AUGUSTA — Nearly one month to the day after Maine voters made clear their desire for political change, Republicans exuberantly assumed power in the State House on Dec. 1 during the first gathering of the new Legislature.
But the scope of that change will become much more apparent early next month, when the committees that perform the bulk of the work in Augusta hold their first meetings — under their new Republican leadership.
Earlier this week, Republican leaders exercised their authority by appointing GOP lawmakers as co-chairs of each of the Legislature’s 18 committees. With Republican majorities on each committee, the party will set the priorities of the legislative session.
And some GOP lawmakers are eager to get to work.
Sen. David Trahan, a Waldoboro Republican who will co-chair the Taxation Committee, is busy preparing legislation to lower the state’s income tax from a high of 8.5 percent to 6.5 percent in increments over four years.
“I’ve talked with legislative leaders on the Republican side, I’ve talked to the governor [Paul LePage], and everybody is interested in cutting the income tax,” Trahan said.
Voters who paid close attention to this year’s fierce referendum battle over income taxes likely will remember Trahan. He was among the leaders of the group that successfully fought to repeal a Democrat-drafted measure that also lowered the income tax rate to 6.5 percent.
But Trahan and other opponents objected to the way Democrats paid for the reduction by eliminating sales tax exemptions on many items and increasing Maine’s meals and lodging tax.
Instead, Trahan said his proposal would pay for the reduction by lowering state spending, tapping into anticipated new revenue as the economy rebounds and more selective elimination of sales tax exemptions.
“We have agreed all along this should be a priority, and now we are in a position to do that,” Trahan said. “And I think we are going to find a way to pay for it.”
A floor above the Taxation Committee’s room, the powerful Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, responsible for finding a way to close an estimated $850 million budget gap, will convene with a host of new faces.
Five of the 13 committee members — two Republicans and three Democrats — served on the Appropriations Committee last year. Five more members are lawmakers with at least one legislative term under their belts.
But three of the Republican members — Rep. Ken Fredette of Newport, Rep. Dennis Keschl of Belgrade and Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta — are new to the Legislature.
Sen. Richard Rosen, a Bucksport Republican returning this year as committee co-chairman, said it is always good to have a mix of veterans and first-time committee members, as well as new legislators.
“I think we have a good team,” Rosen said Thursday. “It looks like a nice balance to the committee, and it seems that everybody is ready to work.”
As in past years, LePage’s budget proposal will frame the debate in committee. And while the committee faces similarly daunting challenges this year as it did last year, the dynamics are different this time around.
“Our challenge is dealing with the long-term structural imbalance that has been in place all along and correcting that,” Rosen said.
In continuance of a long-standing tradition, Republicans allowed Democratic leaders to recommend who among their party should serve on each committee. But making committee assignments is no easy task.
Party leaders must attempt to accommodate members’ desires while considering where they would be most useful, considering their professional and legislative experience. Leaders also strive to make sure each region of the state is represented on each committee.
“There is no way you can make everyone happy,” said House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono. But she added, “I’m confident once we get into the work [of the session] everyone will hit their stride.”
Democrats used to holding the gavels — or at least seeing one of their own lead the committee — will have to get used to their new position as the minority party. The change will be most evident in the Senate, where last session, every Democrat held either a senior leadership position or co-chaired at least one committee. This year, the same is true for GOP senators.
“That’s the reality,” said Senate Minority Leader Barry Hobbins, D-Saco. “The voters made a decision, and now the Republicans have an opportunity to govern.”