AUGUSTA, Maine — When it comes to making law in Maine, you win some, you lose a lot.
Whether minor changes or sweeping reforms, state lawmakers had varying degrees of success in getting the bills they penned passed into law during the first half of 2013.
In all, lawmakers and Gov. Paul LePage offered 1,577 bills in the first half of the 126th Session of the Legislature. In the end, just more than a third of those bills will become law — or 522 — as of late last week. That gives the Legislature, as a whole, a success rate of 33.5 percent.
And despite frequent complaints that the State House is mired in partisanship, many lawmakers saw more than half the bills they offered become law – usually with broad bipartisan support.
A few, like Rep. Paul Gilbert, D-Jay, have envious 100 percent success rates.
All six of the bills Gilbert authored this session became law.
But Gilbert doesn’t draw attention to that — or to the fact that all 11 of the bills he’s offered since becoming a state representative in 2010 have passed into law — for a perfect political record, so far.
“Really, I don’t like to brag about that,” Gilbert said.
It’s not that he’s not proud of his accomplishment. But like most successes his record is dependent on the support of many people, Democrat and Republican, as well as some occasional good fortune, he said.
“There has to be luck involved,” Gilbert said. But more important is having the ability to really listen to all sides and allow those sides to have meaningful input on the legislation. “I believe in being careful in what I say or do,” Gilbert said. “Because if I do something wrong or say something wrong or hurtful that becomes the issue, so I try to be quiet and just go about my work.”
Gilbert said what’s important to him is offering practical solutions to real problems, small and large, Mainers face in their lives.
“I’m not in it to build my resume,” Gilbert said. “It’s just how I work. You just need to respect people, where they are coming from and know they don’t all have the same background as you and try to understand people.”
Hesitant to talk about his success, Gilbert said getting any bill passed is always a team effort involving dozens of colleagues and legislative staff, as well as the individual advocates – the actual citizens who can explain why a bill needs to become a law.
One example is a bill on youth suicide prevention bill that Gilbert sponsored. The bill affects every public school employee with new training and reporting requirements. Gilbert credits the measure’s passsage to those who have been impacted by suicide and suicide attempts. He said the testimony from that small group was overwhelming for members of the Legislature’s Education Committee, which passed the bill unanimously.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the place,” Gilbert said.
The bill later passed the House and Senate on unanimous votes and was signed into law by LePage soon after.
So moved by the families behind the bill, LePage also provided $40,000 in funding meant to match local efforts as the law was implemented in its first year.
Other lawmakers with above-average success rates echoed some of Gilbert’s sentiments.
State Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, saw 10 of his 11 bills become law, while one was carried over, giving him a remarkable 91 percent success rate and 100 percent survival rate. Langley had the highest success rate among minority Republican lawmakers who authored more than a single bill.
One key to his success, Langley said, is knowing when to not bring a bill forward.
“If I felt the opposition was really strong and really legitimate and gave me great concern for the bill, I killed it myself,” Langley said.
In Maine, that move saves the Legislature time, as nearly every bill authored eventually gets a full public hearing and often a work session, too, Langeley said. Measuring a bill’s chances and respecting the time of other lawmakers in not bringing forward measures some would see as frivolous or aimed only at making a political statements can buy you a lot of goodwill in a busy Legislature, he said.
“Oftentimes you know at the outset this isn’t going anywheres, sometimes for a whole host of reasons,” Langley said. “I just wish we had a better process in place that allowed more people to do that so committees could then really focus on a handful of major bills that really needed to be worked.”
He said doing his “own policing” comes from a “respect of the process” he’s gained over the years and learned from other more experienced lawmakers, like former Republican Senate President Kevin Raye, who mentored him.
He said inexperienced lawmakers also make the mistake of offering simple concept drafts of a bill in hopes the committee of jurisdiction will do the actual bill writing for them. “That just really doesn’t work,” he said. “They don’t have the time. You really have to do all the legwork and the groundwork and bring to the committee pretty much an end product for them to do a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down on.”
Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, saw 14 of the 25 bills she offered become law in 2013 for a 56 percent success rate. While only four other senators wrote more bills than Craven, she said being prepared before she offers legislation is an important part of getting a bill passed.
