AUGUSTA — A new Republican governor and GOP-controlled Legislature, a continuing economic slump and controversy in the Maine Turnpike Authority highlighted a fast and furious year in Maine politics.

The year started with big news on Jan. 5, when Gov. Paul R. LePage became the first Republican to take the oath of office since 1991.

The year is ending with an issue that will make headlines well into the new year: LePage’s proposal to cut Medicaid benefits for thousands of Mainers.

In between, voters rejected proposals for two new gambling facilities and overturned a law passed by the Legislature in June to end same-day voter registration. Lawmakers passed a series of tax cuts, made significant changes to teachers’ and state workers’ pensions, and reformed the state’s health insurance market.

With the next legislative session set to start Wednesday, here’s a recap of some notable events in Maine politics in 2011:

Rough start

The new governor made headlines more for his off-the-cuff comments than for his policy proposals.

In January, LePage caused a firestorm when he told the NAACP to “kiss my butt” when it criticized him for declining an invitation to a Martin Luther King celebration in Portland.

In February, he argued that the chemical bisphenol A, which is added to plastics, isn’t as dangerous as some environmental groups contend.

“The only thing that I’ve heard is if you take a plastic bottle and put it in the microwave and you heat it up, it gives off a chemical similar to estrogen,” he said. “So the worst case is some women may have little beards.”

That comment got him in trouble with environmental groups and women.

In March, news broke that LePage had ordered a pro-labor mural removed from the lobby of the Department of Labor’s headquarters in Augusta. The decision sparked outrage, and some protesters threatened to form a human chain to prevent the mural from being removed.

When asked about such protests, LePage told WCSH-TV: “I’d laugh at them, the idiots. That’s what I would do. Come on! Get over yourselves!”

LePage had the mural removed over a weekend and stored in the building. Litigation continues over whether he had a right to remove the artwork or violated the First Amendment rights of the artist.

GOP letter

LePage’s run of colorful comments led eight centrist Republican lawmakers to sign on to a letter to newspapers in April criticizing the governor for his behavior.

“As Republican senators, we all want Gov. LePage and his administration to succeed,” the letter said. “Yet, we feel compelled to express our discomfort and dismay with the tone and spirit of some of the remarks he has made. Were these isolated incidents, we would bite our collective tongues, because we are all human and make mistakes. But, unfortunately, they are not isolated but frequent.”

The two lead authors, Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, and Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, said they felt they were “continually diverted” from their goals of making the state more business-friendly. In particular, they mentioned LePage’s comment that he would “laugh at the idiots” who threatened to protest the mural’s removal.

That letter — and a private meeting between Republican lawmakers and LePage — seemed to stem the tide of negative publicity for a while.

Turnpike trouble

In late January, the Legislature’s watchdog office released a report on spending by the Maine Turnpike Authority that showed money spent on limousine services, in-room movies and alcoholic beverages.

Executive Director Paul Violette, a former Democratic state legislator, quickly became the focus of the investigation. At a rare legislative hearing, in which Violette invoked his right against self-incrimination, he was grilled by lawmakers about stays at lavish hotels and purchases of $160,000 worth of gift cards.

Violette resigned in March. This month, he agreed to a $430,000 settlement to resolve a lawsuit against him. The lawsuit alleged that Violette lied to collect $161,000 worth of vacation and sick time, made tens of thousands of dollars in improper credit card charges and failed to account for the gift card expenditures.

The agreement calls for Violette to pay $155,000. Two bonding companies will pay the rest. The state Attorney General’s Office is continuing a criminal investigation.

Cabinet woes

In late April, two of LePage’s Cabinet members resigned on the same day. And in July, a third quit his job abruptly.

After months of answering questions from the state’s environmental community, Environmental Protection Commissioner Darryl Brown stepped down because of potential conflicts of interest involving the business he owned, Main-Land Development Consultants, an environmental consulting firm.

State and federal laws prevent anyone who heads an agency like the DEP from earning 10 percent or more of their income from clients who receive federal Clean Water Act permits.

Economic and Community Development Commissioner Phil Congdon resigned amid allegations that he had insulted people in Aroostook County by making inappropriate comments during meetings and speeches.

A member of the Northern Maine Development Commission told MaineToday Media he was “totally shocked” by a speech that Congdon gave to the Caribou Chamber of Commerce.

“He growled at us for 45 minutes and said things like ‘Get off the reservation,’ ” Ken Murchison said. “We weren’t raising our children correctly. I remember being totally shocked. The people I talked to were totally offended.”

Congdon stepped down after Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, complained to LePage about the remarks.

