After eight years of a governor who didn’t like government, who picked needless fights and who denigrated Maine and its people, the state is will soon head in a new direction.
Democrat Janet Mills easily won the three-way governor’s race last week and will soon move to the Blaine House as Maine’s first female governor. Democrats will take full control of the Legislature when its 129th session begins.
Democrats had controlled the House since 2013 and Republicans held a slim advantage in the Senate for the past four years. With a loyal Republican caucus in the House, gridlock was frequent in Augusta as Gov. Paul LePage issued more vetoes than all the previous governors in the past 100 years combined. Many were upheld by the Republican minority in the House.
Democrats must be wary of using their newfound power to enact a partisan agenda or to simply be anti-LePage. Doing either may mean their leadership in Augusta is short lived as happened to Republicans, who took control in 2010 only to lose their majorities in both chambers of the State House two years later.
Instead, they must focus on an agenda that increases the state’s population, lowers health care costs and does not chase away needed investment.
The first order of business for the new governor and Legislature will be to assess the damage done to the state’s government by the LePage administration. This may sound bureaucratic and unnecessary, but the top function of government is to serve the needs of Maine’s people, especially those fulfilled by the private sector.
Within the Department of Health and Human Services, the state’s largest agency, we know that vital programs were cut or shrunk and federal funds were misspent. As a result, vulnerable citizens who rely on state services, such as adults with disabilities and children under state care or supervision, have been neglected. Adults with intellectual disabilities wait in hospital emergency rooms because needed services aren’t available. Child protective services were dysfunctional.
How many other agencies have also been hobbled by mismanagement? It will take time and attention to find out.
Beyond making government functional again, Mills and lawmakers must address critical issues facing Maine such as our aging population and insufficient workforce, rising medical costs, and education spending.
Much has been said about these issues for decades, but little has been done.
A recent report from the Maine Department of Labor warned that Maine would gain only 94 net new jobs over the next eight years. This isn’t because taxes are too high or Maine has too many regulations — the excuses used by LePage. It is because Maine doesn’t have enough working-age people with the skills and knowledge that today’s employers need.
Maine community colleges, universities career and technical centers are working to fill the skills gap, which is critical. But Maine also needs more people, from anywhere. This means not throwing up unnecessary roadblocks that make it harder for international immigrants to work and raise families in Maine. It means not blaming these immigrants for problems — real or imagined.
It also requires a mix of policies that make Maine a more attractive state for young workers.
Health care was voters’ top concern in this year’s election. Election results, both in Maine and nationally, show that Americans want more health care to be available to more people. That means expanding coverage and lowering costs.
Mills has pledged to implement Medicaid expansion here, which was passed into law by Maine voters but stalled by LePage. This will extend health insurance to an estimated 70,000 low-income working Mainers. This is critically important, but it does not solve the larger problem — that health care, even for those with insurance, is too expensive.
This, too, is a complex problem to solve. But, policymakers must be open to innovative ideas and be willing to try them out in a state that is small enough to be a testing ground.
One thing should not be on the agenda for the early days of next year — a change in tax rates or structure. LePage says he is leaving a draft state budget for Mills that includes a large tax cut. That is ridiculous. But so too are demands that the next Legislature immediately undo tax cuts passed in past Republican-led sessions.
Maine’s new administration and Legislature has a lot of work to do. It must remain focused on the few issues that really matter.