For all the talk about a new era in Augusta after last November’s election swept Republicans into control, moderates still play an outsize role.
Ditto for the state budget, which was originally touted as a forum to remake state government by Republican legislative leaders. While there are needed changes to the pension system, tighter restrictions on welfare and a small tax decrease, these are all incremental, reasonable changes, not wholesale reform.
Both Republicans and Democrats — rightly — have claimed success as the 125th Legislature’s first session draws to a close.
“I think it has been a very productive session and there have been some extraordinary accomplishments,” Senate President Kevin Raye said Friday. “If you consider the economic climate and the challenges we faced in the budget, I’m very proud of what we have done.”
Republican leaders, especially Gov. Paul LePage, set the right priorities when they took over the Blaine House and State House for the first time in decades. Without reform, the state’s pension system threatened to gobble up inordinate shares of the state budget in coming years. State rules and regulations — and their implementation — often left business owners confused and frustrated. State spending routinely outpaced state revenues.
In each of these areas, Republican leaders offered solutions. Many were too extreme. The governor’s 64-point list of “regulatory reforms,” written by a corporate law firm, was modified to the more reasonable creation of a small business ombudsman in the Department of Community and Economic Development and a shrinking of the Board of Environmental Protection among other changes. A welfare reform proposal that contained unconstitutional provisions and would have caused property tax increases in the state’s largest cities was reworked to a more acceptable plan.
Such changes came about because of moderate lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Here is the model House Minority Leader Emily Cain of Orono said she used: “Did we prevent the state from moving backward? Did we prevent harm to the most vulnerable citizens?”
Republican leaders, especially those on the Appropriations Committee, largely followed a similar path to take the rough edges off proposals that otherwise made sense and were necessary. From their commitment to a budget that would be passed by two-thirds of lawmakers — rather than a simple majority — to their willingness to focus pension reform on paying down the unfunded liability rather than punishing state workers, these leaders deserve a lot of credit.
The largest question is what this means for the 2012 elections. Do Republicans still need to hue hard to the right to attract the votes of tea party adherents? Could this strategy backfire if independent voters are turned off by the more extreme positions? What about Democrats? They can’t just campaign as the anti-Republicans. Many of the changes accomplished by Republicans this year — pension reform and a clearer regulatory process, for example — have long been needed.
Gov. LePage criticized lawmakers for not doing enough. They did a lot and deserve credit for it.