AUGUSTA — Democratic lawmakers on Monday launched a volley of pre-emptive rhetoric against Gov. Paul LePage, urging the governor to shelve his combative tone during his State of the State address.
The news conference was unusual given that the minority party typically waits until after the State of State to respond to an address that often contains new policy initiatives. The timing of the media event was questioned by Republicans, who wondered if the event was designed to provoke a reaction from LePage when he addresses the Legislature on Tuesday evening.
Regardless, the political sparring that took place Monday reflected a partisan tone that hangs over the current legislative session and one that is certain to amplify as an important election approaches.
Democrats are expected to run against LePage during an election that could shift the balance of power in the Legislature. That left some Republicans wondering why Democrats were calling for the governor to become more collaborative.
"I don't want to speak ill of anyone over there," House majority whip Rep. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, said. "But, if they did this to try to incite comments from (LePage) tomorrow that are confrontational, I think it would be unfortunate to try and manipulate the chief executive that way."
Democrats said they hoped LePage would shun his "extreme ideology and negativity" and propose "real solutions" to improve the state's economic climate.
"Too much time has been spent on distractions, on needless fighting, on baseless attacks, and on extreme policies that don’t create jobs, that don’t help working families and don’t strengthen our economy," said House minority leader Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono.
The news conference was attended by more than two dozen Democratic lawmakers. Democratic leaders stressed the governor's failure to create jobs, the state's loss of 4,400 jobs and a stagnant business climate.
Cain, who has said LePage and the GOP "left jobs on the table" when it shunned bonding last year, stressed the need for infrastructure spending.
"When our economy needed a shot in the arm, the governor and Republicans held public investment hostage, stalled our work on proven energy efficiency programs, tried to limit voting rights, made health care more expensive for many Mainers and ignored critical work force training initiatives that would help get more Maine people back to work," Cain said in a statement.
Assistant minority leader Rep. Teresea Hayes, D-Buckfield, said the governor may have contributed to the state's stagnant economic progress by frequently highlighting or exaggerating Maine's problems.
"The chief executive should be the promoter in chief," Hayes said. "Instead the governor and his allies have taken every opportunity to degrade our state."
Adrienne Bennett, the governor's spokeswoman, said the Democrats' critique was hypocritical and factually inaccurate. She highlighted a recent "productive" meeting between LePage and lead Democrats last Friday during which both sides talked about progress on the governor's proposed $220 million cuts at the Department of Health and Human Services.
“To come back 72 hours later and bash the governor, it’s just not productive," Bennett said. "They are doing exactly what they don’t want us to do."
It's unclear what the governor will discuss during his address Tuesday night. However, his frequent meetings with energy companies suggest he is preparing to unveil to a new energy policy. He has also hinted that he'll introduce education legislation that could include a "modified school choice" proposal.
The governor has spoken frequently about the need to expand the state's capacity for natural gas. The administration has also backed a bill that would allow the quasi-governmental Finance Authority of Maine to consider natural gas infrastructure projects to qualify for state-backed bonds.
As a party, Democrats have yet to take a position on the governor's natural gas strategy, in part, they say, because they haven't seen the details of his proposal. Sen. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, said Monday that natural gas should be part of the state's energy portfolio along with other renewable sources such as wind and tidal power.
LePage has already spoken out against a citizens initiative that would increase a current mandate that power companies derive a certain percentage of electricity from renewable sources. The governor, who has called the policy "a scam," is expected to address his opposition to the initiative during his address.
Hobbins and other Democrats said the governor should not dismiss the state's investments in energy efficiency and renewables. They cited a Brookings Institution survey that showed Maine has exceeded the national average in renewable energy job creation. The study showed that the state has created 12,212 jobs from the clean energy sector, including energy efficiency programs.
"Initiatives and programs that put more money in the pockets of Maine people and business should not be threatened, instead we should help them thrive," Hobbins said.
On Tuesday, the legislative session starts at 5 p.m. The House and Senate will convene in the House chamber around 6:30 p.m. for a joint convention. LePage is expected to address lawmakers around 7 p.m.
The address will be televised live, starting at 7 p.m., on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.