How LePage’s State of the State helps set up the race to succeed him

Good morning from Augusta, where lawmakers and Maine’s gubernatorial candidates are mulling the value of Gov. Paul LePage’s prognostications for Maine’s future.

LePage said very little in his nearly 90-minute speech that we haven’t heard before, and instead of focusing on the past, the governor sought to connect his legacy to the future. Listening most keenly, perhaps, were the Republican gubernatorial candidates who must decide to what degree they want to follow LePage’s lead or strike a new course.

LePage laid out his vision for the future, which conveniently provides Republican candidates with sticks and carrots for the campaign to keep control of the Blaine House in GOP hands.

Changing the property tax landscape. Minutes into his speech, LePage tore into the Natural Resources Council of Maine and other groups who favor putting more Maine land in conservation, eliminating it from property tax rolls. LePage claimed that municipalities have lost more than $330 million in tax revenues from conservation land and said each legislator will receive figures specific to his or her district today.

His call for protected land to be subject to property taxes shifts pressure to municipalities as irresponsible fiscal stewards beholden to progressive special interests, while his call for an 18-month process to protect senior citizens from losing their homes to tax liens painted municipal tax collectors as heavy-handed on the other. Reforming those processes has emerged as primary goals of LePage’s.

In the campaign, whether to emphasize the former will be a gamble for Republicans and Democrats are sure to cast that argument as hypocritical in light of the many ways LePage has sought to increase pressure on property taxes by reducing municipal revenue sharing and shifting millions of dollars of education costs to the local level.

Medicaid expansion. LePage said he will uphold the expansion law enacted in a 2017, which was quite a statement from the governor who has used every tool in his arsenal to stop it, but it was just rhetoric.

LePage repeated a list of conditions — that there be no new taxes, no cuts to other social services, no use of rainy day funding, and that the funding source for expansion be ongoing — which are basically too difficult to be realistic.

However, he entrenched talking points for all conservative candidates to frame progressive opponents as unrealistic about the fiscal side of the equation. While Democrats argue the costs aren’t as much as LePage claims and the benefits are well worth the cost, their core arguments are muddied. LePage’s ongoing efforts to frame Medicaid expansion as a fiscal nightmare allows Republicans to campaign against social service program expansions put in place by Democrat John Baldacci’s administration.

Blasting Democrats for those changes and giving LePage credit for fixing fiscal problems they caused have been successful campaign tactics for Republicans since 2010.

Tax conformity. We haven’t seen details of what LePage will propose — presumably soon — in terms of aligning Maine with the federal tax reform package enacted last year, but it lurks as the gorilla in the room for this year’s legislative session.

LePage said that in order to implement some of the tax deductions that have been eliminated at the federal level, he’ll propose a corresponding tax cut at the state level to make sure Mainers don’t pay more. LePage and his allies are set up already to argue that anyone who doesn’t support the conformity bill wants to raise taxes, though let’s face it: that’s twisting the facts and order of events here.

On a more basic level, it does allow Republican candidates to tout the tax cuts LePage secured earlier in his tenure.

Citizen initiatives. The chorus among Republicans and some Democrats unhappy with Maine’s citizen initiative process, which has proven itself to be an easy hurdle to the ballot for any well-organized or well-funded group, has grown to deafening levels but the Legislature has so far been unable to agree on any of a number of proposals to raise the bar.

Given the split majorities in the Legislature and the fact it’s a campaign year, adjusting the process this year is likely impossible, but it spurs or perhaps forces candidates to talk about, making this an issue for Maine’s next governor and the 129th Legislature.

Republicans running for higher office themselves attached themselves to the governor following the speech. That included four gubernatorial candidates. Former Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said in a video that she watched the speech with “great pride and admiration” for what LePage has accomplished. House Minority Leader Ken Fredette called it a sign that LePage will continue to be “a strong chief executive.” Even Senate President Mike Thibodeau, who has warred with LePage, said “our state is better off” because of LePage’s tenure. And businessman Shawn Moody, whose campaign is run by key LePage aides, said in a statement LePage’s work should be continued. His status as the most popular figure in the state party crowd may have something to do with that.

Today in A-town

The House speaker is unveiling a new proposal intended to help align workforce training with welfare programs. The new bill from House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, is more modest than her proposal from last year, some of which was included in the two-year budget. It would create two new programs that would provide education, job training and support services to food stamp recipients and expand the availability of cash assistance to certain parents who are pursuing higher education. It’s expected to cost $21.5 million in federal funds per year. Gideon is holding a press conference with supporters at noon today at the State House.

It’s a busy committee day in Augusta. Seven committees are working on Wednesday. Gideon’s bill will get a public hearing at before the Health and Human Services Committee. A bill from Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, to ban licensed professionals from doing “conversion therapy,” the pseudoscientific practice of trying to change someone’s sexual orientation, will have a hearing before the labor committee. A bill to provide $1.7 million to the Maine Clean Election Fund will also have a hearing before the voting committee. It could be a big deal, with nine of 24 gubernatorial candidates pursuing taxpayer funds for their campaigns.

Reading list

  • A North Carolina firm says it will add 100 jobs to the Millinocket area’s struggling forest economy. LignaTerra Global LLC announced Tuesday that it will build a $30 million composite lumber factory on the former Katahdin Paper Co. site. The company hopes to break ground on a 300,000-square-foot facility in July and start production a year later.
  • L.L. Bean will have to defend its big return policy change in court. In the wake of the retail giant announcing last week that it will end its no-questions-asked lifetime return policy, a man from Illinois has started a class-action lawsuit seeking at least $5 million in damages. L.L. Bean argues that it has lost $250 million in the past five years on”destroy quality” returned items.
  • Rockland is putting the brakes on Airbnb and other short-term rentals. Effective March 15, the city will enact a cap of 45 short-term rentals. The city council approved the cap Monday night in a 3-2 vote. The move will give the city time to examine the effect of short-term rentals on the city’s housing stock and rental market.

It’s Valentines Day and LePage says we should all get busy making babies

LePage said attracting young people is crucial to Maine’s economic future and filling future jobs for which currently, there is a shortage of workers.

“Not only will these young people work in our industries, but they will also buy homes, pay taxes, invigorate our communities and yes, have children,” said the governor.

Those sound like marching orders, or laying down orders, depending on your nooky preferences. I’ll pass that gauntlet on to DB readers since I already have two children and that’s a lot. Here’s your soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins and Michael Shepherd and edited by Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.