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Maine's Legislature is cooperating, for now. But big battles loom

House representatives look up to see how their colleagues voted on a heating assistance package, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
House representatives look up to see how their colleagues voted on a heating assistance package, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine.

The new state Legislature is nearly two months old and debates on consequential issues are beginning to take shape. A new and divided U.S. Congress is still sifting through the consequences of a chaotic, intra-Republican Party battle over its new House Speaker as a fight over the nation’s spending and debt obligations await. Closer to home, an expensive and contentious fight over who should provide electricity to Mainers is also on the horizon.

The calendar will soon flip to February. It’s time to empty the notebook with a look back and ahead.

An inauspicious start

The partisan tensions of the 131st Legislature have settled into a gentle simmer in recent weeks, as Republicans and Democrats tout their willingness to negotiate the state’s next two-year budget.

But it didn’t begin that way.

The first weeks of the session were marked by a dispute over Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ $473 million emergency heating and housing relief bill. The bill ultimately passed and was signed into law on the day of her inauguration. However, the initial rhetoric between Mills, majority Democrats and a Senate Republican caucus that initially blocked the bill, grudgingly viewing it as Democrats testing their obeisance, suggested future negotiations overthe governor’s $10.3 billion biennial budget plan could get rocky.

It also raised questions about whether Mills and the Democrats will simply go around Republicans and pass a budget using their majority by April 1 rather than engage in drawn-out talks that could increase the prospect of a state government shutdown this summer.

So far, however, the two parties are talking about bipartisan cooperation. Also, after initially taking a hard line on the governor’s heating bill, Republican Senate minority leader Sen. Trey Stewart has signaled a willingness to negotiate. He was one of two decisive GOP votes in approving Mills’ heating plan and he also placed Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, on the budget-writing committee.

Bennett, who also voted for the heating proposal, has fostered relationships with Democrats since leaving his post as Maine GOP chairman to rejoin the Legislature in 2020. He alsohelped negotiate a power-sharing agreement when the 2000 election yielded a tie in the Maine Senate.

GOP leadership duality

Stewart will turn 29 next month, yet he has long since revealed his ambition to ascend the GOP power ladder.

After serving as the assistant House minority leader during the 129th Legislature, Stewart jumped to the Senate in 2020. In 2021 he abandoned his nascent bid to run for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District seat when his old boss, former Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, jumped into the race. He settled for campaigning for a second term in the state Senate. (His websitedeclared him “the most effective Republican in Augusta.”)

Quick withbiting critiques of Mills and Democratic policies, Stewart has emerged as a vocal firebrand since becoming Senate minority leader — especially compared to his House counterpart, Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor.

Faulkingham’s climb to leadership has been relatively quiet, yet determined. So far he has taken an unassuming approach as minority leader, and the lobsterman drew attention for negotiating with Mills and guiding his caucus to approve the governor’s heating proposal. That appeared to anger some conservative activists craving strident GOP resistance, but the criticism risks mistaking Faulkingham’s engagement for a capitulation of conservative values. He’s a proud libertarian whose political action committee previously drew financial support from theLiberty Initiative Fund, a nonprofit funded by conservative megadonor Richard Uihlein.

Faulkingham also appears to have a keen eye for populist causes, joining Democratic Sen. Craig Hickman, of Winthrop, in 2021 to advocate and advance a constitutional right to food that voters ultimately ratified. More recently, he has expressed a willingness toadvance tribal sovereignty for Wabanaki tribes in Maine.

Savvy Wabanaki

Tribal leaders were crestfallen last year when their effort to gain state recognition of the same rights as other federally recognized tribes in the U.S. stalled after the governor threatened to veto it.

But the Wabanaki Alliance, the nonprofit created to advocate on the tribes’ behalf, has regrouped and retooled its advocacy efforts in Augusta and Congress.

At the State House, the Wabanaki have signaled a desire to advance a more piecemeal approach to overhauling parts of the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, which tribal leaders have long blamed for limiting their authority over natural resources, gaming, taxation, criminal justice and economic opportunities. It’s a tack that might entice Mills, who balked at last year’s sweeping sovereignty bill, but declared the settlement is “not sacrosanct” while expressing a willingness to explore more targeted proposals during a Decemberinterview with Maine Public.

Meanwhile, Wabanaki leaders are trying to broaden their support coalition by adding Republicans. That effort began with Faulkingham, who sympathized with their cause earlier this month. He opposed the sovereignty bill last year, but he wasthe only Republican that the Wabanaki Alliance’s political action committee spent on behalf of during last year’s election.

The alliance is also not shrinking from powerful people. Earlier this month tribal leaders pointedly singled out independent U.S. Sen. Angus King forworking against a proposal that would have allowed the tribes to benefit from future federal Indian laws.

Mills and legislative Democrats

They’ve had their differences and some pretty big ones, including tribal sovereignty and criminal justice reforms. However, the governor and the Democrats shelved their disagreements for a 2022 election that defied expectations and preserved a State House power trifecta that it will hold for at least six straight years.

So far, the afterglow of the election has carried into the early stages of the legislative session. Disputes, at least public ones, have been nonexistent. It’s early, of course, and Democratic lawmakers have selected floor leaders — House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, of Portland, and Senate President Troy Jackson, of Allagash — that have previously been at odds with the governor. Those disagreements are poised to reemerge.

Jackson remains one of the most prolific bill sponsors in the Legislature, and the sheer volume of his legislation (80 bills!) sets up the possibility that Mills will oppose some of them. Talbot Rosshas retained a deep interest in criminal justice issues. Mills, a former prosecutor, has often taken an opposing view on such matters. The two are also at odds on tribal sovereignty; Talbot Ross sponsored the bill that Mills threatened to veto last year.

Lingering disagreements, and new ones, among powerful politicians could erode Democratic unity and effective legislating. That also was the concern for Democrats in 2021-2022. It didn’t materialize.

Policy matters

The power, partisan and personal dynamics in the Legislature will play into policy outcomes with high stakes for Maine residents.

And there’s no shortage of consequential issues this session, which is already dominated by crises — high energy costs, backlogs and staffing shortfalls in the justice system, a raging drug epidemic, as well as workforce and housing shortages. Abortion, a key election issue, also looms large, especially now that Millshas broken from her status quo abortion-rights stance during the campaign to support bills that could make Maine a refuge amid a red-state crackdown or outright prohibition against the procedure.

Partisan disputes over public education curriculum, a holdover from the GOP’s 2022 campaign, are also poised to intensify.

New proposals might bring fresh debate to old issues like taxation and voting rights.

For now, the most substantive outcomes are the ones closest to home. Meanwhile, Congress, divided between a GOP-controlled House and a Senate controlled by Democrats, has begun to crank up the partisan din and theatrics that will fuel standoffs over funding the government and extending the debt limit.

Programming note

This week’s Political Pulse can be heard live at 11 a.m. Friday, as it joins Maine Calling for its month-in-review program. As always, the podcast version will be released Friday afternoon, while an excerpt will air during All Things Considered at 5:35 p.m. And the Maine Calling program will re-air at 7 p.m. Friday evening. The Pulse will resume its normal schedule next week.

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week by State House correspondent Kevin Miller and chief political correspondent Steve Mistler, and produced by digital editor Andrew Catalina. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.