The governor’s annual report to lawmakers, required by the state’s Constitution, is one of the biggest State House spectacles every year. Regardless of who’s in power, speeches like last night’s are often dense with policy outlines and political rhetoric, not to mention the kinds of personal touches that leave impressions about the man or woman giving the speech, fueling hand-wringing analyses from politicos and Joe-Mainers alike.
Gov. Paul LePage gave his third State of the State Address last night. The reactions from pretty much everyone — both parties, lobbyists, political staffers, candidates, you name it — came swiftly and continuously from about a half hour before the speech starts to hours after it ends; everyone wants to weigh in.
We try in our coverage not only to summarize the speech for our readers, but to provide valuable context to understand the #sots. Our news organization — along with the Sun Journal of Lewiston, with which we share content — generated four stories from the speech last night, but there’s a lot more that could be said.
For your perusal, I’ve attached the speech as it was written to the bottom of this post, but here’s a few things worth mentioning:
LePage’s compassionate conservatism
It’s a theme LePage visited throughout his speech in treatises on Medicaid expansion, welfare reform and drug addiction. There’s good reason for that. In the ongoing debate between Republicans and Democrats about welfare and Medicaid, each side has framed the argument differently.
In Medicaid expansion talks, Democrats talk about the tens of thousands of Mainers who would stand to gain health insurance under the program. They cite studies from well-respected universities that show expansion would prevent hundreds of deaths, and often refer to the measure as “life-saving.” Democrats say the expansion will save money, but in their rhetoric that’s just icing on the social-welfare cake: Supporting Medicaid expansion is about supporting health care for people who need it.
Republicans have talked about the cost: Medicaid represents about 25 percent of the state’s general fund expenditures, and that the program’s costs will continue to grow, albeit only at a figure of about 1 percent for the next few years. LePage and others have tried to put a human face on the expansion debate by contrasting it with a more than 1,000-person “wait list” of disabled or elderly Medicaid recipients waiting for specialized services, but their argument has always been and will continue to be about cost: Opposing Medicaid expansion is about “protecting Maine’s hard-working families” from increased taxes, as LePage said last night.
On its face, stripped of politics, an argument about saving money doesn’t seem very compassionate in the face of one about saving lives, right?
That’s why LePage is making the pitch that he is. Proponents of Medicaid expansion have gotten a lot of traction by putting a human face on the people who would not get MaineCare if the program isn’t expanded. LePage is claiming the “compassionate” high ground, saying that keeping more money in Mainers’ pockets will help everyone get ahead, while portraying Democrats’ goals as tax-sucking initiatives that will keep “hard-working” Mainers poor.
Proponents of Medicaid expansion and champions of welfare are unlikely to buy the argument, but it’s not a bad play, politically.
Gov. LePage’s plan to hold a referendum asking whether Mainers would like to cut taxes by $100 million in taxes and decrease state spending by the same amount is not the first time lawmakers would have farmed out tax policy to voters. Conservatives pushed a “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” in 2006 and 2009, which would have tied growth in government spending to changes in inflation and population and required any additional spending or tax increases to be put to popular vote.
Those efforts failed at the polls both years, and Democrats have already tried to capitalize on their unpopularity, labeling LePage’s new initiative as “TABOR III.” But you can bet your ballot that if the proposal ends up going to voters this November, it will help the governor’s get-out-the-vote effort.
Drugs: Treatment vs. Prosecution
The governor talked at length last night about Maine’s dangerous drug addiction. Maine’s problem with drugs — particularly opiates — is well-known, so well-known in fact that the New York Times last year produced an expose on the skyrocketing abundance of heroin, datelined “PORTLAND, Maine.”
There’s two fronts to fighting drug addiction; A strong judicial process has been favored by many conservatives, while liberals have generally favored more compassionate sentencing for drug crimes and emphasized treatment of addiction as a disease.
Last night, LePage focused on the former: His vision for a drug-free Maine comes from a result of beefed-up Drug Enforcement Agency that would “hunt down” drug dealers. But he also included initiatives for strong Drug Courts, which tie addiction rehabilitation to more lenient criminal sentences.
This is one area where we might expect Democrats and Republicans to work with the governor. No one thinks a drug-addicted state makes for a good future.