If the Republican Party wins control of the state Senate and gains two dozen or more seats in the House of Representatives, or if it approaches parity in either body, a new kind of GOP legislator must emerge. Instead of merely griping about the budget process and the priorities state spending reflect, Republicans must present real alternatives in the budget discussion that will begin in January. To effectively do so, they must come to Augusta with a consensus on what they hope to achieve, and they must have a specific, prioritized short list of goals.
For too many years, the Democratic dominance of the State House has bred Republican legislators who, while working well at the committee level on individual proposals, have fallen back into lock-step opposition to spending. Too often, when pressed for details, they have failed to enumerate what spending they would cut. Too many times they have retreated into generalities, without specific alternatives to Democratic plans.
Whether the next governor is a Republican, Democrat or independent, GOP legislators have the opportunity to shape the debate on how state government reinvents itself for these leaner times. A two-pronged approach makes sense. The first is to identify specific programs that can be cut altogether or funded at significantly lower levels. The second is to find laws and rules that legitimately hamper business in Maine.
If those lists are short enough and Republicans can argue persuasively for the changes, Democrats should embrace some or all of them. In exchange, Republicans should stick their necks out and support Democrats when they propose consolidation of state agencies (or propose their own consolidation plans). They must be willing to let business tax breaks that fail to boost economic growth effectively be eliminated.
And they must join Democrats on some kind of tax reform package. Sniping about the “100 new taxes” the income tax reduction law included may have made for effective campaign fodder, but it did little to reduce the burden individuals and businesses bear.
For their part, Democrats must concede that public education will rely increasingly on student performance as a measure of faculty success. They must join with Republicans in creating a new compensation paradigm for state workers that matches contemporary standards for pay, insurance and retirement benefits. And they must acknowledge when regulations are not tied to public safety or real environmental threats.
In short, Republican legislators must be prepared to offer real, workable alternatives, or risk being relegated again to minority status. And Democrats must embrace some of the GOP’s ideas. The key for both parties is to maintain a short list of goals, and to be prepared to find common ground where it may be found.