AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal for state spending cuts that would end Medicaid services for 65,000 Mainers is the type of major change that needs a Republican Legislature if it is to be adopted.

That means the Republican governor must push his legislative agenda over the next four months or risk losing his window of opportunity, political observers said Wednesday.

The GOP will have majorities in the House and Senate for the four-month session that’s scheduled to run from January through April. In November’s elections, all 186 legislative seats will be open, giving Democrats a chance to take back the majorities they lost in 2010.

“This is (LePage’s) last chance to get things done before it’s possible the make-up of the Legislature changes,” said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine. “That’s something I’m sure is on his mind as he heads into this legislative session.”

On Tuesday, LePage proposed changes in the Department of Health and Human Services to close a projected $221 million deficit over the next 18 months. The proposal, which will go before lawmakers, would eliminate coverage for 65,000 people through MaineCare, the state’s version of Medicaid.

LePage’s spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the governor is proposing the changes now because there’s a fiscal crisis, not because it’s a good time politically.

“While it is a major overhaul, it’s absolutely necessary to do this now,” she said. “It can’t wait. That doesn’t have anything to do with who’s (in the Legislature) now or next year.”

A year from now, LePage may have an even stronger GOP majority to work with in the Legislature. Or, he could end up with Democrats controlling one or both chambers. Democrats are working to make that happen.

“You see already (Republicans) sense this is kind of their last hurrah,” said Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant. “Their thin legislative majorities are definitely in jeopardy, based on the number of seats they hold, (LePage’s) relative unpopularity, and the fact that it’s a presidential (election) year, when Democratic turnout will be strong.”

The Republican majorities are 78-72 in the House and 20-14 in the Senate. Each chamber has one independent member.

Political scientists say they expect the House to be vulnerable to a Democratic takeover in November, but note that the election is still nearly a year away.

If LePage can make his case for change to the public — overhauling MaineCare is one example — he can win political battles regardless of which party is in power next year, said Lance Dutson, executive director of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center and former spokesman for House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland.

“A lot of this stuff is pretty rational, but the case has to be made in a public way,” he said. “If (LePage) did that and didn’t retain Republican majorities, then he’s got the pressure of the public. The ability to articulate these points is really critical to the whole mix.”

That’s an approach LePage used with success while he was mayor of Waterville, where he worked with a Democratic city council. More than once, LePage made his case to the public to persuade Democrats to go along with his ideas.

In his 11 months as governor, he has received swift, harsh Democratic responses to many of his major proposals — including his plan for MaineCare.

Grant said he expects Republicans to support those cutbacks, as well as a bill to require voters to show photo identification at the polls and another to end the requirement that all state workers join a union or pay a portion of union dues, even if they are not members.

“This is going to be an intense session,” he said. “(Republicans) are going to push through all the sacred cows they have left.”

Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster said LePage will be a strong governor regardless of whether he has a Republican Legislature to back him. He said Democrats have lost so much ground in Maine that they will have a hard time winning votes in November.

“We’ve had a shift in Maine politics,” he said. “Blue collar workers no longer support Democrats. (LePage’s) agenda is well received across the state. People are ecstatic.”

Brewer, the UMaine professor, reads the electorate a little differently, citing voters’ decision in November to overturn a Republican-backed law to end same-day voter registration.

“That got smacked down by Maine voters by a massive level,” he said.

Knowing that 60 percent voted to overturn the law, Brewer said, some Republicans will pause before supporting similarly divisive issues in 2012.

Carol Weston, a former Republican lawmaker from Waldo County who’s now head of Americans for Prosperity-Maine, said it’s time to change MaineCare, regardless of what the future holds for the Legislature.

“There are two things at play,” she said. “Not just the fact that there is a majority of folks who want fiscal restraint, sustainability and smaller government, but there’s the reality of economics across the country as well as in Maine. That reality has to dictate some reform.”

Republican Mary Adams of Garland, a LePage supporter who has been a political activist since the 1970s, put it more bluntly.

“I hope Republicans will smarten up, all of them, and follow the leader,” she said. “We’ve got dumb Republicans as well as dumb Democrats. … They’ve got to go with (LePage) now.”

Susan Cover — 620-7015

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