“One of the things that I do is work ahead of time to talk to all the interested parties, including the governor’s staff,” Craven said. Despite stark political differences LePage signed five of Craven’s bills into law. “I don’t know why they survived the veto pen, to tell the truth,” she said.
She said giving people their due respect is one of the biggest things she believes she does to get bills passed, Craven said.
That and, “I’m just a charming Irish woman, I suppose,” she quipped.
State Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, saw 16 of his 28 bills pass into law for a 56 percent success rate. Saviello said he knew he did relatively well but had not tallied his results as of last week. He said part of being effective is knowing “how the system works.”
One example of that came up this past session when a bill he was working on became the subject of a fiscal note or an analysis that the measure was going to cost the state money.
In tight economic times and with a fiscal conservative in the governor’s office, bills that are going to add to government spending or cost money haven’t gained much support. Saviello said he reworked the bill to avoid additional costs, and the measure passed. That inside understanding is key, he said.
Saviello also said while many lawmakers want to run a committee, not being a chairman or chairwoman affords you more time to research, refine and promote the bills you support. “I think for me that was a big advantage,” Saviello said.
Like Craven, he said the other important thing he did was be prepared. “I don’t mean to be cute, but I just did my homework,” Saviello said.
Ultimately, he said, success depends on having good relationships with other lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.
“That place is truly built on relationships and friendships,” Saviello said. “And when you build a relationship with somebody and you talk to them long before you have a bill in front of them, you know each other and you know their values.”
He said personal trust can carry a bill a long way, even with a skeptical colleague.
There were also 36 lawmakers who failed to pass a single bill into law including 16 Republicans, 16 Democrats and four either independent or unenrolled lawmakers.
While some of those lawmakers managed to get at least one bill carried to the second half of the lawmaking session set to start in January 2014, others saw everything they offered snuffed out. Not surprisingly, many of those who were unable to advance their bills are inexperienced lawmakers in their first terms.But even some experienced lawmakers saw nearly all their bills go down to defeat in 2013.
Of the eight bills Rep. Brian Bolduc, D-Auburn, offered seven were killed and only one, a bill that would increase funding for the Maine State Archives survived the session to be taken up in 2014. Bolduc did not return a call from the Sun Journal seeking comment.
Meanwhile, LePage and those working for his administration ushered 16 of the 25 bills they offered through a Democratic-controlled Legislature. Seven of LePage’s bills were killed, while two survived for debate in 2014, giving LePage a 64 percent success rate — twice the average success rate for the entire Legislature. LePage also vetoed 82 measures, and lawmakers managed to overturned only five of those vetoes, giving LePage a veto success rate of 93 percent.
Still James Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, said he doesn’t think Legislative success rates are a great measure of any individual’s effectiveness as a lawmaker. He also said they are unlikely to have a huge impact on public opinion.
“Someone with a high rating may be working more on things that aren’t controversial. “Like a concern in their district that’s no worry for people from elsewhere and thus is easy for others to vote for.”
He said most constituents will give a lawmaker credit for, “taking a shot even if it doesn’t work … They don’t lose points for failing in those cases — they get credit for giving it a shot.”
Melcher said lawmakers may earn a reputation for introducing a lot things others see as a waste of time and that could hurt them, especially if they receive media scrutiny for it. But if they are able to show they had a hand in helping another bill get passed or even helped prevent legislation their constituents oppose from becoming law, they can highlight those efforts to show they are effective, Melcher said.
“Not having anything one can point to could be a problem in a campaign,” Melcher said. “But I don’t think most voters will punish legislators for trying to act on something that doesn’t pass that they as constituents care about in most cases. The legislator always has others she or he can blame. Constituents want you to give it a try for them. Or as Wayne Gretzky put it long ago, ‘You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.’”
State Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta agreed.
Katz is pleased he had a success rate that’s above average at 46 percent, but said he doesn’t know the general public is all that concerned with “legislative batting averages.”
Some of his bills, like ones that fixed issues specific to his community in Augusta are meaningful to his constituents and important, Katz said. But he’s more proud of the work he did to protect the privacy rights of Mainers statewide, including bills that required warrants for the seizure of cellphone geolocation data by police, he said.
Those types of landmark legislation are more important to most people than seeing a lot of small law changes through the Legislature, he said.
“I think it’s quality not quantity,” Katz said. “If I put in 10 bills and one of them passed but that one was of great significance, then I would say that’s a good session.”