Governor strikes conciliatory tone

Who was that fellow at the podium in the Maine House of Representatives last week giving the State of the State speech? He looked a lot like Gov. Paul LePage, but not the LePage we have been hearing from for the last six years, nor the governor who mailed in his State of the State speech last year, refusing to address the Legislature in person.

If you did not watch the broadcast of the speech, much of the coverage would suggest this was same old, same old. One account said he “tore into his political opponents.” A political cartoon showed the governor jumping up and down with symbols of cursing over his head. This does not fairly represent his performance.

This was perhaps the most measured and articulate speech the governor has given. On script or off, he struck a new tone throughout. Gone was the belligerent, red-faced, finger-pointing governor of yore. He spoke of “we” and “us.” He evoked a positive vision for Maine’s future and thanked legislators for getting him “halfway” on one tax reform proposal.

Yes, he called out “liberals,” their ideology and their heirs and assigns, for most, if not all, the ills of the state. But he clarified that the “liberals are no longer in this body” (meaning the legislature). He was referring, he said, to those trying to make an “end-run” by “highjacking the referendum process.” This, he said, “makes each and every one in this body irrelevant.”

Referenda have become more frequent “because people have lost faith in government… . Out of state money controls our lives,” he said. “We need to stand up to it.”

He urged legislators to be guided in their budget deliberations by the principle to “do no harm.” For him, harm includes an overly aggressive minimum wage increase that raises costs for small businesses and the price of goods and services for low-income elderly, and the newly-passed education funding tax on income over $200,000, an additional burden on “the 10 percent richest people [who] pay 65 percent of the tax burden.”

Calling it “unethical and immoral” for anyone to be “thrown out of their home,” the governor said foreclosure on homes of the elderly could be avoided by requiring communities to seek reverse mortgages first, as banks must do.

He wants to make sure that deadbeat dads “go to work every day” and that able-bodied Mainers aged 19 to 50 get off welfare. “Not throw them off,” he insisted, “but roll up our sleeves and give them the work skills they need.”

He wants to see “environmental groups” move less land off the tax rolls, and he proposes extinguishing “double-dipping” on energy distribution costs, letting the market decide which technologies succeed, keeping in mind “low cost energy and no harm to the environment.”

He put a face on his concerns, naming a young woman with disabilities who was not able to get services. “We forgot her. She wasn’t a priority,” he said. “I think we need to make her a priority.” He decried the minimum wage bill for “ending tipping as we know it” and, in a nod to first lady Ann LePage’s job as a waitress, glanced up at the balcony to confirm, “Is that right, dear?”

He invoked his own youth and the teacher who made all the difference in his life as he urged the Legislature to reduce the number of school superintendents in Maine and increase pay for “good, young teachers.”

He has begun a conversation with educators about a statewide teacher contract. “We have a long way to go,” he said, “but they like the concept.”

Education is not the only area where the governor has opened what sounds like meaningful dialogue. The opiate crisis is much on his mind. “Many are right with us, but many are dragging their feet.” He has found an ally in Democratic Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, with whom the governor has previously (and famously) battled. He also has consulted with Chief Justice Leigh Saufley on the issue.

Maine “has spent $80 million, and it’s not working,” he claimed. “We can expect a 10 percent success rate if we’re lucky. We have to start in middle school to try to find a solution.” That solution will require both law enforcement and treatment, he maintained, a change from his previous emphasis on law enforcement.

Maine is “aging out. We need new blood,” said the governor, “people from other states, other countries.” He described our state as “safe, beautiful and affordable.” “Let’s reinvent ourselves,” urged the governor. Citing 17 million acres of forestland in the state, he said, “Let’s make it work for the Maine people.”

Protecting the economy, families, small business and the elderly all are at the top of his list for the session. In a welcome shift from his often confrontational style, the governor said, “Let’s figure out a way we can work together.”

Whether the details of his proposals stand up to scrutiny remains to be seen, but the governor clearly worked to set a different atmosphere in Augusta as the legislative session begins. An olive branch was extended, and it would be unproductive to set fire to it.

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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