Maine’s party differences as clear as ever: GOP wants reform, Dems say no

Republican legislative leaders at the Maine State House. Mario Moretto | BDN

Republican legislative leaders at the Maine State House in April. Mario Moretto | BDN

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, in 2013. BDN photo by Matthew Stone.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, in 2013. Matthew Stone | BDN

Despite the odd dynamics of the debate, the showdown over the state budget has managed to expose some real differences between Democrats and Republicans. Setting aside the complexities of the intra-party skirmish for the moment, all elements of the Maine GOP have come together on a number of goals: they just disagree on the details and timing of how to get there. Republicans in Augusta largely agree on Gov. Paul LePage’s plan to have a referendum on eliminating the state income tax. House Republicans and LePage support a bolder push to get us moving in that direction in this budget, but Senate Republicans haven’t abandoned the goal.

Similarly, Republicans of all stripes in Augusta agree that Maine’s welfare system needs major reforms. In the Senate, for example, both Sens. Roger Katz and Eric Brakey — from different generations and wings of the party — have sponsored welfare reform bills this session. It has been a major focus of Brakey’s work as Senate chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, as it has for his House counterpart, Rep. Deb Sanderson of Chelsea.

Unfortunately, on these goals and many others Republicans have run into the buzz saw of Democratic opposition in Augusta. Though it appeared when Democrats released their own tax scheme that they had finally acknowledged that Mainers wanted tax relief, in fact that was just a smokescreen. Despite their grand show of campaigning for it across the state, it was really introduced for one reason: to muddy the legislative waters and divide Republicans.

On any host of issues, Maine Democrats, rather than coming up with working solutions of their own, are simply the party of no. Instead of embracing a reform agenda of their own, they occasionally toss crumbs of change to their base while by and large maintaining the status quo. Indeed, they are rarely even willing to embrace their own sides’ reforms. That’s why liberal activists are so often forced to go the ballot box on issues as wide-ranging as campaign finance, the environment, marijuana legalization, and more.

Of course, for many decades, this was a successful strategy for Democrats, as it so often is for ruling parties all over the globe. They maintained power in Augusta, doling out jobs and contracts to their friends and allies — both inside and outside state government. They’ve been able to create a network of organizations across the state to support their cause, all of which have a vested interest in resisting attempts to reform Augusta. This is a big part of the reason why so many liberal reformers have campaigned as Greens or independents in Maine rather than as Democrats.

In other states and at the national level, reforms championed largely by Republicans in Maine have been embraced by both parties — like welfare reform being passed by Bill Clinton or education reform being pushed by Barack Obama. Maine Democrats, however, have opposed efforts to implement these policies here. Republicans want to have an open, honest discussion about needed reforms in our state. It would be nice if they had a partner who was willing to engage in that discussion.

This has never been more obvious than in the recent budget discussion. While Republicans were debating over what changes to make, Democrats were pushing a milquetoast budget designed to have as little impact as possible. If you believe everything in Maine is just fine, then by all means, keep enabling Augusta Democrats. If, however, you think some major changes are needed in this state, give Republicans in Augusta a chance. As we’ve seen, when they have the opportunity, Maine Republicans can get things done.

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.