AUGUSTA, Maine — Political leaders from both sides of the aisle pledged to work together to address Maine’s financial challenges on Wednesday during the first gathering of the new Republican-controlled Legislature.
Although lawmakers did conduct serious business — including the election of Maine’s new attorney general, treasurer and secretary of state — Wednesday’s proceedings were largely ceremonial.
Hundreds of family members crammed into the House and Senate chambers or in the viewing galleries above to watch as Gov. John Baldacci administered the oath of office to more than 180 lawmakers, nearly one-third of whom are serving for the first time.
“The elections are over,” Baldacci, a two-term Democrat who will leave office next month, told House members. “It’s time to join forces to advance the issues of the state of Maine for all of the people of the state of Maine.”
That was the theme throughout Wednesday’s proceedings, although GOP lawmakers exercised their new-found political might by electing Republicans as Senate president and House speaker as well as to fill the state’s three constitutional officer seats.
Senate President Kevin Raye of Perry warned that lawmakers will face significant challenges in the legislative session that begins in January, not the least of which is a budget shortfall measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
“While the headlines may shout about our differences, most of what is done here in Augusta is done in a bipartisan manner,” Raye said in his acceptance remarks.
Offering a glimpse at one of the top priorities of both GOP legislative leaders and Republican Gov.-elect Paul LePage, Raye announced the formation of a Joint Select Committee on Regulatory Reform. The temporary committee will consider a bill, LD 1, aimed at reducing government red tape on businesses.
Across the hall in the House chamber, Republican lawmakers cheered heartily as Rep. Bob Nutting of Oakland stepped up to the podium and lifted the gavel in the air moments after his election as Maine’s 100th House speaker.
Nutting said each and every lawmaker faces the sobering fact that “we have been elected to office, but we have not yet earned the trust of the citizens of Maine.” So he called on members to set aside their ideology and partisan instincts.
“Today and for the next two years, we all have a different charge,” Nutting said. “We are Mainers. We are charged by the people of Maine to occupy these seats as stewards of the promise of Maine, to make decisions based on what is right and to preserve the bounty of this state for future generations.”
As is tradition, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate seconded the nominations of both Raye and Nutting, urging their colleagues to support the candidates. House minority leader Rep. Emily Cain of Orono said after working with Nutting on the Appropriations Committee, she knows he understands and respects the need for bipartisanship.
“Democrats are ready to work together on Day One to be part of the bipartisan solution that will deliver jobs and improve our economy in a sustainable way for the people of Maine,” Cain said.
Maine was one of only two states where voters cleaned house by flipping control of both the Legislature and the governor’s office from Democrat to Republican. On Wednesday, Republicans got to work implementing that sea change.
In addition to selecting Raye and Nutting, GOP lawmakers elected Republicans to all three constitutional officer positions.
For attorney general, lawmakers tapped William Schneider, an assistant federal prosecutor and military veteran who served several terms in the Legislature. Schneider was elected over current Attorney General Janet Mills — the Democrats’ nominee — in a secret ballot. The breakdown of the vote was not publicly revealed, however.
Charles Summers, a former lawmaker and Naval reserve officer who has done tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, was elected to be Maine’s next secretary of state. Democrats had nominated current Secretary of State Matt Dunlap.
Maine’s next treasurer, meanwhile, will be Bruce Poliquin, a Georgetown businessman who sought the Republican nomination for governor earlier this year. Poliquin was unopposed on Wednesday.
Despite all of the talk of bipartisanship, the 125th Legislature’s first political showdown may not be far off.
Lawmakers will return to Augusta in roughly two weeks to discuss a Republican proposal to eliminate the Legislature’s Labor Committee. Issues heard by the Labor Committee would, instead, be heard in the Business, Research and Economic Development Committee.
While Republicans have said it makes sense to fold work force issues into the committee that handles business matters, Democrats have accused proponents of seeking to minimize labor issues.
Raye did not specifically refer to the Labor Committee but said the Joint Rules Committee will be taking a hard look at “how this Legislature does business and how we can work smarter and better.”
“In the wake of this historic election, we need to challenge the status quo,” Raye said.
Rep. John Martin, an Eagle Lake Democrat and former longtime House speaker, predicted that disbanding the Labor Committee would be a major fight.
But that is a few weeks away, and Martin gave Nutting and the other Republican leaders high marks for the tone of the first day.
“Overall, I think today went very well,” Martin said. “I think [Nutting’s] style will fit the House very well.”