Dems ‘challenge’ gov on eve of speech
A backdrop of partisanship to Gov. Paul LePage’s first State of the State speech was unfurled Monday as Democrats challenged the chief executive to tone down his rhetoric and offer solutions less driven by “extreme” ideology.
Democratic House and Senate leaders, flanked by more than two dozen other members from the legislative minority, delivered their message as the governor prepared for tonight’s speech before a joint legislative session and statewide radio and TV audience.
“Too much time has been spent on distractions,” said Rep. Emily Ann Cain of Orono, the House Democratic leader. “ Democrats came together last year to call on the governor and Republicans to prioritize job creation and the economy. Instead, we’ve had a year of distractions, blame and extreme ideology.”
Democrats took shots at the Republican governor’s positions on health care, energy and voting rights issues. They took particular aim at his proposed cuts in MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program.
LePage’s budget calls for cutting benefits for childless adults, making eligibility standards tougher for parents and reducing prescription drug, mental health and other benefits because he says taxpayers can no longer afford to pay for them.
The governor also has suggested he’d close public schools May 1 if lawmakers don’t accept his cuts to free up money to pay for MaineCare services if they aren’t scaled back.
“ He threatened to close schools when what we need most is a plan to increase access to higher education,” Cain said. School management officials have questioned whether the governor has the power to unilaterally close schools.
The Republican governor’s speech, which was being refined Monday, is expected to dwell heavily on education, energy, the economy “ and how to kick-start it,” said his spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett.
LePage aide Brent Littlefield said the speech also will focus on finding ways to assist in job creation as well as dealing with ongoing budget problems that the governor inherited.
“ Clearly the governor is extremely focused on job growth and economic growth. That has always been his number No. 1 focus. It will continue to be his No. 1 focus,” Littlefield said.
While labeling the bulk of the Democrats’ comments “disappointing,” Bennett said their calls for policies to reduce energy costs shows there are some areas of common ground.
“This is something we definitely agree on, though how we get there might be different,” Bennett said.
Up to now, the governor has spoken about lowering energy prices by relying more on natural gas and Canadian power, and opposing a proposed referendum initiative that would require that at least 20 percent of Maine’s electricity come from renewable energy sources, such as wind, tidal and solar by 2020.
Senate Democratic Leader Barry Hobbins of Saco said Monday the best way to lower costs is through energy efficiency and investment in renewable energy. But Democrats said they had no caucus position on the renewable energy initiative.
Responding to the Democrats’ criticisms, Bennett said the state’s unemployment rate has dropped since LePage became governor and that income tax reductions favored by LePage will result in 70,000 lower-income -people having their taxes eliminated.
“It’s unfortunate that the day before the governor has a chance to speak, they want to cast aspersions on him, the way he has dealt with some of the challenges that have come before us, and the opportunity to change the complexion of the state of Maine,” said Assistant Republican House Leader Andre Cushing III of Hampden. “To me, anytime you throw dirt, you lose ground.”