AUGUSTA – The 120th Legislature of Maine opened Wednesday with high hopes and lofty plans for a new spirit of cooperation and civility. Newly elected House Speaker Michael Saxl of Portland warned members to avoid the small-minded politics that have marked too many previous sessions because “the voter’s patience with bickering is exhausted.”
The opening was watched by a packed gallery of friends and relatives of the 151 members and was recorded by an unusual number of news organizations.
Addressing the body on Wednesday, Gov. Angus S. King said the opening of the session, like the presidential election, represented the peaceful transfer of power. Both in Florida and in the Maine Legislature, “what you don’t see is troops, guns and the National Guard. What you do see is ordinary citizens struggling to find the popular will. That is not the norm in this world,” King said. He added to the plea for civility, saying that it was possible “to disagree without being disagreeable.”
Legislators will face some uncomfortable moments during the session, the governor warned. “But if you are taking flak, it means you are over the target,” King said.
Dressed in the speaker’s traditional formal coat and tails, Saxl said Maine voters made it clear during the fall campaign that “they want innovation. They don’t want the same old solutions. They don’t want government to do everything. They want civility. They want collegiality. This is a year for action, for innovation and for bipartisanship. The Maine people demand action. They want results. Let’s give it to them,” he said.
Mindful of an estimated $200 million “structural gap” which will dominate financial matters during the session, Saxl set the goals of assuring every graduating senior and every displaced worker access to higher education and of assuring every resident access to universal health care. The structural gap refers to the difference between anticipated revenues and expenses in the coming two-year budget.
Other issues to face the two-year legislative session will include economic development and infrastructure and transportation improvements, as well as the highly emotional issues of eliminating domestic and sexual violence, according to the newly elected speaker. “No child, no woman and no man should live in fear in Maine,” Saxl said.
Following long tradition, the new speaker was nominated by floor leaders of both parties. Majority Leader Patrick Colwell of Gardiner praised Saxl’s “community service and passion,” and Minority Leader Joseph Bruno of Raymond asked members to “prove everybody wrong and work together. People of Maine are watching. Let’s make them proud.”
Amid the pomp of the opening day, past speakers were introduced by Saxl. He praised the “dignity and civility” of Maine’s last Republican speaker, Dick Hughes, who served from 1973 to 1974, the “professionalism” of John Martin, the “sense of humor and commitment to fairness” of Dan Gwadosky, the “graciousness, energy, charm and idealism” of Libby Mitchell and the “decency and integrity” of Steven Rowe.
In a highly emotional moment that left male and female members in tears, former Clerk Joseph Mayo left the platform in a wheelchair and motored slowly up the aisle he had walked down so many times. Mayo has Lou Gehrig’s disease and was forced to step down from the post he has held since October 1992. Mayo was praised as “the best clerk this House has ever seen” by Millicent McFarland, who was elected as his replacement on Wednesday. McFarlands was the assistant clerk.
Saxl said Mayo “understood this body better than anyone.” In Mayo’s farewell letter to legislators, he said there is no need for the chamber to lose power to the popular governor. He praised the quality of the chamber and lauded its lawmakers for being so close to the people they serve.
Former legislator David C. Shiah of Bowdoinham was elected assistant clerk.
Pending a final decision in House District 137, Saxl will be working with 89 Democrats who outnumber 61 Republicans and a single independent. The House voted Wednesday to keep incumbent Democrat Laura Sanborn seated in House 137, pending the formation of a bipartisan committee to determine the winner in the race. A November recount showed that Republican challenger Anita Haskell won the race by seven votes, but 12 ballots were disputed. The committee will make its recommendation to the full House in January.
The body will contain 41 women, composed of 28 Democrats and 13 Republicans.
The 151 members are composed of 23 teachers and school administrators, 17 businesspeople, 11 health care workers, eight lawyers, six representatives of the pulp and paper industry, with five in the forestry industry, five self-employed, two farmers and two social workers. The remaining members listed no occupation. There are 34 members who are retired.
The oldest member is Howard Chick, 78, of Lebanon and the youngest member is Jonathan Thomas, 21, of Orono.
The House will reconvene in regular session in the first week in January.