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Maine Democrats Outline Legislative Agenda, GOP Dismisses It
01/09/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins
Justin Alfond, Maine Senate President

Majority Democrats at the State House laid out a broad agenda of legislative goals today that they said will improve the lives of all Mainers. Better access to health care, lowering energy costs and upgrading the state's infrastructure are all major themes for Democratic legislative leaders who are determined to put people back to work. Republicans said they share many of the goals outlined by Democrats. Unlike the majority party, GOP leaders said they will not support any new taxes on working Mainers.

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When Democrats won control of the Maine Legislature last fall after two years of Republican rule, they also earned the right to set the agenda for policies that will be reflected in the next two-year state budget. After the official opening of the legislative session on Tuesday, Senate President Justin Alfond (D-Portland) said Mainers will soon see the difference in priorities.

"Many have asked what will be different, there are two things that we hope will be different, one, Democrats will be leading the way for lawmakers to be focusing on strengthening our economy, putting people back to work and growing our middle class," Alfond said.

Alfond and Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves (D-North Berwick) did not reveal any specific pieces of legislation. Instead both laid out their desire to enhance the ability of Maine workers to match high-tech jobs, many of which are available now. Alfond said 50,000 Mainers are now either unemployed or underemployed, in many cases because they lack the necessary skills.

"According to a study by our community college system, 4,000 jobs between now and 2018 will remain unfilled because of the skills gap," Alfond said. "Today, there is a three-year waiting list for programs in nursing at our community colleges. That's unacceptable."

In addition to boosting educational opportunities, Democrats plan to pressure their Republican counterparts to support bond proposals they said are needed to keep Maine competitive. Although Gov. Paul LePage and many GOP lawmakers have shown little enthusiasm for increased state borrowing, House Speaker Mark Eves said Maine can no longer afford to ignore the costs of not investing in itself.

"An economic investment package to fix out crumbling roads and bridges and boost research and development at our universities and labs will create jobs now and in the future," Eves said. "A safe and strong transportation network is the foundation of a growing economy. Our small businesses rely on our roads and bridges to move their products across the state and our working people depend on them to get to their jobs."

Democratic leaders said they also want to improve access to affordable health care for all Mainers and could be open to changes for the Republican-led Public Law 90 that revamped the state's health insurance laws two years ago. Some Maine small business owners have complained bitterly about the revisions, saying their insurances costs have skyrocketed as a result. Initiating regulatory changes in state policies and programs could be accompanied by additional costs. Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall (D-Richmond) said Democrats believe all sources of revenue should be on the table in the upcoming session and that includes new fees and taxes.

"We're going to make sure that we look at all opportunities to solve these problems on every side of the equation and we're going to look both at making wise decisions at programs that may need to be reduced as well as looking at opportunities at revenue," Goodall said.

"There will be no tax increases," said House Republican Leader Ken Fredette (R-Newport).

Although Republicans share many of the Democratic goals for a better Maine, House GOP Leader Ken Fredette said tax increases are not among them. In fact, Fredette said the tax cuts advanced by Republicans have already improved the business climate in Maine. Assistant Senate Republican Leader Roger Katz agrees.

"Any proposals which are going to have significant new spending is going to be very difficult to pull off given the financial situation we're in now." Katz said. "We're really going to be talking about cutting and not adding spending, it's just the reality of the situation."

Democrats and Republicans also said they hope to work together with Gov. Paul LePage to craft new policies that will lead to lower energy costs throughout the state.


Photo courtesy Maine Senate Democrats.

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