A perennial knock against politicians is that they will promise anything to get elected and promptly forget those promises once in office. The 125th Legislature, now wrapping up its two-year tour of duty, set out to prove that politicians can indeed keep their word.
Maine’s citizen-legislators aren’t politicians in the usual sense. Our House Republican caucus, for instance, includes lobstermen, carpenters, mill workers, registered guides, retired teachers, an electrician, a waitress, a bus driver and a dental hygienist. They aren’t the kind of lifetime political operators we see on the Sunday talk shows. They take their responsibilities very seriously, however, and they have the best interests of Maine at heart.
As the first Republican Legislature since 1974, we knew that Mainers wanted a change from the long-term status quo – a lackluster economy, high taxes, anemic job growth, a huge welfare system and a dysfunctional health insurance market. We also had overzealous regulators who relished playing “gotcha!” and a public pension system whose burgeoning costs threatened to swamp the budget.
Voters in 2010 wanted pro-business policies that foster job creation and economically viable communities. They wanted lower taxes, less debt and less dependence on government. Entrepreneurs and business owners wanted a regulatory system that made sense, where regulators and the regulated worked together for mutually beneficial outcomes. Parents wanted a state where their kids could find rewarding careers after graduation.
In short, Maine citizens wanted good government willing to tackle the tough issues and set us on a course for a more prosperous future.
Republicans listened and pledged that, if elected, we would bring a change of direction to state government. On Oct. 9, at a State House news conference, we released a booklet – “Promises Made, Promises Kept” – that chronicles the major achievements of the last two years. This was not a “victory lap,” as some critics sniped, but a straightforward record of accomplishments. Oftentimes, we acted in concert with our Democratic colleagues to bring about common-sense reforms and fiscal responsibility. Five of the six budgets in the 125th Legislature, for example, were passed with two-thirds majorities.
The booklet’s economics section, “Recovering Maine Jobs,” reviews an assortment of initiatives to improve our business climate, usually ranked as one of the country’s worst. Government doesn’t create jobs, but it can create the conditions that promote job growth. We advanced a comprehensive approach.
The first bill introduced, LD 1, established a bipartisan panel of legislators who traveled throughout the state, holding hearings where business owners, farmers, fishermen and landowners voiced frustrations about regulatory excess. In legislation that passed almost unanimously, we streamlined Maine’s regulatory system by eliminating duplicate and unnecessary red tape. The upshot has been a much friendlier regulatory attitude.
A tax-reduction package, passed with bipartisan support, lowered the top income tax rate from 8.5 percent to 7.95 percent. It exempted 70,000 low-income residents from the income tax, provided a tax cut to virtually all Maine families and established business incentives to promote growth. Our national tax ranking has already improved, and a university study projects the tax changes will add 3,700 jobs by 2015.
Allagash Brewing Co. of Portland is a case in point. It took advantage of accelerated depreciation to add a new bottling line and 10 new fermentation tanks, and then hired 15 more employees to handle the busier workload.
To address our staggering health insurance costs, a huge drag on employment, we undertook a major reform to spark competition and hold down premium hikes for small groups and individuals. The new law features the same insurance guidelines used successfully for years in most other states while meshing with the dictates of the so-called Obamacare. Pine State Services, a plumbing and heating company in South Portland, saw its premium drop 18 percent last year, saving enough to add a new vehicle and a new employee.
Maine’s public pension system for teachers and state workers had more than $4 billion in unfunded debt when the Republican-led Legislature took office. Paying off this debt under the schedule we inherited threatened to cannibalize education and MaineCare. By increasing the retirement age to 65 and curbing cost-of-living increases, we reduced the debt by $1.7 billion and will save taxpayers more than $3 billion by 2028.
The rest of the booklet deals with welfare reform, education reform, transportation initiatives (such as eliminating the annual automatic fuel tax increase) and restoring trust in government by cleaning up malfeasance at the Maine Turnpike Authority and the Maine State Housing Authority.
Space does not permit a discussion of these changes. Suffice it to say, this Legislature’s leadership promised Mainers a constructive change in direction and an environment that lays the groundwork for a positive economic future. We believe we have kept our word.
State Rep. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, is the assistant House majority leader.