From now until Nov. 2, the candidates for governor will mostly be competing through debates and sound bites. There will be few major policy proposals, and even less reasoned discussion of the difference in their approaches to governing Maine.
If you want a good idea of how Paul LePage would govern, you won’t find it in his extravagant statements about President Obama, or his bellicose response to questioners.
Instead, take a look at the new Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie in his first year in office.
New Jersey is one of two states that held gubernatorial elections in 2009 – a test of voter sentiment following a presidential year. Virginia swings between the parties, so a Republican win there was no big deal, but New Jersey is solidly Democratic, so Christie’s win was dramatic.
It helped that his major opponent, incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine, was ethically challenged, but the real reason voters threw out Corzine was his propensity for raising taxes. New Jersey’s sales tax was once 5 percent, the same as Maine’s, but Corzine insisted on raising it another notch, to 7 percent, and even shut down state operations when legislative Democrats refused.
The ultimate compromise designated half of $1.2 billion in new revenue for municipal aid. And that’s just the problem.
New Jersey has a local control tradition so strong as to be irrational. Like Maine, it has weak counties, so municipalities deliver most public services. Unlike Maine, with 1.3 million people, New Jersey has 8 million packed into an area one-quarter our size. It has public works garages, high schools, and police stations in neighboring towns literally a stone’s throw apart.
When I grew up there, I lived in a town that surrounded another municipality, and rode the bus past the neighboring town’s high school to my own on the far side of town. The absurdity didn’t occur to me until I moved to New England with its (relatively) rational village, town and city layouts.
New Jersey has resisted reshaping its enormously expensive local government, and Corzine didn’t try. Deciding to raise taxes one more time did him in.
Christie barely had to campaign, entering office largely unknown. Last week, he began to define himself.
In an act of breathtaking arrogance, Christie canceled a new train tunnel to New York City, the engine that drives New Jersey’s economy.
The $8.7 billion project, planned for 20 years, was initially supported by Christie and was already under way. Some Mainers are skeptical about trains, but not New Jerseyans. The second Hudson River tunnel would double commuter capacity to 90,000 a day, and remove 22,000 cars, with the cost split between New Jersey, New York and the federal government.
Christie acted at a time when 1.5 million construction workers nationwide are unemployed. He was concerned about potential cost overruns, but most construction projects are under budget. His decision seems born of opposition to public works of any kind, in a region which – like most of America – has seen massive infrastructure deterioration.
Later, Christie said he’d reconsider after meeting with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and some version of the tunnel may be salvaged.
But who can doubt that, as Maine governor, Paul LePage would follow a similar course?
LePage says he’s opposed to the $9.7 million Land for Maine’s Future bond on the Nov. 2 ballot. Over the years, well over 60 percent of the voters have supported these bonds, and they enjoy strong bipartisan support in the Legislature.
He also says, if you take him literally, that he doesn’t support bonding for transportation projects. Transportation bonds (originally highway bonds) go back 80 years, and voters haven’t turned one down in 50 years.
Their support makes perfect sense. Roads today are built to last 40 years, and bridges at least 80. They are expensive long-term investments that can reliably be supported by the 10-year borrowing cycle Maine uses (most states use 20 or even 30-year bonds.) Paying for all this construction out of current revenues makes no financial sense, and would simply increase the backlog of substandard roads and bridges that now hinders the state’s economic growth.
It would be hard to find an economist of any stripe who would argue that transportation bonds are a bad idea. Yet LePage says they are.
Voters are undoubtedly frustrated, and want government to do more to get the economy moving again. Decisions like Gov. Christie’s and promises like Paul LePage’s will simply make things worse.
In financial affairs, you get what you pay for. In politics, you get what you vote for. Before casting their ballots, Mainers should consider that timeless truth.