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In His Final State Of The State, LePage Takes Swipes At Land Trusts, Referendum Process

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press
Gov. Paul LePage delivers the State of the State address to the Legislature, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, at the State House in Augusta.

Gov. Paul LePage used his final State of the State speech Tuesday to, at times, wistfully look back at his two terms and, at others, to revive long-simmering tensions with his long list of political foes, including a lengthy broadside against land trusts.

The governor’s 90-minute speech also included tributes to his family and his allies.

(WATCH: LePage Delivers His Final State of the State Address)

LePage, who rode a 2010 tea party wave to become Maine’s first Republican governor since 1995, promised not to slow down even though he’s in the lame duck stage of his governorship.

“I will continue working until the last minute of my last day,” he said.

LePage spent a good portion of his speech hammering land trusts for taking property off the tax rolls. The remarks were the latest chapter in his feud with conservation organizations, with which he’s gone toe-to-toe by refusing to release voter approved bonds for the Land for Maine’s Future Program.

Now his administration is taking a different tack.

“School budgets are often blamed for property-tax increases,” he said. “But the real culprit is the tremendous amount of land and property value we’ve allowed to be taken off the tax rolls, leaving homeowners to pick up the tab. These landowners must contribute to our tax base.”

A new LePage administration report says $18.6 billion in total land was exempt from taxes in 2016 — about 11 percent of all land value in Maine. But most of that is owned by local governments ($10.1 billion) and nonprofits like hospitals ($3 billion) and learning institutions ($2.1 billion).

A study by the Land Trust Network says they’ve helped preserve 2.5 million acres, including 1.9 million acres with conservation easements. Of that 2.5 million acres, the reports says just 1.5 percent either pays no taxes or payments in lieu of taxes.

LePage also poked advocates of Medicaid expansion, which voters approved by nearly 60 percent in November, saying he’ll implement the law, but not before lawmakers come up with the state’s estimated $55 million share.

“Democrats, hospitals, advocacy groups and wealthy out-of-state special interests who campaigned for this referendum claim that adding 80,000 people to a taxpayer-funded entitlement program will save money,” he said. “I take you at your word. Show me the money and put your plan in writing. Show the Maine people how you will pay for Medicaid expansion.”

Democrats say enough funding exists to get the law implemented and that the governor is legally bound to start the process.

About 50 activists who pushed the referendum last year staged a rally before the speech, demanding that the governor implement the law. Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon rallied the crowd and thanked them for taking part in the campaign.

“Seventy-thousand more people will have access to health care, and that is the law,” she said.

LePage pivoted to the waitlist for adults with developmental disabilities, which he has frequently cited in rejecting legislative attempts to expand Medicaid nearly a half dozen times since 2014.

“I have proposed to fully fund them, but legislators chose to use the money for other programs, like giving welfare to illegal immigrants,” LePage said. “That is simply wrong. Maine people need to come first.”

The waitlist for adults with developmental disabilities has increased tenfold between 2006 and 2017, to 1,200 people in 2017. Over that time, the reimbursement rate for MaineCare, the state’s version Medicaid, has been cut by 12 percent — nearly triple when adjusting for inflation.

Providers often blame the cut for the growing waitlist.

LePage also highlighted a bill that would prevent municipalities from evicting elderly property owners, a proposal inspired by the eviction and foreclosure of an elderly couple from Albion.

The Maine Municipal Association opposes the proposal, arguing that it would make it nearly impossible to evict people from their homes for not paying taxes.

The MMA also notes that the governor’s efforts to cut the income tax have put additional burden on property taxpayers. Last year, 45 percent of revenues used to pay for state and local services came from property tax.

The governor lauded the recent passage of a massive federal tax overhaul, but he said he would reject any state conformity bill that would increase taxes on Mainers.

A recently released report suggests conformity would result in a tax increase of approximately $250 million annually for Maine individuals and businesses. Most of that impact — about $233 million — would be felt by individuals, meaning roughly 466,000 Maine families would see a tax increase.

“I will not support any increase in taxes for either tax conformity or to pay for Medicaid expansion,” he said.

LePage also used his final State of the State to criticize liberals and their increasing use of Maine’s referendum process to enact policies the governor has rejected.

“If we want to govern through referendum, we do not need a Legislature and you all will be out of a job,” he said, adding that the referendum process is “broken” and “destructive.”

LePage struck a conciliatory tone at times. He thanked lawmakers for helping build the state’s rainy day fund.

“We are moving ahead,” he said.

The governor also had a message for the voters who will pick his successor in November.

“Mainers get the government they vote for,” he said. “Think long and hard who you will send to the Legislature and to the Blaine House.”

He ended by thanking Mainers and by quoting President Ronald Reagan, who falsely attributed it to Abraham Lincoln during a speech before the Republican National Convention in Houston. 

"You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong," he said. "You cannot help the wage-earner by pulling down the wage-payer. You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich. You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves."

Reagan wrongly attributed the quote to Lincoln, but it was actually said in 1916 byWilliam J. H. Boetcker, a Pennsylvania clergyman. 

LePage added, “As a homeless kid living on the streets of Lewiston, I never imagined I would one day make it to the Blaine House. You are in my thoughts and prayers every minute of every day. Maine people, we love you. Your prosperity is paramount for Maine’s success."

In a statement released after the speech, Maine Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett said the governor’s speech explored familiar territory.

“Praise for himself, blame for others, and little effort to forge compromise and move Maine forward,” he said. “As we’ve seen over these past few months, the Republican candidates for governor are hell-bent on serving as LePage’s third term — but Maine can ill-afford four more years of his failed policies.”

* This story has been updated to clarify data from the land trusts report.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.