AUGUSTA, Maine — With only a small dose of political stagecraft, the Maine Legislature got off to a quick start Wednesday, sending dozens of bills to committees and plowing forward on the reauthorization of millions of dollars in land conservation bonds.
Lawmakers also got to work on a bill designed to fight a growing heroin problem that some have called an epidemic.
A band of lawmakers hoping to open a debate on whether Gov. Paul LePage should face impeachment refrained from raising the issue on day one.
That didn’t stop a group calling for LePage’s impeachment from rallying outside, but those protesters were met by an even larger crowd rallying in support of LePage.
“Lawmakers are being thoughtful about how to hold the governor accountable, but again, today, we are talking about priorities,” House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said during a pre-session news conference. Eves’ dispute with LePage over the governor’s role in a decision the nonprofit Good Will-Hinckley school made in hiring and then firing Eves has moved to a civil lawsuit.
House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, told reporters he had never supported bringing an impeachment order to the House but that some legislators, including some in his caucus, believe it is necessary.
Regardless, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said they wanted to stay focused on other matters as the session opened Wednesday.
Legislators and LePage appeared to have reached an agreement on $6.5 million in Land for Maine’s Future bonds that had expired after LePage refused to approve them in 2015.
Lawmakers on the Health and Human Services Committee, as well as the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee, began to work a $4.9 million bill aimed at funding 10 more Maine Drug Enforcement Agency agents and adding capacity to the state’s drug-addiction treatment programs, including a new 10-bed detoxification facility in Bangor. Later Wednesday, lawmakers said aspects of the bill could be amended to address LePage’s concerns.
Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, called the new agreement on the Land for Maine’s Future bonds a positive start for the 2016 lawmaking session.
“Instead of a lot of drama and a lot of noise, it was a real grand compromise around Land for Maine’s Future,” Alfond said. “It was a really different day in the House than I expected and you know momentum builds on momentum.”
Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said Wednesday’s proceedings gave his caucus hope as well. Thibodeau said he and Republican leaders met with LePage to discuss the governor’s agenda on the opioid addiction bill. The meeting was the first in-person conversation Thibodeau had held with LePage since the two disagreed over a state budget compromise brokered last spring among lawmakers.
“He shared with us a little bit of a vision that he is still trying to flesh out some details on, but I think it was a very productive and positive meeting,” Thibodeau said. “I’m just glad we were able to meet, and it was a positive meeting.”
Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s spokeswoman, also characterized the meeting as positive and noted that the governor was pleasantly surprised the session didn’t start off with any political grandstanding.
“If you are a legislator who wants to give an honest effort regarding reform and policy issues that matter to Mainers, his door is wide open,” Bennett said. “It’s a positive step in the right direction that we didn’t start out with any reprimand for the governor this session. Instead, I think we are seeing legislators who are demonstrating a willingness to compromise.”
Bennett said the administration, however, would take it day by day.
“The majority of us have common goals, but the real work lies in how we get there, because we don’t always have the same path,” Bennett said. “We will have to wait and see how the next few days go and if this was all for show or not.”
House Republicans also characterized the day as positive.
“I’m always more hopeful than not and I hope it means we are going to get some good work done,” said Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester. “I think that’s what the public is asking of us, as well.”