AUGUSTA, Maine — They called it “the trifecta.”
Mere hours after upending Maine’s political identity as a Democratic state, Republicans gathered on Nov. 3 to celebrate gaining control of the House, the Senate and the governor’s mansion for the first time since the 1960s.
“It is a new day in Augusta,” Sen. Kevin Raye, a Perry Republican later elected Senate president, told the electric crowd in the State House. Raye said GOP leaders were thrilled and humbled by the victory, but added: “We have a big mess to clean up.”
Seven long and sometimes messy months later, both Republicans and Democrats are claiming victory as the first GOP-led legislative session in decades winds down.
Republican leaders say the $6.1 billion budget compromise — which has yet to be approved by Gov. Paul LePage — cuts taxes, reforms welfare, shores up Maine’s pension system and invests in education. They also passed bills to cut red tape and reform Maine’s health insurance laws.
“I think it has been a very productive session and there have been some extraordinary accomplishments,” Raye said Friday. “If you consider the economic climate and the challenges we faced in the budget, I’m very proud of what we have done.”
Democrats, meanwhile, take credit for scaling back what they called “extreme” and “draconian” proposals that emerged from LePage’s office dealing with the social services, Maine’s pension system and laws protecting the state’s natural resources. But Democrats claim they did so without being obstructionists.
“This was a very different kind of session for Democrats, being in the minority,” said Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, the House minority leader. “But did we prevent the state from moving backward? Did we prevent harm to the most vulnerable citizens? Did we work across the aisle even when we knew we were going to lose? To all of those I say ‘yes.’”
The first regular session of the 125th Legislature is not yet complete, with lawmakers expected to return on June 28 to vote on about 30 unresolved bills and to respond to any gubernatorial vetoes. But the Legislature has completed work on most of the big-ticket items.
But back in January, there were widespread fears among Democrats and progressives that Republican lawmakers would run roughshod over the minority party at the bidding of LePage, an unabashed conservative.
While there have been several high-profile, partisan spats — most notably fights over health insurance reform and Election Day voter registration — the session failed to provide the fireworks that many had anticipated.
“Considering some of the tensions we have seen in other states this year, I think things went pretty smoothly,” said Jim Melcher, a political scientist at the University of Maine at Farmington. “And I think part of that may have been Republicans recognizing that they have fairly slim margins, especially in the House.”
“Given the degree of polarization and the governor’s style, I am pleasantly surprised at where we ended up,” added Christian Potholm, a longtime political observer and pollster at Bowdoin College.
There is no disputing that LePage has had an effect on the legislative dialogue in Augusta. And in the first several months of the legislative session, that effect seemed largely negative.
LePage’s tendency for inflammatory comments — such as saying the NAACP could “kiss my butt” — and his decision to remove a labor-themed mural from a state building merely fueled his already riled-up opponents and caused heartburn for GOP lawmakers.
But the governor lived up to his pledge to tone down his remarks, in part by his staff restricting media access to the chief executive.
On the policy front, however, LePage set the tone for much of the session through his budget and key initiatives, with tax cuts, welfare reform, stabilizing the pension system and regulatory reform at the top of his priorities list.
In the area of regulatory reform, a bipartisan committee rejected many of the most controversial proposals contained in the governor’s original list. That fact was trumpeted by Democrats and environmental groups who had accused the governor of attempting to gut Maine’s natural resources protections.
However, the $6.1 billion budget compromise now sitting on LePage’s desk — unsigned, as of Friday — achieves all of the governor’s goals, albeit to a lesser extent than he wanted.
The budget proposal that received overwhelming support in the Legislature cuts taxes for nearly all Mainers, imposes a lifetime cap on welfare recipients, restricts some immigrants’ access to social services and reduces the unfunded pension liability by $1.7 billion.
Potholm described the budget as “an extraordinary combination of Republican successes and Democratic successes” that is even more surprising given the polarization at the beginning of the process.
“If I was the governor, I would declare victory … sign it and send the Legislature on their way,” Potholm said. “I think it’s a very positive outcome for a session that didn’t seem like it was headed in that direction.”
Those comments were echoed by Raye and Cain, both of whom praised members of the Appropriations Committee for their work to reach a unanimous recommendation.
“If you think about it, from the governor’s perspective, this budget is transformative for the state,” Raye said.
‘Amazing’ or ‘extreme’
Of course, Republicans and Democrats haven’t always found room — or reason — to compromise this legislative session.
The two most-striking examples of partisanship were a health insurance reform bill, LD 1333, that Democrats accuse Republicans of “ramrodding” through and a bill, LD 1376, to end Election Day voter registration in Maine.
Both bills inspired lengthy, sometimes angry and accusatory debates on the House and Senate floors. And Democrats and liberal-leaning groups are already threatening to wage citizen’s initiative campaigns to veto the bills at the ballot box.
“These bills stand in stark contrast to the work we know we are capable of,” said Cain, the Democrats’ floor leader in the House. “I think they will continue to stick out in people’s minds.”
UMF’s Melcher agreed, arguing that unlike welfare reform and lowering taxes, Republicans did not campaign on repealing Maine’s 38-year-old same-day voter registration policy.
Melcher suggested that issue could come back to bite the GOP during a referendum or in 2012 when, unlike LePage, lawmakers will have to face the voters.
“I think they were very careful not to over-reach on a lot of the other issues and they did not go as far as the governor wanted,” Melcher said.
Party leaders on the political side will be sure to bring up the 2011 session next year as Republicans seek to defend or strengthen their majorities and Democrats work to make the 2011-12 session a blip in Maine’s recent political history.
Charlie Webster, the outspoken chairman of the Maine Republican Party, used the word “amazing” to describe the accomplishments of the first GOP-led session in decades. And he predicted the average Mainers — truck drivers, waitresses and other blue-collar workers — will remember those accomplishments.
Webster also credited Republican leaders for working across the aisle, even if it meant that some reforms — such as in Maine’s welfare laws — were not as sweeping as some in the GOP would have preferred.
“We could have done more and we will have to work at that,” Webster said of welfare reform. “We can’t fix in one 6-month period what has been done over 35 years by the Democratic Party.”
Ben Grant, who is Webster’s counterpart over in the Maine Democratic Party, of course had a different take on the Legislature’s accomplishments so far.
Grant said he did not believe lawmakers had much to be proud of policy-wise, and he said the health insurance reform and same-day voter registration bills were examples of Republicans ramming controversial issues through the process.
“I think Democrats did a great job of dulling the sharp edges of the Republican agenda,” Grant said. “It’s a new environment for Democrats being in the minority, and I think they fought hard and built coalitions on some key issues. But I think the fact is the Republicans came in with a pretty extreme agenda.”