Playing musical ‘chairs’ in Augusta

The assigning of legislative committee seats took longer than usual this year, complicated by the math of a Republican Senate and a Democratic House. In brief, every committee would have a Democratic majority, despite having a Republican chair from the Senate side.

Eventually, leadership reached agreement on Republican majorities for three of the sixteen joint standing committees, all natural resource based: Marine Resources, Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and Agriculture. The rest followed the usual pattern.

Each committee has thirteen members, three from the Senate and ten from the House. The majority party gets to designate the chair, so a Republican senator and a Democratic representative will co-chair each of the committees this term.

The Senate’s other two seats are split between the two parties. In the House, the nine seats in addition to the chair are split five for the majority and four for the minority. Each chamber has its own problems seating committee members. In the Senate, there are barely enough majority members to go around.

The Senate has 20 Republicans this term. The presiding officer (senate president) and the majority leader and assistant leader generally do not take committee chairmanships because caucus, chamber and calendar management take up most of their time.

Take the three Republican leaders out of the picture, and you are left with sixteen committees and seventeen senators eager to chair them. Sen. Roger Katz will chair the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability committee, not a joint standing committee but a general oversight group with a substantial workload. And lest Katz feel shortchanged, he also won a seat on the much-coveted Appropriations Committee.

Everyone else? They ended up in possession of a committee chairmanship, but when you have to use each and every caucus member to cover the bases, you end up with some shaky assignments.

Four of the committee chairs are senators who have never set foot in the State House, at least not as legislators. Not only will each be responsible for a policy committee, they also will fill the second seat on another committee.

Given that the first year of being a legislator is like drinking from the proverbial fire hose, they will have the kind of learning curve that can make you fall over backwards.

Freshman Sen. Scott Cyrway will be Senate chair of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee. Fortunately for him, he will be paired with seasoned committee veteran and all-around great guy, Rep. Louie Luchini from the House side.

Freshman Sen. Linda Baker will be Senate chair of Marine Resources. She, too, will benefit from an experienced House chair, Rep. Walter Kumiega of Little Deer Isle. Marine Resources is not for the faint of heart. Few legislators have experience in the area. Though fishermen have plenty of opinions, all of them strong, they are delightful constituents for any legislator who makes a sincere effort to understand their business and their challenges.

Freshman Sen. David Woodsome of Waterboro will be Senate chair of Energy, Utilities and Technology. He, too, will have a 3rd term representative sharing the duty.

The really jaw-dropping assignment is the fourth freshman chairmanship, that of Sen. Eric Brakey as Senate chair of Health and Human Services. Brakey is no doubt a fine fellow, but HHS oversees an enormously complicated and controversial policy area that owns one of the largest shares of the state budget.

His House chair, Rep. Drew Gattine, is just beginning his second term (though he does have experience in the health field and served on the committee last term). Heaven help them. There are a few veterans on the committee, including Hancock County’s own Rep. Richard Malaby, but this is going to be a heavy lift for two chairs with little experience between them.

And how did Hancock County fare with committee assignments? As mentioned, Luchini and Kumiega will carry on with their previous House chair assignments (Veterans and Legal Affairs, and Marine Resources, respectively).

Sen. Brian Langley is the new Senate chair of the Education Committee. He has prior service on the committee and many years of experience teaching. He has delved into a variety of innovative educational programs, including the Bridge Year (completing college credits during senior year of high school) and marine education programs along the coast. Great choice.

Bucksport Sen. Kim Rosen, returning to Augusta after a break from service in the House, will chair the Criminal Justice Committee. Rep. Brian Hubbell will continue on Education, Malaby will stay with Health and Human Services, and Ralph Chapmen will stay on the Agriculture Committee, an important assignment for the county that has adopted the local food movement with a vengeance. Chapman, Hubbell and Malaby are developing the kind of background in their policy areas that will enhance their service significantly, especially in the era of term limits.

Don’t forget, when the legislature gets rolling, you can sing along by tuning in to Radio Free Augusta. You’ll find a link on the legislature’s website. Remember, you don’t have to be there to be there.

Happy New Year, everyone.

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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