A rough ride for Mainers over the next four years of LePage

Luisa Deprez, University of Southern Maine, and John Dorrer, workforce development expert

Originally published in the Bangor Daily News on November 11, 2014.

Gov. Paul LePage’s re-election victory is an affirmation from a growing share of Maine voters of his behavior and the policies he has pursued over the past four years. It also shows, once again, a deepening ideological divide in our state: Over 50 percent of Maine voters backed Mike Michaud and Eliot Cutler, who offered more progressive social and economic policies.

With a Republican state Senate, LePage will have more support in the Maine Legislature. We look cautiously to the next four years hoping the state and its residents can withstand the difficult months ahead with LePage back in the governor’s seat.

So, what will we have to look forward to?

On jobs and the economy, LePage’s campaign offered few ideas and proposals in spite of wrenching economic restructuring that is transforming Maine’s economy. There has been no clear economic development vision or strategy in the previous four years, and there will likely not be one during the last term. Instead, his emphasis will likely remain on relaxing regulations and encouraging business attraction and expansion through tax reduction incentives, loans and subsidies. These are tired formulas with few measurable results.

In spite of four years of an improving national economy, pro-business policies from the LePage administration and income tax reductions, Maine’s economy has failed to ignite optimism. We have failed to recover all jobs lost during the recession, experienced anemic growth, and we continue to lag in national business climate rankings.

Maine’s slow population growth and older population will accelerate the aging of the workforce. There has been an absence of proactive strategy and policy proposals to address Maine’s workforce challenges from LePage. Failure to address workforce challenges can seriously impede economic growth in the next four years.

The health and well-being of Maine’s population will become even more critical as we age and relegate more families to low incomes. We expect to see continued vetoes of Medicaid expansion — if it passes in the first place — leaving 70,000 Maine residents without access to affordable health care. The state will continue to lose over $1 million per day in federal money through this continued rejection, and more in Maine will continue to have their health placed in jeopardy.

Also on health care, LePage has said he would continue to seek expanded primary health care access for the state’s numerous underserved rural areas. And he has promised to explore new avenues for expanding elderly housing.

In an otherwise contentious policy environment, there is widespread agreement that education continues to be the way out of poverty. But we wouldn’t be surprised to see state allocations for education taper off, as LePage has said that state funding for K-12 education is adequate. His administration’s school grading system will undoubtedly continue despite its consequential outcomes and lack of a plan to bolster under-performing schools. Maine will likely see additional charter schools.

As for higher education, the funding issue has largely been met with silence from LePage. He has said only that Maine needs to create a workforce that attracts businesses.

High energy costs and their detrimental impact on the cost of doing business in Maine are issues about which LePage has been emphatic. His focus has been — and will remain — on bringing energy costs down through expanded use of natural gas by building and extending pipelines and importing hydropower from Canada. He has been less supportive of alternative energy development — wind power, tidal power and biofuels. This opposition will likely remain and continue to discourage such sources.

Perhaps one of LePage’s most forceful campaign issues focused on curtailing Maine’s welfare program abuses. His election victory undoubtedly emboldens him to be even more aggressive in pursuing this agenda: stricter work requirements for welfare recipients despite the lack of available jobs, continued strengthening of fraud investigation units that increase state spending and result in few financial gains for the state, tighter restrictions on the use of benefit cards that promise to jeopardize children’s and rural residents’ access to nutritional food.

Finally, the protection of Maine’s environment has largely remained a bipartisan commitment over the years. But LePage has seen environmental regulations and the agency established to protect our environment as impediments to economic growth and business development.

If the last four years are any indication of the next four, most Mainers are going to be in for a rough ride.

Luisa S. Deprez is professor and department chair of sociology and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine. John Dorrer is a workforce development expert and former director of the Center for Workforce Research and Information at the Maine Department of Labor. They are members of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

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