For the Legislature, an interesting winter lies ahead

The 127th Legislature was sworn in this week, and new legislators continued their orientation to the mysteries of the legislative process. Some of the basics were covered in a day-long meeting on Nov. 17, and this week they got more.

With close to one third of the House of Representatives new to Augusta, plus five new senators as well, there was much to learn. The real education will begin when the Legislature convenes in January.

Some of the training of legislators is a chamber-wide event, some of it happens within the party caucuses. Needless to say, that part has to do with advancing partisan goals.

One of the caucus teachers is the redoubtable John Martin, who is back in the House after his first-ever loss for a seat in the last session. Despite term limits and an election loss, Mr. Martin continued to be a presence in Augusta. He cheerfully told reporters that “in many ways, I never really got out of it.” According to the account, he trained legislative committee chairs and attended Democratic caucuses.

Training notwithstanding, the opening of the legislative session will still come as a shock to new legislators. The session begins at a measured pace, as few bills are referred to committees in the first couple of weeks. By February the pace will begin to pick up.

Committee time will lengthen, constituent contact will increase and by March the shiny new legislators of today will be asking themselves just why they thought running for office was such a good idea.

The policy focus this year will be driven in large part by Republicans. Newly empowered, the Republicans will be hard at work figuring out how to maximize the opportunity they have been given. Democrats will still be licking their wounds.

Democrats and their spokespeople continue to cast the election results as an aberration. It was all about the bear baiting referendum. It was Eliot Cutler’s fault. It was President Obama’s low approval rating. Not too much conversation about the fact that they backed a candidate who just never caught fire, even in his hometown.

Never mind. It is time to look to the future. What will the big issues be? Last session Governor Paul LePage stood in the way of a Medicaid expansion that would have provided health insurance for an additional 70,000 Mainers. Republicans suggested there were more economical ways to go about increased coverage. Now they will need to say how.

The magical, mythical 55 percent level for state funding of public education will continue to hang out there as the holy grail, and will prove as elusive as it has thus far. We don’t have the money, and Republicans want to make further tax cuts.

Policies initiated by the Governor in his previous term will continue to push revenue demand onto municipal property taxes, and the more that becomes evident, the more restless taxpayers will become.

The primary source of property tax relief for municipalities is in jeopardy. State-municipal revenue sharing was implemented in 1972, in recognition of the fact that a disproportionate amount of taxation came from the property tax. Revenue sharing shifted a portion of the property tax burden to broad-based, statewide taxes.

Currently, 5 percent of state sales and income tax receipts is slated to go to the Local Government Fund for distribution to Maine municipalities. Every year since 2006, the Legislature has helped itself to revenue sharing funds to balance the state budget. Governor LePage suggested repealing the program altogether.

In the two most recently budgeted years, 2015 and 2016, the proposed distribution of revenue sharing funds from the Local Government Fund has fallen below 50 percent for the first time. For 2015, more than $73 million has been diverted from revenue sharing to the General Fund. For 2016, it will be almost $85 million.

Restoring an amount of that magnitude is next to impossible, even if done over several budget cycles. Unless something drastic happens in a supplemental budget this year, the cuts for 2015 and 2016 will stand. So far, no caucus of either party has made revenue sharing its passion.

Welfare reform, energy costs and continuing to whittle away at taxes are on the Republican short list for the coming session. The temporary sales tax increase enacted in 2014 will sunset on schedule in June 2015 if incoming Senate President Mike Thibodeau gets his way. Curbing abuse of welfare benefit cards will once again be debated.

Democratic leadership is making all the right noises about working with the invigorated Republicans, but there are plenty of signs that they will be digging in their heels. That would be a mistake. The election results this fall hinged largely upon Republicans finding and working the issues that resonated with voters, and so far it sounds as though their session agenda will follow their successful campaign playbook.

If Republicans can maintain a disciplined focus on those targets for which Mainers share their enthusiasm, they could make something of this divided Legislature. Senate President Thibodeau and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette will have to work for meaningful change without overreaching. It will be an interesting winter.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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