The 128th Maine Legislature has convened, getting itself organized and ready for the first regular session, which will begin Jan. 4, 2017. The December meeting is generally of a celebratory nature, especially for newly minted legislators sitting at their chamber desks for the first time.
A legislator would have to be hard of heart not to feel a thrill sitting in those chambers full of history and climbing the marble steps of the State House worn by the footfalls of the likes of Joshua Chamberlain.
Gov. Paul LePage, there to swear in legislators in their respective chambers, injected an unaccustomed note of business into the proceedings. Concerned about the economic impact of two recently passed citizens’ initiatives, the governor gave legislators advance notice of his intentions to attempt to modify them in the winter session.
First up was the tax on income over $200,000 to increase school funding. In a press release, the governor called the tax on “successful Maine households and small businesses” a measure that would “drive them out of our state and prevent badly needed professionals … from coming here.”
Next was the voter-approved minimum wage increase. LePage called the measure “fraught with unintended consequences,” specifically elimination of the “tip credit” and automatic increases in the minimum wage that he predicts will push 350,000 elderly into poverty by increasing costs at restaurants, hairdressers and the corner store.
Speaking to legislators leery of defying the will of the voters, the governor said the Legislature has “the authority to maintain the intent of these referendums while improving the specifics of the law so they do not harm the Maine people and hurt our economy.”
The Legislature also elected its own leadership for the upcoming session. This is essentially a confirmation of votes taken earlier by the majority caucuses in the House and Senate. Knowing they will be outvoted, the minority party generally extends the courtesy of supporting the majority party’s designee for presiding officers.
This gives the president of the Senate and the speaker of the House bragging rights for being “unanimously elected,” but more importantly, it allows the session to begin with a show of good will all around.
Senate Republicans stuck with the same leadership team from the 127th Legislature, electing Sen. Mike Thibodeau (Winterport) for a second term as Senate president, Garrett Mason (Lisbon Falls) as majority leader and Andre Cushing (Hampden) as assistant majority leader. Senate Democrats tapped Troy Jackson of Allagash and Nathan Libby of Lewiston for their leadership.
In a year in which the 2nd Congressional District held the spotlight in the presidential election, Senate leadership was pretty well distributed across the state. If one were to draw a Mason-Dixon line across our state at the level of Augusta, three Senate leaders would reside north of it, two south.
In the House, Democrats elected Sara Gideon of Freeport the new speaker, Erin Herbig of Belfast as House majority leader and Jared Golden of Lewiston assistant majority leader. That is a cluster covering a small-ish portion of southern and coastal Maine. House Republicans kept Ken Fredette of Newport and Ellie Espling of New Gloucester as their leaders.
That leaves Troy Jackson as the only member of leadership who hails from north of Bangor, and Bangor is still the deep south to much of the state, located only about one-third of the way up the north-south axis of Maine.
One of the most contentious issues in play before the session even begins is that of the new state facility proposed to house forensic psychiatric patients. Maybe, just maybe, that furor has been disarmed by a meeting between LePage and Gideon, the new House speaker.
The two sat down together last week to discuss a path forward. The Legislature claimed to be insufficiently involved in the matter, and the governor was threatening to shift the facility from a site adjacent to Riverview to somewhere outside of Augusta, avoiding the need for legislative approval.
Their meeting could pave the way to move this one into the win-win column. Nice what a little face time can do. What is at stake is the recertification of Riverview, necessary to salvage federal funding to the tune of $20 million per year.
The governor and the speaker reportedly agreed that the ideal site is the Riverview location, and further, that a hearing on the proposal will take place. They also agreed that there should be a firm plan sooner rather than later, with the governor warning that unnecessary delay would cause him to resume his search for a site that doesn’t need the Legislature’s consent.
This is the sort of negotiating that we have seen only infrequently between the executive and legislative branches for the past six years. It is most welcome. Good relationships at the leadership level are essential to state progress. Thibodeau managed that well within the last legislative session, though he and the governor were often cross-threaded.
If conversations between legislative leadership and the chief executive can be more frequent, more open and more civil, we might actually get somewhere. So far, so good.