The 127th Legislature has convened, been sworn to duty and promptly blew out of town until the real action starts on Jan. 7. On their sole session day, they were introduced, as Speaker Mark Eves noted, to “legislative time.”
A quibble in the House of Representatives over just who is constitutionally able to vote for House officers led to a slight (four hour) delay in the proceedings. But when Minority Leader Ken Fredette yielded to the inevitable, the rest of the day proceeded apace.
The House has seated 79 Democrats, 68 Republicans and four independent, or unenrolled, members. About one third of House members are new. The newbies are weighted toward the Republicans, with more than half of that caucus serving for the first time. Just over half the House members are native Mainers. A bit less than one-third of the members (46 of them) are women.
At the other end of the hall, the Senate’s 35 members consist of 21 Republicans (for now, stay tuned, that could change) and 14 Democrats. This includes the contested Senate seat currently occupied by Republican Cathleen Manchester, with an investigation underway regarding the outcome of that race. There are 20 incumbents and just five members with no previous experience. The Senate has eight women members, the second lowest number since 1988.
Looking back over the last quarter century, women have been chronically underrepresented in Augusta. Only in the 119th and 120th legislatures (1999-2001) did the percentage of women in the Senate reach 46 percent and 43 percent respectively. Otherwise, Senate percentages have ranged from 20 percent to 37 percent. In the House, 32 percent is the high-water mark for women, 21 percent the low.
The first test of the ability of the Republican Senate to work with the Democratic House came during the Dec. 3 Joint Convention of the legislature for the purpose of electing the constitutional officers: attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer.
For these elections, it is the overall math rather than chamber totals that matters. This year, that means 93 Democrats, 89 Republicans and 4 independents. In order to prevail in the election of constitutional officers, the Republicans would have needed all the independent House members or some Democratic crossovers.
For two of the three offices, the incumbents, previously elected by Democrats, held on to their seats despite Republican challengers. Attorney General Janet Mills and Secretary of State Matt Dunlap will serve again.
It was a different story in the election of the treasurer.
The treasurer’s seat was held by Democrat Neria Douglass. Douglass served three terms in the Maine Senate before being defeated for re-election in 2004. Democratic colleagues, who held the majority in both houses of the legislature, found her a home as state auditor, a position she held for eight years. Democrats elected her state treasurer in 2013.
For the race this year, Republicans had a surprise nominee in Terry Hayes. Hayes just completed the maximum four consecutive terms in the House as a Democrat, but shortly after this fall’s election, she dropped her party affiliation and became an independent.
Her recent service in the legislature meant she had solid relationships with enough Democrats who, when added to Republican votes, were able to put her in office. Good move. No one is too dissatisfied with the results, Republicans can claim a success and Democrats have a known quantity with whom they can work.
Math matters in the selection of committee members, too. There are 17 legislative committees. Each has 13 members, three senators and ten representatives. The chairs of the committees are not in doubt; Senate chairs will be Republicans, House chairs will be Democrats. It is the rest of the membership that presents a challenge.
Because the Senate majority is held by Republicans, they will appoint a Republican chair and a second Republican member. Democrats will have one senatorial slot on the committee. House Democrats will appoint a Democrat as House chair. Of the remaining nine seats, Democrats would normally take five, Republicans four.
But wait, says Fredette. That would mean all committees will have a Democratic majority. One senator plus six representatives gives them seven seats, a majority of the 13-member committees. Democrats would have the majority of votes on every committee.
Since one of the two chambers is held by Republicans, their party leaders do not see this as fair. Fredette has made a bid for Republican control of half the committees. Democrats are doing their own math, and it adds up to a lot less than that. The Democratic majority in the House, stung by their loss of seats, is not about to give up without a fight.
Republicans are prepared to exercise their new-found muscle this session. With a governor of their party in the Blaine House, the Senate firmly within their grasp and a big gain in House seats, they are pressing their advantage on every front. Democrats would be ill-advised to be too recalcitrant. And us? We’re just hoping nobody goes crazy, and the necessary business of the state gets done.