AUGUSTA, Maine — The 127th Legislature’s second session, which opens officially Wednesday, comes amid historic divides between and within the political parties.
The gridlock of split majorities in the House and Senate and a veto-happy governor means the 2016 legislative session will center more on politics than on policy.
It’s often said lawmakers accomplish little of consequence during the second session of each two-year legislature because they are too busy positioning for the next election. With three years left in LePage’s second term, Democrats are desperate to stem the bleeding that saw their party lose control of the Senate and come within a handful of districts of losing the House in 2014.
House Republicans, led by Minority Leader Ken Fredette of Newport, remain LePage’s most loyal allies in the Legislature. If Republicans build on the momentum of two special election wins in November 2015 to seize a majority in that chamber, LePage, unencumbered by re-election concerns, will be emboldened to pursue his agenda and define his legacy with what he does during his final two years in office.
The early House election calculus favors Republicans. They have only two members who are term-limited out of office this year, compared to 14 Democrats. That will intensify the scramble between now and Election Day.
There will continue to be plenty of campaigning against LePage.
Democrats have seen mixed results when trying to defeat Republican candidates by linking them to LePage. Though Democrats managed to wrestle back House and Senate majorities in 2012 after two years of LePage enjoying Republican House and Senate majorities, that strategy backfired on a grand scale in 2014. Not only did legislative Republicans rebound, but LePage roared to re-election, garnering the most votes for any governor in Maine history.
Still, a lot has happened during the past year, including LePage’s fumbling of 65 vetoes last summer that resulted in the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruling against him. LePage also is in the midst of a controversy over his role in forcing Good Will-Hinckley to fire Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick, which has led to a civil lawsuit by Eves and impeachment talk among a handful of House Democrats and independents.
Although an impeachment trial is unlikely, individual legislators’ actions on that matter will be fodder for campaign advertising in tight legislative races.
But who will LePage campaign for or against?
Will LePage help the re-election efforts of legislative Republicans? If his past statements hold true, probably not — at least incumbent Senate Republicans.
Senate President Mike Thibodeau of Winterport and other Senate Republicans found themselves at the receiving end of LePage’s ire in 2015, when they split with the governor and House Republicans on the state budget. The compromise budget included shades of Democratic and Republican priorities — the defeat of LePage’s welfare reform proposals and tax cuts, respectively — but it caused LePage and his supporters to lash out against Thibodeau and Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason of Lisbon with inflammatory robocalls in their home districts and repeated promises to campaign against them.
Democrats again will try Medicaid expansion as a campaign issue.
Moderate Republican Sens. Roger Katz of Augusta and Tom Saviello of Wilton have introduced another attempt to expand Medicaid in Maine under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Democrats believe Medicaid expansion, which would open health care to an estimated 60,000 more Mainers, is an issue supported by the majority of Mainers.
LePage has vetoed expansion five times since 2013, and Republicans have supported the governor. Democrats will try to use that against them during this year’s campaign, but there is no evidence poll results showing public support for Medicaid expansion will translate to votes.
Republicans will campaign on tax cuts and welfare reform but could be handicapped.
The Maine Republican Party is collecting signatures in an attempt to place a question on the 2016 ballot that seeks a deep income tax cut and social service reforms that have failed in the Legislature. However, the initiative’s success is in question after lackluster signature-gathering since Election Day 2015. Those issues will remain at the core of the Republican message, but having that question on the 2016 ballot could have helped offset traditionally strong voter turnout for Democrats in presidential election years.
LePage has positioned himself to win his drug-fighting battle while framing lawmakers as spend-happy.
Legislative leaders announced in December a $4.8 million package that spends equally on 10 new Maine Drug Enforcement Agency investigators, which LePage demanded, and expansion of treatment and recovery services, which Democrats have sought.
That bill will be the subject of a public hearing Tuesday. Thibodeau has said he hopes to have the bill to LePage for enactment by mid-January. LePage has backed the Legislature into a corner by using a financial order to appropriate money for the new drug agents with the intention that the Legislature will backfill the money with a new appropriation. Meanwhile, he has been touring the state, arguing against more spending on treatment and recovery.
