- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 4, 2014

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - Republican Gov. Paul LePage, touting his job-creating reforms, applauded the state’s improving economy on Tuesday in his annual State of the State address as he sought to convince the Democratic-controlled Legislature to approve his policies while giving voters a reason to return him to office for another term.

The state’s unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been in five years, and 13,000 new private-sector jobs have been created since he’s taken office, he said. But Maine is at a crossroads, he said, urging the Legislature to join him by backing proposals he said will attract businesses to the state, cut taxes and state spending and begin combating the drug epidemic.

“We cannot return to the last 40 years. We can do better than that. We must be bold. And we must have the courage to make tough decisions,” LePage told lawmakers during his nearly hour-long address.

Democrats denounced LePage’s speech as full of campaign rhetoric but short on new ideas. They said Maine has gained only a third of the jobs it lost since the recession and the governor’s failed policies are holding the state back.


“Homelessness is up, poverty is up. That is what we know,” said Democratic Rep. Peggy Rotundo, of Lewiston, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee. “I believe they are the consequence of cuts that he has made.”

LePage, who’s being challenged in a likely three-person race for governor this year, is proposing to create Open for Business Zones, where companies can get tax benefits and reduced electricity costs and employees won’t be forced to join unions and pay labor dues. LePage said that will allow Maine to compete with right-to-work states and attract companies.

LePage, a long-time opponent of taxes, also proposed a statewide referendum asking residents if they want to lower taxes and state spending by at least $100 million.

“Let’s ask the people that really matter,” he said. “Let’s ask hardworking Maine taxpayers.”

Democrats criticized LePage’s opposition to expand Medicaid under the federal health care law, reiterated in his speech Tuesday night, and said his refusal to accept federal funds to expand the program is putting the state’s residents and economy at risk.

“Lives are on the line. The economy is on the line,” said Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves, of North Berwick. “The governor is dead wrong on this one, and he had an opportunity to correct course, but he doubled down today about denying and delaying health care for hardworking Mainers.”

LePage’s proposals will face significant pushback by Democrats who staunchly oppose right-to-work measures. But Republican lawmakers urged their colleagues to give the governor’s proposals a chance.

“Hopefully our colleagues on the other side of the aisle will join with us, even though we know it’s an election year,” said Assistant Republican Leader Roger Katz, of Augusta. “Let’s look at the governor’s ideas. I think he hit a home run tonight.”

LePage also called on lawmakers to address the state’s growing drug problem, announcing he’d like to add four special drug prosecutors, add judges to drug courts and boost funding for the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. LePage said more than 20 percent of homicides in 2012 were related to illegal drugs and hundreds of babies are being born in the state each year addicted to drugs.

“We must hunt down dealers and get them off the streets,” he said. “We must protect our citizens from drug-related crimes and violence. We must save our babies from lifelong suffering.”

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