Outside of the House Republican and Democratic Offices (referred to officially as “the partisan offices”) there is a portrait of Jonathan Cilley, who served as speaker of the Maine House and in 1838 was the last victim of a congressional duel.
Many journalists and pundits have bemoaned the supposed heightened partisanship in Augusta since Democrats retook the Legislature in November. But Jonathan Cilley would likely consider today’s state House to be about as contentious as an afternoon of fly-fishing. Likewise, I see no difference in the level of debate, or partisanship, compared to the last term.
A Legislature is a forum for debate and, at the end of the day, action. As such, it is inherently partisan. There can be no avoiding the war of ideas that is waged, nor should there be. The Legislature is not an assembly line: Success is not and should not be strictly a function of how many bills get passed. We strive for the best outcomes, and naturally we oftentimes disagree, but at the end of the day, we get the work done in the Maine Legislature.
We are fortunate in Maine to have a more functional system than our counterparts in Washington have. Our state Senate has no filibusters, and we are constitutionally required to present a budget every two years, and one that is balanced. This allows us to engage in rigorous debate without reaching a stalemate.
When the debate spills into the pages of the newspapers, rest assured that we are not arguing simply for the sake of arguing. We are looking to the public for feedback. When we debated the issue of whether to use new liquor revenue to pay off our welfare debt to our hospitals, Democrats evidently perceived that Mainers wanted them to join the governor in getting that accomplished. So they proposed an idea of their own for getting it done, and on Tuesday we decided to begin work on a compromise bill that incorporates some Democratic ideas into the governor’s plan.
That’s how debate turns into good, bipartisan policymaking.
There are many areas where Democrats and Republicans will find agreement on issues without even engaging in debate. For example, we both embraced the initiative to close the skills gap in Maine’s workforce by training Mainers for the jobs that are available. A recent poll showed that 62 percent of Mainers support Gov. Paul LePage’s policies. Certainly there’s plenty of room for bipartisan agreement on those policies.
There are other issues on which we may never agree, such as education reform. Democrats have made clear their support for the status quo in our education system, shooting down virtually every reform proposed by Republicans. Some areas of policy, like this, may simply be determined by who the voters decide to entrust with state government, and that’s another reason why we bring the debate to the public.
And when Democrats are abusing their majority and silencing debate on policies we believe would create jobs in Maine, as they did recently with our right-to-work bill, then we will let the public know.
As Republicans in the minority, we are fortunate to have a like-minded governor whose veto pen serves as a check to the whims of the Democratic majority. For too long throughout Maine’s recent history, Democrats enjoyed unchecked power.
We have and will communicate with LePage about legislation passed on party lines that is harmful to Maine’s economy or furthers hard-left policies. In those instances, if the governor decides to exercise his veto authority, we will vote to sustain his veto, as we did with the bill to prohibit teenagers from tanning even with the express permission of their parents. We felt that legislation intruded into the personal freedoms and parental rights of Maine families.
There may continue to be other bills that the governor vetoes even though they have bipartisan support. In those instances, we’re perfectly willing to consider an override of his veto, as we did with the bill regarding registries of deeds.
Whether joining with Democrats or debating them, whether sustaining a governor’s veto or overriding it, House Republicans will always act in the best interest of our constituents and out of concern for our economy. We are always open to ideas, and we are always willing to negotiate a compromise when possible, but when there is disagreement we will voice it. Some may call that “partisanship,” but the people deserve to know what’s going on and where we stand. Crafting good policy is more important to us — and, we suspect, to the voters — than whether politicians are getting along in the state House.
Rep. Ken Fredette is a Newport attorney and the Republican leader in the Maine House of Representatives.