|Other states show the downside of an extreme legislature|
Last week, a front-page story in The New York Times caught my eye: "One-Party Rule in Two States Sends Them Off in Opposite Directions."
In Connecticut and Wisconsin, one party gained control of the statehouse and both branches of the legislature – Democrats in Connecticut and Republicans in Wisconsin. It is quite a study in contrasts.
Connecticut lawmakers have enacted the largest tax increase in state history and far-reaching social programs that include the country's first law mandating paid sick leave for some workers. Mainers will remember that the proposed mandatory paid sick leave bill was one of the issues that convinced many in this state that the Democrats and particularly their gubernatorial candidate, Libby Mitchell, had gone "over the edge" to the left.
In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker has been much in the news in his efforts to remove certain collective bargaining rights for public sector unions. In addition, the Wisconsin Legislature is racing to adopt a raft of other "rightish" legislation including mandatory photo IDs at the polls, expanding a school voucher program, extending the right to carry concealed weapon, and cutting financing for Planned Parenthood.
All of this is to suggest how fortunate we are in Maine to have largely avoided the extremism that marks these two states. As our legislative session nears its end, we are seeing repeated examples of more balanced views prevailing on contentious issues.
Maine's most critical issue has been drafting a budget that reflects the governor's priority of a modest tax cut while addressing cost inflation in Medicaid and the problem of unfunded state pension obligations. Republican legislative leadership wisely decided against trying to ramrod a party-line budget through and has opted for an option requiring a two-thirds vote of both Houses.
This approach has been ably carried forward by the much beleaguered Appropriations Committee. Republican chairmen Sen. Richard Rosen (R-Bucksport) and Rep. Pat Flood (R-Winthrop) worked hard to craft a bipartisan solution on the budget. A good example of the effectiveness of their approach is the agreement the committee reached on modifications to the governor's proposal to increase the state employees contribution to their retirement fund and also limit future increases in cost of living adjustments. The governor's proposal apparently would have left state employees contributing over 9 percent while the state contributed something over 1 percent.
The committee's proposal reduces pension debt by $2.4 billion, less than the governor proposed, but is still a good first step. It includes a three-year COLA freeze and a 3 percent COLA cap thereafter.
The committee's budget proposal won unanimous approval and will be voted on by the Legislature this week.
Gov. LePage has only talked of reading the "little print;" however, he would be wise to support the sensible, hard-fought balance that the Appropriations Committee has crafted.
Senate President Kevin Raye (R-Perry) and House Speaker Bob Nutting (R-Oakland) have tended to modify or defer the most volatile of the governor's proposals, and they have been supported by a party caucus where tea party activists remain a minority.
One of the most contentious issues they have had to deal with has been health insurance reform. Though some Democrats have been critical of the process, the final bill reflected several improvements that brought knowledgeable moderates such as independent Sen. Dick Woodbury of Yarmouth on board.
Other contentious legislation such as the bill to make the collection of public sector union fees voluntary for those employees who choose not to join a union have been carried over into the next legislative session.
Not that all has been smooth in this first session of the first Republican sweep of top state offices since 1966. The Legislature has left an enormous amount of business to the end of the session. A whole series of important pieces of legislation such as charter schools remains to be voted on. There is also some weird legislation that could slip through in the confusion such as the right for company employees to have handguns in their (locked) cars in employer parking lots. This is a bill to strike fear into the hearts of many an employer.
On balance, though, it seems that in Maine, in contrast to Wisconsin on the right and Connecticut on the left, has steered a pragmatic and constructive right of center course.
Kudos to the Republican leadership in our Legislature for realizing that Maine's majority is not given to extremes. It is an important lesson our governor is slow in learning.