AUGUSTA — With Republicans in charge at the State House for the first time in decades, there was a different approach to policy making in the legislative session that ended Wednesday, on issues ranging from the budget to health insurance to charter schools and same-day voter registration.

“There’s certainly some longtime Republican themes that got a voice this time,” said independent Sen. Richard Woodbury of Yarmouth. “Cutting taxes would be one.”

“We had discussions that we couldn’t even have before,” said Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry. “The discussion was not, ‘Gosh is there any chance of getting through some tax relief?’ No. The discussion was how much.”

Republicans and Democrats passed a $6 billion budget for the next two years that cuts income taxes, makes significant changes to the pension system for teachers and state workers, and sets time limits on welfare benefits.

In November, voters gave Republicans a majority in the House for the first time since 1974 and elected a Republican governor for the first time in 20 years. Republicans last controlled the Senate in 2002, when they had a power sharing agreement with Democrats.

The last time Republicans controlled the House, the Senate and the Blaine House was 1966.

Ron Schmidt, a political science professor at the University of Southern Maine, said Republicans put forward an agenda that was “ambitious in scope and speed.”

“The fact that it’s been so long since the GOP was in power adds a certain sense of urgency to the legislative agenda,” he said.

For Democrats, particularly in the House, the Republicans’ election sweep came as a surprise. House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, said she believes voters wanted lawmakers to focus on jobs and the economy.

While Republicans can talk about the income tax cut, Cain said, “We have no concerted effort to be focused on jobs and the economy, short-term and long-term job creation, and no vision laid out. … I think that was a missed opportunity for the new majority and the governor.”

Health insurance changes

Woodbury joined Republicans and three Senate Democrats to support L.D. 1333, a bill to deregulate the state’s health insurance system.

The new law allows Mainers to buy insurance across state lines, allows insurance companies to charge higher rates for people based on age, illness or where they live, and creates a “high risk pool” for people who often need services.

Republicans say the reforms will lower costs for most Mainers by introducing competition to the marketplace. But the bill was fought hard by Democrats, who worry that people in rural areas will have to travel farther for medical procedures.

Everyone in the state with private coverage will be required to pay a $4 monthly assessment.

Woodbury said national health care reforms that are set to take effect in 2014 paved the way for the bill. “It’s an approach that becomes much more workable in the context of national reforms,” he said.

But Democrats saw the legislation and the party-line votes that accompanied it as a low point in the session. Cain said Republicans “bypassed” the normal process on the health insurance bill.

“You saw an outcome that was terribly partisan and some of the worst policy that came out this session,” she said.

Businesses get 3 of 5

Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said the Legislature addressed three of the five top concerns for businesses by lowering taxes, reforming regulations and attempting to address the cost of health care.

“When you look at the results of this Legislature, you cannot deny the success that has been accomplished in terms of those three issues,” he said.

He said the chamber was able to be “more on offense than defense” in this session.

The opposite was true for environmentalists, who spent much of the session working to defeat or reduce the impact of 50 bills that they believe would have rolled back years of protections.

“Legislators fairly quickly felt the blowback of Maine people saying, ‘Don’t wreck our environmental laws,'” said Pete Didisheim of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “Our hope is that this was an anomaly this year, that Maine environmental laws suddenly became the lightning rod for all this attention.”

No bonds this year

For the last few weeks, Democrats have criticized LePage and Republican legislators for not advancing a bond package to pay for road work or research and development projects that draw federal money.

“No bonds this session is leaving jobs on the table right now,” Cain said. “That is essentially moving backwards by standing still.”

Raye said that he would have supported a modest bond package this year, and that bonds will be considered in the next session.

In his budget address in February, LePage said he will not support bonding this year. Raye thinks the governor is reading public sentiment correctly by holding back a year.

“I think next year we’ll be in a different position and able to take a look at targeted borrowing,” he said.

Budgets biggest step

House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, said the three budgets that got unanimous endorsements from the Appropriations Committee were the most significant accomplishments of the session.

“The last one (for the next two years) had $153 million in tax cuts, reduced the pension deficit by nearly $2 billion and addressed Medicaid issues,” he said.

In remarks at the end of the legislative session, Gov. Paul LePage told lawmakers that they had accomplished many of the things voters wanted, including lower taxes and regulatory reform.

“Our mandate, by the people of Maine, was they wanted to see change,” he said. “They wanted to see reforms.”

He said that his department heads will spend the summer looking for ways to save money, and that he will be ready to propose more changes when lawmakers return to Augusta in January.

While it was good to lower taxes, he said, the state must reduce its spending.

“We cannot cut taxes without lowering spending,” he said. “I’d like to see tax reform stay for the long haul.”

Charter schools, registration

Republicans celebrated the passage of a bill clearing the way for charter schools when LePage signed legislation last week to make Maine the 41st state to allow the schools.

Legislatures dominated by Democrats had rejected charter schools in past sessions.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the involvement of citizens in legislative decisions. Several groups are working to gather signatures for a people’s veto of a bill that ends the state’s practice of allowing same-day voter registration.

The road ahead

In the next session, Raye is looking forward to reviewing recommendations from a commission that will study reforms for the Land Use Regulation Commission, which oversees land use across more than 10 million acres in Maine’s unorganized territories.

Raye is concerned now by what he sees as regulations that give everyone in the state power over how that vast rural area is developed.

“Can you imagine the outcry if a proposal for a development in Portland required a public hearing in Greenville?” he said. “It’s a double standard. Those of us who represent rural Maine are very troubled by it and are eager to see reforms.”

LePage, who promised to “crunch” lawmakers with work when they return next year, has played a key role already, from the power that comes from presenting the budget, to saying no to bonds, to vetoing a dozen bills in the first six months of his four-year term.

“Gov. LePage, in many respects, is a breath of fresh air,” Raye said. “He came in with a different approach, he came from the business world. In many ways, I know he finds this place frustrating.”

Susan Cover — 620-7015

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