Addicted to bad ideas(1)

Politics + Other Mistakes
By AL DIAMON  |  April 24, 2013

I've never met a Maine business owner who thought the state unemployment benefit system was fair. Or the workers compensation system. Or the environmental protection system. Or the human rights commission. And let's not even get started on taxes.

As far as these self-proclaimed job creators are concerned, all that bureaucracy — including the biased, ignorant, rude jerks who oversee regulations specific to particular kinds of companies — serves no other purposes than to coddle the lazy and incompetent, stifle the economy, and reduce profits.

They're right.

Sort of.

Due process isn't pretty. Or convenient. Or even fair. All those rules that are supposed to assure both employers and employees they'll be getting an unbiased hearing can easily result in businesses losing some they probably should have won.

When Republican Governor Paul LePage summoned the state's unemployment hearing officers to a mandatory luncheon at the Blaine House in March for what he called a "discussion" (and what one of them termed a "group scolding") about why their rulings tended to favor workers who had lost their jobs, he was trying to deal with the reality of the situation. He just wasn't doing it in a realistic way. LePage or his senior staff should have known that if word of that meeting leaked out (and there was a 100 percent chance it would), it'd be characterized as the nasty governor trying to pressure the beleaguered hearing officers into deciding cases in favor of businesses. It would be spun as if LePage had summoned the state's judges to tell them they weren't convicting enough criminals, and he wanted them to pay less attention to that innocent-until-proven-guilty stuff. (LePage allegedly did call in one judge to discuss a case, an incident that, if true, indicates a stunning level of ethical unawareness.)

I wasn't at that lunch. I don't know what really happened. But I've been around politics long enough to know that hostile get-togethers always end badly for the host. I find it remarkable that neither LePage nor his closest advisors ever learned that lesson. Or maybe the bullheaded governor was warned of the consequences, but chose to ignore that advice. Whatever the reason, it should have been obvious there was nothing for LePage to gain from sharing sandwiches with those folks and plenty to be lost.

It's not as if this was the only way the unemployment insurance program might have been tweaked to make it more business-friendly. LePage could have proposed some relatively minor changes in the law that would have given employers an edge. If he'd had his priorities straight, he'd have done that before the last election, when the GOP controlled the Legislature. But he was too busy taking down left-leaning labor murals, complaining about video trackers, and flying off on Caribbean vacations to sort out those complexities.

Now that Democrats dominate both chambers, there's no way such measures will pass. LePage squandered his opportunity, and his belated announcement of a "blue ribbon commission" to study the problem won't change that.

What's worse is he's created another distracting controversy that, like the labor-mural flap, makes him look like a bully and a clunkhead. If this sort of incompetence were an isolated incident, it could be shrugged off. But with federal investigators now checking into what went down, the conflict will continue to make news. Not only does that fire up the anti-LePage forces, it also provides cover for Democrats in the Legislature if they fail to pass a responsible budget, postpone dealing with hospital debt, or punt on education reform.

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