AUGUSTA — The governor’s annual State of the State address can be a fairly predictable speech.
This year is a little different.
Gov. Paul LePage will deliver his first State of the State on Tuesday evening in the midst of a budget crisis and a stalled economy.
He is sure to use the opportunity to prod lawmakers to move forward, quickly, with his controversial proposal to cut spending for health and human services. He has said that if the Legislature doesn’t trim about $121 million from this fiscal year’s budget within the next week or two, the state will run out of money this spring.
Lawmakers and political experts aren’t sure what the governor will say next.
“He doesn’t play by the same playbook as most people,” said Senate Minority Leader Barry Hobbins, D-Saco.
LePage is known for his unpredictability behind a microphone.
Last year in his inaugural address and his first budget address — new governors don’t give a formal State of the State — LePage often strayed from his script. And just last week, he told an audience in Lewiston that he will close the state’s schools if the Legislature doesn’t pass his budget cuts. It wasn’t clear whether he actually could close schools, and lawmakers from both parties said it won’t come to that.
If LePage doesn’t follow the standard script for a State of the State, that could be a good thing, said Christian Potholm, a professor of government at Bowdoin College.
“(The address) has, in the last 20 years, really devolved from something where there was a hard-hitting message into something that is really a laundry list of people and programs,” Potholm said. “It can be a very important speech, but it almost never is.”
Potholm said Tuesday’s speech gives the governor a chance to move the discussion beyond balancing the budget, and even to give a glimpse beyond the state’s economic troubles.
Maine’s unemployment rate stands at about 7 percent, while another 15 percent of Mainers have stopped looking for work or are underemployed, according to the Maine Department of Labor. Job growth has been essentially flat for the past year, and that is not expected to change in 2012, economists say.
“It’s not a good time to be a governor anywhere,” Potholm said. “The (speech) gives him a chance to give some vision and some hope and some positive aspect of the future if certain things can happen now.”
LePage has taken every recent opportunity to push lawmakers toward a vote for his budget cuts, and he’s not expected to pass up this one. The speech comes in the middle of a critical week for his budget, which would cut health care services for 65,000 people, as well as a variety of other health-related services.
“He might go right after us and try to chide us on his proposal for MaineCare, or he might extend an olive branch,” said Hobbins, the Senate’s Democratic leader.
Hobbins said he has higher hopes for an olive branch than expectations for one. “He’s got an aggressive style, and it’s turned out to be somewhat effective,” he said of the governor.
House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, said the budget is clearly an important topic now.
“I suppose he will tell us time is of the essence,” Nutting said. “I think he wants people to understand this is an issue that, the longer we wait to act, the more it’s going to cost us.”
Nutting also expects to hear about plans for improving education and reducing the cost of energy.
Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said he expects the governor will talk about the progress made in the past year toward reducing taxes, debt and health care costs, as well as the governor’s plans for keeping up the momentum and creating jobs.
Sen. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, said he hopes the governor will get beyond the budget crisis. Martin and LePage clashed earlier this month after LePage publicly called for the Legislature to hurry.
“The budget is secondary. We have to balance the budget. We have no choice,” Martin said. “How is this state moving forward in this economy? What are we doing to bring jobs to Maine?”
House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, also said she hopes to hear a positive message about Maine’s economic future, and not more talk about cutting health care.
“The reality is, for people who are older, people who live in rural areas, people who are poor, people who are sick, the state of Maine is a harder pace to live in than it was a year ago,” Cain said. “We’re still waiting for the economic agenda.”
Assistant Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said he hopes the governor will use the speech to build support and get more Mainers behind him, rather than focusing on more polarizing proposals.
“I think it’s important what he says and how he says it,” he said.
Alfond said he is sure that many other Mainers will be waiting to hear what LePage says.
“Whether you voted for him or you didn’t,” Alfond said, “I think people are very curious about what he’s going to do in his second year in office.”
John Richardson — 620-7016