Opening Day offers clues to rest of session

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, (left) and Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, are sworn in to the 127th Legislature. BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, (left) and Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, are sworn in to the 127th Legislature. BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett.

The Opening Day of the 127th Maine Legislature has come and gone. Unlike many of its predecessors, it was not one solely composed of pomp and circumstance. Instead, Wednesday gave us insight — a sneak preview, if you will — of how much of the session will proceed.

A new era of divided government has been ushered in under the dome, with Republicans controlling the Senate and Democrats controlling the House. Though a similar dynamic has become familiar to us at the national level, it’s been decades since we’ve seen such a clear division between the two chambers in Augusta.

The difference was immediately apparent in the elections for attorney general, secretary of state, and treasurer. For the first two offices, the GOP nominated loyal Republicans who were unable to defeat the Democratic incumbents. For treasurer, the GOP nominated Terry Hayes, a former Democratic legislator (and member of leadership) who’s now unenrolled. She was able to garner enough support from her former colleagues to defeat incumbent Treasurer Neria Douglass.

Now, the legislative process is hardly the same as the process for electing constitutional officers. For one, Gov. Paul LePage has veto power over legislation; he has only an informal role in the election of constitutional officers. He can make his preferences known, but that’s the extent of his influence.

So, Democrats will be unable to simply force legislation through by maintaining party discipline, as they did with these votes. They’d need to convince Republicans to support them — including LePage.

Similarly, Republicans won’t be able to just pass their own proposals. They must convince at least enough of their Democratic colleagues in the House to join them to get a majority. If they can get enough Democratic votes, as they did on the vote for treasurer, they can get bills passed without the support of Democratic leadership.

However, the leaders of the House and the Senate can also compromise ahead of time to get things done. They can work together to find reasonable solutions to Maine’s problems that can find widespread support from both sides of the aisle. This will be necessary, for example, to get a budget passed, since that requires two-thirds support.

As was the case on Wednesday, getting things done in this Legislature may frequently be a difficult, lengthy process that will require sacrifices from both sides. On Wednesday, Republicans had to nominate someone they frequently disagreed with to get a new treasurer. Throughout the rest of the session, they’ll have to frequently modify their proposals to get them passed.

Republicans shouldn’t sacrifice their core principles, like support for gun rights and low taxes, to get bills passed. However, in other areas — like welfare reform and energy policy — they’ll have to work with their colleagues to find the art of the possible. That might mean that they won’t quite be able to do as much as they’d like, but that’s the cost of getting things done.

Democrats will need to back off their completely adversarial stance from last session. They no longer have the numbers to pass bills they know LePage will veto just to make a point. They also can’t pass bills with just enough Republican support to override a veto. If they want to get anything done, they’ll need to work with LePage and the Republican Senate.

The coming session will provide challenges for both sides and often prove contentious. However, there is the potential for much to get done, if legislators focus on doing what’s right.

Jim Fossel

About Jim Fossel

Originally from Alna, Jim Fossel has volunteered with a number of campaigns over the years, including for Peter Mills for Governor in 2006. He previously worked for U.S. Senator Susan Collins and House Republican Leader Josh Tardy.