That sets the stage for him to veto the measure, for Democrats and several Republicans to override the veto and put the bill into law, and for LePage to claim victory no matter which way it goes.
Democrats will claim victory by reminding voters that while LePage focused his efforts on arresting dealers, their priority was helping addicted people receive treatment.
Many lawmakers are jockeying for leadership positions in 2017.
One of the political realities in a cash-driven political system is that to ascend to a leadership position or a committee chairmanship, a lawmaker is expected to help elect party members. That means being active in campaigns and, perhaps more importantly, raising money. The Maine Ethics Commission keeps records on which lawmakers have their own political actions committees, which in general is a sure sign of who is gunning for leadership.
Democrats will have to find new leaders in the House.
With Eves and House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan term-limited out of their seats, the heir apparent to be speaker of the House — if Democrats retain control — is Assistant House Majority Leader Sara Gideon of Freeport. The Gideon Leadership PAC had $16,000 on hand at the end of October, putting it in the top tier of campaign fundraising committees. Other House Democrats with PACs who are not term-limited out of office and who have made a name for themselves with key legislation or committee chairmanships include Mark Dion of Portland, Jared Golden of Lewiston and Craig Hickman of Winthrop.
The person to watch on the Democratic side, however, is Rep. Barry Hobbins of Saco, who has a combined 13 terms in the House and Senate under his belt and who is one of the few Democrats who has had any kind of direct communication with LePage. Hobbins’ Empowering Maine Leadership PAC has only about $2,600 in it, but that was three months ago.
Dion and Hobbins both tested the waters on leadership positions in 2014.
House Republicans have Fredette and Espling for another two years, but others are also jockeying for position.
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette of Newport and Assistant Minority Leader Ellie Espling of New Gloucester have another term left before hitting term limits, and both are involved with PACs. It would be tough to unseat them, though there are several influential lawmakers in their caucus who have launched PACs. They include Deborah Sanderson of Chelsea, who is the ranking Republican on the Health and Human Services Committee, and Jeff Timberlake of Turner, who served on the Appropriations Committee.
In the Senate, Republican leaders will try to hold on.
The Republican leadership trio in the Senate — Thibodeau, Mason and Assistant Leader Andre Cushing of Hampden — all have at least one eligible term left, and all are involved with at least one PAC. They are among the highest-grossing fundraisers in the Legislature. However, there are at least three moderate Republican senators — Katz, Saviello and Brian Langley of Ellsworth — who have leadership PACs. Katz and Saviello — and, to some degree, Langley — are known for breaking from their caucus. As for that Medicaid expansion bill sponsored by Katz and Saviello, it’d go much better if presented by the Senate president.
That’s a tough slog, though. Thibodeau’s leadership position is probably safe, as long as he can win re-election. He beat his 2014 Democratic opponent, Jonathan Fulford, by just 105 votes. Fulford has filed for a rematch.
Alfond is out. Who is in?
Sen. Justin Alfond of Portland has been the leader of Senate Democrats for four years. Alfond is term-limited out of office this year and there are several possible leaders in the making, all of whom have leadership PACs.
Sen. Dawn Hill, the assistant Senate minority leader, is poised to take over the top position. The Dawn Hill PAC had about $12,000 to play with at the end of October, and Hill’s past experience as co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee — a role in which she refused to let LePage testify in 2014 — makes her a partisan favorite.
There also is Sen. Bill Diamond of Windham, who has several past legislative terms under his belt as well as a stint as secretary of state. He is not term-limited out until 2022, and moving him into a leadership position next year makes sense in at least one important way: Since term limits were enacted, it has been difficult for lawmakers to ascend to influential Senate president or House speaker positions quickly enough to be able to serve more than one term there or two at most. Diamond represents the possibility of having an experienced lawmaker in a leadership position for as many as three terms.
Looming outside the dome is former Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, who also has a PAC and has indicated a strong desire to return to the Senate in a position of power.
That is, of course, if Democrats can take back the Senate, where they trail by five votes after their disastrous performance in the 2014 election.
So as the gavels drop and legislative oration begins anew, remember that influencing who has the power in Maine politics is still and will always be the overarching priority.