‘Big stick’ governance

If you drove by the Blaine House last week, you may have caught a glimpse of Gov. Paul LePage standing in front of an open window, breathing deeply and doing his stretching exercises in preparation for this week’s State of the State address.

As part of his warm-up routine, he was walking loudly in the halls of the Maine State House and outside of it carrying a big stick. He appeared at a work session of the Legislature’s Taxation Committee to promote his bill to revamp the property foreclosure process at the municipal level.

For all that he is accused of being heartless and unsympathetic, this is a man who can be moved by a sad story. It was during last year’s State of the State that he raised the case of a couple of 80-year-olds in Albion who lost their home over $4,000 in back taxes. This year, the governor has introduced legislation he believes will fix the problem.

Let us just say categorically that no one wants to see a senior lose his home, but for a governor who hates regulations, he did not hesitate to say municipalities should have more of them. And accusing municipal officials of “taking advantage of the most vulnerable people in our society and that’s our elderly?” How does that foster a productive conversation?

Municipalities fought back, calling the existing process “appropriate and fair.” In their testimony on the bill, they pointed out that “the current process requires municipal officials to notify and work with delinquent property taxpayers for 18 months before deciding whether or not to acquire property for the nonpayment of taxes.”

Representatives of the Maine Municipal Association also reminded the committee that if the state paid its full share of the state-municipal revenue sharing program, municipalities could lower property taxes for all homeowners. The state has been siphoning money from that program for years. Funding the homestead tax exemption program and a property tax deferral program for seniors and the disabled also would help the population targeted by the governor’s proposal.

Having the governor appear unannounced at a committee meeting is a management nightmare for committee chairs. All comers are welcome to testify at a public hearing, but a work session is strictly for the purpose of the committee to sift through the testimony they have heard, other information they have requested and the committee members’ opinions. Further input from the public is not welcome, and noncommittee members are only permitted to speak in response to committee questions.

Finding the governor sitting in the audience presents committee chairs with a dilemma. Break work session protocol and permit the governor to speak? Ignore him? Is it fair to those who testified at the public hearing to allow the governor to introduce further testimony when no one else may respond? And though it pains us to say it, the tone this governor has been known to take in public could derail an entire effort to get a bill out of committee.

Then there is the “big stick” event of Feb. 9 in Machiasport. Like a thief in the night, the governor sent buses to the Downeast Correctional Facility, spirited away the 63 inmates and issued pink slips to the staff. Is it really “expensive and inefficient to run,” as the governor’s communications person said? Maybe. But is this the correct approach?

The fate of that jail in particular and the overall administration of the state’s jails and prisons has long been a subject of debate. But a hostile takeover? The implications for Washington County are wide-ranging. Inmates at the facility provide a significant number of employees through the work-release program, and in that economically depressed county, the jobs at the jail are vital to community survival.

Senate President Mike Thibodeau spoke calmly but clearly. “The people of Washington County deserve better than this. Maine Senate Republicans are currently looking at all available options.” You bet they are, and Democrats, too. Once again, our governor might have had a legitimate argument for closing the jail, but going about it in such a heavy-handed way does not help him make his case.

There was a depressing side note to this debate. Members of the community described the inmates as good workers. They were a vital source of employees, especially in the winter when, according to a news report, “other workers would seek layoffs.” One local employer reportedly said: “People don’t want to work.” Of the 18 people who applied for a job, not a single one showed up for an interview. She attributes this to her “no nonsense drug policy.” There’s an indictment for you.

The LePage administration is facing its final days. The governor has vowed to work to his “very last day.” It is unfortunate that his style of governance has negatively impacted his goals.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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