has made national headlines for his clashes with lawmakers and reporters, LePage is now the governor who earned more votes than any gubernatorial candidate in Maine history. LePage has long been greeted by enthusiastic supporters wherever he goes, although his controversial statements at times have overshadowed his message. There was none of that at Wednesday’s inauguration. He showed passion for his policy agenda and said repeatedly that he wants to work with the Legislature to solve problems. He even capped his speech with a friendly reference to buying razors for some legislators who have sprouted beards since he last saw them.
He’s articulating an overarching vision for Maine in terms that connect with voters. In the past, many of LePage’s policy goals have met stiff resistance as soon as they were introduced, such as some of his school funding, tax policy and welfare reform ideas. What’s different now is that LePage, in his rare public appearances and even rarer interviews with reporters, is articulating how individual initiatives are related to larger goals, such as creating jobs. He also has achieved buy-in — at least in public statements — from some of his harshest critics during the past two years on issues such as welfare reform and reducing energy costs.
People are going to line up behind him. He’s popular. He’s engaging. Many of his policies are taking hold. Opponents might question his methods, but it’s hard to deny that he achieved many of the goals he laid out at the start of his first term. Gone, for now, are discussions about whether Republicans in the Legislature will or should try to distance themselves from the governor. Perhaps the lead singer of the Moondawgs, who played at LePage’s inauguration party Wednesday night, put it best: He’s starting his second term on a positive note. How he riffs off that note to address Maine’s most daunting challenges — an aging population, threats to legacy industries such as papermaking, the economic disadvantages that come with being located outside major national and global commerce channels, and serious questions about the direction of public education — will determine his legacy as a governor.