Three months into his second term as governor, Paul LePage has made two things abundantly clear. He has no clear or consistent approach to policymaking, and he cannot be trusted to keep his word.
LePage was re-elected on promises to continue shrinking government and limiting the “welfare” — his all-encompassing word for much of what the state does, from health care to revenue sharing — that certain Mainers can access. Whatever you think of those pledges, he’s devoted little attention to them and instead leaps from issue to issue, as if he were more interested in dominating the news cycle than in getting anything done.
In doing so, he’s made it clear he doesn’t feel bound by the laws of Maine when they’re inconvenient to him, and if someone displeases him, they need to go — even where the positions involved aren’t appointed by, or responsible to, the governor.
One of the worst abuses by LePage involves the bond issue process. The state constitution lays out how this works. Both House and Senate must approve any borrowing proposals by two-thirds votes. The governor, as he does for all bills, can sign, veto or withhold his signature. Then the voters must ratify the bond issue by majority vote at referendum.
That’s it. Afterward, the state treasurer issues the bonds at a time convenient to the state and at the request of agencies for which the money is designated. The governor signs the bond warrant, which indicates all is legally in order.
LePage has used this technical requirement as a reason to hold bonds hostage. They’re issued only when he thinks they should be, not in accordance with the law and the constitution. As a legal claim, this is as flimsy as they come, yet no one has challenged LePage since he started re-vetoing bonds in 2011, claiming no bonds should be issued because the state was too deeply in debt. It’s a claim he never substantiated, for the simple reason that it’s false. By any reasonable standard, Maine’s general obligation debt is modest, less than half the ceiling set during the 1980s.
LePage then moved to blocking bonds because he claimed the state needed first to pay off MaineCare debt to hospitals. He cited that reason for holding up funding to Land for Maine’s Future, a popular land conservation program that gets all its state funding through bond issues. When the hospital debt was paid, he told the state treasurer to issue the bonds “on a expedited basis.”
He obviously rescinded those instructions, for 18 months later, the bonds are still unissued, and after telling reporters he didn’t know why, the governor imposed a new condition: No money for public lands until the Legislature approves more timber cutting on state-owned land. How many times can LePage hold up a bond issue? Why should anyone trust him when he says they now can proceed?
It’s not only financial issues where LePage exceeds his authority. In his first term, with the assistance of Bruce Poliquin, then state treasurer, he hounded out the director of the Maine State Housing Authority, Dale McCormick, by converting what were essentially policy disputes into suggestions something scandalous was going on.
This year, he did the same to John Fitzsimmons, for 30 years head of the Community College System, over disputes LePage didn’t even bother to make public. His position, like McCormick’s, reports to a board of trustees, not the governor.
Fitzsimmons, near retirement age, may have tired of fighting LePage, who also had proposed cutting the community college budget. But in leaving, he gave the unfortunate impression that bullying works.
Whether vetoing Medicaid for 100,000 Mainers, a federally paid program many Republican governors have accepted; bringing the county jail system to its knees because the governor doesn’t like what the Legislature has done, but won’t propose any solution; or defying voters on legally authorized spending, LePage gets his way because few seem willing to stand up to him.
Dubious actions by the governor can be challenged in court, not meekly accepted. The Legislature can act to restore the integrity of the bonding process, which is tarnished in a way we haven’t seen since Richard Nixon impounded money legally appropriated by Congress.
And other public officials can stop bending to LePage’s whims simply because, as evidence abundantly shows, he browbeats people rather than trying to persuade or negotiate. A few have, but not enough.
This is not leadership, but coercion. And it is not the way we do things in Maine.
Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 30 years. He can be reached at [email protected]