It isn’t easy to find out what Gov. Paul LePage thinks about many issues. He doesn’t hold regular press conferences, gives few interviews, and his staff steers him away from further impromptu encounters with reporters, such as the one last year in which he made the nationally notorious suggestion to the NAACP that they “kiss my butt.”
So the governor’s monthly “Capitol for a Day” visits around the state, in emulation of the milder-mannered John McKernan, his Republican predecessor, have become important ways to read the tea leaves. And his recent appearance in Newport has been generating news for more than a week.
At the forefront was the remark that state employees are “corrupt,” a characterization most governors might want to amend. It’s one thing to attack the union – a page from the national GOP playbook -- and quite another to slam people who work for you. Instead, LePage doubled down, writing to state employees to say that they were not all disloyal, but many have been “corrupted by the bureaucracy.”
Staff attempts claiming that LePage wasn’t talking about criminal behavior are hard to square with the plain meaning of the word, nor is he likely to heed requests from GOP legislators that he apologize. This is not a man given to second thoughts.
Almost lost in that furor was his remark that public schools have “failed miserably” in preparing students for jobs. Surely it was possible to make the point without offending every schoolteacher in Maine.
Even farther below the radar was another answer that might be even more troubling, given its potential effect on public policy.
LePage was asked about energy prices, and quickly reverted to his campaign statement that Maine electricity rates are above the national average. This is true, but it’s been true for 30 years, and LePage never mentions that Maine’s rates are also the lowest in New England – or that they’ve just dropped 10 percebt, thanks largely to plunging natural gas prices. He might even take credit; a welcome bit of positive thinking.
Instead, LePage made another abrupt turn and blamed windpower for high electric rates.
Here’s what he said: “We have some groups in Maine that are greedy. We have people in Maine who say that wind is the answer. And it is the answer for people who lobby for wind. Wind is costing us dearly. It’s costing us jobs, it’s costing us investment and it’s costing us big.”
Unlike the general point about energy costs, every single part of that statement is untrue. It appears that the governor of Maine doesn’t understand how electric rates are set, and how price competition works.
At the time when any new generating source comes on line, it must match the “market clearing price,” which in Maine has been set by natural gas. The wind turbines now spinning on Kibby Mountain, Stetson Ridge, Spruce Mountaint and a dozen other sites all met that test when they were approved for contracts by the Public Utilities Commission. The plummeting price of natural gas has, in fact, slowed wind development, even though all its costs are upfront, and the “fuel” is free, unlike natural gas, where prices will rise again as industry switches from expensive oil to cheaper gas.
Instead of “costing us jobs” wind projects have created them. Instead of “costing us investment,” it’s put $1 billion into the Maine economy, and could provide another $1 billion over the next three years, now that the technology has matured and Maine has become the industry’s Northeast leader.
Perhaps it’s just that LePage is jealous of Angus King, former wind developer and current U.S. Senate candidate, who’s a more successful businessman and a far more popular politician, and who LePage referred to in Newport as “king of the wind cartel.”
Still, it’s startling that, in his desire to find someone to blame for the state’s recently-dismal jobs and income growth, LePage not only fudges the facts but inverts them.
Just 16 months in office, LePage has reached the Humpty Dumpty phase. In "Alice in Wonderland," the heroine has a brief debate with the nursery rhyme character.
“When I use a word,” Humpty says, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” When Alice questions whether words can really be stretched that far, Humpty replies, “The question is which is to be master – that’s all.”
And that does seem be the issue. Inhabitants of the next “Capitol for a Day” had better be ready.