ANALYSIS

Political expectations, questions for Maine’s new year

Posted Dec. 28, 2012, at 1:41 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 28, 2012, at 5:19 p.m.
Gov. Paul LePage
Gov. Paul LePage Buy Photo

AUGUSTA, Maine — Unresolved political questions loom over the Maine State House as the 126th Legislature prepares to convene on Jan. 8. Republican Gov. Paul LePage and the Legislature, now led by Democrats after two years of Republican majorities, will propose markedly different answers, which sets up the biggest question of all:

Will Republican Gov. Paul LePage and the Legislature’s new Democratic majority agree on anything?

LePage won the governorship in 2010 by campaigning against an entrenched Democratic bureaucracy in Augusta. Democrats won back control of the Legislature in 2012 with a strategy that targeted LePage’s policies and style of governing. That electioneering history and the ideological gulf separating the governor from legislative Democrats set the stage for the type of conflict that resulted in a 16-day state government shutdown in 1991, the last time Maine had a Republican governor and a Legislature controlled by Democrats.

Political antagonism colors the relationship between LePage and the Democrats’ new legislative leaders. The governor’s irritation over a Maine Democratic Party tracker hired to record his public appearances caused him to cancel an introductory meeting with new House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland. The three have yet to meet formally to discuss the coming legislative session.

The consensus-crushing thrust and parry of a Republican governor vetoing legislation approved by legislative Democrats exacerbated the partisan acrimony that led to the 1991 shutdown. Signs that a similar conflict could build between LePage and Democrats in the Legislature will bear watching in 2013.

Do GOP lawmakers offer the best hope for compromise?

The key to avoiding political stalemate could rest with Republican legislators, who, despite losing the majorities they gained in 2010, find themselves as potential power brokers in 2013. Democrats lack the two-thirds House and Senate majorities needed to override a veto. They would have to convince at least eight GOP House members and four senators to vote with them to override a veto or enact emergency legislation. A more likely alternative would involve Democrats seeking compromise with Republican legislative leaders to reach veto-proof consensus.

Can lawmakers simultaneously fill this year’s budget holes and craft a new two-year spending plan in time for it to take effect on July 1?

“State budget problems worsen” has been state government’s fiscal theme for months. On Thursday, the governor ordered $35.5 million in emergency spending cuts, including $12.6 million in school aid and $13.43 million from the Department of Health and Human Services. The newly appointed Appropriations Committee will arrive in Augusta on Jan. 4 to review the curtailment proposal and prepare to work on a supplemental budget to address downward revenue projections and fill an approximately $100 million MaineCare revenue shortfall for the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2013.

On Jan. 11, LePage is expected to release his proposed budget for the biennium that begins July 1, 2013. The projected structural gap — the amount by which expenditures would exceed revenues if state spending continues essentially at the same level, if the state meets all its spending commitments and if actual revenues don’t stray from projections — for that two-year spending plan is $880 million.

The projected structural gap accounts for income tax rate decreases enacted by the Republican-led Legislature in 2011 and which take effect in 2013. Because those cuts were a centerpiece for LePage and GOP legislators, Democrats don’t seem inclined to invest their newly acquired political capital in trying to repeal them. However, alternatives such as reduced school aid or public assistance cuts aren’t palatable to Democrats either.

How will Maine pay for services to its neediest residents?

Five percent of MaineCare recipients account for 54 percent of total costs, according to a nine-member task force that studied ways to redesign the program. The task force recommends converting to an outcome-based health delivery system, but such a system would be exploratory and would be unlikely to yield immediate savings.

The LePage administration continues to await word from the federal government on its request to tighten MaineCare eligibility standards to save $20 million, but Democrats, including Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the incoming House chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, expect the federal government to reject the request.

That Medicaid waiver highlights the divide between Democrats and LePage on funding services for low-income Mainers. Another point of contention could arise from a task force report on General Assistance, for which LePage cut funding with a line-item veto in April 2012. The implementation of a 60-month lifetime limit on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families welfare benefits, another initiative passed over Democratic opposition by the Republican-led 125th Legislature, has led families ineligible for TANF to turn to General Assistance, which places an added strain on municipal budgets and services.

Who will vote where in 2014 — and will the Maine Supreme Judicial Court have to decide?

In 2013, the boundaries of Maine’s legislative districts will be redrawn to reflect 2010 U.S. Census data. State law requires legislative redistricting every 10 years to ensure equal representation.

A 15-person commission appointed earlier this month has 120 days from the date the Legislature convenes to present its recommendation to the Legislature — where both chambers must approve the new maps by two-thirds votes. LePage also must sign the redistricting plan.

If partisan bickering stalls the process, as has been the case in the past, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court will redraw the legislative districts.

In another development that could affect voting practices, a commission that reviewed Maine’s election system must present its findings by Feb. 1. The commission does not seem inclined to recommend more stringent voter identification rules, which were a GOP focus and Democratic target during the previous Legislature.

As the federal government decides whether to let Maine move ahead with its own plan to ensure that no child is left behind, will Gov. LePage’s other school reform initiatives advance?

The Maine Department of Education in September submitted its request for greater flexibility in measuring student performance to conform with federal guidelines. Approval would allow state officials to implement a Maine-based accountability system with measures attuned to Maine schools rather than national standards. While the state teachers union supported the waiver request, its leaders expressed less support for an educator evaluation system tied to student achievement.

That proposal and the expansion of charter schools in Maine, both key to LePage’s school reform agenda, could stall in legislative committees now headed by Democrats, whose party benefited from the union’s campaign support.

Will the continued availability of low-cost natural gas spur widespread conversion to that form of energy and slow development of alternative energy?

With new technology allowing natural gas to be delivered at prices well below other forms of energy, two companies are competing to supply natural gas to the Kennebec Valley, and another aims to expand its eastern Maine market. LePage has made reducing energy prices a priority for his administration, with expanding the natural gas delivery infrastructure a component of that plan.

Tidal energy in Eastport and biomass energy generation in East Millinocket made significant headway in 2012. Wind energy didn’t fare as well, as TransCanada’s plan to expand its Kibby Mountain wind farm stalled, and questions about the cost to ratepayers of electricity generated by Statoil North America’s Hywind Maine pilot placed that offshore project in limbo. Nevertheless, the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center plans to test a floating turbine in the Gulf of Maine in 2013.

The test for how well Maine’s political leaders answer these questions — and many more that will emerge during the coming legislative session — will come on Nov. 4, 2014, when the state’s voters next elect a governor and Legislature.

Robert Long is a political analyst for the BDN.

 

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