I have spent 12 years in the State House as an elected official. I have worked with three different governors and six different Legislatures, and I have seen how some things change and others stay the same. A recurring theme in public service, and something that has assumed greater relevancy, is the need to find common ground. In a divided government like ours, where branches of government are controlled by different political parties, finding common ground is essential for good governance. The challenges we face are too great, and the stakes too high, for political paralysis.
Halfway through this year’s legislative session, it seems appropriate to reflect on our efforts to work together. Although we have been largely successful, there have been bumps along the way.
Perhaps the greatest example of our legislative process breaking down was the 1991 state government shutdown. For many, this was the low point in our state’s political history. Which is why I was stunned when the House minority leader more than a month ago floated the idea of a shutdown over our differences with him on Gov. Paul LePage’s budget proposals.
It is troubling when the governor’s approach to governing is to bully. First, he refused to meet — or even talk with — Democratic leaders for more than four months. Next, he threatened to veto every piece of legislation until his plan for repaying the hospitals was rushed through the Legislature — irrespective of alternate plans to repay the hospitals. And, most recently, he admitted to holding the voter-approved bonds hostage until he gets his way on his hospital repayment plan.
This kind of atmosphere is challenging. Ultimately, we are all in this together, and we need a willing partner in order to manage state affairs. Not only is this kind of instability unhealthy for the legislative process, it also sets the wrong tone for Maine.
On the other hand, there are areas of bipartisan focus and common ground. One such area where Democrats, Republicans and independents have worked well is by focusing on concrete solutions to address the so-called “skills gap” in Maine. While more than 50,000 Mainers remain unemployed, research shows that there are thousands of jobs left unfilled because businesses can’t find workers with the necessary skills.
In January, Democratic leadership announced the formation of a special committee to specifically address the skills gap in Maine and boost our economy. This committee, the Joint Select Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future, is focused on the best ways to strengthen our economy in the short-term, while also developing an economy built to last. If we invest in people, they will have the tools necessary to take advantage of opportunity. Incomes will rise, and the middle class will grow. I am pleased that the committee has been a model of bipartisan collaboration.
The Legislature has successfully addressed other issues this session, like the supplemental budget, where there was broad agreement on a compromise to close our budget gap. Thanks to the good work of the Appropriations Committee, we were able to pass this supplemental budget without some of the harsher cuts contained in the original proposal. The supplemental budget passed with an overwhelming bipartisan majority.
I personally have supported some Republican measures, and some Republicans have supported my bills. I serve on the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee with my Republican colleague from Aroostook County, Sen. Roger Sherman. We know that many of the specific issues facing our home county are not partisan and work together when we can to address them.
Any democratically elected legislative body is going to have conflict. That is part of the process. We are 186 duly elected officials with our own unique viewpoints who represent the unique viewpoints of the folks who live in our districts. We will not always agree, and when we do not, it is healthy for us to debate the important issues before us.
The Senate Democratic leadership has endeavored to maintain an atmosphere of open communication, respect and civility. While Democrats may have more members in the Senate than our colleagues across the aisle, it is important that we be fair and ensure that all senators have the same opportunity to present and advocate their agendas.
So I do not think it is a question of whether this Legislature is more partisan than the last. What is true is that since LePage has assumed office, the tone and tenor has reached a partisan high. In spite of this, many Democrats and Republicans have been able to work together to get things done. This was true last session, and it is true this session. We are here to do a job.
The issues before the Legislature are not abstract, and they certainly are not merely wins or losses to tally up like a baseball box score. Good policy is more important than good politics. These issues have real impacts on our families, friends and communities. They deserve a vigorous, but civil, debate. And while we are not perfect, I believe that is what we have provided so far.
Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, is assistant Senate majority leader. His columns appear monthly.