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Straight talk turns to political pandering

The conventional wisdom is that Gov. Paul LePage says what’s on his mind, even when holding his tongue might serve his political purposes to do so.

But it appears that the governor is not immune from saying – and acting – one way when the audience is true believers and saying something different when it’s politically convenient.

In one recent example, the governor paid homage to his Tea Party backers during the Legislative session, while singing a different tune behind the scenes to the financial poo-bahs on Wall Street.

In a second example, the governor refused to sign a Democratic bill to improve the state’s unemployment insurance system but then tried to claim credit for the change earlier this week as the bill is about to become law.

On May 25, LePage issued a stinging statement to the Legislature, announcing his veto of bond that would support innovation in the Maine economy. The bond had passed the Legislature with strong, bipartisan support.

The governor, at the time, also refused to sign four other bond bills, allowing them to proceed to voters without his signature.

LePage went so far as to say, “even with the voters’ authorization to borrow this money, my [a]dministration will not spend it until we’ve lowered our debt significantly. That could be several years.”

Such an open threat to ignore the will of the voters and a supermajority of the Legislature might score the governor points with the most extreme in his party who think government spending is a sin, but it does nothing to improve the economy or create jobs.

Earlier in the month, however, members of LePage’s financial team had a much different – and more optimistic take – on Maine.

Members of the LePage administration, along with State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin and members of his staff, made presentations concerning the state’s finances to the bond rating agencies.

The presentation gives the state the chance to make its best case for economic recovery, to tout changes meant to improve Maine’s financial condition and argue for an improved bond rating.

In addition to trumpeting many of LePage’s controversial proposals, the presentation offers a different impression of Maine than the doom-and-gloom pronouncements usually coming from the governor.

In public, the governor may be saying that Maine can’t afford good roads and bridges, investments in higher education and innovation or clean water, but in private his administration says something different.

For example, the administration touted Maine’s improving revenue picture, the constitutional guarantee that bonds will be repaid, the aggressive way the state repays debt and its strong cash position.

The presenters made a point to talk about the state’s bipartisan approach to budgeting, which LePage and Republicans then ignored a few weeks later.

And the kicker: The administration highlighted the state’s “low general obligation debt.”

So are we struggling under insurmountable debt or is Maine a good investment with low general obligation debt? It seems the governor would like to have it both ways, depending on who he’s talking to and the political outcome he wants.

Similarly, the LePage Department of Labor put out a press release on Monday bragging about a new unemployment initiative, called WorkShare, that will help companies and workers during an economic downturn.

“When employers need to have a temporary layoff or cut hours, they risk losing their best employees to other jobs,” Maine Labor Commissioner Robert Winglass said in a press release. “WorkShare helps businesses retain their workforce part-time and allows workers to collect unemployment benefits. This can temporarily make up the difference in lost hours.”

It’s a good program that has the potential to keep people working – and off full unemployment – while also allowing companies to weather tough times.

While the governor’s Labor Department was touting the new law this week, it was a different story in 2011. The law, sponsored by outspoken Democratic Rep. Diane Russell of Portland, passed the Legislature unanimously, but the governor refused to sign it.

If he couldn’t be bothered to sign a good idea, even one sponsored by a Democrat, last year, why brag about it now?

Perhaps the governor is counting on short memories or he’s just playing to a different audience. Either way, maybe the governor isn’t so straight-talking after all.

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