Policy Wonk: Maine Dems share blame for a long, cold winter

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It always surprises me when large numbers of people vote against their own self-interest.

Women who vote for candidates who oppose choice, equal pay for women, child care and preschool programs. Unemployed and low- or middle-income people who vote for candidates who cut taxes for the wealthy, oppose raising the minimum wage, oppose investment in job-creating infrastructure.

This happened in the recent election. It led to Gov. Paul LePage’s re-election in spite of the great damage he has done to Maine’s economy and people. For example:

• At the height of the recent recession, LePage refused to issue voter-approved bonds that would have allowed dozens of needed infrastructure projects to move forward. Interest rates were low; bid prices were low because contractors were looking for work; thousands of well-paying jobs would have been created.

• Without any coherent energy strategy of his own, he drove Statoil (a global wind energy producer) out of Maine. A $120 million wind demonstration project was lost. Instead of creating jobs and the prospect of larger capital investments (Maine would have been at the cutting edge of this technology), he left us with the University of Maine’s 1/8th-scale offshore wind model, which subsequently received only token federal research support.

• He has consistently refused to participate in the Affordable Care Act, leaving 70,000 Mainers without health care, and $900 million federal dollars on the table. We do not have the thousands of statewide health-care jobs this level of investment would have created.

• Touting jobs, LePage cut state taxes, but in a manner that overwhelmingly favored large corporations and the wealthy; poor and middle-class taxpayers benefited very little. His cuts to revenue sharing, general assistance, and school aid have forced already high property tax burdens still higher.

Tax cutting, however, has not produced job growth; we have recovered only a fraction of the jobs lost in the recession. Maine Center for Economic Policy data show that the U.S. has recovered 110 percent of jobs lost in the recession. New England has recovered 111 percent of jobs lost. Maine has recovered only 63 percent of jobs lost. The 16,000 (largely low-wage) jobs created since the recession reflect the fact that Maine’s recovery is one of the weakest in the nation.

Notwithstanding these damaging policy decisions, LePage promises more of the same in the next four years: more tax cuts for the wealthy, continued refusal to participate in the ACA or raise the minimum wage, continued cutting of programs that benefit the poor, the elderly, immigrants and education, and continued cutting of regulatory programs that protect the public’s health and safety.

This grim reality arises because many Maine voters (contrary to their best interest) chose to strengthen LePage’s personal and legislative hand. The combined mistakes/ineptness of the Democrats and Eliot Cutler’s hubris undoubtedly contributed to this reality.

The Dems over the last four years have had no consistent strategy, no courage, no effective leadership. They failed to mount a legal challenge to LePage’s refusal to issue voter-approved bonds; they failed to use the initiative to seek passage of the ACA or to raise the minimum wage.

The Dems and Cutler failed to settle their differences, thereby allowing Cutler (a long-time Democrat) to run as an independent. This assured a three-way race; the Dems found a decent candidate in U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, but gave up a safe Congressional seat; they ignored the possibility of a lose/lose result.

They failed to persuade the people who sought to end bear baiting to wait for a presidential election year, when their issue stood a better chance of passage. In a close, lower-turnout year, their issue predictably drew out a large conservative hunting-fishing-gun owner vote. That vote did in Emily Cain and Michaud; it cost the Dems the state Senate, reduced their House majority, and inflated the LePage vote.

The Dems were complicit in pushing Statoil out of Maine; they haggled over paying off the hospital debt for so long that when it finally passed (with Democratic votes) it looked like a LePage victory. They never effectively countered LePage’s assault on the poor (many people still believe welfare fraud is rampant, even though it’s not). They balanced the budget by settling for a modest two-year package of sales tax increases. An emboldened LePage is unlikely to renew these taxes, and essential programs will be cut next year as state revenues shrink.

In short, the Dems made too many mistakes over the last four years. A new leadership group needs to figure out what the Dems stand for, and develop a strategy to put these policies and programs in place.

As for Cutler, one can only hope he will move quietly off the political stage. Nothing he accomplishes in the future will undo the damage he has done to Maine people in this election cycle.

More hopefully, because most Maine people are better than their current leadership, better than the divisiveness fostered by the LePage administration,we will survive. A better Maine is surely possible. It will happen sooner if the Dems get their act together.

But for now, we must endure the winter.

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Orlando Delogu of Portland is emeritus professor of law at the University of Maine School of Law and a longtime public policy consultant to federal, state, and local government agencies and officials. He can be reached at orlando.delogu@maine.edu.