I had the oddest feeling watching TV as Gov. Paul LePage entered the well of the Maine House of Representatives for his State of the State address on Tuesday.
It took me a while to identify it, it had been so long since I had felt something like that on previous occasions.
Then I recognized it. I was proud of the guy.
Yeah, I know. You read the papers, you listen to the news, you know how you are supposed to react. Well, I have never reacted the way I was told about him, from the time I first met him during candidate interviews at the Portland Press Herald, when I was a member of that paper’s editorial board.
I’d listened to a lot of candidates over the years, some slick and polished and well-rehearsed, but when they spoke I disagreed with everything they said. Others were plainer and less credentialed, and some of those were cranks or gadflies, while others were sincere but not very well qualified for the offices they were seeking.
LePage was plain and plain-spoken, sure enough, but it was also clear he was a man of substance — not the college-bred kind, but the hands-on-the-tiller kind, a man who kept the promises he made and knew what he had to do to keep them.
So, I was impressed, and even though my advocacy wasn’t enough to get the board to endorse him (it seldom was over the years I was there), I knew who I was going to vote for in the primary to come. And in the general election, if it came to that.
And I did, both times, and both times (to my surprise) he won.
Thus, on Tuesday night, as Gov. LePage walked down the aisle to give a speech wrapping up his and his party’s accomplishments in the past year and laying out their plans for the year to come, I was proud of them, and him.
It seems very unlikely that, had either of his opponents won the Blaine House race, or the Democrats continued to control the Legislature, we would have heard them justifiably boast of accomplishments that include “a right turn on the road to economic recovery.”
The emphasis is mine. So is the satisfaction. Laissez les bon temps rouler, as they say in New Orleans, was my reaction as our Republican governor (le bon mot, as they say in Waterville) listed the happy news:
— A bipartisan effort resulted in the largest tax cut in state history;
— It not only cut the top rate for individuals but took 70,000 families off the income tax rolls;
— These were not “tax cuts for the rich.” That’s because “in Maine the top income tax rate kicks in at an income of under $20,000 per person,” and “no matter what anybody says, $20,000 is not rich.”
— The result is that “two-thirds of Maine’s hardworking taxpayers will receive tax relief next year. Maine families will have more money for heating oil, for groceries, and gas for their vehicle(s).”
— Coming into office with a $4.1 billion shortfall in the pension system, the new majority cut that back by more than $1.7 billion (45 percent), “while protecting retirees’ future pensions through sensible reforms. You can’t pay a pension with an I.O.U.”
Beyond tax and pension reforms, Maine is the 41st state to authorize charter schools, a long-delayed improvement (held off for years due to Democratic ties to teacher unions).
— General purpose aid to K-12 education rose by $63 million.
— A 5-year cap was placed on welfare benefits, workers’ compensation insurance premiums have fallen 7 percent, and “unemployment is also down, and lower than the national average.”
— The Maine Department of Transportation saved more than $100 million without a loss to ongoing projects, and “red tape was reduced. We are not here to tell Maine job creators what they can’t do; we are here to help them find out what they can do.”
— LePage spoke proudly of “providing superior customer service to all Mainers” as “the first job of state government. We are changing the culture of state agencies from ‘No’ to ‘Can Do.’ Together, these things add up to one reality: Maine is Open for Business.”
— The governor said the word is getting out, with dozens of businesses committing to investments totaling $100 million, “with plans to create more than 1,000 new, good paying jobs.”
— He pointed to Great Northern Paper in Millinocket shows and Carbonite in Lewiston as examples of “jobs brought back from overseas.”
LePage went on to focus on welfare and Medicaid reform, citing as a goal “moving Maine closed to the national average” for such aid, a worthy objective for a small and not-very prosperous state in the short run.
In the longer run, restoring prosperity by lowering the cost of energy (by letting the free market, not political connections and “Big Green” subsidies for low-production boutique-style projects decide what projects are worthwhile) and reducing regulatory burdens is the goal.
He decried a tax system that so burdens retirees that they are willing to spend “six months and one day” in Florida or other states without an income tax, depriving Maine of the money they would spend if they chose to spend more time here.
“Last week,” he said, “the Wall Street Journal reported that in 2009, Maine had the 9th highest tax burden in the country. New Hampshire was the 6th lowest. Even ‘Taxachusetts’ was lower than Maine.”
And he noted that Maine’s average income is nearly $15,000 lower than New Hampshire’s, rightly asking why “lines on a map” can make such a difference. The answer, as everyone knows, is not the lines, but who makes the rules on either side of them.
Now, the rule-making authority on this side of the line has changed, and thus other things are changing too.
If this keeps up, we may have to start taking “Dirigo” literally again.
M.D. Harmon is a retired journalist and a free-lance writer. He can be contacted at: