Forget Denmark. There’s something rotten — or broken, at least — in the State of Maine: the Pine Tree State’s governance.
Once famously collegial, Maine politics has become a battlefield. On one hill stands Governor Paul LePage, the state’s combative shoot-from-the-lip conservative governor, on the other, the Legislature, which has largely united across partisan lines in opposition to him.
With the state atwitter about LePage having strong-armed an educational nonprofit into rescinding a job offer to the Democratic house speaker, the Legislature has launched a bipartisan investigation. There’s even some talk of impeachment.
Then there’s the War of the Vetoes. In the last month or so, the governor has nixed scores of bills and budgetary line items, with the declared purpose of wasting the Legislature’s time. Lawmakers have overridden those vetoes at an assembly-line pace.
So what’s happened?
The best explanation comes from Republican Senator Tom Saviello: A man who came to prominence as a businessman used to getting his own way, LePage hasn’t accommodated himself to the political world, where compromise is a must. “I believe that is frustrating for him,” the GOP lawmaker says.
Now consider Team LePage’s take.
“He is a common-sense businessman who became Governor to do what’s right for the Maine people,” spokesman Peter Steele says via e-mail. “Watching elected officials ignore their promises to the Maine people, abandon their principles, and succumb to the political machinations under the dome is frustrating to him.”
Strip away Steele’s hyperbolic accusations, and he and Saviello are saying more or less the same thing.
Another part of the problem is LePage’s big second-term proposal, which would follow in the footsteps of Kansas’s failed supply-side experiment: He wants to phase out Maine’s income tax while raising the more regressive sales tax.
Democrats’ unwillingness to advance that plan is what first triggered LePage’s veto tantrum, though his retaliatory ire has since extended to Republican measures too.
But what has really shocked Mainers is news of LePage’s threat to withhold state funding for Good Will-Hinckley, an education nonprofit, if it hired Democratic Speaker Mark Eves as president. LePage’s stated reason is that Good Will-Hinckley operates a charter school, while, as a legislator, Eves has opposed charters.
Concerned about a misuse of gubernatorial power, the Legislature’s accountability and oversight committee voted unanimously to investigate.
LePage claims the committee lacks authority for such a probe. Meanwhile, he used this week’s radio address to play, somewhat tinnily, the populist card, couching his anti-Eves action as a fight against cronyism.
Eves notes that LePage isn’t just at odds with him, but also with Senate Republicans.
“It isn’t just a partisan thing,” he says. “He has really marginalized himself with the Legislature.”
So what’s next? One can easily see today’s political standoff heading into the courts. And even becoming a constitutional crisis.
Saviello, one of those who requested the legislative investigation, says that absent a pattern of such behavior, he doesn’t think LePage’s move against Eves rises to the level of an impeachable offense.
But this situation does cry out for some intervention by some of Maine’s senior statesfolk. One could see George H.W. or Barbara Bush, who endorsed LePage’s reelection bid, or former senators George Mitchell and Olympia Snowe, playing a calming, constructive role here.
Absent that? Maine will muddle through, says Saviello.
“We always figure out how to make things work up here,” the senator says. “That’s just who we are.”
Still, it’s sad to see a state in need of smart, energetic, bipartisan leadership mired in a mess caused by a temperamental governor’s my-way-or-the-highway mentality.