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Maine Legislative Session Ends on Divisive Note
07/10/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

It's half-time for the 126th Maine Legislature, and one thing that Democrats and Republicans both agree on is that the recently-concluded session took its toll on members and party leaders. Republicans found their ranks divided when 30 of their members reluctantly agreed to a new state budget with tax increases. Democrats disappointed progressives when they failed to deliver on a Medicaid expansion bill and a repeal of some tax cuts approved two years ago. A.J. Higgins has more.

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Maybe the real winner of the legislative session is the one player who is neither a member of the House nor the Senate. Republican Gov. Paul LePage fired off a record-breaking barrage of 83 vetoes - each of which had to be either sustained or overturned by the Legislature.

When the smoke cleared early Wednesday morning, LePage could claim that 94 percent of his vetoes were sustained. Majority Democrats could not find much common ground with Republicans, and House Speaker Mark Eves says the governor was often the unseen presence in the room.

"We were in an environment that was very contentious, where people on the street and around the coffee tables and around the kitchen tables were thinking that we were heading towards a state shutdown," Eves says. "That tone was really set by the governor. He was always in the way, not at the table, and that's the environment that we had to operate in."

Maine Senate President Justin Alfond says he expected LePage to use whatever means necessary to convince Republicans to abandon bipartisan positions on legislation and follow his lead instead.

"I'm not sure the why the Republicans feel the need to follow the governor, but they're doing it on almost all the vetoes," Alfond says.

Still, that's not to say that the first half of the 126th Maine Legislature was without success. Republicans and Democrats were able to unite to defeat the governor's $6.3 billion budget proposal. Alfond says if this Legislature should be remembered for anything, it's the offset to LePage's $200 million property tax shift to Maine's cities and towns through the suspension of revenue sharing. He says the Legislature restored about $135 million of that amount - partially through temporary tax increases.

"Our biggest job that we have to do every two years is crafting a budget, and I think we took a budget that was a non-starter for every community in the state of Maine and turned it into something that was much better, much fairer, something that we can move forward for the next two years," Alfond says.

"You know, I didn't support the budget because I do think that it was a bad budget for the state," says Rep. Alex Willette. "But, you know, some Republicans were more worried about the state shutdown, and each one of us has a vote and we have to represent our district."

Willette, the assistant House Republican leader from Mapleton, sided with the governor on the budget, unlike his leader, Rep. Ken Fredette, of Newport, who backed the bipartisan budget compromise. Assistant Senate Republican Leader Roger Katz was also at odds over the budget with his leader, Sen. Michael Thibodeau of Winterport.

Katz says the media seemed to be preoccupied with the issues that divided Republicans, and should instead see the session as a major GOP success, with the retention of about $400 million in tax cuts that were approved when Republicans ruled the State House two years ago.

"Part of our mission this time - being in the minority - was just to try to hold onto those gains that we made," Katz says. "There were many, many Democratic bills which came forward trying to undo some of the things that we did with tax cuts in the state of Maine, with lowering the cost of health insurance, pension reform. And we had to play a little defense, but I think that we successfully did it."

Taxes, insurance and pension reform weren't the only areas where Republicans were able to block Democratic initiatives. Although both parties agreed to a repayment plan for the a nearly half-billion dollars in Medicaid debt owed to Maine's hospitals, Democrats failed to meet their stated goal of tying the deal to expanded Medicaid coverage for an additional 70,000 Mainers.

Eves says that his party lost that skirmish, but the battle will continue.

"There are 25,000 Mainers who are going to lose health care," Eves says. "We feel that it is extremely important to act as quickly as we can, and that's why we're bringing forward an emergency piece of legislation to make sure that we take full advantage of the offer that's on the table from the federal government."

Lawmakers are planning on a special session this fall to prepare a bond package for next year's major infrastructure projects.


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