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The Legislature hit some high notes this session
Avoiding partisan pitfalls, lawmakers did solid work on gay marriage, the budget and other issues.

The first session of the 124th Maine Legislature is now complete. How should we citizens of the state judge it?

In the light of history, this Legislature will be recognized as being among the first in the country to legalize gay marriage. Given the contentious nature of this issue, gay marriage could have absorbed most of the energy of this Legislature and could have become unfortunately partisan and bitter.

Though at times partisan and certainly emotional, legislative leadership was at its best in guiding gay marriage legislation to a successful vote in a way that was decisive without being divisive. It is a bit of a mystery to me as to how they pulled it off. Part of the reason for its success came from a well-organized grass-roots lobbying effort – mostly by real Maine people with compelling stories to tell.

Part of the success came from the strong support gay marriage has among the 30-and-under generation. Part of the success simply came from the fact that many of our older generation had simply decided its time had come.

In my own case, I had refused to sign a gay marriage petition offered at my polling station last November. By April, my daughters, my wife, and my church had convinced me that my logic was flawed and outdated.

Though gay marriage was historic, there were other pressing issues on this Legislature's agenda – most pressing being the state's enormous budget deficit that simply kept growing as the U.S. economy struggled through its worst recession in memory.

Nothing focuses the mind quite like a crisis. The budget crisis clearly focused the mind of the governor and legislative leadership on both sides of the aisle. The governor provided a good lead in presenting a budget that excluded tax increases. Leadership, fortuitously, had assembled a strong, experienced Appropriations Committee. This committee pulled off the Herculean task of taking something from everyone in a powerful, bipartisan process that really delivered for the state.

They are the unsung heroes of this session. Co-chairs Sen. Bill Diamond and Rep. Emily Cain, minority ranking members Sen. Richard Rosen and Rep. Sawin Millett will never be as well-known as the Tinker to Evers to Chance double-play combination of baseball lore, but they pulled off the legislative equivalent of a triple play in crafting a reasonable budget under economic strains not seen since the McKernan era. Moreover, the budget passed with strong two-thirds majority votes in both chambers – much in contrast to the partisan standoff that shut down state government on McKernan's watch.

The clearly difficult economic situation also seemed to give the session more gravitas and less of the shoot-from-the-hip populism than has characterized recent sessions. The greater sense of responsibility led to the defeat or sidelining of several bills that would have exacerbated Maine's already fragile business climate. Hopefully, we won't spend more time in future sessions on bills like those that would abolish employment at will, give family caregivers protected status or levy a special tax on the Poland Spring company – to name a few of the more egregious.

Moreover, the Legislature provided a few modest incentives for economic development. The expansion of Pine Tree Zones to the entire state will broaden the favorable climate for entrepreneurial development. Providing tax incentives for easier financing of transit-oriented development is also helpful.

Finally, a bill by Rep. Joan Cohen, D-Portland, to begin a dialogue to streamline Maine's cumbersome regulatory process, recommended last year by the Maine's Future Prosperity committee, also passed.

On the bonding front, the governor had proposed an additional $300 million. However, given the continuing weakness in the state's finances, Republican leadership was not willing to go higher than $150 million – which is where the final agreement came out. Most of this funding would go toward highway repair and construction. There is also $25 million for economic development, and smaller amounts for energy-related projects and higher education. While a far cry from the kind of bonding recommended by the Brookings Report, the 2007 Blueprint for Maine's economic development, these proposals are the best we can expect, given the budget circumstances.

The biggest stories of the final weeks of the Legislature were, of course, the debates on tax reform legislation and the development of a comprehensive energy strategy for Maine. More on these topics and a wrapup on leadership will follow next week.