AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage’s decision to stop paying membership dues to the National Governors Association threatens to shut Maine out of national policy discussions and isolate the state from opportunities, according to two high-ranking members of former Gov. John Baldacci’s administration.
In explaining his decision, LePage cited the $60,000 annual NGA membership dues as a poor investment, given the state’s precarious fiscal condition and the fact that he “wasn’t getting anything out of it.”
Lee Umphrey, who served as communications director during Baldacci’s first term as governor, contested that assessment.
“The value that you get out, as long as you know how to get it, pays itself back tenfold,” he said. “There was overarching value to help Maine stay competitive with other states, not only in dealing with Congress but in finding opportunities.”
“It did a lot of things that improved the functions of state government,” said David Farmer, Baldacci’s former deputy chief of staff, who now works as a political consultant and writes a weekly column for the Bangor Daily News. “If you close yourself off, that means you’re not getting information or ideas. You can’t take an isolationist approach.”
The question centers more on best use of taxpayer dollars than isolationism, according to Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s director of communications.
“The governor is committed to bringing forward the best policies and practices to benefit the state of Maine,” she wrote in an email. “At this time, the Office of the Governor is not financially committing taxpayer dollars to national or regional organizations.”
Umphrey, who now works as a government relations consultant in New York, attended NGA meetings both as Baldacci’s aide and as a representative of Math for America, a nonprofit organization. In a phone interview Tuesday, he described the NGA as combining the best elements of a reference library, advocacy service for state governments and business networking center.
“The room is full of industry, business, education and political people. They bring a lot of heavy hitters,” Umphrey said. “Bill Gates speaks to the NGA. You saw some of these governors not only being interested in what we were doing, but you could sense they were being entrepreneurial for their states, saying ‘Can you bring your project here?’ to industry leaders.”
The National Governors Association was founded in 1908. The organization’s mission statement says it “promotes visionary state leadership, shares best practices and speaks with a collective voice on national policy.”
Expertise in dealing with Congress and the White House ranks high among NGA functions that Umphrey believes provide value to Maine. Unlike many other states, Maine does not have its own office in Washington, D.C., so the association acts as a de facto office for Maine state government there, he said.
“The NGA staff especially works with appropriations staff,” Umphrey said. “Not only do they work to ensure that funding levels remain what they should be, but they guard against unfunded mandates.”
“States, regardless of ideology, have common problems,” Farmer said. With guidance from the NGA, “you can develop strategies to lobby federal government to help states.”
LePage says he believes he has other forums to do that work, according to Bennett.
“The governor is afforded opportunities to meet with both Republican and Democratic governors through various conferences during the year, including the National Governors Association annual winter meeting,” she said. “He attended both winter meetings in 2011 and 2012.”
Bennett also noted that LePage attended a bipartisan Governors Education Symposium in North Carolina, which both Republican and Democratic governors attended.
Farmer cited the NGA’s commitment to bipartisanship — the chairmanship alternates annually between Republicans and Democrats — as another source of value. He said that NGA meetings provided a forum where Baldacci, a Democrat, shared ideas and built alliances with Republican governors of other Northeastern states. Those bonds proved helpful in 2007, when a rail strike in Canada imperiled propane deliveries to Maine and spurred New England governors from both parties to collaborate on a plan to deliver the fuel by trucks.
The NGA’s role as a place where Republican and Democratic governors came together to advocate for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 helped avert a financial disaster, according to Farmer.
“People forget how dire it was,” he said. “The NGA provided a forum for governors to work together to get across that message of how dire things were and to formulate a strategy to convince senators to support the recovery act.”
The bipartisan effort that emerged via the NGA helped persuade enough U.S. senators, including Maine Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, to vote for the act, which “saved thousands of jobs,” Farmer said.
LePage described NGA meetings as “too politically correct and everybody is lovey-dovey, and no decisions are ever made.”
Maine is not the first state to cut off funding for the NGA. In February 2011, CNN reported that Texas, South Carolina and Idaho would not pay NGA dues. Like Maine, those three states have Republican governors.
Jodi Omear, communications director for the NGA, wrote in an email that she could not confirm information about specific state dues.
“Almost all states pay the full amount of dues every year, and those that do receive additional services,” she wrote. “Although NGA does not disclose specific state information, the benefits from these additional services, in addition to NGA’s advocacy efforts, far exceed the amount of the dues.”
Umphrey wondered where LePage would turn for policy input, speculating that conservative organizations such as the Republican Governors Association, American Legislative Exchange Council and Maine Heritage Policy Center could play a greater part in shaping the governor’s agenda.
Neither the governor’s office nor the Legislature spends tax dollars on dues to the RGA and ALEC, according to Bennett and Jim Cyr, spokesman for House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland.
Bennett indicated that policy would originate within the LePage administration, molded by public participation.
“The governor has surrounded himself with an experienced and knowledgeable Cabinet, of whom many have backgrounds working in government prior to joining the LePage administration,” she said. “However, the best policies and practices are often derived only after there is input from the people of Maine.”
Scott Moody, president of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, supported LePage’s decision.
“If Gov. LePage does not find value in the state being a member of the National Governors Association, then the Maine Heritage Policy Center applauds his efforts in finding budgetary savings in these tough economic times,” he said.“It’s too bad that opponents of this policy, which amounts to a rounding error in the budget, aren’t as concerned with seeking ‘bipartisan’ solutions to far more pressing state issues such as Medicaid reform, which is currently being held hostage by the Obama administration.”
Farmer, however, sees it as a squandered opportunity.
“What you get out is a reflection of what you put in,” Farmer said. “If you go with an attitude of wanting to explore, you can come away with powerful information and allies to push a state’s agenda at the federal level.”