May 30, 2012

GEORGE SMITH: Republican-led Legislature had a good -- not great -- session

George Smith

Although the Legislature returns on Thursday to act on bills vetoed by the governor, most of the wrap-up news stories about this session have been written and published, reporting on the Legislature's most significant accomplishments.

We've read about budget and tax cuts, changes to mining laws, reforms of the workers' compensation system, the abolishment of the State Planning Office and merger of the departments of Agriculture and Conservation, significant education reforms and more. But what does it all mean?

Republicans were in control, so they get the praise or blame, depending on your perspective. Democrats staked out some key issues for their 2012 campaign. Both parties, however, get credit for limiting their partisan bickering and working together on many key issues.

I'd call it a good session but not a great session. The process these days is dysfunctional, suffering especially from the effects of term limits. It surprises me that anything gets done.

As usual, most of the session was devoted to defeating bad bills. Nothing unusual there. That's the norm.

Gov. Paul LePage's outbursts and bad ideas saddled Republican legislators with a heavy burden, but, for the most part, they massaged his ideas into good legislation and that may be their most significant achievement. Many are worried about having to defend the governor in their re-election campaigns. Should be interesting.

I give Republican legislators -- especially the leadership team (including committee chairmen) and members of the Appropriations Committee -- high marks for refusing to carry the governor's toxic water. And they fought back, in private and in public, when the governor was particularly outrageous. He never did seem to understand that his party is in charge of the Legislature.

Republicans demonstrated a good deal of independence about issues such as the reorganization of the Land Use Regulation Commission. Amazingly -- given that agency's troubled past, the governor's original bill to abolish it, and hardened positions on both sides of the issue -- the final bill won bipartisan support at the end of a very long, difficult and sometimes ugly process. Very good result on that one.

I'd be surprised if Democrats are able to ride back into power on the back of the governor. Legislative races are local affairs where the talent, character, community connections and accomplishments of each candidate are most important -- along with vigorous campaigning door to door.

Democrats think the Republicans' final supplemental budget, cutting MaineCare, is a good campaign topic for their candidates. I doubt it. It's sad to hurt people, certainly, but clearly our generosity outpaced our pocketbooks. Republicans got this one right.

As Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, told this newspaper's reporter Susan Cover, "When I go to the grocery store, I see people walking up to thank us for getting Maine back to the national mainstream. Most people understood when you had the third highest percentage of the population on MaineCare in the country, that's not sustainable."

Democrats also may campaign on what Republicans trumpet as "the biggest tax cut in Maine history." The Ds have some traction on this one because the tax cuts are unfunded, putting the next budget in deficit. What happened to my Republican Party's age-old theme of paying as we go?

Perhaps they are anticipating great income growth to raise new revenue and pay for the big tax cuts, but is that realistic? Maine had the lowest income growth in the nation last year. To me, that's a bigger story -- and problem -- than anything the Legislature did this year.

We've got huge underlying problems: our unhealthy lifestyles (smoking, obesity) and oldest-in-the-nation population and the subsequent cost of health care; the high cost of living, including heating oil; and our depressed economy -- especially bad in rural Maine.

Author Colin Woodard reports that Maine's economy has been in depression for more than 100 years. We peaked in the mid 1850s, historian Woodard says.

House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, told Cover, "I think after the general election ... a lot of companies sitting on money waiting to see who's going to be in charge -- what the economy is going to look like -- I think then no matter who is elected president we'll see the economy start to come back."

We can only hope he's right. But here in Maine, we've been long on hope and short on prosperity.

You are encouraged to ignore the partisan campaign rhetoric -- especially from those who simply want to look back and cast blame -- and ask candidates serious questions about their ideas and plans to get us back to the good old days -- the ones in the 1850s!

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or georgesmith maine@gmail.com. Read more of Smith's writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.

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