The 2015 legislative session is finally in the books, and was as bad as everyone feared. Despite face-saving commentaries, the best one can say is that there was no utter disaster. Maine moved measurably backward, and the only honest thing to do is assess the damage and vow to do better next year.

The biggest problem, as for some time, is Gov. Paul LePage. Even his avid supporters had head-scratching moments. He managed, once again, to make himself irrelevant to the state budget that provides the architecture for the next two years. A bill he hated, providing general assistance to asylum seekers, became law through his whimsical theory that the Legislature had adjourned when it obviously had not. And he truly shocked people, including his most important ally, Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, by withholding state funding to pressure Good Will-Hinckley to un-hire House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, which it unwisely did. We’ll hear more, after an investigation, in September.

The other loser was House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, LePage’s lone remaining supporter, though he again abandoned LePage on the budget. It was Fredette who got enough Republicans to switch votes and block a measure by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, to restore the bonding process to constitutional limits. LePage has held up funding for the Land for Maine’s Future Program for years, but until Katz’s bill, no one contested this blatant power grab.

As Katz patiently explained, the governor’s signature, or “facsimile,” on warrants is a “ministerial” and not a “discretionary” function — like the Senate president signing a bill being transmitted to the governor. No lawmaker would imagine that withholding a signature would defeat the bill, and no previous governor used the bond warrant as a bargaining scheme.

The six Republicans who voted for L.D. 1378, then switched, were Bruce Bickford of Auburn, Jeffrey Pierce of Dresden, Thomas Skofield of Weld, Michael Timmons of Cumberland, Stephen Wood of Greene, and Stacy Guerin of Glenburn. Constituents should ask them why. Fredette hasn’t learned that, as LePage leads his party over a cliff, placating and enabling him just spurs him on.

(This post has be updated to include all six Republicans who voted switched their votes.)

The other great failure, though few mentioned it, was on Medicaid expansion. Maine could receive $400 million annually from the federal government to keep its health care system functioning, yet LePage adamantly refuses, and Democrats — who called it the most important issue of 2014 — uttered nary a peep.

Cash-starved Parkview Hospital in Brunswick filed for bankruptcy, and Central Maine Medical Center, its white knight, says it’s owed $13 million. Parkview won’t be the last casualty, and damage will be worst in rural Maine.

Meanwhile, Alaska became the 30th state to accept Medicaid funding, where Gov. Bill Walker, Republican businessman-turned-independent, was elected on that issue. Maine is now the only state north of the old Confederacy and east of Wisconsin not to have expanded Medicaid for its poorest citizens — and no one at the State House seems to care. This is shameful.

Then there were the bonds — the new ones. Simply to keep public buildings and roads from disintegrating, and targeting small investments toward long-term economic growth, Maine should be investing $300 million to $400 million every two years. Instead, lawmakers, distracted by LePage’s antics, put out a pitiful $100 million package, with $85 million going for transportation.

What are we missing out on? Take three examples, all bond proposals left out.

• Efficiency Maine could expand its highly successful loan program to far more people if we capitalized it to offer subsidies. The oldest, draftiest and most expensive houses to heat are predominantly in rural areas, often with low-income homeowners. We could increase real estate values, cut fuel bills 50 percent, add thousands of construction jobs and combat global warming — all with one bond issue.

• We could support the burgeoning agriculture sector, which has attracted hundreds of young farmer-entrepreneurs — exactly the kind of population growth we need. The state is ideally situated to help set up distribution and marketing. As it once did for potatoes and milk, Maine could target fresh produce and organic meat, again serving as New England’s food basket.

• We could bridge the alarming broadband gap that’s leaving Maine far behind in the Internet age. Federal stimulus funds provided the “three ring binder” backbone to allow connections nearly statewide, but the system is little used. A few towns — South Portland, Rockport, Islesboro — are connecting on their own, but the state absolutely must help.

All these proposals would help hard-hit rural Maine. They’d do more to sustain long-term growth than any program offered by a statewide candidate in memory. Let’s see if the Legislature can start on them next year.

Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 30 years. Email at [email protected]


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