Now Comes Governing

Posted Nov. 03, 2010, at 6:17 p.m.

Republicans have been handed control of Maine government, gaining the governor’s office and both houses of the Legislature. Soon, they must show voters that their ideas of smaller government, fewer regulations and lower taxes are not only better than the status quo, but also feasible.

Voters on Tuesday sent a strong message that they want something different in Augusta. While Republican Paul LePage was narrowly elected governor, defeating independent Eliot Cutler by about 10,000 votes according to unofficial results, Republicans gained a strong majority in the state Senate and a surprising majority in the House.

It is the first time since 1974, that Republicans have had a majority in the House. Since 1982, Republicans have held the Senate outright for only one two-year period, although in 2000 the chamber was split 17-17 with one independent. Republicans haven’t won control of the Legislature and Blaine House since 1962.

Because of these majorities, Republicans will choose new constitutional officers — attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer — in January. Although this got no attention during the campaign, changes in these positions could move the state in a significantly new direction. A new attorney general, for example, may be directed to join lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of health care reform legislation passed by Congress last year.

In the short term, however, the focus will be on spending. Gov.-elect LePage must present a budget to the Legislature within weeks of taking office. That budget must significantly shrink state spending to close a projected $1 billion gap and to compensate for the ending of federal stimulus funds, which helped lawmakers balance the budget without raising taxes. This job is made harder by the fact that state spending has been pared back for several years in a row. The current budget is nearly as small as it was in 2001.

In his plan for the state, titled “Turning the Page,” Gov.-elect LePage said that “taxpayers have a right to a government they can trust and afford” and “spends their money wisely.” He offered few details on how he’d do this other than using zero-based budgeting and auditing all state departments (which can’t be done in time for the next budget). He also pledged not to raise taxes.

With a team that must include people with experience in government, not just business, Gov.-elect LePage must soon begin to put meat on the bones of his plans for spending, government reform and educational improvement among other areas.

It is interesting to note that while voters appeared to be receptive to the Republican message of lowering state spending and shrinking government, they strongly supported the two borrowing proposals on the ballot Tuesday. One was a bond for a dental school and low-cost dental clinics. The other was for land conservation.

Another message from Tuesday’s election is that the Democratic Party must build a new generation of leaders who realize state government is too big and too expensive. Libby Mitchell, the president of the Senate and former speaker of the House, is right that this was not the year for a Democrat to run on a record of government service. But the fact that she garnered less than 20 percent of the vote is a clear message that the old school wing of the Democratic Party is out of step with the state.

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