LePage’s finance chief says his boss is doing a good job

Good morning from Augusta, where Gov. Paul LePage’s Department of Administrative and Financial Services on Tuesday touted a new report by State Budget Officer Melissa Gott that estimates the gap between state spending and revenues will shrink in the next two years.

Finance Commissioner Richard Rosen said the report shows that LePage has reduced what is known as the structural funding gap by $1 billion since he took office in 2011. The gap, which stood at $1.2 billion when LePage was elected for his first term, is estimated to have fallen to $165 million for the 2017-18 biennium. That’s the lowest it’s been for at least 16 years.

“The LePage administration has executed a multi-year strategy of major structural reforms for state budgeting that have placed Maine on a stronger financial footing,” said Rosen in a written statement.

While that progress is undeniable and results partially from some of LePage’s greatest achievements, the “structural gap” in Maine’s budget is a number that includes items such as funding schools at 55 percent of the total cost of education, which the Legislature has never achieved. That lets politicians inflate how bad the budget situation is on the front end of negotiations and celebrate closing the gap on the back end when really they’ve addressed only some of it.

Tuesday’s release comes amid what appears to be a LePage campaign to highlight his fiscal management skills. The governor carried the conservative Cato Institute’s report that recognized him as one of the nation’s five best governors for fiscal management into his most recent news conference. He has touted that designation repeatedly in recent weeks.

Also relevant here is some tempering of the contention by Rosen that the reduced structural budget gap is 100 percent due to LePage’s reforms, such as restructuring the state’s pension system, repaying old Medicaid debt to hospitals and various welfare reform initiatives. Let’s not forget that LePage took office on the heels of the Great Recession, when revenues to state government were decimated by the poor economy that spiked the size of the structural gap. Digging out from the recession and rebounding revenue streams would have happened, to some degree, no matter who Maine’s governor was during that time period.

The $165 million structural gap is also in the context of higher-than-expected state revenues that are on track to produce a $55 million General Fund surplus at the end of the current fiscal year. Not receiving so much attention is the Highway Fund, which is supported predominantly by federal taxes on fuel. The structural gap there is projected to be some $385 million. Neither LePage nor any other politician has found a solution for how to maintain roads and bridges when Americans are buying less fuel. –– Christopher Cousins

The quibble between LePage and Maine’s teachers union

For months, Gov. Paul LePage has complained in public appearances that the Maine Education Association, the union that represents teachers, has been dodging a meeting with him for “more than a year.” He’s said it in several town hall meetings and repeated it Tuesday during his weekly radio appearance on WVOM.

The MEA disputes that claim and has been saying it’s been open to a meeting with LePage throughout that time period and before it. LePage and the union are arch-enemies and have been attacking each other for years. It’s hard to imagine what progress could be made in such a meeting where the MEA would undoubtedly be talking about how LePage’s austere school funding preferences have hurt students and LePage would be accusing the MEA of running schools inefficiently with bloated budgets too heavy on administrative spending. Those opposing arguments have seen a lot of airtime in the past six years.

A new wrinkle is LePage’s claim that the MEA postponed an Oct. 11 meeting until after the election, which according to emails provided to the BDN by his administration and a statement by MEA President Lois Kilby-Chesley is true. One of the topics at the meeting was questions LePage has about how the organization spends union dues.

“I have several days open after Nov. 16 if there is a mutually convenient date for a new meeting,” she wrote in an Oct. 2 email to LePage’s scheduler.

Kilby-Chesley wrote in response to questions from the BDN on Tuesday that she had to move the meeting because of a chock-full schedule.

I contacted the governor’s office to set up a new meeting after November 16th, which is the time frame that my schedule would allow,” she wrote. — Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

  • Barney and Chellie in Portland: Former Democratic Massachusetts U.S. Rep. Barney Frank and Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine will campaign for Hillary Clinton in Portland today. The duo will appear at 5:30 p.m. at Portland DNC HQ at 622 Congress St.
  • Ethics commission meeting: The Maine Ethics Commission convened this morning in Augusta to consider several complaints of alleged campaign finance malfeasance in advance of the Nov. 8 election. Most of the items on the commission’s agenda involve late-filing issues, but also on the agenda is an examination of whether Republican Sen. Andre Cushing mixed personal and campaign funding. According to commission Executive Director Jonathan Wayne, this item was originally scheduled for consideration after the election but was moved to today at the request of Cushing’s sister, who lodged the complaint against him. Wayne and his staff have recommended that the commission launch an investigation but that won’t happen until the commission votes. The commission will also consider whether the Progressive Maine PAC, which is supported by a California-based super-PAC called Progressive Kick, properly disclosed its intentions to support two ballot initiatives. That meeting began at 9 a.m.
  • Yes on 3 convenes in Augusta: Supporters of Question 3, which seeks to implement background checks for private gun sales, will hold a news conference at the State House today at 11 a.m. The event will feature domestic violence prevention advocates and family members of survivors.
  • Federal cash for schools: U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King have announced a $1.5 million grant for School Improvement Grants to help Maine improve high school graduation rates and narrow achievement gaps in public schools. The competitive grants will be distributed by the U.S. Department of Education.
  • Anti-Poliquin ad buy: The League of Conservation voters has announced a $230,000 ad campaign targeting incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, who is battling Democrat Emily Cain for re-election in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. A new advertisement, which you can see by clicking here, hits Poliquin for taking campaign donations from the oil lobby.
  • Guarding against election fraud: U.S. Attorney for Maine Thomas E. Delehanty II has announced that his office will participate in the U.S. Justice Department’s program to handle election fraud complaints when voters hit the polls on Nov. 8. That means a team of lawyers and investigators will be on standby to receive and consider complaints as quickly as possible. Delahanty’s office can be reached on election day at (207) 771-3214.

Reading list

Political signs ‘kinda noying’

One of the (admittedly limited) things I love about election years is listening to how my children receive and process the television ads, political debates and general barrage of campaign messaging that even at 6 and 11 years old is inescapable.

Yesterday I was driving the boys to school and we were lamenting that most of the autumn foliage has fallen to the ground. We were rounding a corner dominated by campaign signs, where a political chasm suddenly appeared between my sons.

“At least we still have all these colorful signs to look at,” said the 11-year-old with a touch of sarcasm. The 6-year-old doesn’t always pick up on sarcasm.

“Seriously?” he said. “I think they’re kinda noying.”

Translation: Kind of annoying. His pronunciation needs a little work but his political observations are spot-on. Here’s his soundtrack. Christopher Cousins


Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.