LePage in search of legacy

The end of Gov. Paul LePage’s term in office looms large. With just a year and a half before he turns over the keys to the Blaine House, his focus is drawing in ever more tightly. The governor is on the attack, policy-wise, more single-mindedly than ever.

His call to “fire the legislature” notwithstanding, his dedication to his top priorities seems to have left him with less time for confrontation, more able to let some things roll off. Perhaps it is the perspective of knowing that after six long years, he has but a matter of months left to accomplish his ambitious agenda.

Sure, he called the sponsor of a bill allowing police cruisers to use red lights in addition to the traditional blues a “bonehead.” (The sponsor said red lights are more visible during the day.) But for the most part, he is picking his battles now.

One of the biggest is cancelling out a 3 percent surcharge on income over $200,000 to increase funding to education. Never mind that that was the expressed will of the people at last November’s referendum election. It is bad for Maine, and it has to go, says the governor.

He has repeatedly claimed that the surcharge will drive well-to-do Mainers away from the state and that as many as 50 “professionals” have left already. In an analysis of the impact, his Office of Policy and Management estimated a decrease in “real disposable incomes” of $400-600 million, along with a population loss of 800-1,400 if the surcharge stands.

He has submitted a detailed proposal to reduce the number of school superintendents in Maine, proposing a dozen or fewer “School Management Centers” that would consolidate school administrative functions and reduce cost.

Unlike the original school consolidation effort, which has had a notable lack of success, participation in the management centers would be voluntary. The incentive for schools is that the state would pay for accounting, payroll and certain data systems, as well as covering 55 percent (the state school funding target) of each center’s executive director.

This approach is more palatable to the Maine School Superintendents Association, whose president, Steve Bailey, said, “incentives to share regionally have great promise.”

Behind this carrot is a stick. Last October, LePage vowed to cut all money for superintendents from the state budget, saying that school units that believe in home rule “should be willing to pay for it.” The inevitable pushback on such a drastic change accused the governor of shifting costs to municipalities, but that is true only if schools refuse to join forces for administrative purposes.

The state currently has well over 100 superintendents, (127 according to the governor), a high ratio of superintendents to students compared to other states. But there is little agreement as to why. Some administrators maintain that superintendents in rural states such as Maine take on more responsibilities than in large school administrative units.

It is true that we Mainers like local control. Efforts to consolidate superintendents, like those to consolidate municipal police and fire departments, have been slow to evolve. But those communities who have undertaken unified services are finding that they can save money and still provide a high level of service.

As for his future, the governor continues to muse publicly about the possibilities. Speculation has come and gone about the likelihood of his being offered a job in the Trump administration, fueled by his occasional visits to Washington and appearances on various national news outlets or talk shows.

He also has raised the possibility of running against U.S. Sen. Angus King. It was the vision of service in a legislative body that caused the governor to issue a telling statement during a radio interview: “From the standpoint of being in committees and listening to days of arguments and pros and cons, that would be boring,” he said.

Listening to “days of arguments and pros and cons” is at the heart of the governmental process, or it should be. How else to understand the consequences of governmental action? The governor’s hard-charging approach is proof of his commitment to Maine, but he has been challenged when it comes to bringing his proposals across the finish line. Toughness must be combined with the ability to bring those outside the administration along.

At the local level, the pros and cons are not to be avoided. They are right there, eyeball to eyeball with the selectmen who manage most Maine towns. Nobody knows that better than John Bannister, a Blue Hill selectman for over two decades who lost his seat at this year’s town meeting.

Though Blue Hill voters decided to opt for a change in leadership, the community will be fortunate if the standard Bannister set for dedicated public service continues. He knew his community inside and out, and he could pinch a penny with the best of them. Many of the countless hours he spent serving his town were pinched, too, from his family or his business.

John Bannister is to be commended for his 25 years of service.

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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