Rising costs are dominating Maine politics, but solutions are scarce
Drivers pulling into the Dysart’s station in Bangor last Thursday were greeted by an unusual sight: former Gov. Paul LePage and former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin were waiting to help pump gas and talk with unsuspecting voters about high prices.
While the Republicans running for their old seats in 2022 gabbed with customers, volunteer Jeff Thom of Orrington set up a table in the parking lot, ready to register voters or hand out LePage 2022 lawn signs. He sat just below the large price sign that read $4.65, slightly below the state average but still higher than ever.
Thom said he got involved with politics in 2020 because of frustration with lockdowns. He has tabled elsewhere as well. With record gas prices, he said Dysarts was a “good place to be.”
The Republican strategy reflects an electorate reeling under rising costs in an election year when Democrats control both Augusta and Washington. It also comes under the global context of rising prices that Maine politicians cannot fix but can only hope to mitigate.
“You have very high inflation everywhere in the world,” said Michael Hillard, an economics professor at the University of Southern Maine. “These are things that have been very hard to get under control.”
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, LePage accused Democrats of causing high oil prices to get more people to switch to electric cars. Poliquin bashed President Joe Biden’s decision to halt construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have provided a new way to get oil to the U.S. from Canada but would not have opened until 2023.
“The reason we’re in this trouble is because the current administration, the majority party, are shutting down and restricting our supply of gasoline and diesel,” Poliquin said.
The Biden administration announced a series of other actions this spring, including releasing oil from the strategic national reserve and allowing drilling on federal lands to help increase supply. But it has not tempered domestic gas prices in the short-run amid high global demand.
That inflation and gas prices are high elsewhere speaks to the difficulty of the problem, but it does not resolve the high prices facing many Mainers. A poll released earlier this month by Pan Atlantic Research found Maine voters most frequently named cost of living, inflation and taxes as the issues most important to them.
While some workers may be able to mitigate the real effects of inflation by switching to higher wage jobs, Maine has a greater share of its population living on a fixed income compared to most states, noted Jim Libby, a Colby College economics professor.
Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, has touted the $850 checks that were at the center of her supplemental budget this spring as a crucial inflation offset. The one-time payments at the state level, which will begin going out next month, stemmed from an idea first floated by legislative Republicans and garnered bipartisan support.
“While no governor can control the international forces at play that contribute to inflation, what this government can do is provide relief directly to Maine people,” Mills told the Democratic state convention this month.
LePage has been a harsh critic of the checks, saying on Thursday that they could worsen inflation due to an increase in the money supply. He has called for a temporary suspension of the gas tax as an alternative, although business and transportation interests were skeptical.
At people’s doors, Mike Tipping, a progressive activist running in the Democratic primary for the Maine Senate seat serving Orono and nearly two dozen other Penobscot County towns, said he hears from voters about inflation “all the time.”
But he does not think it is a bad issue for Democrats to talk about, particularly as progressives have been at the forefront of Augusta efforts to crack down on electric utilities that have increased rates dramatically this year. Those were attributed largely to natural gas price spikes.
“There is not as much that we can do in Maine about global oil prices, but something we can do better is hold the power companies accountable for their price gouging,” Tipping said.
Targeted policies could help bring down costs in specific areas. But the bigger check in inflation will likely come from the “blunt” instrument of the Federal Reserve raising interest rates to tamp down demand, said Hillard, the USM economist. But even that will take time.
“I don’t think that we’re going to wake up in October and see 2 percent inflation and gas prices back down to under $3.50,” he said.
That leaves gas stations as a fertile campaign spot for Republicans. Although no new voters came to Thom’s table while Poliquin and LePage were pumping gas on Thursday, about half a dozen customers and passersby picked up LePage 2022 signs.
When it was LePage’s turn to speak to reporters, two TV reporters suggested moving cameras to get a different shot without the street in the background. The former governor pushed back. He wanted to make sure the large sign illuminating gas prices was still visible.
“I read an article this morning that by August, September, we are going to be rationing gas and we could be paying $8,” LePage said. “We need to stop that.”