AUGUSTA — Fans and critics of Gov. Paul LePage can agree on one thing for certain: The firebrand Republican is unlikely to go quietly as he wraps up his final year as the state’s chief executive.
In the last few months alone, LePage has flexed his executive muscles by shutting down wind power development, unilaterally closing a state prison and stifling the rulemaking process for expanding access to an anti-overdose medication.
On Tuesday, LePage will deliver his final State of the State address to the Legislature, which is near evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. What he says, how he says it and the goals he lays out will be a prelude for what Mainers can expect from their governor – a man who is seldom out of the headlines for long – in the months ahead.
Lance Dutson, a Republican political consultant and longtime LePage critic, said Mainers should expect everything but a subdued and humbled governor who will exit the Blaine House quietly.
“This governor really likes attention, he’s like an ill-behaved child that doesn’t get enough attention from his parents,” Dutson said. “When he is not in the newspapers it bothers him.”
But Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, the House minority leader and a longtime LePage ally who is running for governor this year, expects LePage to continue his trademark efforts to reform welfare, lower taxes and reduce the cost of energy – either in concert with the Legislature or unilaterally, as necessary.
“I think so long as the governor is in office he is going to fully carry out the functions of his job as he sees fit,” Fredette said. “I don’t think you are going to see someone who is going to sort of fade away into the night.”
LePage’s ability to score major policy wins could be diminished in a year when the entire Legislature is up for election and several top lawmakers from his own party are vying to replace him as governor in 2018. Dutson said LePage may resort to dramatic actions to gain attention and appeal to his conservative base.
“The truth is at this point he’s a lame duck and his ability to impact legislation in meaningful ways becomes less and less,” Dutson said. “The Legislature is put in a very interesting position of either getting rolled over by a guy on the backside of his political career or just standing up to him.”
Dutson said a failure of the Legislature to stand up to LePage will put lawmakers in a weaker position in terms of dealing with the next governor, regardless of which party wins the Blaine House.
Paul Mills, a Farmington attorney, author and longtime Maine political historian, points out that LePage, like his predecessors John Baldacci and Angus King, is not running for another office as his second term winds down.
And while LePage will likely make more history in 2018 because of his personal political style, the design of the lawmaking process is such that the second session of the Legislature doesn’t lend itself to major policy initiatives.
“That’s why we have two-year budgets, so the final year is more of a winding-down year in any event.” Mills said in an email.
But LePage seems far from winding down.
Just hours after voters in November gave first-in-the-nation ballot-box approval to Medicaid expansion, LePage vowed to delay, if not derail, the law that would provide health care to as many as 70,000 low-income residents of the state.
“Medicaid expansion will be ruinous to Maine’s budget,” LePage said at the time. “Therefore, my administration will not implement Medicaid expansion until it has been fully funded by the Legislature at the levels DHHS has calculated, and I will not support increasing taxes on Maine families, raiding the rainy day fund or reducing services to our elderly or disabled.”
The governor also has blocked legislation that would implement another voter-approved law to legalize recreational marijuana, and it’s possible that no significant action will happen on that front until Maine has a new governor.
He also stalled implementation of laws meant to increase access to the opioid overdose antidote, naloxone.
In January, LePage, a longtime critic of wind energy, issued an executive order prohibiting state agencies from issuing permits “related to wind turbines” in western and coastal Maine, on coastal islands and along “significant avian migratory pathways.” The moratorium would remain in place until a new Maine Wind Energy Advisory Commission – which will have meetings that are closed to the public and not subject to Maine’s Freedom of Access Act – reports on wind power’s economic impact and recommends potential regulatory changes.
And just days before his last State of the State address, LePage ignited a political firestorm and drew sharp rebukes from many of his fellow Republicans when he emptied Washington County’s Downeast Correctional Facility despite lawmakers’ repeated votes to keep the prison open.
LePage also can be expected to continue his unannounced travels outside the state or even the country. On Monday, a day ahead of his speech, LePage popped up in Washington, D.C., for the second time in as many weeks. A photo on Twitter showed LePage attending a White House meeting with Trump and other governors to discuss the president’s infrastructure plan.
“I am all in for modernized permitting & public-private partnerships to invest for the future, expand broadband, create jobs & grow our economy,” the tweet from LePage’s official account said.
LePage made numerous trips to Washington in 2017, and during one three-month period racked up more than $30,000 in taxpayer-funded travel-related expenses, including stays at plush hotels such as the Trump International. The frequent trips fueled speculation that LePage was angling for a job in Trump’s administration.
It’s unclear whether the governor will return to the talk radio circuit that became a weekly staple of his administration in its first six years. After a hiatus of several months, LePage resurfaced on the airwaves in January but chose a more mainstream venue as a guest on Maine Calling, a call-in show on Maine Public hosted by Jennifer Rooks.
When asked to reflect on what he’s learned about himself over the last seven years, LePage said, “I learned that it’s much easier to run a company than it is to run a government. I’m a much better businessman than I am a politician.”
Garrett Murch, a spokesman for the Maine Republican Party, expects that LePage will highlight what he sees as his achievements in his speech Tuesday night, but he will likely continue to face criticism from the media.
“Some say there are only two certainties – death and taxes – but there are two more,” Murch said. “Tomorrow, Gov. LePage will list his administration’s significant accomplishments and they will be panned by many in the media.”
In a Friday, Jan. 8, 2016 file photo, Maine Gov. Paul LePage speaks at a news conference at the State House, in Augusta, Maine. LePage will give his final State of the State address Tuesday night.