Barn burner or snoozefest? What’s to come for the Maine Legislature

If you blinked, you may have missed it, but the Legislature — or pieces of it, at least — was back at work in Augusta last week. The Senate was in session to consider a number of gubernatorial nominations, but the real action took place in the Legislative Council, which decided which bills to allow to the floor in the second session of the 127th Maine Legislature.

In the first session of each Legislature, legislators may introduce as many bills as they wish, and most are guaranteed at least a public hearing in a committee. In the upcoming second session, however, the Legislative Council — made up of leadership from the House and Senate — is supposed to be more selective. In theory, only legislation that is an emergency should be admitted, as the second session is shorter, and there is less time to consider legislation.

In practice, however, the party that holds the majority in the Legislature usually gets free reign to introduce bills. The majority party frequently uses this privilege to set up debates that it believes will help its cause in the upcoming election. However, this session that formula is turned on its head, as the Legislature is divided, with Republicans controlling the Senate and Democrats the House.

That means that the usual rules regarding the second session aren’t really applicable. Neither party can simply pick and choose which bills to allow — so it is, perhaps, predictable that very few pieces of legislation were advanced for consideration. Lawmakers will debate fewer than 100 new bills in the upcoming session, meaning that each bill will be magnified in importance as it meanders through the legislative process.

However, the low number of legislator-proposed bills doesn’t mean that the upcoming session will necessarily be a snoozefest. Even in a divided Legislature, an election year is an election year, so a few pieces of high-profile legislation slipped through that will likely be the subject of campaign fliers all over the state. In addition, Gov. Paul LePage can submit legislation, giving him a great deal of influence over the course of the session.

Lance Libby, Adrienne Bennett and Peter Steele carry 65 veto letters from Gov. Paul LePage up to the Legislature in July. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Lance Libby, Adrienne Bennett and Peter Steele carry 65 veto letters from Gov. Paul LePage up to the Legislature in July. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

That will be the wildcard of the second session: What legislation LePage might submit, how exactly it will be written, how much he might be willing to compromise, and how much the Legislature is willing to compromise in return. During the first session, LePage offered two ways to pay for his income tax reductions: either cut the budget or expand the sales tax. Unfortunately, Democrats and Republicans couldn’t agree on either approach and instead cut the income tax by far less than LePage initially proposed.

The question for the second session will be whether that pattern repeats itself on the issue that LePage has (rightly) zeroed in on to be at the top of his agenda: Maine’s drug epidemic. Will the three sides (legislative Republicans, LePage and legislative Democrats) be able to negotiate some sort of comprehensive response that truly addresses the problem, or will they fall into a half-hearted bill that can get passed?

Hopefully, for the sake of the entire state, some real work can get done on serious issues. Our state deserves actual solutions out of Augusta that improve the lives of all Mainers, not bills designed to make it seem like something is getting done just so an issue gets on the front pages and people get re-elected. There’s a chance that the second session can be a barn burner that results in real accomplishments, but only if the Legislature and LePage can get together and negotiate solutions rather than focusing on the next campaign.

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.