Janet Mills speaks at a podium
Gov. Janet Mills speaks during the Democratic State Convention at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, Maine, Saturday, May 14, 2022. Credit: Ben McCanna / Portland Press Herald via AP

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On Saturday, Gov. Janet Mills took the stage at the 2022 Democratic State Convention and made her opening pitch to the voters of Maine. “I don’t know who Paul LePage was thinking about, but it wasn’t Maine people,” Mills said of her predecessor’s time in the Blaine House. “We won’t go back.”

Mills is, in her own way, asking the classic campaign question, “are you better off now than you were four years ago?” She is banking on your memory of the LePage years being a miserable hellscape for Maine, contrasted with a feeling that her tenure has been one of great prosperity and success.

If that is her pitch, it is a pretty bad one.

To Mills, the LePage years were bad because government agencies were supposedly “cut to the bone.” She has, by contrast, expanded Medicaid, released housing bonds and “fully funded” Maine schools.

This fictitious nonsense, though, doesn’t resemble reality. Hardly a time of anemic government that shattered the bureaucracy, LePage’s time in office saw a billion dollars of spending growth, including significant and historic investments in the Department of Education.

Mills is asking the people of Maine to believe that her time in office has been better because the state government is larger, with more programs, and has more responsibilities over the daily lives of Maine people. This is the perspective of a lifelong political insider and career politician, and betrays the fact that she apparently thinks of prosperity and success in terms of government administration, rather than improvements in her citizens’ standard of living.

By any rational standard, the lives of Maine people are not, in fact, better than they were in the LePage years, dooming her core reelection message.

In January of 2011, when LePage took office, Maine’s unemployment rate stood at 8.1 percent, dropping steadily to 3 percent by January of 2019 (and 2.6 percent three months into Mills’ first term, before the new governor could realistically claim any real credit for economic performance).

Mills’ economic record, to be fair to her, is greatly complicated by the impact of the pandemic. It is not her fault, for instance, that the unemployment rate exploded to 9.1 percent in April of 2020. That said, the economy languished through a lethargic recovery due to a series of unnecessary missteps by Mills, resulting in secondary increases in unemployment in the winter and spring of 2020, something unseen in states like neighboring New Hampshire, where the jobless rate is a full point lower than Maine today, despite starting with nearly identical rates at the beginning of the pandemic.

When LePage took office in 2011, the state budget’s structural gap was above $1 billion. By 2017, he had turned things around, bringing the state’s cash pool to more than $1 billion, and ultimately leaving Mills with a $99.2 million surplus for the remainder of 2019, and a projected $263.2 million surplus for the following biennium.

Upon taking office, Mills recklessly set off a spending binge, pushing through a budget that increased spending by nearly four-fifths of the total new spending undertaken by LePage. Since then she has continued to spend at record levels, aided by an avalanche of federal money, creating a financial house of cards, waiting to crash at some time in the future. But hey, at least we’ve got those $850 checks coming our way, right?

Well, those checks won’t cover the massive bills that Maine people are choking on. Filling up my 250 gallon oil tank now costs me $1,480, and the gas for my car is at least $4.58 a gallon. As of April, inflation had increased by 8.3 percent, and to make matters worse, interest rates are rising, the job market remains tight, and mothers aren’t even able to find baby formula on the shelves.

Are these things all Mills’ fault? No, certainly not. But it is hard to claim she’s had much of a plan to deal with those things other than the aforementioned gimmicky checks. And in the end, no matter who’s fault these problems are, they clearly leave Maine voters with the distinct impression that their lives are not, in fact, better now than they were under LePage.

Four years ago, whatever you wanted to say about LePage’s personality, he had ably managed the state’s finances and bureaucracy, gotten overindulgent government expansion under control, and the state’s economy was stronger than it had been in living memory.

Do we want to go back to that? Janet Mills may not like the answer to that question.

Matthew Gagnon, Opinion columnist

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist...