AUGUSTA, Maine — After last November’s Republican takeover at the State House, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle braced themselves for political dogfights over a host of contentious issues ranging from welfare reform to abortion and organized labor.
Yet many of those hot-button issues and countless others — including the $6.1 billion budget — remain on lawmakers’ plates as the Legislature enters what should be its final month of work.
“Until this week, things have gone pretty well,” said Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, the House minority leader. “But we still have a lot of things ahead of us.”
Events on Monday could provide an indication about how well the Republican majority and Democratic minority can get along in the final weeks of the session.
The Senate is expected to take a final vote on a controversial health insurance reform package that exploded into a major partisan issue late last week. Republican efforts to hand the GOP-drafted bill to Gov. Paul LePage by last Friday infuriated Democrats, who accused the majority of rushing a major policy overhaul. Republicans counter that the much-needed reforms will lower costs by encouraging competition.
Senators eventually agreed to delay the vote until Monday, but not before Democrats warned that the blowup over health insurance could have ramifications for attempts to build a two-thirds majority on the budget. The attempted resignation of the Republican co-chair of the Appropriations Committee only added to concerns about the budget.
Rep. Andre Cushing, the House assistant majority leader, said Republicans were trying to move swiftly on insurance reform because there are many issues — most notably the budget — stacking up behind it.
“We needed to get this out of the way now because it was in the pipeline,” Cushing said.
Indeed, there is no shortage of weighty and politically divisive issues awaiting action in the final weeks, although the practice of holding controversial items until the end is by no means unique to this legislative session.
For instance, at least three abortion-related bills are headed to the House and Senate floors for what likely will be lengthy and spirited floor debates. A majority of members of a legislative committee voted late last week to reject the bills.
Other contentious issues include: bills to authorize charter schools in Maine, proposed changes to the state’s public campaign financing laws, bills seeking restrictions on the development of commercial wind power, proposals to abolish the Land Use Regulation Commission and several measures to loosen restrictions on the carrying of concealed guns.
Public hearings have yet to be held, meanwhile, on a bill that would make Maine a “right to work” state, meaning organized labor cannot collect dues from employees at unionized shops who choose not to join the union. Labor advocates decry such legislation as attempts to undermine unions.
Several controversial welfare reforms also are still pending, some of which will have to be settled in the budget-writing process.
Despite the lengthy to-do list, Republican leaders expressed optimism that the Legislature could finish its work by June 15 — the statutory adjournment day — if not earlier.
“It is my expectation to be able to adjourn by June 8, as planned, but there are a lot of variables at play, including the budget,” House Speaker John Nutting, R-Oakland, told The Associated Press. “We can’t predict with complete certainty when we’ll be done, but I’m optimistic we’ll end up finishing up as scheduled.”
While last week’s turmoil over health insurance created plenty of headlines, such partisan flare-ups have been rare so far this session. In fact, the Legislature is poised to pass a package of reforms of Maine’s environmental regulations that has gained strong support from both parties.
Sen. Jonathan Courtney, a Springvale Republican who helped lead the regulatory reform effort, said nobody gave the two sides a chance of success at the beginning of the process.
“But people truly believe you can have economic opportunity and protect the environment,” said Courtney, the Senate majority leader. “And through this process, we have been able to send that message that we all care about the environment.”