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After rocky start, Republicans made reform agenda work

A spirit of compromise and a can-do attitude broke a logjam on issues that went back decades.

Much has been written about the first session of the 125th Maine Legislature, which closed late last month. It was the first session in 45 years that Republicans controlled the governor's office and both branches of the Legislature.

The Republicans stepped up, acquitted themselves well after a somewhat rocky start, and can be justifiably proud of what they accomplished.

We voters are notorious for short memories, but remember why the elections of 2010 were a Republican sweep. Democrats, in charge for most of the past 30 years, had shown themselves unable to address the principal problems facing the Maine economy.

Those include the high costs of doing business, the unrelenting tax burden, the rising costs of publicly funded programs like Medicaid and state pension liabilities, the under-investment in higher education – all problems painstakingly documented in report after report. Yet the D's could not bring themselves to oppose their core constituencies – a necessary condition to progress on many of these problems.

Enter the Republicans – given the first few months of the session when the Legislature seemed to be focusing on the trivial (aka whoopie pies as a state symbol) and the governor showed a strong proclivity toward "foot in mouth" disease, the success of this first session seemed far from assured.

Somehow the Republican leadership turned it around. The governor took his Jamaican vacation, and when he came back, he seemed more inclined to work with leadership in the Senate and House.

Senate President Kevin Raye and House Speaker Bob Nutting, along with their leadership colleagues, made the calculation that Maine people wanted to see change, but not the kind of polarizing change that gripped Wisconsin and New Jersey.

There was clearly something learned from the early process that led to the passage of the governor's signature bill (L.D. 1) – a bill to improve Maine's regulatory climate.

The governor proposed an approach that seemed to many to be an outright assault on some of Maine's most important environmental protections, protections that had a clear link to Maine's quality of life. Legislative leadership modified the governor's bill to streamline the regulatory process without removing essential environmental safeguards.

In the end a redrafted L.D. 1 passed unanimously in the Senate and nearly unanimously in the House. Maine business is delighted in the result, which is the first attempt in years to improve the burden of regulation on the state's economy.

With the experience of L.D. 1, Republican leadership seemed to find its stride, staking out positions on major legislative initiatives that took the tough issues head-on but crafted solutions that were more constructive change than destructive confrontation.

In this spirit much was accomplished: a major overhaul of Maine's health care regulation that opens up the system to more competition and more innovation; pension reform; tax reduction, modest but important; raising the exemption on the estate tax to make it consistent with federal tax policy; the passage of charter school legislation; and in higher education, small funding increases in spite of an intense debate over how best to address fundamental budget priorities.

Which brings us to a real triumph, the $6.1 billion biennial budget passed by two-thirds majorities in both houses.

Republican leadership committed to a bipartisan budget process, and Appropriations Committee Co-chairs Sen. Richard Rosen, D-Bucksport, and Rep. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, deserve enormous credit for taking on the most contentious of issues: pension reform, tax cuts, Medicaid (MaineCare) and welfare reform. Truly the budget process this year will go down as one of the most successful in memory.

In a time of tight revenues the Legislature finally stepped up to the most critical problems, rather than simply deferring them as has happened so often in the past. Taking these problems on made the Appropriations Committee few friends – witness the demonstrations by state employee unions on the issue of pension reform.

It is exceedingly rare that legislative committees have the courage to stand together against such powerful and vocal opposition. However, it has also never been so clear that someone in state leadership needed to do this. We owe the committee a great deal for its efforts.

Peter Mills, one of Maine's ablest former legislators, said of the budget process and, in particular, its approach to pension reform: "This helps every single state budget in perpetuity. It is an extraordinary thing."

It is an extraordinary thing we witnessed in the last days of the Legislature. This bodes well for the state. Let us hope we are turning a corner. If so, much credit will go to Maine's approach to making Republican leadership work.