Session shapes up as contentious



It didn’t take long to discover that the New Year is not going to be all that different from the old. Governor Paul LePage kicked it off with a classic “open mouth, insert foot” maneuver. Those who are not fans began hyperventilating.

The incident monopolized front page real estate for days and made the Guv’nor a national phenom – again – and not in a good way. His opponents lambasted him, his advocates defended him, and those in between (of whom there are not many) offered mild criticism or tagged it much ado about not very much.

Senate President Mike Thibodeau (R-Belfast) gave a quick disavowal, stating with admirable brevity that the governor’s comments were “inappropriate” and that they “detract from the focus we should have in combating the drug crisis here in Maine.”

Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett managed to be on both sides of the dust-up, calling the governor’s words “inappropriate and ill-chosen” but not a reflection on the governor’s sincere desire to address the “heroin epidemic.” Said Bennett, “I know the governor. He’s not a racist.”

Alas, the nine House members bent on impeaching the governor were persuaded by Democratic leadership to defer action in a bid for harmony as the session opened. The next day, the latest firestorm broke loose. Now there is renewed interest, if not in impeachment, in censure or reprimand by the Democratic-controlled House.

This is not going to make life under the dome any easier this winter. An emerging agreement on funding for the governor’s long-sought drug enforcement agents, the bipartisan bill developed by legislative leadership that would have funded the agents and provided treatment money as well, might now be DOA.

The governor took matters into his own hands, pulling funds from the Gambling Control Board (funds the financial order says were “no longer needed” by that board) to cover the cost of the agents. So now he has no need of the legislative effort. He has what he wants and does not have to swallow the treatment spending, which is not his priority.

If he should dust off his veto pen for the occasion, the bill, which evenly divides $4.9 million between enforcement and treatment, would need a two-thirds vote of the legislature to survive. House Republicans already have suggested they will hew to the governor’s line. As for the furor, they have taken the “silence is golden” approach.

Further to the list of items that will muck up the Second Session of the 127th Legislature, Democrats kicked off their campaign to take back the Senate with the announcement of four Democrats who will be contesting Republican-held seats.

The Democratic hopefuls include the current House Majority Leader, Jeff McCabe, who presumably would challenge third-term incumbent Sen. Rodney Whittemore, who won his last race with a comfy 63 percent margin. Former Rep. and Sen. Troy Jackson, who left the legislature in a failed attempt to win a congressional seat, would take on Peter Edgecombe, who served four terms in the House and stepped up to the Senate last election.

Jonathan Fulford would be in a rematch against Thibodeau, a contest that led to a recount in 2014. However, Thibodeau now has incumbency behind him, not to mention the statesman-like performance he has turned in during his senate presidency.

The fourth announced candidate is Rock Alley, Washington County president of the Maine Lobstering Union, who would take on Sen. David Burns, who has served two terms in the House and two in the Senate. Burns, a conservative and a gentleman, will be hard to unseat.

All four candidates will face uphill battles. The importance of their group announcement is not in the threat it poses to current Republican senators, but rather that it represents the drawing of swords that will soon cast a shadow over any and all legislative business.

There are only two term-limited members of the Senate. Both are Democrats. Their districts, Portland and Brunswick, are likely to stay in Democratic hands. Brownie Carson, a well-known environmentalist, is pursuing the Brunswick seat. In Portland, Jon Hinck, also an environmentalist, who previously served six years in the House, will likely be in a primary with current Portland Rep. Diane Russell, who will be termed out this year.

The list of declared candidates on the state website already runs to three pages and will grow in leaps and bounds this winter. And people ask us what we do in the winter in Maine.

All is not lost. Despite the House Republican caucus carrying the banner for the most conservative element in the legislature, overall the legislature has kept the state on a reasonably even keel, gubernatorial oscillations notwithstanding.

If members can be persuaded to keep the worst of the electioneering off the table until April, there might yet be some useful work done. That’s a big “if.” Well before spring, a young man’s – and young woman’s – fancy will turn to thoughts of campaigning, and the outlines of the 128th Legislature will begin to emerge.

 

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Retired nurse and former independent Maine State Senator.
Jill Goldthwait

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