LePage’s one good idea — and the mistakes that might derail it

With two new pieces of legislation, Gov. Paul LePage has one good idea, two bad ideas and he has made two tactical mistakes.

The bills, introduced late in the legislative session, would increase the salary for the next governor and reduce the size of both the Maine House and the Maine Senate.

LePage is right — wow, that’s hard to write — when he advocates for increasing the base pay for the next governor to $150,000.

Maine’s governor is the lowest paid in the country, in terms of salary, though the description of the current pay of $70,000 isn’t exactly accurate. The governor also receives a yearly expense account of $35,000, which he can use anyway he sees fit. Essentially, it’s income.

But even at $105,000, the job demands higher pay.

Gov. Paul LePage taps a maple tree outside the Blaine House on March 9. Christopher Cousins | BDN

Gov. Paul LePage taps a maple tree outside the Blaine House on March 9. Christopher Cousins | BDN

Nobody runs for governor to get rich, and $150,000 is a lot more money than most Mainers earn. But being governor is the hardest job in the state. It’s complex, stressful and has the ability to impact every life in the state. The job should pay more than $70,000. I’d ditch the expense account and raise the pay.

Reducing the size of the Legislature is a bad idea, which would have a terrible impact on rural parts of the state. If LePage gets his way, he’d cut the House of Representatives from 151 members to a maximum of 100 members and slash the size of the Senate from 35 members to 25.

The governor despises the Legislature. He makes no secret of it and never misses an opportunity to insult, dismiss or belittle the men and women who serve. His latest attempt to reduce their numbers comes so late in the legislative session that it’s clearly little more than a stunt. The governor is playing for headlines.

The Legislature is set to adjourn in April, and LePage has shown that he takes great pleasure into causing chaos in the State House.

Lawmakers are unlikely to give the bill — or the pay-raise legislation for that matter — much of a hearing. They don’t have much of an incentive to play LePage’s little games.

And that points to the governor’s first tactical error. By dropping his bombs so late, he gives legislators the ability to ignore them.

LePage knows that voters are frustrated with government, even though much of that frustration comes from his actions, attitudes and failures.

According to Critical Insights’ spring poll, a plurality of Maine voters think the state is headed in the wrong direction — with a whole lot of folks blaming the governor — and LePage’s approval rating is just 36 percent.

But LePage also understands the guy on the barstool like few politicians before him. And he knows attacking the Legislature won’t lose him many friends, among the few he has left.

So attack he does.

The governor’s second tactical error was to try to reduce the size of the House and the size of the Senate below 31 members. The Maine Constitution sets the size of the House at 151 members, but it gives a range for the size of the Senate, between 31 and 35 members.

Amending Maine’s Constitution requires a two-thirds vote in the Legislature and then approval by voters. It’s a high threshold. Had the governor attempted simply to reduce the size of the Senate to 31, the change would only require simple majorities and no vote by the public.

Still tough to accomplish, but with the rivalry between the House and Senate healthy and LePage’s party in control of the upper chamber, he might have had a longshot chance.

Reducing the size of the House and Senate, whether the governor knows it or cares, would hurt rural Maine and concentrate political power in populations centers. Dividing Maine’s 1.3 million people into 25 Senate districts would give Cumberland and York counties 10 or 11 seats, with two more in Androscoggin County and three in Penobscot County, centered around Bangor.

Rural lawmakers would be left with districts even bigger than they are today, and their influence in the State House — in both the House and Senate — would decline.

Perhaps the governor hasn’t considered the impact of his idea. But with Maine’s population stagnant and shifting toward the south, small town Maine should hate the idea.

LePage’s erratic behavior and bombastic attitude make it difficult to discern serious policy ideas from political bluster. His effort to undermine the Legislature is clearly the latter.

But despite the lateness of LePage’s good idea, now is the time to raise the next governor’s salary, while we’re far removed from the next gubernatorial campaign.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com.