AUGUSTA – House Republican leaders suggested Monday that the new power sharing agreement in the Maine Senate could diminish the clout of majority Democrats in the House.
But House Majority Leader Patrick Colwell, D-Gardiner, argued his caucus would push forward with a number of initiatives that were advanced by Democrats on the campaign trail this fall. The three-term legislator has worked in a Legislature that has been controlled by Democrats since 1996.
Democrats enlarged their lead over Republicans last month, with the count standing at 89 Democrats, 61 Republicans and 1 independent, pending the resolution of a contested seat in the Old Town area. The Senate is split with 17 Democrats, 17 Republicans and 1 independent.
Even if Democratic representatives can railroad their initiatives through the House, the political divisions in the Senate could easily pivot on choices by independent Sen. Jill Goldthwait of Bar Harbor, who is described as a social moderate and fiscal conservative by some legislators.
“We may structure the debate slightly differently from a tactical perspective,” Colwell said. “But we’re not going to change our agenda.”
As lawmakers met Monday to acquaint themselves with the state budget process, House Republican leader Joseph Bruno of Raymond predicted Goldthwait would play a far more dominant role in the enactment of legislation than Democrats might think.
“I find Jill very similar to many in our caucus,” he said. “The line is blurred now between moderate Republicans and what used to be known as conservative Democrats and a lot of people fall into that. I think Jill falls into that area and we share similar ideologies.”
Bruno said Rep. Michael Saxl, a Portland Democrat and the man who is expected to be elected as the next speaker of the House when the Legislature meets Wednesday, will have to change some of his perspectives as he considers a strategy to work with an unpredictable Senate.
“There’s almost a 30-vote gap in the House, so he can do whatever he wants,” Bruno said. “His problem will be to sell it to the Senate. I still think the Senate Democrats as a whole are a little more conservative than they are in the House.”
The new Legislature also faces a gap between expected revenues and expenses that’s estimated at $195 million to $225 million.
“The surplus is gone … gone,” James Clair, director of the Legislature’s Office of Fiscal and Program Review, told the incoming lawmakers matter-of-factly during a briefing.
In addition to the theoretical gap between revenues and allocations in the general fund budget, an imbalance is on the horizon in a separate fund that supports highways and transportation services.
The “highway fund” gap is now estimated to be in the $30 million-$40 million range, according to Clair.
Citing promises made by Democrats to raise the state’s contribution to funding K-12 education from 47 percent to 55 percent, or about $100 million more; to create new health care programs for the uninsured; and to funnel about a half-million dollars into a program that encourages Mainers to trade in their old cars, Bruno said Democrats will need to revamp their plans.
“There’s no way they’re going to be able to deliver those things,” Bruno said. “Hopefully that reality will strike soon.”
“Sure, there are new realities here,” Colwell countered. “But I think holding funding state aid education to 55 percent as a goal is still a good goal. The fact that the money just isn’t rolling in here anymore is the function of a couple of things. The economy has slowed down slightly. But we’ve also cut taxes by about a half-billion, so we don’t have those revenues coming in anymore.”
Both men complimented each other on the degree of cooperation between the Democratic and GOP caucuses and were optimistic that the next legislative session would be one of the least partisan in years. Colwell warned lobbyists who might choose to exploit the thin margins in the Senate to defeat House Democratic bills that the Legislature still consists of upper and lower chambers.
“The reality is that there are going to be initiatives that come from the Senate that need to be approved by the House and I don’t think we’re afraid to do what we need to do,” he said. “I want to be able to work with the Senate and I know that Speaker Saxl is committed to working in a bipartisan fashion. But having said that, we’re not going to play second fiddle to the Senate either. We’re going to work with them as equals.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.