Senate parties to share power > Maine Legislature relies on creativity

AUGUSTA – In a spirit of cooperation conspicuously absent from the national political arena, leaders of the Maine Senate agreed Friday to share power among 17 Democrats, 17 Republicans and one independent. Sen. Michael Michaud, D-East Millinocket, and Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Norway, announced they would…
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AUGUSTA – In a spirit of cooperation conspicuously absent from the national political arena, leaders of the Maine Senate agreed Friday to share power among 17 Democrats, 17 Republicans and one independent.

Sen. Michael Michaud, D-East Millinocket, and Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Norway, announced they would alternately serve in the positions of Senate president and Senate president pro tem over the next two-year session of the 120th Legislature.

Independent Sen. Jill Goldthwait of Bar Harbor will be Senate chairwoman of the Legislature’s Appropriation Committee – the most powerful chairmanship in the Senate. The trio will formally accept their positions on Wednesday when the Legislature convenes for swearing-in ceremonies, the election of constitutional officers and other organizational functions. All three senators expressed hope that other legislative bodies in the nation facing close political divisions might choose to emulate Maine’s approach to resolving partisan differences.

“We’re not taking anyone to court, we’re not ordering any recounts of anything,” Goldthwait said. “We are simply solving this, and we are going to be ready to go in on Wednesday and start the people’s business on time.”

The plan also provides for party floor leaders and assistants. Earlier this week, Sen. Mary Small, R-Bath, and Sen. Beverly Daggett, D-Augusta, were named floor leaders for their respective parties, while Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, and Sen. Sharon Treat, D-Gardiner, were elected assistant floor leaders.

The power-sharing agreement represents a larger place at the table in the Senate for Republicans who have been in the minority for the last four years, leaving appointments of committee members and top Senate posts to the Democrats.

Michaud will serve as Senate president during the first year of the two-year session and Bennett will be Senate president pro tem. The two men will reverse their roles in the second year of the session.

The same arrangement will apply to the $92,000-a-year secretary of the Senate job now held by Joy O’Brien, a Hallowell Democrat. Pam Cahill, a former Senate minority leader who helped engineer the last GOP majority in the Senate in 1994, will serve as assistant secretary of the Senate next year and become secretary in 2002. The current assistant secretary makes $70,000. How much each will be paid in the next two years is unclear.

As president, Michaud will preside over the Senate and oversee administrative functions of the chamber. Bennett’s role as president pro tem will be to fill in for Michaud when the president is unable to be at the rostrum. Both men said that although the president pro tem’s responsibilities will be expanded beyond those functions in the weeks ahead, it was already agreed that Bennett would assume a seat on the Legislative Council which addresses such weighty issues as the legislative budget, after deadline bills and space considerations.

Unresolved are issues related to staffing levels for the Senate Democratic and Republican offices and staff salaries. Senate committee assignments will be determined similar to a sports draft with party caucuses alternately choosing a committee chairmanship they would like to control. The chairmanships would be divided equally between the two caucuses, Goldthwait said.

The Bar Harbor senator said a person would have to be in the legislative system to appreciate how difficult the three weeks of negotiations were and how much ground had been given by both caucuses in reaching the compromise agreement.

“These are truly extremely different times with the budget being as it is,” said Michaud. The state’s financial experts have estimated that lawmakers will have to find ways to cut $300 million out of the next two-year budget to make up the difference between anticipated revenues and expenses.

“With the 17-17-1 split, there’s bound to be a lot of cooperation going on over the next two years,” Michaud said.

Bennett said the political division within the Senate could have been a “recipe for disaster.”

“Now I think instead it’s going to be a recipe for consensus building,” he said. “I have really been grateful for Senator Goldthwait’s attitude and constructive approach through all of this. There are still a lot of details to work out. The devil is in those details, but the basic framework for the agreement and moving ahead is a very sound one that will benefit the people of Maine.”

“It would have been easy to try and take a scalpel and slice everything right down the middle,” Goldthwait said. “It would have been fair, but it may not have been functional. I think people have made significant concessions on both sides so that we have a healthy and functioning Senate and not just one that weighs the same on each side.”

Bennett and Michaud said the idea of offering the chairmanship of the powerful Appropriations Committee to Goldthwait was a “no-brainer” given the even political split in the Senate. The Appropriations Committee recommends or denies funding for state departmental requests, bills and, most importantly, the state budget.

Since Goldthwait is likely to be the tie-breaking vote in the Senate on many issues that divide along party lines, she said she needed to have the expertise on the issues that only the Appropriations chairmanship can provide.

“I want to be totally informed about what’s happening and clearly the Appropriations chair is the place to develop that fuller understanding almost more than any other seat in the Legislature,” Goldthwait said.

Goldthwait’s emergence as the chairwoman of the committee was reportedly not self-initiated. But it was clear during Friday’s meeting that Bennett and Michaud were still getting used to their roles – at least on that issue.

“The chairman’s job was not Jill Goldthwait’s idea,” Bennett said. “I’ll take credit for it if credit is to be given.”

“You mean you’ll take half the credit,” Michaud injected jokingly.

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