AUGUSTA, Maine - In a wide-ranging discussion with reporters Thursday, Gov. Paul LePage laid out an ambitious agenda, with one over-arching goal: improving Maine’s economy and putting more Mainers to work in his second term.
Many of the goals and themes of his first term as governor will continue to dominate in the second. Gov. LePage says Maine has to improve its economy, while still addressing fundamental social needs. He says welfare reforms that were defeated in the last two years will be back next session. But his top priority, possibly emergency legislation in January, will be to find ways to reduce energy costs.
"Natural gas has just got to come to Maine and the key is Massachusetts," LePage said.
LePage has been critical of Duval Patrick, the current Democratic governor of Massachusetts, saying he has blocked efforts to increase Maine’s access to natural gas. But now a Republican governor has been elected - Charlie Baker - and LePage says he is trying to reach Baker to discuss ways they can work together.
"I want to call him and ask him - want to congratulate him - but the second question is, 'When are you going to sign on? I need you right now,' " LePage said.
In addition to the natural gas infrastructure challenge, LePage says expected increases in electric rates in the spring will hurt Maine businesses and the ability to create more jobs. He says part of the solution is allowing larger hydropower projects in the state that are currently blocked by law.
"We need to remove the 100 megawatts on hydro; we have got to get competitive hydro in Maine," he said. "When you’re facing a 35 percent increase in March, it’s unacceptable to me."
LePage says he not only wants to tighten up welfare programs, he wants to expand job training programs to provide those on welfare with a path to a career. He says while he still will oppose expanding Medicaid, he wants to find a way to expand health care coverage for the poorest of Mainers.
"Others, we can work with them to find a way that they can get insurance," he says. "The one thing we got to remember is whatever you do do is going to cost the state."
And the governor is clear that he does not know where he will find the money to pay for the additional coverage, but he says that will be his goal in the new legislative session. Gov. LePage also says he will introduce legislation to broadly overhaul the state’s health care system, which he says needs serious attention.
"We have to make sure that we get the health care system working in the right direction and there is two things: One is people have to have access, and, more importantly, is we have to get to cost containment," he said.
And the governor says the state has to invest more in its infrastructure, with a backlog of needed road and bridge repairs and improvements. He says that will take bonding, but he will oppose any efforts that would increase debt payments above $100 million a year, even though there are other capital needs he wants addressed.
"Going forwards, there are things we have got to look at," he said. "We got to look at our prisons, and we definitely got to look at some of the schools. Some of the schools need to be replaced, or at least modified, rehabbed."
And the governor says the state has to face the reality that the higher education systems need to be re-vamped as costs are going up and fewer Mainers are opting for a college degree and are seeking other career paths.
"We need to do some major discussions about our University, and our Community College, Systems," he said. "I mean, we got 14 campuses and less and less people going to school."
And Gov. LePage says he also wants to further reform and restructure Maine’s tax system. He says it needs to help encourage job growth, but he did not offer details on what changes he will propose in January.
He says having Republicans in control of the Senate will help with his agenda, but he is worried about the Democrats and who they select as their leaders. He says the actions of the democratic majority two years ago did not encourage a good working relationship.
"People say I’m a hard guy to work with but the first three things that happened was they - the first bill was they tried to take my pension away," he said, "then they tried to sell the Blaine House. The third bill was, 'We don’t care what this governor wants, we got the votes.' That doesn’t give you a warm and fuzzy feeling about their willingness to work."
The governor says he has a lot of work to do on his two-year budget that must be submitted in early January. Some of his proposals will be in the budget, others will be separate bills.