By Jill Goldthwait
Can it really be the Fourth of July? The long, cold, wet spring gave way so precipitously to sunshine and warmth that we hardly had a chance to realize summer was upon us until it was.
Legislators have decamped to wherever home is, adjourning in the wee hours of June 20. Some of the kids were cranky, having stayed up way past their bedtime. There was a serious breach of protocol when a Republican member of the House of Representatives called Speaker Sara Gideon a weasel as he was being walked out of the chamber by a covey of colleagues after an angry outburst. Dreadful behavior, but a true Maine insult.
The Appropriations Committee delivered a bipartisan budget to the third floor, where it was promptly passed, never an easy task. It takes sustained effort and grudging compromise, lost arts in our nation’s capitol, and both the majority and minority parties are to be commended for pulling it off.
General Fund spending drew close to $8 billion but was a bit less than Governor Janet Mills had proposed, leaving Republicans able to claim successful downward pressure on spending and both sides pointing to property tax relief measures.
One “needs improvement” mark on the report card for the first session of the 129th Legislature was for the wholesale carry-over of bills that were in play when the adjournment deadline arrived. It is not unusual for bills to be kept alive if leadership feels extra study time could improve the bill or sponsors want to try for compromise. But this has always been a selective process.
This time, per the motions on the Senate calendar for the final day of the session, 387 bills were carried over. That was all but six of the 216 bills on the Special Appropriations Table, placed there to await funding, and an almost equal amount of other bills that had not had final votes.
It is one way to adjourn on time without having concluded the work of the session, but it is inelegant. Nevertheless, the legislature did well to get as far as it did. Though it is not an election year, many legislators will take advantage of their homecoming to be visible in local July 4 celebrations.
Meanwhile, at the halfway mark of the 129th Legislature, the parties have visions of 2020 dancing in their heads, when the entire Legislature will be up for re-election. Hancock County has mostly freshmen serving now, but MDI’s beloved Brian Hubbell (D-Bar Harbor) will be termed out. Previously unsuccessful candidates may give it another shot, but the party is surely thinking about fresh faces for the race and recruiting is underway.
House Speaker Sara Gideon will term out at the end of the 129th too, and has announced her intention to challenge U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. Gideon is smart and capable but may be a victim of “Augusta syndrome.” In the political echo chamber under the dome it is easy to buy into the illusion that fame there equals a statewide following. Not so much.
Libby Mitchell, legislator extraordinaire, had an unparalleled Augusta record. She served as both speaker of the House and president of the Senate, the first woman to do so and a feat which few if any men have rivaled. However, her 2010 gubernatorial bid was a sobering reminder that those who reach the pinnacle in the state capitol do not necessarily enjoy similar success on a broader stage.
Despite recent votes that have disappointed previous supporters of Sen. Collins, she is a force to be reckoned with and it may take someone other than Sara Gideon to make a dent in Collins’s election results. Mind you, Collins has not yet entered the 2020 ring. If she does, it will surely be one of the most-watched and most expensive contests in the country.
First, though, Gideon will need to win a primary; Betsy Sweet is in the race too. Sweet entered the gubernatorial primary in 2018 and lost to now-Governor Janet Mills. Sweet is no stranger to the State House, having long lobbied for women, the disabled, and victims of abuse and discrimination. She is a ferocious and tireless campaigner with a healthy following and will give Gideon a run for her money.
A few other names are out there, including Saco attorney and self-described “queer feminist mermaid” Bre Kidman and Republican Derek Levasseur of Fairfield who is coming after Collins from the right. Neither one is likely to get much traction. There may be more serious contenders still unannounced, including other Republicans to the right of Collins.
Right now most of us are thinking more of parades than politics. There will be plenty of time to turn our attention to all things political, but now it’s time to sip every drop of goodness out of our precious summertime.