Democrats pledge legislative focus on workforce, public schools, health insurance

Posted Jan. 09, 2013, at 1:37 p.m.
Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland.
Maine State Senate
Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Legislature’s new Democratic leaders Wednesday released pieces of their legislative agenda for the coming months, saying they planned a focus on strengthening the state’s workforce, improving public schools, bettering the state’s infrastructure and reining in health insurance costs.

The party’s legislative leaders introduced a preliminary policy agenda following a hard-fought campaign season during which Democrats largely based their state House and Senate campaigns on opposition to policies championed over the past two years by Republican Gov. Paul LePage and legislative Republicans.

Democrats, swept back into the majority in both chambers in November’s elections, stopped short Wednesday of releasing many specific policy proposals, but said they opposed forthcoming legislation from the LePage administration to lift a statewide cap on the number of charter schools and pledged to work with their Republican counterparts to improve — rather than fully repeal — a Republican-supported health insurance overhaul bill from 2011.

“Many have asked, ‘What will be different?’” Senate President Justin Alfond, a Portland Democrat, said at a State House news conference. “Maine people are clear. They want a new tone for this state: a tone of civility, a tone of getting things done.”

In a reference to LePage, Alfond said, “We do not have to disparage our workforce, denigrate our state or put down the very qualities that make our state special.”

Republican leaders responded by saying there’s common ground to be found among the two parties. But the Democrats didn’t lay out policy specifics, said Rep. Alexander Willette of Mapleton, the assistant House Republican leader.

“I didn’t hear them as leaders of the legislative branch saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’” he said.

Alfond on Wednesday discussed Democrats’ recent decision to appoint a special committee to develop plans for cultivating a skilled workforce and helping small businesses.

“This is not a committee that will produce a report,” he said. “This is a committee that will do things that will jumpstart our economy today and create a long-term path towards economic strength, which will grow our middle class.”

Sen. Michael Thibodeau of Winterport, the Senate Republican leader, said he welcomed the Democrats’ focus on workforce development.

“It looks like the Democrats are looking to join the Republicans,” he said. “The Republicans have been working a long time on workforce development, creating jobs in the state of Maine, and now the Democrats have taken that up as an issue as well.

“We’ve got to make sure that it is the private sector that their policies are encouraging,” he added.

On education, Alfond said Democratic lawmakers are interested in developing a statewide model for evaluating teacher performance “fairly and consistently.”

A statewide educator effectiveness council — formed last year through legislation proposed by the LePage administration — recently issued recommendations for a statewide evaluation model, though the state Department of Education and teachers’ union representatives on the panel have been at odds on the extent to which student performance should factor into teacher evaluations.

Alfond also promised “specific action” during the legislative session to expand early childhood education. “Beyond being the right thing to do, early childhood education is an economic booster,” he said. “The studies have been done, and now it’s time for action.”

Rep. Seth Berry of Bowdoinham, the House Democratic leader, said it’s too soon to lift the cap on the number of charter schools — the state’s 2011 charter school law allows 10 state-authorized schools during the law’s first 10 years — citing concerns that charter schools divert funds away from traditional public schools.

House Speaker Mark Eves said Democrats also planned efforts to boost investments in research and development and the state’s infrastructure.

In addition, he said, “We must fix the insurance laws from last session that have led to a rate hike on Maine people.”

While Democrats campaigned against what they branded the “rate hike law,” Berry said the Democrats don’t intend to repeal the health insurance overhaul package, known as PL 90.

“We’re not interested in rehashing conversations from a year ago,” he said.

The law was an attempt to spur more competition in Maine’s health insurance market by making it easier for insurers to offer new plans for small groups and individuals and by allowing small businesses to band together and negotiate more favorable rates.

Democrats started calling the health insurance reform law the “rate hike law” in September when the left-leaning group Consumers for Affordable Health Care published an analysis that found premiums had increased for 54 percent of individual policyholders in Maine and 90 percent of small-business policyholders since the law had taken effect.

But supporters of the insurance reform bill responded that premium increases have been smaller thanks to the new law and that fewer policyholders are now seeing increases.

Data published in September by the state’s Bureau of Insurance showed that in the year since PL 90 took effect, 11.4 percent of small groups renewing their policies have seen premium decreases, compared to 3.5 percent that saw decreases in the year before the law took effect. The small groups seeing lower insurance rates are more likely to be in southern Maine, the data show. Before PL 90, according to the Bureau of Insurance, there was generally little geographic variation in insurance rate increases and decreases.

The data also show that when small groups were quoted higher rates to renew their policies, the rate increases were slightly more likely to fall in the 40 percent to 80 percent range after the law took effect than they were before. Rate increases between 0 and 20 percent were slightly more common before the insurance overhaul took effect last year.

Those small groups being quoted rate increases of 40 percent or more were more likely to be in northern and eastern Maine, according to the Bureau of Insurance.

“We’re anxious to improve it, too,” Thibodeau said. “For over 40 years, the Democrats had an opportunity to lower health insurance costs for Mainers, and they continued to spike. And PL 90, while not perfect and certainly not fully implemented, has already offered some relief and will continue to offer substantially more.”

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