LEWISTON — Republican Gov. Paul LePage was touting his economic policies again Friday on the heels of the latest unemployment data released by the U.S. Department of Labor.
Figures for March show Maine's jobless rate decreased to 5.9 percent, the lowest rate the state has seen since LePage took office in January 2011. The rate then was 7.9 percent.
"We have 17,500 more jobs in the private sector now compared to when I took office,” LePage said in a prepared statement. “Our administration is focused on helping to create jobs through reducing taxes, limiting the size of government and reforming our welfare system."
LePage went on to say his policies have worked despite resistance from the state Legislature's Democratic majority.
"We have made progress, even without liberals on board with these policies," LePage said. "However, just think of where we would be if they were truly committed to the same goal. Improving the economy is not political. It’s about putting more Mainers back to work, which is good for everyone.”
LePage's Republican allies in the Legislature touted a variety of reforms they passed into law when they held the majority in 2011 and 2012.
“Over the past few years, Gov. Paul LePage and Republican lawmakers have implemented economic reforms that broke up the decades-old, big-government status quo in Maine,” House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said in a prepared statement. “We have a long way to go, but the repeated drop in Maine’s unemployment rate is a sign that Republican reforms are working for Maine’s economy.”
Republicans in the state Senate also quickly chimed in.
"Once again, the sound fiscal policies and accountability of our governor, supported by Republicans in the Legislature, have encouraged small and large business owners in Maine to take the risk of expanding their businesses and creating new jobs," state Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, said. "The real winners are the hardworking people of Maine.”
Republicans cited several specific reforms they ushered in during their short-lived time in the majority, noting, among other things, five-year limits on welfare benefits, lower state income tax rates and the repayment of the state's whopping $750 million Medicaid debt owed to hospitals.
According to Republicans, Maine’s employment ratio — the percentage of the population that is employed — has grown 3.7 times faster than the national average since March 2012, and three times faster since March 2011.
“This tells us that reductions in Maine’s unemployment rate are a result of Mainers finding work, not giving up on their work search, as so many people are doing nationally,” Rep. Ellen Winchenbach, R-Waldoboro, said.
But Democratic lawmakers and LePage's top political rivals hoping to unseat him during the coming 2014 election said Republicans weren't sharing the whole story.
They said that while Maine's unemployment rate has, in fact, decreased, it was still higher than that of its closest New England neighbors, New Hampshire and Vermont.
March figures from the U.S. Department of Labor show Vermont's unemployment rate to be the second lowest in the nation, at 3.4 percent. New Hampshire's rate was 4.5 percent.
And the unemployment rate for the U.S. dropped 2.4 percent from January 2011, when it hit 9.1 percent, to March's 6.7 percent.
“Maine continues to ride the coattails of the national economic recovery," House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D–Bowdoinham, said. "While we are seeing our economy improve, it is despite Gov.Paul LePage — not because of him. His policies have put Maine in the back of the pack for job growth.”
House Speaker Mark Eves, D–North Berwick, said employment growth was largely among the state's oldest workers.
“Long-term unemployment continues to remain a problem, and prime-aged workers from 25 to 64 continue to have a hard time finding work, especially in rural areas,” Eves said. “This recovery is largely occurring in cities where older workers don’t have the economic security to retire.”
LePage's gubernatorial rivals said that while Maine's unemployment rate may have gone down, the state still lags well behind its New England counterparts when it comes to median household income.
According to 2012 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Maine's median household income for 2012 was $48,219. That's $5,949 less than Vermont's $54,168 and $16,706 lower than New Hampshire's $64,925.
"Though it's always encouraging to see good news, the fact is that under the current governor, Maine's economic recovery is still lagging behind," said Lizzy Reinholt, a spokeswoman for LePage's Democratic challenger, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud. "We are near the bottom of the pack when it comes to private-sector job growth; childhood poverty and homelessness continue to increase; and Mainers are working harder and harder for less and less because of Gov. LePage's failed economic policies."
Reinholt said Michaud has a comprehensive plan to strengthen the economy in all parts of the state and a proven track record of bringing Democrats and Republicans together.
Eliot Cutler, an independent candidate for governor, said LePage was taking the unemployment figures out of context.
"Maine's economy is recovering, but only at a snail's pace in comparison with our neighbors," Cutler said Friday. He said all Mainers should be thankful that more of the state's residents had jobs.
"But more than 41,000 of our citizens are still looking for work, and we are still way behind pre-recession levels of employment," Cutler said. "When we look at replacing jobs lost in the recession, we are lagging every other state in New England except Rhode Island and most states in America. We can and must do better."