Recent editorials throughout the mainstream media in Maine have called for the major parties in the Legislature to put the welfare of Maine above partisan politics. Editorial writers have repeatedly portrayed any type of disagreement as something that Maine cannot afford. These same writers have suggested that any bickering or policy disagreement will be condemned on the state’s editorial pages.
Clearly, those of us who have been called to solve our state’s problems have a huge responsibility to do just that. To begin with, Democrats and Republicans must identify the common ground that will provide problem-solving opportunities. We need to keep in mind that the goal is to secure a brighter future for Maine residents in all parts of the state. Partisan differences must be put aside whenever possible in favor of bringing positive resolution to the serious challenges that we face.
Will this be possible? I think so. And I certainly hope so.
In the House of Representatives, Democrats outnumber Republicans 96 to 54 (there is one independent). The Democrats also control the Senate, 20 to 15. In the spirit of pulling together for the common good, the Democrats would be well advised to avoid the appearance of one-party rule. Given their lopsided majorities, especially in the House, it is really up to the Democrats to be bipartisan. Republicans can cooperate on solutions all we want, but if the other party refuses to go along, it will be an exercise in futility.
Democrats also should remember that they have controlled the Maine House for 34 straight years. They have been applying their “solutions” for more than three decades, and the state has lost ground on a number of important fronts. They would benefit from a little humility and admit that they don’t have all the answers.
To get the session started on the right foot, Republicans must be allowed a seat at the negotiating table when budget discussions get under way, which will be almost immediately. The Democrats could easily use their majority status to ram through a budget with no Republican involvement, but that would poison the legislative atmosphere and stoke hostility between the parties. Politics as usual would be back in spades.
However, if Republicans are given a place at the table, then we have an equal responsibility to carefully consider the solutions being offered by the Democrats. We also must be ready to offer our own solutions crafted in a manner that will not automatically produce rejection. Mutual respect and acceptance will be key. If Democrats simply dismiss Republican ideas out of hand, the whole notion of bi-partisanship would be revealed as a charade.
And Republicans, for our part, must proceed in the belief that the Democrats want what is best for Maine, the same as we do. Obviously, we will sometimes disagree on methods and tactics to achieve a positive outcome, but, again, we Republicans will look for common ground in a good faith effort to get Maine back on the right track.
There is much at stake. The budget is a mess. The 2009 budget, which ends on June 30, appears to be short about $150 million, due to the economic meltdown. The governor took care of the first $80 million of that with a curtailment order, but legislators will deal with a supplemental budget to address the remaining $70 million. The major negotiations, commencing sometime later, will entail reducing the next two-year state budget by about $500 million. The governor already has ordered all departments to reduce their budget requests by 10 percent. He will submit his formal 2010-2011 budget in January, but its final composition will be determined by the Legislature.
Beyond the current budget issues is the future of Maine. Taxes and health insurance costs are very high, and we’re regularly ranked as one of the least friendly states for business. Consequently, our job creation rate moves at glacial speed.
Maine average incomes lag the New England norm by about $12,000, and too many of our best and brightest young people have to leave here to find fulfilling careers. We have built one of the largest welfare systems in the country, and it’s pretty clear that the taxpayers of Maine are straining under the burden. Central and northern Maine have seen their populations dwindle.
All things considered, it seems there is no way to go but up. Agreement on a budget that clearly helps Maine would be a good start. This is really quite basic stuff. The Democrats have the controlling majority; they can govern as they wish. The Republicans must be the loyal opposition. We’re all in this together.
Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, a former state senator, will be a member of the House in the 124th Maine Legislature.