May 23, 2019

Legislature is stymied by gridlock> Committee reorganization plan prompts disagreement

AUGUSTA — The 117th Legislature missed a valuable opportunity Thursday to save time and taxpayer dollars when the Senate and House of Representatives failed to reach agreement on joint rules governing both bodies.

Senate Majority Leader Leo Kieffer, R-Caribou, emphatically rejected the suggestion that the Legislature had managed to attain a state of gridlock in only its second day of session.

“This has absolutely nothing to do with gridlock,” he said. “I think it’s a good, healthy discussion. The rules from the 115th and 116th (legislatures) were written by a Democratic majority in the Senate. We’re (Republicans) now in the majority and we feel that we should have some input into the rule-making process the same as they did.”

While there were no overt signs of animosity, a number of Democrats in the House and Senate did not perceive Thursday’s events as representative of a new era of cooperation in a State House marked by partisan divisiveness for the past four years.

“We’re going to have to learn not to try to get the upper hand from each other, but learn how to build a different Legislature that we both can work equally in,” said Senate Minority Leader Mark Lawrence, D-Kittery. “Early on, we should have resolved the rules right from the start. That way by the second week in January, the committees could have begun their hearings.”

At the current rate of progress, Lawrence said, legislation will not be referred to committees until “well into February.” Without the enactment of joint rules, neither the House nor the Senate can assemble its joint legislative hearings which process bills presented during the session.

It also means that lawmakers will get paid about $30,000 a day plus expenses to do nothing while Republican and Democratic leaders in both houses wrangle over:

How many committees there will be;

How many members each committee shall have;

What the selection process and scope of authority of the committee chairmen will be;

How jurisdictions of oversight for each committee will be delegated.

Senate President Jeffrey Butland, R-Cumberland, and House Speaker Dan A. Gwadosky, D-Fairfield, adjourned both bodies until further notice. Butland said he expected the Legislature to reconvene sometime after Christmas and before New Year’s Day to discuss, but not necessarily decide, the issue of rules.

Kieffer remained circumspect on the likelihood of deciding the joint rules dilemma before the session is called back to begin its work on Jan. 4.

“That depends on how we cooperate and who’s willing to give here and who’s willing to give there,” he said.

The unexpected publication in the Senate calendar of a Republican’s bold plan to reorganize legislative committees hit a bipartisan nerve Thursday morning and quickly had the State House in an uproar.

Offered by Sen. Dana C. Hanley, R-South Paris, the order shocked some members of Hanley’s own caucus who expressed anger over not being given a “heads up” that major committee changes were to be discussed in the Senate.

Republicans hold an 18-16 edge over Democrats in the Senate, which also includes an independent member. In the House, Democrats outnumber Republicans 77-74. Still smarting from a total shutout in their bid to put a Republican in one of the state’s three constitutional offices Wednesday, some GOP senators were eager to revise the structure of the legislative committees and try to equalize the power once wielded by the Democrats.

The committees, and the chairmanships key to directing committee work, are the top priority for legislative leaders who are under pressure to fill vacancies on the panels that review bills in areas ranging from agriculture to utilities. The task of writing joint rules has been fairly easy to achieve for the past 12 years when Democrats controlled both houses of the Legislature.

The dramatic realignment of political power resulting from last month’s general election, however, apparently has taken some time to sink in.

“I think they’re finally starting to figure out that we’re not the majority anymore,” joked Sen. Richard Carey, D-Belgrade, after attending his Democratic caucus.

Those who had doubts got a rude awakening Thursday morning when Hanley — nicknamed “The Bombthrower” for his right-wing attacks on unsuspecting Democrats — published his order calling for the elimination or consolidation of five standing joint committees. Hanley also wanted to allow the Senate and House committee members to elect their own committee chairmen rather than the current practice in which the chairmen are appointed by the House speaker and Senate president.

Among other revisions, the Hanley order merged the Marine Resources Committee with the Fisheries and Wildlife Committee, the Natural Resources Committee with the Agriculture Committee, and eliminated the Aging, Retirement and Veterans Committee with no reference of its consolidation with another committee.

Under the Hanley order, the legislative committees, which have included three senators among 13 members, would shrink to 14 allowing Senate members the luxury of not having to serve on more than one panel.

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Jane Amero, R-Cape Elizabeth, said the restructuring was a response to the voters’ demands for smaller government.

“They want a more efficient government and that’s what we’re trying to address in the rules,” she said. “This is our first opportunity and we’re really going to insist that there are some changes.”

Amero denied that the restructuring was an effort to consolidate GOP power, but acknowledged that some aspects of the Hanley plan did give Republicans more clout.

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