AUGUSTA – Republican Gov. Paul LePage delivered his third State of the State address Tuesday night, using the opportunity to outline his plans to promote private-sector job creation with “Open for Business Zones”, reform Maine’s welfare system, and crack down on drug-related crime.
“I love my state. I am proud to call myself a Mainer. I want every Mainer to succeed and prosper,” said LePage. “But Maine is at a crossroads. We have huge challenges.”
“Higher taxes and bloated government have not improved our lives. Higher energy costs have not attracted major investments to Maine. More welfare has not led to prosperity. It has not broken the cycle of generational poverty,” LePage said. “We cannot return to the same failed policies of the past 40 years. We are better than that. We must be bold. We must have the courage to make the tough decisions.”
“We can do better. We will do better.”
The State of the State
The State of the State address is tradition rooted in Article 5 of Maine’s Constitution, which states, “[The governor] shall from time to time give the Legislature information of the condition of the State, and recommend to their consideration such measures, as he may judge expedient.”
Gov. William King, Maine’s first governor, delivered the first state of the state address on June 2, 1820, to a Legislature then-located in Portland. Having recently guided the people of Maine through a divorce from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, King opened by remarking on remarkable fact of Maine’s formation: “A great and powerful Commonwealth voluntarily yielding up her jurisdiction over a large portion of her citizens and territory, over whom she held an undisputed and rightful sovereignty — These citizens peaceably and quietly forming themselves into a new and independent State, framing and adopting with unexampled harmony and unanimity a constitution embracing all the essential principles of liberty and good government. These are events, which constitute a memorable era in the history of our state, — events for which you no doubt as well, as our fellow citizens in general, will acknowledge with gratitude that divine goodnefs, which directs and controls the concerns of men.”
Welfare Reform and Expansion
LePage let on last year that welfare reform would be a major priority of his in 2014. There are three bills pending in the current session that would enact changes to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.
The first two bills were originally introduced by House Minority Leader Ken Fredette (R-Newport), but Democrats in control of Legislative Council rejected them as attempts by the GOP to “vilify the poor.”
One would establish a front-end work search requirement similar to requirements in other states. If passed, those seeking cash welfare assistance would have to demonstrate that they have first applied for a minimum of three jobs. Fredette’s other bill would tighten up catch-all exemptions in the Maine statute that allow welfare recipients to skip out on job-training programs for almost any reason. Specific details have yet to emerge regarding the third welfare reform proposal, but LePage said tonight it will likely involve geographic restrictions on the use of EBT cards and other limitations.
But LePage’s message on welfare was less policy talk and more cultural. He spoke of the culture of welfare dependence that Maine’s generous welfare system has spawned: “In 1935 during the height of the Great Depression, FDR—the father of the New Deal—warned against welfare dependency. He said: “To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit … The federal government must and shall quit this business of relief.”
“Big, expensive welfare programs riddled with fraud and abuse threaten our future,” said LePage. “Too many Mainers are dependent on government handouts.”
“Government dependency has not—and never will—create prosperity.”
On Medicaid, LePage firmly reiterated his resistance to expanding eligibility for the welfare program to hundreds of thousands of able-bodied young adults.
“Open for Business Zones”
Job creation was a major theme of the governor’s address. LePage pointed to Maine’s unemployment rate of 6.2 percent — the lowest since 2008 — as evidence of his policies’ success and named several businesses that have recently expanded.
“Having spent my career in business, I know what grows an economy,” he said.“But there is a major push by many in this chamber to maintain the status quo.”
“Liberal politicians are taking us down a dangerous path—a path that is unsustainable. They want a massive expansion of Maine’s welfare state,” he said. “Expanded welfare does not break the cycle of generational poverty. It breaks the budget.”
Perhaps the most interesting – and controversial – of LePage’s proposals is a measure that would create geographic areas where workers cannot be compelled to join a labor union as a condition of employment. The so-called “Open for Business Zones” would also provide discounted electricity rates, employment tax benefits and access to capital to companies that invest more than $50 million in the state and create more than 1,500 jobs.
“Employees in these zones will not be forced to join labor unions,” he said. “They will not be forced to pay dues or fees to labor unions. This will allow Maine to compete with right-to-work states.”
LePage has said repeatedly throughout his tenure that businesses are discouraged from coming to Maine because we are not a “right-to-work” state, meaning labor unions exercise extraordinary power over job creation.
For LePage, making Maine a right-to-work state would be a major job creation initiative. If the workplace freedom zones can make it through the Democrat-controlled Legislature – and that’s a big if – his view will be put to the test.
Rep. Lawrence Lockman (R-Amherst) introduced a bill that would have ended compulsory union membership last year, but it failed to pass in a Legislature controlled by pro-labor boss Democrats.
“Our proposal combines the kinds of incentives that other states have used successfully to attract major investment,” said LePage. “We must be able to compete with them. We must be bold.”
Drug Crime Crackdown
William King told the Legislators of his day “the establishment and organization of a supreme judicial Court will require your early attention.” In much the same manner, LePage called on the Legislature to expand the state’s judicial branch by adding judgeships, prosecutors and enforcement agents dedicated exclusively to drug-related crime.
“While some are spending all their time trying to expand welfare, we are losing the war on drugs,” said LePage.
At least one other New England governor has focused on fighting drug addiction and drug-related crime. In his recent state of the state address, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, devoted his entire speech to the crisis of “the rising tide of drug addiction and drug-related crime spreading across Vermont.”
LePage painted an alarming portrait of Maine’s drug problem, a “troubling epidemic” that is “tearing at the social fabric of our communities.”
“927 drug-addicted babies were born last year in Maine. That’s more than 7 percent of all births,” he said. “Each baby addicted to drugs creates a lifelong challenge for our health care system, schools and social services. The average cost for drug-addicted births in 2009 was $53,000. Welfare programs covered nearly 80 percent of those increased charges.”
“It is unacceptable to me that a baby should be born affected by drugs,” he said.
LePage’s policy proposal would add four new special drug prosecutors and four new judges to sit in enhanced drug courts in Presque Isle, Bangor, Lewiston and Portland. Additionally, his plan calls for adding 14 agents to Maine’s Drug Enforcement Agency.
Said LePage, “We must hunt down dealers and get them off the streets. We must protect our citizens from drug-related crimes and violence. We must save our babies from lifelong suffering.”
Read the governor’s address in its entirety here:
Editor, Maine Wire