A Potential Silver Lining in a Politically Divided Maine Legislature
For the first time in 20 years, the two houses of the Maine Legislature will be under the control of different parties. Pending recounts, Republicans have captured 20 of the Maine Senate's 35 seats. Over in the House, meanwhile - despite some Republican gains - Democrats appear to have maintained a majority, with 79 seats. The dynamics of this divided Legislature could potentially result in an usually productive session.
The conventional wisdom might suggest one-party rule at the State House might expedite the legislative process. But some policymakers with a memory of history say a divided power structure at the State House may actually result in more thoughtful legislation driven by the need to cooperate.
That potentiality depends on the positions that legislative leaders will stake out at the onset of the session. Mike Thibodeau, of Winterport, emerged from a Republican caucus vote as the likely Senate president-elect, and he says he believes he can work with a Democratic House.
"We expect that our Democratic colleagues are going to be very anxious to work with us, given the results of the elections Tuesday night," Thibodeau said. "I think they recognize that they can't be the party of 'no,' they can't be simply obstructionists. Indeed, the people of the state want something done, and it's their job and responsibility to work with us to accomplish good things."
Democrat Mark Eves, of North Berwick, is expected to be returned to his position as speaker of the House next week. He holds a different point of view on who may have indulged in obstructionism in the past. But given this week's election results, and the challenges facing the state over the next two years, he says he is ready to extend his hand to the Republican-led Senate.
"We're going to try and find common ground where we can," Eves said. "We are going to honestly look at every bill that comes forward and if there are opportunities that we can do things together, we will. And that's a commitment that I can make today. We will not compromise our convictions, but we can find areas of common ground - I believe that."
That's not a bad start, according to Kay Rand, a top aide to former independent Gov. Angus King and now the U.S. senator's chief of staff. She says that 20 years ago, a Democratic House and a Republican Senate were able to craft some significant legislation, including a repeal of a 7 percent gross receipts tax on nursing homes, a $45 million reduction in state spending through the government restructuring initiative, and funding for long-term care for Maine's elderly.
Rand says the partisan divide between the two houses of the Maine Legislature means that major bills will be fully vetted. "When you've got both parties in the majority on the third floor, everybody needs to be accommodated," Rand says. "Nothing gets greased, nothing's going to happen without being probed and debated, and that's good, that's the right thing."
Jill Goldthwait, of Bar Harbor, agrees. Goldthwait was the lone independent in the Maine Senate back in 1995. "I think they can be healthy dynamics because they really make all segments of that system - the House, the Senate and the governor's office - think about how can we maximize what we have for opportunity," Goldthwait says.
In addition to nominating Mike Thibodeau as president-elect, Senate Republicans also chose Garrett Mason as majority leader and Andre Cushing as assistant leader. In the House, GOP lawmakers returned Rep. Ken Fredette, of Newport, to the post of minority leader and elected Rep. Eleanor Espling, of New Gloucester, as assistant leader.
Senate and House Democrats will elect their new leaders next week.