Brown was transferred to the State Planning Office, from which he resigned recently, saying his work to dismantle the office and parcel out its duties to other parts of state government was largely complete.

In July, Marine Resources Commissioner Norman Olsen resigned, saying he didn’t feel he had the full support of the administration. Olsen said the governor put too much emphasis on complaints about his performance from people who did not like his blunt style.

“…this administration is more interested in pacifying special interest groups than in responsibly managing Maine’s marine resources for the benefit of the entire state,” Olsen wrote in a prepared statement.

LePage told Capitol News Service that he was shocked by Olsen’s departure.

“If there’s an issue … as Paul Newman says, maybe we had a failure to communicate,” the governor said, citing a line from the 1967 film “Cool Hand Luke.”

Insurance law

Republicans pushed through major reforms to try to lower the cost of health insurance for Mainers

The legislation that LePage signed in May overhauls the health insurance market for about 40,000 people, namely small businesses and people who buy insurance on their own. The law adds a tax on premiums of as much as $4 per person per month to help cover people with high medical costs.

It gives insurance companies more leeway in how much they charge based on age, where a company is located, occupation, and smoking rates. It also allows out-of-state companies to sell insurance in Maine starting in 2014.

Democrats opposed the law, saying it would drive up costs for older, rural Mainers. An initial analysis of how the law is working shows dramatic drops in premiums in urban areas with younger workers, while those in rural areas with older workers are seeing sharp increases.

The law, which began taking effect in October, will be phased in over several years.

Wintle arrested

Rep. Frederick Wintle, R-Garland, was arrested in May after he allegedly pulled a gun on man he didn’t know, a Morning Sentinel photographer, in a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot in Waterville.

At the time, Wintle represented House District 24, which covers six towns in Penobscot and Somerset counties. He resigned in September. In a special election in November, voters chose Raymond Wallace, a Republican from Dexter, to fill the seat.

Wintle’s attorney has said Wintle suffered a mental breakdown. Wintle has entered not guilty pleas to charges of criminal threatening, reckless conduct and having a concealed weapon. He’s due back in court Tuesday.

Tax cuts

The $6 billion two-year state budget passed by lawmakers in June made three major changes: Tax cuts, pension system reform and welfare benefit reductions.

The tax cuts are the largest in Maine history, Republicans say.

The cuts lowered the top marginal income tax bracket from 8.5 to 7.95 percent, increased the estate tax exemption from $1 million to $2 million and eliminated the 2 percent tax rate on low income Mainers.

The elimination of the 2 percent bracket means that 70,000 Maine families will no longer pay any income taxes.

The package also establishes various tax credits and exemptions for businesses. One example is the Maine Capitol Investment Credit, designed to provide $31 million in tax relief for new and existing businesses, according to the governor’s office.

Pension cuts

The most controversial element of the budget was a sweeping series of changes to the pension system for state workers and teachers.

At rallies held throughout the legislative session, teachers and state workers — active and retired — said it wasn’t fair to penalize them for a budget shortfall they didn’t create.

After months of negotiations, lawmakers voted to freeze retirees’ cost-living-increases for at least one year, but make them eligible for payments in lieu of the increases for the following two years.

Their cost-of-living increase will be capped at 3 percent instead of 4 percent, and the increase will be applied to only the first $20,000 of retirement income. Workers with less than five years of experience, and new hires, will have to turn 65 before qualifying for benefits.

The final changes will combine to reduce the state’s long-term debt in the system by $1.7 billion from now until 2028, a deadline to pay off the debt that’s in the state Constitution. The debt now is projected at $2.4 billion.

Welfare cuts

LePage said recently that he almost didn’t sign the budget because it didn’t do enough to curb welfare spending in Maine.

The budget approved by two-thirds of all lawmakers allows people who now get benefits, or those who had applications pending as of July 1, to continue with food stamps and federal welfare money.

The plan removed an estimated 1,550 legal noncitizens from Medicaid health insurance if they have not lived in the U.S. for at least five years.

Those who applied for benefits after July 1 had to be legal noncitizens in the U.S. for at least five years to get benefits. That’s new in Maine.

The budget also cuts off federal money for those on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families after five years.

When he signed the budget, LePage called the changes a “down payment on welfare reform.”

He followed up on that pledge this month by proposing a sweeping series of cuts to MaineCare — Maine’s Medicaid program — that would end benefits for 65,000 people.

Hundreds of people came to the State House this month to protest the cuts, while a few testified in support. Lawmakers will spend the month of January considering the proposal.

Susan Cover — 620-7015

[email protected]

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