Legislative Session Overview

(from Maine Townsman, July 2007)
By Geoff Herman, Director of State & Federal Relations, MMA

Every legislative session develops its own pace, approach, style, attitude, and personality. It all sums up to character. The task is to identify the character of the 123 rd Legislature as it was revealed during the First Regular Session.

By most accounts the financial side of the state’s biennial budget bill just enacted was responsibly crafted. (Although municipal officials might argue that raiding municipal revenue sharing to the tune of $4 million falls short of a responsible decision.) But whether responsible or not, a two-year state budget in the $6 billion range is enacted every odd-numbered year. By itself, the budget bill rarely gives full definition to a legislative session.

And no one disputes that the two-year bond package approved by the Legislature in April presents a carefully-constructed, three-dimensional capital investment plan to Maine’s voters. On the other hand, a solid bond package has been long overdue and the idea of ignoring Maine’s transportation needs any longer was politically unthinkable. A borrowing package designed in 2007 to resolve the borrowing paralysis brought on during the 2006 election cycle is not enough, by itself, to define the character of a legislative session.

Instead, the defining elements of the 2007 legislative session are found in two distinct initiatives: (1) the school consolidation legislation which was finally made workable at the very last minute and then easily approved; and (2) comprehensive tax reform which went down to a bitter defeat in a clash between the two political parties and the two chambers in the State House.

The purpose of this introductory article is to combine five sidebar articles in order to gain some sense of the character of the 2007 legislative session.

The theme this year is ‘response to stimuli’. Like any living organism, the Legislature responds to various stimulants in the environment, presumably in relatively predictable ways. Going back to election day, a short list of the stimuli bombarding the 123 rd Legislature included the multi-candidate 2006 gubernatorial campaign, the unsuccessful TABOR tax cap initiative, the much-heralded Brookings Report entitled “Charting Maine’s Future”, several other prominent reports advocating greater school efficiencies including “The Learning State” by the State Board of Education and “A Case for Cooperation” by the Maine Children’s Alliance, and the financial stress of fulfilling an obligation to pay 55% of the cost of K-12 public education. Throw in a couple of Law Court decisions that were begging for a fix, and most of the legislative responses that fill out the pages of this magazine – both the enactments and the failed enactments – begin to make a lot more sense.

At least from a behavioral scientist’s point of view.

The five descriptive articles that follow this introductory article cover the topics of tax reform, school reform, the fate of MMA’s legislative agenda, a sampling of some bills with positive municipal impacts, and a sampling of other bills – some enacted and some defeated – that will as much as anything disappoint municipal officials not so much for their substance but for the attitude inherent within them.