For the 127th Legislature, lots of challenges lie ahead

By Jill Goldthwait

The 127th Legislature is beginning to take shape. The membership is now fixed pursuant to the recounts held over the past week. The first recount confirmed Michael Thibodeau of Winterport as the winner in Senate District 11, a fortunate outcome for him since his Republican colleagues had already elected him Senate president.

With a Republican majority assured in the Senate and a Democratic majority in the House, the caucuses got on with the business of electing legislative leadership. In addition to President-Elect Thibodeau, Republicans in the Senate named Garret Mason of Lisbon Falls as majority leader and Andre Cushing of Hampden as assistant majority leader. Democrats picked former Senate President Justin Alfond of Portland as minority leader and Dawn Hill of Cape Neddick as assistant minority leader.

In the House, despite seeing their margin shrink to just 11 seats, Democrats stuck with Mark Eves of Berwick as speaker. Rep. Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan and Rep. Sara Gideon of Freeport were elected majority leader and assistant. Republican Ken Fredette of Newport will continue as minority leader while Rep. Ellie Espling of New Gloucester brings a fresh face to leadership as assistant minority leader.

Yes, residents of the Real Maine, we are chopped liver. Four of the five Democratic leaders live south of LL Bean’s.

The spotlight now shifts to another and very interesting set of elections for the so-called constitutional officers, those whose manner of election is specified in the state Constitution. Maine’s secretary of state, treasurer and attorney general all are elected “biennially at the first session of the Legislature, by joint ballot of the senators and representatives in convention.” That will happen on Dec. 3.

The proceedings retain some of the trappings of the opening of Parliament. Senators are paraded down the hall from the Senate chamber to the House, preceded by the sergeant-at-arms crying out “Make way! Make way for the Senate!” Really. Presumably, the populace is expected to flee or be trampled. The representatives rise to greet the Senate with applause, cheers and hand-shakes from members seated on the aisles. Okay, maybe some eye-rolling, too.

In the 127th Legislature as a whole, Democrats have the majority of the votes with 94 of the total 186 seats. Republicans hold 88 seats. There are four unenrolled (“independent”) members of the House. This means Democrats have the juice to elect the three constitutional officers as well as the state auditor, whose election is prescribed in statute, not in the Constitution, but is also held at the joint convention.

This presents a dilemma for Democrats. The constitutional offices can be a place to stash a party member who has lost an election. This year the Democrats have a surplus of candidates fitting that description. But in order to place some of the politically homeless, they would have to bump the existing office-holders, also Democrats. That would be Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, Attorney General Janet Mills and Treasurer Neria Douglas.

What will become of the losing Democrats? After 34 years in public office, Mike Michaud does not exactly have a skill set that is market-ready. The chances of him going back to paper-making are unlikely. Emily Cain has some ties to the University of Maine that might lead to post-political employment, but working with the UM Alumni Association would be a waste of her energy and talent. No offense, UM alumni.

Remember that former Governor John Baldacci went on to a position in the federal Department of Defense “to conduct a full-scale review and evaluation of military health care and wellness.” Singularly unequipped to undertake such a review, he reminds us that a place can always be found.

Governor Paul LePage was quick to suggest that independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler would make a dandy attorney general. Don’t hold your breath. The Governor also advised House Democrats to elect someone other than Mark Eves as speaker for the new term. They did not.

Note to Governor: Legislative leadership and the constitutional offices are the prerogative of the Legislature alone. Your advice will be neither sought nor heeded. Isn’t this the month you usually go to Jamaica?

Democrats have just a six-vote majority in the Legislature as a whole, and there are four independents whose votes are up for grabs. If anyone out there gets creative with deal-making, there could be surprises in store.

There are other decisions to make, internal to all the legislative process. This term, the Joint Standing Committees will be chaired by a Republican senator and a Democratic representative. Rest assured that jockeying for those chairmanships is proceeding apace.

Each chamber has its own set of rules that must be approved for the session. Then there are the Joint Rules that “assist in carrying out the responsibilities of the Legislature.”

Once all this is done, it’s a piece of cake. All the Legislature has to do is figure out how it will function with divided leadership, develop the necessary relationships with the Governor’s office, determine what policy issues will take the limelight, and begin to consider what sort of budget might pass. We wish them a fruitful session.

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