December 1, 2012

Early education, natural gas and caring for the mentally ill focus of area legislators

New legislators to be sworn in, elect constitutional officers on Wednesday

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA -- Better managing the placement of mentally ill criminals in the city, making sure natural gas is offered in the area and ensuring that early childhood programs get the money they need are all issues local lawmakers plan to tackle during the upcoming legislative session.

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Sen. Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, right, Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, center, and Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, will lead the Republican caucus during the 2013 legislative session. The men spoke before a budget meeting Thursday at the State House.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

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Seth Goodall

Contributed photo

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Lawmakers elected last month -- all 186 of them -- will arrive at the Capitol on Wednesday to be sworn in and will choose the new attorney general, treasurer and secretary of state. The day-to-day work will begin in January, when the Legislature reconvenes for what's traditionally a six-month session.

"Our job is to seek common ground with the governor and find ways to move the economy forward in the next two years," said Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, the House majority leader.

After two years of Republican rule, Democrats took back the House and the Senate, and they will need to work with Republican Gov. Paul LePage to advance their goals. In addition to Berry, two other central Maine Democrats will be in leadership positions for the coming session. Sen. Seth Goodall of Richmond is Senate majority leader, and Rep. Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan is assistant House majority leader.

Local Republicans in leadership -- House Minority Leader Ken Fredette of Newport, Senate Minority Leader Michael Thibodeau of Winterport, and Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz of Augusta -- say the budget and the economy will be foremost on their agendas.

"I think one of the issues we're looking at is the build-out of the natural gas system," Thibodeau said. "I see that as absolutely essential to the success of small business in central Maine."

Following a flawed bidding process over the summer, state efforts to award a natural gas contract for state government buildings have stalled. But two companies, Maine Natural Gas and Summit Natural Gas of Maine, are moving forward to provide some service to the area.

Katz, a former Augusta mayor, said he wants to find a way to require the state to share more information with the city when it comes to placement of mentally ill criminals. In August, city officials were surprised to learn from a Kennebec Journal story about a state plan to place in local housing mental health patients who have committed violent acts. Known as forensic patients, many of the criminals have been found not responsible for serious offenses such as murder.

"We need to make the state more sensitive to the concerns of the citizens of Augusta with regard to forensic patients," Katz said.

Berry, who is beginning his final two years in the House, said his priority is early childhood education. Budget cuts instituted in the last two years reduced funding for Head Start and money for a home visitation program for new parents.

"There's so many great things both those programs do," he said. "There is some bipartisan interest there."

Berry said he wants to slow down the process for approving charter schools and increase state funding for public education to 55 percent, which is required by a voted-adopted 2004 state law. Lawmakers have yet to reach the 55 percent threshold.

On other fiscal fronts, Berry wants to advance "a significant bond package" to help create jobs and continue work on the state's tax structure to make it more fair to middle-income families.

Central Maine lawmakers have been chosen by their peers to fill six of the 10 House and Senate leadership positions.

In addition to helping to control the flow of legislation, leaders serve on the Legislative Council, which makes policy and spending decisions for the legislative branch of government.

McCabe said he wants to further efforts to get local schools and other places to serve locally grown food, which may include updating kitchens to handle whole food and increasing freezer or refrigerator space to store it. As a former member of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, McCabe said he's interested in finding a way to bring more slaughterhouses to the state and addressing regulatory issues that are preventing the whitewater rafting industry from growing.

(Continued on page 2)

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