“As your governor, you’re going to be seeing a lot of me on the front page …”

You don’t need a fact-check on that one. From his admitted “big mouth” to his attacks on the legacy policies of Democratic rule, Paul LePage seems to be on Page 1 every day.

For 16 years, Maine’s governors — Baldacci and King — stood slightly to the left-of-middle on most issues and rarely made news with off-hand commentaries. 

Baldacci, the Democrat, is a lifetime politician, with that hale-fellow- well-met personality that suited his profession. King, now a U. S. senator, is officially an independent, but caucuses with the Democrats. He is as charming as a Reagan, speaks as well as a network anchorman and comes dressed in L.L. Bean khaki.

Three years ago, voters changed direction and along came LePage, the linebacker-shaped former homeless Franco from Lewiston who does not turn his nose up at the tea party.

As longtime friend and Waterville car dealer Charlie Gaunce said of LePage: “I’d rather have a fighter in there than a marshmallow … he’s not a great orator. We don’t need that.”

From education to energy, welfare to health care, the governor’s proposals have shaken up Augusta — which is one reason he makes the news almost every day.

In the past, the theme that ran through many of the policies from governors and the Legislature might be best summed up in a favorite term from their tenures: “protect our most vulnerable citizens.” 

While conservatives like LePage say they also want to protect the needy, they put a greater emphasis on responsibility and accountability, which showed up in proposals such as letter grades for public schools. Based on standardized tests and other criteria, schools are graded A-F by LePage’s Department of Education. 

He saw it as a way to get attention to what he has said is a core problem in the state’s economy — Maine’s public schools are serving administrators and teacher unions well, but not teachers and students. If parents hold schools accountable for a poor grade, “the schools improve,” he said. 

It will take some time to know if he is right, but school officials, education groups, Democrats and editorials railed again the program, using terms like “labeling” “threatening,” “shameful,” “faulty” and “uncompassionate.” 

But grading schools isn’t just a conservative fad: About four months after LePage’s grading system was announced, another political figure — President Barack Obama — proposed grading the country’s colleges to help parents and students know if the money they spent produced good results.

LePage said one of the two biggest disappointments so far was his failure to pass another education accountability bill.  

The Legislature’s education committee unanimously rejected LD 1524. The bill would have required public colleges to track the number of remedial courses needed by incoming high school students in math and language arts. 

LePage has said, for example, that 54 percent of the students going into community colleges need such help (a statistic that has been confirmed by the college system). The originating high schools would have to pay for those remedial classes if LePage’s bill had passed.

“Our education is not a bad education,” he said. “We just haven’t ticked up, and everyone else has.”

That assessment seems to have been confirmed by an expert interviewed by the Bangor Daily News July 27 last year after a Harvard study ranked Maine public schools next to last for rate of improvement of the 41 participating states. 

Paul Peterson, professor of government at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, said, “Maine is one of those states that hasn’t shown much gain over” the last 20 years.

Democrats and advocacy groups never denied that Maine’s schools needed to be better, but their ideas vs. LePage’s tell the bigger story of how each side sees the role of government.

Democrats proposed legislation to give more aid and encouragement to schools doing poorly, rather than calling then out.

LePage and his supporters don’t mind if some of those on the public payroll feel insulted.

“It’s all about accountability,” LePage said. 

To conservatives like LePage, accountability goes hand-in-hand with personal responsibility. His legislation, for example, to put a lifetime cap of five years on Temporary Aid to Needy families (TANF), fulfilled a campaign promise to limit welfare.

Other welfare changes included drug testing for welfare recipients already convicted of drug offenses and denying TANF and food stamp benefits to immigrants who were legal residents. Maine was among only a handful of states to provide substantial benefits to legal resident immigrants.

According to the LePage administration, the limits resulted in a 41 percent decrease in TANF benefits between the bill’s enactment and now.

But that decrease hasn’t meant demand for help has disappeared. The state’s cities and towns say LePage’s reforms simply shifted the cost of public assistance to them and they’re now bearing the burden of helping out poor families through General Assistance, which is funded in part by local taxpayers.

LePage considers his second failure to be another welfare change he wanted — but didn’t get.

LePage — with support from a handful of members of both parties — wanted the state to get federal permission to ban the use of food stamps to buy soft drinks and snack food.

The bill, LD 1411, was killed — and in the process more was revealed about the fundamental differences between LePage and prevailing liberal sentiment in the Legislature. While he wanted to require more nutritious food purchases by people on public assistance, the Senate Democrats wanted to teach people to eat healthier — but not require anything.

That would avoid stigmatizing the state’s poor residents, said Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, according to the Bangor Daily News.

“Treating people who are poor differently, I think, undermines their humanity and undermines our humanity for treating them that way,” she said.

The loss seemed to pain LePage.

“Losing that nutrition thing was a heartbreak,” he said. “We failed.”

Two staff members present for the interview interrupted and said the failure wasn’t his — it was the Legislature’s. 

“No,” he shot back at them. “My administration failed. This is where the buck stops.”

Continue reading Chapter 6: LePage wants cheaper energy for Maine

Naomi Schalit contributed to this story. Disclosure: Severin Beliveau, who is quoted in this story, contributed $250 to the Center in 2013. The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, non-profit news service based in Hallowell. Email: [email protected] Web: www.pinetreewatchdog.org.

About the author: John Christie is the co-founder, publisher and senior reporter of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting. He has covered local, state and national politics as a reporter, editor and publisher at newspapers in Maine, Massachusetts and Florida and holds a BA in political science from the University of New Hampshire.

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