Elections have consequences. It’s a tired refrain, but it’s one that invariably holds true. And it was certainly on display during this most recent legislative session here in Maine.
Following eight years under a Republican governor, and after riding a 2018 blue wave to control both houses in Augusta and the Blaine House, Gov. Janet Mills and Maine Democrats in the Legislature promised big changes. Nearly six months in, there’s little question that they are following through and reshaping our state government.
Maine, from a policy perspective, made a seismic shift to the left in many areas this legislative session. Some of these policies, like the ban on conversion therapy and the move to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day in place of Columbus Day, respresent valuable steps toward a more inclusive state. Others, such as the long-awaited and voter-approved expansion of Medicaid, were much-needed reversals from the administration of former Gov. Paul LePage.
Additional strides in health care access included LD 1, which enshrined important patient protections from the Affordable Care Act in state law and received nearly unanimous support, and LD 820, a law that expands access to reproductive healtch care by requiring MaineCare and some private insurers to cover abortion services.
Of course, there are many new policies, ranging from Maine’s first-in-the nation approach to paid leave to a ban on polystyrene containers, another national first, that remain unproven. It’s too soon to know if warnings from some Republicans about costs and the potential burden on the business community will prove true, but there is a decent chance that Democrats have overreached in their post-LePage corrections — even though some level of correction was undoubtedly necessary.
Perhaps the most notable difference this legislative session, compared to the past eight years in Augusta, is tenor. While LePage’s often combative tone set the stage for disagreements with the legislature, this session has appeared to bring a return to normalcy in how the executive and legislative branches — and the majority and minority parties — work together, even when they have substantial policy disagreements.
Take, for example, the negotiations surrounding Mills’ proposed biennial budget. While the previous two-year budget was bogged down by disagreements between LePage and the Legislature, leading to a three-day state government shutdown in 2017, the process this year was relatively smooth.
Legislative Republicans deserve credit for how they approached their minority position in both the House and Senate. They successfully made their case for less spending and more property tax relief, while ultimately acknowledging the reality that voters had given Democrats unified control. Despite their concerns about a potentially dangerous amount of hopeful economic forecasting in the budget — concerns that we share — the two Republican legislative caucuses offered objections without grinding government to a halt. Given recent budget negotiations in Maine, that is no small thing, and merits recognition.
Aside from the two-year budget agreement, which Mills signed into law last week, the Legislature was also able to target high prescription drug prices, deliver a few pleasant surprises to help reform Maine’s referendum process, and pass sensible solar and wind policy reform. Legislators also advanced worthwhile election reforms such as a utomatic voter registration and a return to presidential primaries instead of caucuses, while wisely pressing pause on more sweeping, controversial reforms like joining the national popular vote compact and expanding ranked-choice voting to presidential elections.
There were times when Mills acted as a necessary check on the more progressive members of her party in the legislature, helping to craft or encourage compromises on the paid leave proposal, proposed workers compensation changes, and a “red flag” law that can save lives by temporarily seizing guns from someone deemed a substantial threat to themselves or others.
There were some instances, as to be expected, when tempers boiled over. A particularly ugly moment happened last week, when Republican Rep. Sheldon Hanington of Lincoln yelled at House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport. Cooler heads eventually prevailed, and Hanington apologized. But clearly it hasn’t been all kumbaya in Augusta.
Mills sure seemed to be signing a lot of bills at the end of session, but at least one major item was left unfinished. No agreement was reached on a proposed bond package that would support Maine’s transportation projects, worker training, research and development, child care, energy improvements and broadband expansion.
Though these $239 million in proposed bonds would appear as different ballot questions, Mills and Democrats looked to pass them through the Legislature as one package before going to voters. Republicans, however, wanted to vote on them separately. Neither are unreasonable positions, and we hope both sides can muster some cooperation in time to give Maine voters a chance to weigh in on important investments this November.