AUGUSTA, Maine — Still smarting from losses at the polls last fall, Republican leaders said Thursday that their party needs to do a better job communicating with voters on their goals of smaller, more efficient government.
In an event that looked and sounded like the launch of a new campaign, State House Republicans gathered on the banks of the Kennebec River in Augusta to highlight some of their legislative priorities.
The GOP lawmakers took a number of political swipes at Democrats who control the Legislature and the Blaine House, criticizing individual bills and aspects of a tax reform plan being spearheaded by Democratic leadership. They suggested Democrats were not doing enough to lower taxes and reduce the size of government.
But they also blamed themselves for not getting their message out to voters. For instance, during the last election voters struck down a tax increase on beer and soda but still sent more Democrats to Augusta.
Sen. Kevin Raye, the Senate minority leader, said that prompted some “soul searching” and told him that voters were on the same page as Republicans; they just didn’t know it.
“We are here today to mark the start of a new era and to define for the people of Maine what Republicans stand for,” Raye of Perry said from a grandstand filled with several dozen GOP lawmakers.
Raye and House minority leader Rep. Joshua Tardy, R-Newport, pledged to work for a government that was more caring, responsible and transparent. They also said their party will continue to push to make state government more efficient and more effective while reducing the tax burden on Maine citizens.
“We know that we can’t tax and spend our way to better times,” Tardy said.
At the same time, the Republicans promised to continue working in a bipartisan fashion on passage of a new, two-year budget as well as on a package of bond proposals.
“While we don’t hold the reins of state government, we do have the ability to shape debate,” Raye said.
Democrats largely welcomed the Republican objectives, saying they are consistent with what the state’s Democratic leadership is already pursuing.
David Farmer, spokesman for Gov. John Baldacci, pointed out that the two-year spending plan proposed by the governor is $200 million smaller than the previous biennial budget. The draft budget will shrink further next month when the state’s economic forecasters reveal how much larger Maine’s budget hole has grown.
Farmer also said more than 700 positions in state government have been eliminated since Baldacci took office in 2002. The governor’s budget proposed eliminating more than 200 additional positions, although those figures have changed since legislative budget writers began reworking the proposal.
Legislative leaders and staff members on the Democratic side pointed out that they signaled their interest in working cooperatively early on by opting to require a two-thirds majority to pass a budget. They also expressed hope that as stress levels mount during budget negotiations that the two sides won’t retreat to their partisan corners.
“I think this session has been marked by a high level of bipartisanship, and I hope it continues,” said House Majority Leader Rep. John Piotti of Unity. “It needs to continue.”
Democrats hold a 20-15 majority in the Senate and a 95-55 edge in the House, where there also is one independent. Democrats have been on a winning streak in general elections for the House since 1974.
Republicans have held the Senate outright for only one two-year period since the 1982 elections.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.