PORTLAND — While the debate continues over Gov. Paul LePage’s removal of a labor history mural at the Department of Labor, members of the business community are growing impatient about the legislative agenda in Augusta.
The Portland Community Chamber is encouraging its members to use their legislative contacts to urge legislators to focus on issues that matter to Maine employers and workers, rather than on labor murals and whoopie pies.
Chris Hall, the chamber’s senior vice president of government relations, lamented the latest headlines in a policy update he regularly sends to about 3,600 business-minded people.
Hall said half of the legislative session is over and most of last 11 weeks have been dominated by “distractions” and issues that do not matter to Maine business people and workers.
“This is a year when the business community is looking to accomplish some difficult things,” Hall said on Monday. “But nothing is going to happen if all we talk about are things like the mural.”
LePage said he would “laugh at the idiots” trying to prevent the removal, before quietly removing the artwork two weeks ago.
Other distractions include LePage’s dismissive comments about the chemical BPA, saying the worst health effects may cause women to grow “little beards.”
He also said the NAACP could “kiss my butt” when the group complained that he would not attend its annual breakfast honoring the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Hall said in his March update that the legislative session could “wind up going either way – toward a productive session, or further down the road of distractions,” like the debate over legislation to make the whoopie pie the official state treat.
On Monday, he urged the governor to “get back on track.”
Assistant Minority Leader Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, also hit the governor, first in an email to constituents and later in his weekend radio address.
“As Mainers know, there is a lot of work to do, yet today I am disappointed, frustrated and frankly embarrassed by the distractions coming from the governor’s office,” Alfond said, according to a transcipt his address.
Democrats aren’t the only ones criticizing LePage.
On Monday, eight Republican senators authored an op-ed in several of Maine’s daily newspapers expressing “discomfort and dismay with the tone and spirit” of LePage’s recent remarks.
Sens. Roger J. Katz and Brian D. Langley said the “proud Republicans” felt compelled to speak out because LePage’s comments were not isolated.
They took particular issue with his comments about protesters who threatened to thwart the mural’s removal from the Department of Labor through civil disobedience, which they described as an “honored tradition.”
“‘Government by disrespect’ should have no place in Augusta and when it happens we should all reject it,” they said.
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett tried to assure the critics that the distractions have not derailed the governor’s agenda. She noted LePage’s budget is progressing through the Legislature.
“(Gov.) LePage has acknowledged he has contributed to distractions at the State House and understands the point of view of Republicans who have expressed concern,” Bennett said in an email.
“The caucus meetings the governor has attended and the Senate Republican op-ed are a good chance to reach an understanding and focus on job creation, regulatory reform and tax relief that needs to define Republican leadership in Augusta,” she said.
That moment cannot come soon enough for some Portland business people.
Hall said the “euphoria” many business people felt when LePage was elected has diminished. But he said many are still optimistic that there is time to make changes business leaders want for the economy, environment and education.
“(There’s) lots hard heavy lifting, none of it simple, no magic bullets that are going to fix everything tomorrow,” Hall said. “And all of it requires a lot of respect and a lot of careful listening as well as talking.
“I hope we get there,” he added.