How we operate

Politics and other mistakes
By AL DIAMON  |  January 10, 2007

The Maine Legislature runs like a finely tuned automobile.

With two steering wheels and 186 wobbly wheels. Also, there’s an odor emanating from the trunk, reminiscent of rotting ethics. Nevertheless, the basic machinery is sound, having guided this state since 1820 in a direction best described as meandering.

But this legislative session might be different. A few days ago, Senate Republican Leader Carol Weston of Montville told the Morning Sentinel, “We think [Democrats and Republicans] agree on more of the issues this time more than ever before. We’re starting off further down the road than we have in other sessions.”

Democratic Governor John Baldacci seemed to be following the same route. “By working together,” he said in a press release, “we will be able to truly solve the challenges that Maine faces and seize the opportunities that Maine will realize in the next four years.”

We’re ready to roll. Tax reform, affordable health care, improved education, sensible economic development, and a healthy environment are dead ahead. Fasten your seat belts and hit the bio-diesel.

But before you throw away the jumper cables and tire jack, consider a little history.

In 1991, legislators heeded GOP Governor John McKernan’s plea for “bipartisan cooperation” by making the wild blueberry Maine’s official state berry. Having drained the tank of goodwill on that contentious issue, they failed to agree on workers comp reform, resulting in a budget impasse and a two-week shutdown of state government.

That debacle taught our senators and representatives a lesson. “The attitude has to be [one] of all of us working together, and when we can’t, saying we can’t and moving on,” Senate Democratic Leader Don Esty of Westbrook told the Maine Sunday Telegram, as a new Legislature prepared to convene in 1993.

Those words proved prophetic as both Dems and GOPs rallied behind measures to increase the fine for littering and reduce the penalty for importing booze from New Hampshire.

Fast forward to 1995. “[The voters] don’t want to raise taxes and they don’t want wasteful government spending and they don’t want silly practices,” Democratic state Representative Eddie Povich of Ellsworth told the Portland Press Herald. Perhaps that’s why a bill designating “Chesuncook soil” as the official state dirt failed, but legislation allowing school districts to paint their names on the sides of their buses sailed through.

In 1997, independent Governor Angus King was optimistic about the attitude in Augusta. “The public is tired of confrontation and bickering,” King told the Bangor Daily News. “They want cooperation and I think there will be.”

Was there ever. While Democrats ignored Republican concerns by eliminating a tax cap imposed by the previous Legislature and by raising other taxes, they embraced their colleagues across the aisle in requiring drivers to turn on their headlights whenever they were using their windshield wipers.

Two years later, legislators partied like it was 1999 (because it was) by approving a measure to make it illegal to read while driving. Oh, and they revived that official state soil bill, and this time it passed. And they threw in an official state herb (no, not that herb).

In spite of the usual calls for bipartisanship in 2001, our elected leaders could not agree to tax toilets, require a deposit on cigarette butts or designate an official state tartan. It wasn’t a complete loss, though. They managed to raise taxes and put off dealing with health-care costs.

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