Paul LePage has been governor for five years, but Maine Democrats still haven’t figured out how to be an opposition party.

There’s often confusion about being “in opposition.” It doesn’t mean trying to block everything the other side tries to do. That’s LePage’s mantra, and it’s cost the state dearly.

Being in opposition means thinking hard about why elections were lost, determining needed changes, and articulating a coherent, comprehensive program one’s candidates can run on, and win.

By that standard, Maine Democrats have, if anything, regressed. While expectations for this year’s legislative session are decidedly modest, the outset is still a good time to explain what one’s party stands for, and what it will do if given the chance.

So it came as a shock to find a year-end op-ed by Democratic legislative leaders explaining why we must prevent Mainers “receiving state assistance” from playing the lottery. The Democrats were rebutting a Bangor Daily News editorial saying that efforts to control how people buy lottery tickets simply “turn[s] attention away from where policymakers should be focused: on public policies that help low-income people beat poverty.”

Amazingly, the Democrats said the BDN “couldn’t be more wrong.” Paul LePage himself couldn’t write a better script for utterly befuddling the voters about what Democrats believe.


For Democrats (and many Republicans) really do believe state policies can alleviate poverty, and should know that LePage’s concept of “welfare reform” provides no actual help.

To top it off, the Democratic leaders missed the point of the series prompting the editorial, which found that the poorest communities have the highest per-capita lottery sales. Through sophisticated “point of sale” advertising, the state induces its poorest residents to spend money on the highly unlikely chance of striking it rich.

Anyone who’s been down on their luck, uncertain where their next meal is coming from, will understand why desperate people sometimes spend money in ways that seem irrational. Yes, the state lottery is a significant source of revenue, but what price are we willing to pay for it?

Preventing people from buying lottery tickets won’t work, so why pretend the state can legislate against it? This is a false path; Democrats aren’t good at the dark arts of shame and blame.

Yet, with a few honorable exceptions, Maine Democrats talk about what Paul LePage wants to talk about, and accommodate what he wants to do — just a little less.

You’d never know from the talk in Augusta, but Maine is desperately short of revenue, one of the few states still below spending levels existing before the Great Recession. We’ve been significantly cutting back, even disinvesting, in all the important things state government does, including transportation, health care, and education.


Meanwhile, Democrats signed off on two major tax cuts, in 2011 and 2015, the latter now phasing in. Predictably, this only whetted LePage’s appetite; he’s promoting an alarming plan to abolish the state income tax. Tax cuts have sucked up all the money that might have gone back into classrooms, highways, research labs, and public health.

To take one example, Democrats acceded to reducing revenue sharing, which buffers property taxes, to 40 percent of what’s required by law — then claimed they’d “restored funding” because LePage wanted to abolish it.

Mainers say, in poll after poll, that the property tax is the most onerous. Democrats of the 1970s, and even the ’90s, understood that. Today’s Democrats have largely forgotten.

Being in opposition isn’t easy. Nationally, minority Republicans built an intellectual and policy base for decades before Ronald Reagan carried it out — and that framework still determines much of the national agenda.

Democrats should stop talking about “welfare reform” and tax cuts and set their own course. Here’s a clue: The widest voter consensus on any current issues supports raising the minimum wage, and levying higher taxes on the wealthy.

To again become relevant, Democrats must determine what they want to do, then tell people how they’ll restore enough of the state tax system to fund it. Bromides about “good jobs at good wages” and “investment” in a laundry list of unquantified good causes won’t do it.

There must be specifics — about agricultural entrepreneurship in Maine’s depleted rural landscape and how to support it, about finally fixing the roads rather than paving over the bumps, about ensuring that every Maine child has a well-qualified teacher, and doesn’t come to school hungry.

Laying out that agenda will take time, but must start now. Maine is stuck in a demographic and political rut. It desperately needs voices that can change the conversation, and ultimately the voters’ minds, in a way that actually leads to positive change.

Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 30 years. Email at [email protected].

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