April 04, 2020

With a membership of 17 Republicans, 17 Democrats and one independent, the incoming Maine Senate faces an unusual challenge in which cooperation is not just desirable, but a necessity. The power-sharing agreement worked out late last week by Senate leaders – Republican Richard Bennett, Democrat Michael Michaud and independent Jill Goldthwait – is an excellent start on this two-year test of leadership skills.

Under the agreement, Sens. Bennett and Michaud each will serve as Senate president for one year of the two-year session, with the other serving as president pro tem and as a member of the Legislative Council. Given the president’s ability to control the flow of legislation and the council’s role in approving after-deadline bills, it is a good division of labor.

It is a division that can work because of the second element of the agreement, the appointment of Sen. Goldthwait as Senate chairman of the Appropriations Committee, the key committee through which all bills that require spending must pass.

And it is here that the Senate, and Maine, is fortunate. In her three terms in the Senate, and in her extensive experience in local government in Bar Harbor, Sen. Goldthwait has earned a reputation for being fair, moderate, truly independent and extremely well-informed. Had the “one” in the 17-17-1 split been a newcomer or a person of extreme views, devising a power-sharing agreement would have been much more difficult.

Now it is up to the full Senate, the two remaining groups of 16, to fill in the details that will move this good start forward. When the 120th Legislature convenes Wednesday, there will be many blanks to fill in – including office staffing levels and committee assignments – and it is crucial that the spirit of cooperation continue. Although the split is the result of Republicans picking up seats, the outcome is essentially to the result of 35 discrete decisions made by voters in the 35 districts and neither party has any reason to expect any advantage as result.

The split is unusual, but it is not unique. According to a recent report by the National Conference of State Legislatures, there has been at least one equally divided chamber somewhere in the nation in every even-year election since 1984.

Further, since voters are increasingly less likely to vote straight party tickets and less reluctant to vote for independent or third-party candidates, such splits are becoming more common. The ways states have dealt with splits vary widely. Wyoming has used a coin toss to break deadlocks, a frivolous decision-making process that should be a warning about what happens when deadlocks are allowed to develop. Some states have a lieutenant governor to cast decisive votes, an office Maine does not have and a method that would seem to only heighten partisanship. Some have used their first experience with tied chambers to develop laws that clearly spell out how the situation will be handled in the future and have come out of it with a renewed spirit of bipartisan understanding.

A key to coming out ahead, NCSL says, is for legislators to realize that split chambers do not indicate a deep division within the electorate but rather a move toward the middle – the splits rarely are the result of voters migrating to the political extremes.

To that end, NCSL advises legislatures dealing with the phenomenon to recognize that balance comes from the center; for example, nominating moderates for committee chairmanships. Since that is the task before the full Senate this week, it is advice worth taking. The success of Sens Bennett, Michaud and Goldthwait in creating a foundation for cooperation is strong proof it is advice that works.

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