November 18, 2018
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Look back in anger: Gridlock defined Maine politics in 2017

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
People protested the state government shutdown in the State House as the representatives debated over the budget bill in the Maine House of Representatives chamber in Augusta.

Politics in 2017 America saw so many firsts that it’s almost difficult to remember how things were before a tide of populist conservatism propelled Donald Trump to the presidency.

Aggressive and dismissive rhetoric, personal attacks, divisive proposals and enough party loyalists to defend just about anything the chief executive does are the new or at least intensified realities in national politics. For Mainers, it all has a familiar ring.

[Gideon calls LePage ‘less relevant’ but he’s already gearing up for next fight]

In some ways, 2017 was a continuation of how things have been, politically, since 2014. Democrats have held a majority in the Maine House while Republicans have held the Senate, meaning any proposal needs bipartisan buy-in if it’s to go into law. Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s veto pen — coupled with a House Republican caucus that voted to support the governor more often than not — again killed dozens of bills from Republicans and Democrats, even though they had strong support the first time through the Legislature.

That’s nothing new, but LePage and House Republicans took their alliance to a new level this year by forcing a state government shutdown for the first time since 1991. We might as well start there as we look back on 2017 in Maine politics.

The shutdown

It was clear early on that the battle over the state budget would be epic. A number of citizen initiative referendums approved by voters in 2016 set up an impasse that cast a cloud over the Legislature for months and made marathon budget hearings seem trivial, if not moot. LePage and other Republicans said early on that they wouldn’t support a 3 percent surtax on income over $200,000 and demanded changes to the new minimum wage law implemented by voters.

[Maine’s short government shutdown was months in the making]

As May wound into June, it was clear that Republicans would mostly have their way. The tip credit, which allows businesses to pay tipped workers a base rate below minimum wage on the assumption that tips would elevate their earnings above minimum wage, was reinstated after being eliminated as part of the minimum wage referendum. The 3 percent surtax to benefit schools was repealed altogether. Though Democrats were able to secure a $162 million increase in education funding, which was the largest in state history but a little more than half of what the surtax would have generated, the ongoing funding source included in the referendum was eliminated. That puts future education funding levels and the state budget’s ability to sustain them in question but avoided an economic catastrophe that opponents argued the surtax would have triggered.

With those issues in the rear-view mirror, the fight still wasn’t over. LePage and House Republicans continued to shift their list of demands and late on June 30, the last day of fiscal year 2017, midnight came and went without a budget deal. The shutdown lasted through three days of protests and marathon State House sessions. On the third day, LePage was caught in a lie after he left a July 3 voicemail for a Republican senator, claiming he was “heading out of town for 10 days,” insinuating he’d let the shutdown last that long. His office initially denied the claim and LePage blasted the media as “stupid” and “vile,” but a recording of the voicemail confirmed the story. The shutdown ended late on July 3 with all sides claiming credit for ending it. When the dust settled, the shutdown didn’t amount to much from a practical standpoint. Two of the shutdown days were over the weekend and state workers were given July 3 off with pay.

Voters’ will thwarted?

Perhaps the biggest political story of the year was the fate of citizen-initiated laws enacted in 2016. All four referendums that passed were changed in 2017 — or are in danger.

The 3 percent surtax was repealed. We already discussed that, so we’ll move on.

The minimum wage law was altered. Though the tip credit was restored, the immediate minimum wage increase to $9 per hour and incremental increases to $12 by 2020 were preserved.

Sales of recreational marijuana are in major flux. The Legislature voted early in the year to make changes to the initiated law, including delaying the implementation date of a sales and regulatory system from this month to February 2018. A special legislative committee worked for months to craft a new bill, which was approved by the Legislature during a special session in October but killed when House Republicans sustained a veto by LePage in November. The Legislature will have to act swiftly when it returns in January with the February deadline looming. There’s no way the sales, taxation and regulatory system could be created within state government by then.

