D. Dowd Muska


Why Maine Has America’s Best Governor

December 03, 2015

Paul LePage had a Thanksgiving surprise for beneficiaries of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in his state: no more junk food.

Seventy-two hours before Turkey Day, Maine’s governor directed his Department of Health and Human Services to ask Washington “to allow the state to waive federal rules allowing for the purchase of candy and soft drinks with SNAP benefits.”

LePage’s request to make food stamps verboten for Coca-Cola and M&Ms is just the latest in his administration’s litany of common-sense, limited-government policies. The governor’s not perfect -- he’s a committed drug warrior, and his over-the-top pugnaciousness frequently hinders his legislative agenda -- but LePage has consistently pushed for welfare reforms, deregulation, and tax relief in his old, cold, no-growth, and deep-blue state.

A 2014 Portland Press Herald profile noted that the governor’s youth was scarred by “violence and tragedy.” His French-Canadian family was poor, but adherence to Catholic dogma on birth control kept the babies coming. His father, an alcoholic, was abusive. LePage left home at 11, found a surrogate family, and survived by doing odd jobs.

All that ugliness didn’t plunge the future governor into an attitude of perpetual victimization. The Press Herald wrote that he developed “a viewpoint on how one ought to succeed in modern society … a formula in which the power of personal responsibility will always trump the ability of government to help.” He earned a B.S. and an M.B.A., and prospered as a businessman. In 2003, he was elected mayor or Waterville. In 2010, the GOPer won election in a state that hadn’t picked a Republican for its chief executive in two decades.

Politically incorrect from the get-go, one of LePage’s earliest actions was to remove a mural depicting the history of unionism in the state from the Department of Labor’s building. (The Maine Arts Commission was horrified.) He cut the state budget. He signed “major tax reform” that “provided $150 million in tax relief -- including new tax code changes which conform to federal guidelines and a reduction in Maine’s top income tax rate from 8.5 percent to 7.95 percent that eliminated tax payments for 70,000 low-income Mainers.” He signed a bill that reduced pension benefits for state employees. He refused to embrace “green” power.

Hold on. It gets better. LePage favors a right-to-work law. (Unlike many of his fellow Republicans, who control the state Senate.) He refused to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. (A call that his GOP counterparts in Iowa, New Mexico, Tennessee, Michigan, New Jersey, Indiana, Nevada, and Ohio were too gutless to make.) And he’s leading an effort to repeal Maine’s income tax via a constitutional amendment.

But LePage’s greatest desire, from the early days of his administration until now, has been to assault welfarism. In 2014, his administration reimposed work requirements for food-stamp recipients without children. “People who are in need deserve a hand up, but we should not be giving able-bodied individuals a handout. We must continue to do all that we can to eliminate generational poverty and get people back to work. We must protect our limited resources for those who are truly in need and who are doing all they can to be self-sufficient.”

The sugar-busting waiver application to D.C. has a twofold justification. “First, Maine is facing an obesity-related health crisis that is driving up Medicaid and private health insurance costs. With over 15 percent of the state receiving food stamps … banning the purchase of candy and soft drinks with SNAP benefits is a commonsense step toward improving the health of low-income Mainers and containing Medicaid costs. … Second, the policy is in keeping with the belief … that welfare benefits should be spent appropriately and only on essential items, restoring taxpayers’ faith in the integrity of the system.”

Maine is the poorest state in New England, and LePage’s crusade is opposed by an army of left-wing pols and activists that fights fiercely to maintain its empire of dependency. The press is certainly no help. The governor is despised by local newspapers -- e.g., the Bangor Daily News, The Boston Globe -- and national media have repeatedly taken shots. (Salon’s take: “Even among the gaggle of hopping mad reactionaries swept into power by 2010’s Tea Party wave, the unbridled anger of Paul LePage, the former businessman who is currently in his second term as Maine’s governor, has always allowed him to stand out.”)

Rest assured, the hard-luck kid from Lewiston’s Little Canada is unbowed. Paul LePage understands that Maine needs a dose of tough love.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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