PORTLAND — Republican Gov. Paul LePage, up for re-election this year, denounced political extremism while reiterating a disdain for newspapers, Medicaid expansion and what he views as loopholes in the state’s welfare system during a speech at a Portland business event Thursday morning.
“In Augusta, there are some great Republicans and some great Democrats — the problem is not in those two groups,” LePage said in response to a question about whether the two-party system in Maine is broken. “The problem is that we have ideologues that are progressives and liberal — there’s nothing we can do. And, you know, on our side we have a couple that are libertarian. … I don’t know what to do with them. But they are the outskirts. They really are. They are on the fringes. The problem is when the fringe is the leaders, you have a problem. And that’s what we have in Maine right now.”
Partisan fights in the Legislature were one theme of LePage’s presentation to about 500 attendees of a Portland Community Chamber of Commerce breakfast at which the governor detailed what he believes were successes and failures of his first term in office as he makes his bid for a second.
One fight still lingers over a bill to immediately disburse millions of state dollars to nursing homes, which have been underfunded in recent years. Republicans blamed Democrats Wednesday for failing to reach a deal on the bill submitted by the governor. The budget-writing Appropriations Committee had crafted a compromise bill that was killed in committee last week after LePage said he would veto anything but his original draft.
“Now I’m going to have to force them back,” said LePage, who has the ability to call lawmakers back for an emergency session if certain conditions — such as a budget shortfall — apply.
LePage echoed claims from Republican leaders that some nursing homes face such dire financial conditions that they might have to close.
Looking back on his first term, LePage told the Portland audience he was frustrated that bills to change the electronic benefit transfer program for public assistance recipients, create new business incentives aimed at large companies and eliminate state revenue sharing with cities and towns failed.
Of four failed proposals to place new requirements or restrictions on use of state benefits, LePage said rejection of a bill that would have limited what can be purchased with electronic benefit transfer cards was “the one that killed me.”
“It was what I considered a no-brainer,” LePage said of the proposal to outlaw use of EBT cards at strip clubs and in businesses where alcohol and tobacco account for at least half of sales.
Echoing a refrain he’s sounded more frequently in recent weeks from the governor’s office and on the campaign trail, LePage blamed liberal Democrats. “It went down by party lines,” he said. “Folks, it went down by party lines.”
LePage’s presentation contrasted with Democratic Senate President Justin Alfond and Republican Sen. Andre Cushing’s appraisals of the Legislature’s work during a teleconference with the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce during a break May 1 in a busy schedule handling 48 gubernatorial vetoes.
“Despite what garners press attention, 85 percent of what we did was in a bipartisan manner.” Alfond said. “Even on veto day, 32 of the bills got at least two-thirds support in at least one of the [legislative] bodies.”
Cushing echoed the counter-narrative of collaboration in Augusta.
“Contrary to what you may read in the media about divisiveness, we tend to work well together and leadership sets the tone,” Cushing said, praising Alfond for “growing into his role and moving the vast majority of what we can agree on efficiently out of here.”
Cushing went on, however, to criticize partisanship over LePage’s proposal to give tax incentives to large employers that invest at least $50 million in Maine and to restrict the ability of unions to collect fees for services rendered to non-union employees at what LePage labeled Open for Business zones.
While bemoaning failure of that bill Thursday morning, LePage did take credit for other positive news for the state’s economy. SInce he took office in 2011, a period of national economic recovery from the recession started in late 2007, the state’s unemployment rate has dropped and some businesses have expanded, including the Woodland Pulp mill in Baileyville. With help from a new Finance Authority of Maine incentive program for major business expansions, the company is adding two new tissue-making machines by the end of next year.
LePage shared few details, but said he expects another “major announcement” in Washington County, the state’s poorest, in the coming month.
On the topic of economic development, LePage also said he plans to put forward a plan where the state would help pay off student loans for people who move here for school or after graduation.
The governor also said he plans to continue efforts to change the state’s system for sharing revenue with cities and towns, requiring that those payments contribute directly to lowering property tax payments.
LePage also touted his record on welfare fraud. The point segued into another familiar refrain, with LePage criticizing the media for characterizing the amount of fraudulent EBT ATM withdrawals from Jan. 1, 2011, to Nov. 15, 2013 — estimated at about two-tenths of 1 percent of the dollar amount of withdrawals — as small.
LePage also repeated a past complaint — that Maine media sometimes reports on correspondence to him from federal agencies before he’s had time to review them.
“We should be concerned, folks, that that kind of politics is going on,” LePage said.