Ranked-choice voting is trapped in legal limbo. Questions about whether the citizen-initiated ranked-choice voting system conforms with the Maine Constitution cropped up soon after the 2016 referendum and led the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to issue a May opinion that it would violate a Maine Constitution provision that legislative and gubernatorial elections be won by a plurality. The system has yet to be tested in court but months of unsuccessful negotiations in 2017 failed to yield compromise. During the October special session, the Legislature approved a mostly Republican-powered bill that delays implementation until the Legislature and voters amend the Maine Constitution. If that doesn’t happen by 2021, ranked-choice voting will be dead.

But hold on! Proponents of the measure are waging a people’s veto attempt. If they gather and certify 61,123 signatures from registered Maine voters by Feb. 2, they can stall the law legislators passed in October — reverting to the system passed in the November 2016 referendum — and put ranked-choice voting in place for the June 2018 primary and federal elections. The Committee for Ranked-Choice Voting said in early December that they were within 15,000 signatures of the threshold. More court action looms on a matter that injects uncertainty about how Maine will elect legislators, a new governor and federal officials in 2018.

LePage being LePage

He broke his 2017 New Year’s resolution. On Jan. 3, LePage said during a radio interview that his resolution was to stop calling members of the Legislature names. By June he’d called them “the laziest bunch I have ever seen,” a “ dog-and-pony show,” “irrelevant” on the day of the State of the State address, and “ small-minded.” All of it was pale in comparison to 2016, when among other things he called a Democratic lawmaker an obscene name and said he wanted to shoot him in the face.

After verbal combat over the state budget and shutdown, LePage used a gentler approach during the second half of 2017. Maybe he’s just mellowing as his tenure stretches into its final year, but LePage’s communications style changed. He stopped doing public forums in 2017, refused to reveal his schedule and bowed out of regular radio interviews.

There are reasons. For much of 2017, LePage was rumored to be seeking a job or appointment in the Trump administration and he made numerous trips to meet with administration officials. He also fueled speculation that he would oppose independent U.S. Sen. Angus King in the 2018 election, but ruled that out in May and again in December after the rumors persisted. He’s said more recently he’d like a job in academia. Whatever the reason for LePage’s toned-down public persona, maybe it’s working. An annual Critical Insights poll found his favorability at 41 percent in late 2017, up from 32 percent in 2016.

Susan Collins in the spotlight

Maine’s senior senator significantly raised her profile in 2017, although it was already pretty high. As a moderate Republican — at least in comparison to the more stridently partisan senators in her caucus — Collins wields significant clout on Capitol Hill, in part because she’s shown an occasional willingness to break with GOP leaders. In 2016, she began setting up a contentious relationship with Trump’s team when she became an early Republican voice against his election.

As 2017 unfolded, Collins often found herself in pivotal positions. Perhaps most notably, Collins opposed efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, which was a central promise of Trump’s campaign and a long-sought goal for congressional Republicans. Collins also voted against Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, though Scott Pruitt ended up being confirmed anyway. However, in one of the final major votes of 2017, Collins voted for a sweeping tax reform bill championed by Republicans, which included a repeal of an Obamacare law that everyone purchase health insurance or face tax penalties. Collins said she secured promises from party leaders that they’d support other provisions that would help ease upward pressure on insurance premiums, but votes on those provisions were delayed until next year.

Expect wild times in 2018

If you like parades, take a look at the governor’s race. So far there are 25(!) candidates. That’s too many to list here, so check out the list for yourself. The paramount question of 2017 is whether Republican primary voters want more of LePage’s political outsiderism and in the November general election, whether Democrats can stop a string of high-profile losses to Republicans like LePage and 2nd District Rep. Bruce Poliquin.

The heavy slate of gubernatorial candidates vying for their parties’ nominations is an issue to be resolved in the new year, but it says a lot about the year that’s just ended: There’s a lot of anger and dissatisfaction among political insiders. With mid-term congressional elections and every seat of the Maine Legislature up for re-election in 2018, the question becomes whether that trickles down to the voters.

With so much political turbulence, 2017 will definitely go down as a year to be remembered, perhaps as the year when Trump forever changed how politics works. In Maine, where LePage established a trail for Trump-style politics years ago, the question when it comes to 2018, particularly the gubernatorial election, is whether Mainers want to change back.

For a roundup of Maine political news, click here for the Daily Brief. Click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

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