As we rapidly approach the November elections, it’s worth taking a look back at the past eight years in our state under Gov. Paul LePage’s leadership.

Though it’s frequently been characterized by his opponents — both among Democrats and in the Republican Party — as a rocky tenure that has demeaned the stature of the state, LePage can rightly take pride in many accomplishments. It’s especially impressive given that his party had full control of the Legislature only for the first two years of his tenure; he’s managed to get a lot done for someone who’s been labeled as completely intransigent by his critics.

It’s easy to forget now, but when LePage took office, the country was barely beginning to recover from the recession caused by the 2008 financial crisis. Under his predecessor, the state faced a series of budget deficits that were frequently resolved through quick fixes and gimmicks, rather than through more long-term resolutions.

These patchwork budgets were supported by two-thirds of the Legislature but largely ignored several major issues facing the state, as they failed to make the structural reforms necessary to ensure Maine’s long-term prosperity — a point frequently made by minority Republicans at the time.

Early in his administration, with the assistance of a Republican-controlled Legislature led by then-Senate President Kevin Raye and then-House Speaker Bob Nutting, LePage put an end to that. He put forth a responsible state budget that not only eliminated the deficit, but enacted the largest tax cut in state history over the strenuous objections of Democrats — who, as then-Democratic leader Emily Cain later admitted, hated them. LePage wisely refrained from pushing through a majority budget on a partisan vote that could have cut taxes even more. Instead, he negotiated a bipartisan budget through the Legislature that eventually won overwhelming support — even if it did include tax cuts.

Apart from lowering the tax burden on ordinary Mainers, LePage also took on two looming fiscal crises: the debt the state owed to Maine’s hospitals and funding of the state pension fund.

The challenge with the state’s pension fund wasn’t unique; it’s an issue that plagued state governments all over the country after the Great Recession and continues to do so today. Sadly, because it’s a long-term problem and powerful special interests have a vested stake in the outcome, many governors and legislatures around the country are content to ignore it.

In essence, it’s the state version of the national debt, and many elected officials are happy to pass on the problem to the next generation. Maine was in better shape than many, because constitutional amendments passed in the 1990s required the state to pay off its unfunded liability by 2028.

Still, the pension plan was only 70 pecent funded when LePage came into office, and along with the new Republican majority in the Legislature, he wasn’t content to simply ignore it and hope for the best. They included a number of significant reforms to the state pension fund in that first budget. It wasn’t a permanent fix, nor was it a perfect one, but it put Maine’s pension fund on a much better path. A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that Maine’s fund was was in better shape than many other states. Maine’s pension fund is now 77 percent funded — the highest in New England, far better than neighboring New Hampshire (58 percent) or even much-wealthier Connecticut (41 percent).

LePage also finally managed to settle the state’s debt to the hospitals. He eventually garnered support from a Democratic Legislature for a plan to pay back the hospitals with revenue from a new state liquor contract. Although the bill eventually passed unanimously, it wasn’t easy: To cajole Democrats, LePage threatened to veto all legislation, and successfully resisted attempts to tie the hospital debt to accepting Medicaid expansion.

All of that has left the state’s finances in excellent shape today, as the LePage administration winds down and we prepare to elect a new governor. Maine has a budget surplus, the rainy day fund is healthy and unemployment is astonishingly low. He doesn’t get all the credit, but LePage deserves much of it for the state’s current success — and that’s something we should all keep in mind when Janet Mills says she wants to take Maine’s economy in a “new direction.”

We don’t need to return to the failed ways of the past that landed us in the mess LePage inherited. Rather than a new direction for the state’s economy, we need a governor who will expand upon our current success — perhaps with a less confrontational approach.

To ensure we build toward greater prosperity for Maine rather than erasing eight years of progress, it’s vital that we elect Shawn Moody as our next governor.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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