Last month, in a sit-down with WCSH-TV’s Don Carrigan, Gov. Paul LePage looked back over his tumultuous first year in office and boasted, “I’m a good actor.”

Maybe so. But if Maine House Speaker Robert Nutting’s current mood is any indication, the guv’s act is starting to wear a little thin.

“This was kind of a surprise,” said Nutting, R-Oakland, in an interview Tuesday — one day after LePage lambasted the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee for “abdicating its responsibility to the people of the state of Maine.”

Maybe LePage was simply engaging in a little hardball political theater as he tries to strong-arm the Legislature into endorsing his assault on the state’s MaineCare program. But if the overnight reviews from his own Republican Party are any indication, he flopped.

“I think (members of the Appropriations Committee) are doing their job and they’re all tired and it’s late at night and they’ve got families wishing they were home,” noted Nutting. “And to call that an ‘abdication of their responsibility,’ I think is indeed not helpful.”

Indeed.

To be sure, this is hardly the first time a looming budget crisis — in this case, the $221 million deficit facing the Department of Health and Human Services over the next 17 months — has created tension up and down the halls of the State House.

But the fault lines this time go well beyond the typical divide between Democrats and Republicans. Rather, this is about the fundamental balance of power between two branches of state government — and who controls each.

On the one hand we’ve got the Big Guy, who clearly has trouble sitting still in his office while the legislative process unfolds upstairs.

Instead, he blows off his considerable steam by marching into the Appropriations Committee chamber just to sit and glare at the exhausted lawmakers. Or, as he did last week, step up to the microphone and order them to “get it done.”

Or, as he did on Monday, question their integrity simply because they refuse to throw 18,600 poor, childless adult Mainers under the health-care bus.

On the other hand, we have Nutting, who couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing as the news spread of LePage’s latest utterance from his oh-so-bully pulpit.

(Nutting might have heard sooner from Jim Cyr, the speaker’s communications director, but Cyr and other legislative staffers were inexplicably denied entrance to the governor’s press conference. Nutting said the staffers were told “it was a closed meeting — just the governor and the press.”)

Where LePage sees an “abdication” of responsibility by lawmakers, Nutting sees “really hard lifting to present an alternative” to the governor’s plan. An alternative by which diseases won’t have to go untreated, hospitals won’t have to go broke and emergency rooms won’t have to overflow with people left with no place else to go.

But it wasn’t just LePage’s use of the word abdication that got Nutting’s dander up. It was the in-your-face setting in which the governor used it.

“If he wants to have a private meeting and say there’s an abdication of their responsibility, I’m happy to meet with him anytime, anywhere,” said Nutting.

In fact, the speaker said, he and Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, have had numerous closed-door conversations with LePage to discuss possible solutions to the MaineCare shortfall.

(Raye did not respond to an interview request Tuesday.)

“We didn’t talk about ‘abdication’ in private — in fact, I’m not willing to talk about what we talk about in private,” Nutting said. “But this was not in private. This was a public forum in front of the media and I think the people on the Appropriations Committee, both Republicans and Democrats, don’t deserve that.”

Well said, Mr. Speaker. And hats off to you for having the guts to say it.

What makes LePage’s meddling so irksome, at least to those who truly are looking for a humane way out of this mess, is that it could well hasten the very financial meltdown the governor claims he’s trying to avoid.

The more LePage shrinks that middle with his off-the-cuff rhetoric, the harder it becomes for those seeds of compromise to take root.

Finally, lest they all forget, we have a legislative election just nine short months away.

“I think, in an election year, we always have an eye toward the fall election,” observed Nutting. “And I will tell you I’ve talked to people who are concerned that no matter what course we take, we will either be big winners or big losers.”

Translation: Wild applause from the political fringes in February is one thing. A majority of the general-election ballots cast in November is quite another.

Time will tell whether LePage, ever the provocateur, knows when to quit. But one rumor flying around the State House on Tuesday had him bringing a tin can along on his next cameo appearance — his way of warning legislators that if they don’t evict live bodies from MaineCare once and for all, they’ll only be kicking the can down the road.

“Oh, that will be neat,” mused Nutting. “I’ll have to bring a camera and take a picture.”

Bill Nemitz — 791-6323

[email protected]


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