Gov. Paul LePage and the Republicans in the Legislature have been getting most of the attention over the past three months — and rightly so.

With all the reins of power in Republican fists for the first time in a generation, the GOP has been given a chance to lead. Watching them figure out how to do it, making some well-documented stumbles along the way, has been the story of 2011.

But there is another party in the Legislature that is also learning a new role. Watching the Democrats learn how to play defense has been a little less compelling, but still is interesting viewing.

Even though their job is a lot easier than the Republicans’, they have made some mistakes: Just think of Sen. Nancy Sullivan sticking up for the scandal-plagued Maine Turnpike Authority as an example of how not to get out of the way of a runaway train.

With three months down and about two to go, it’s worth checking on how they are doing.

Since it’s too early for final grades, consider this a mid-term progress report.

Regulatory reform

Grade: Smiley-face sticker

At the start of the session this was shaping up to be a cataclysmic battle between the forces of good and evil. It ended up looking like a sensible series of tweaks to a process in which the Democrats gave a little ground but held on to the environmental protections that were most important to them.

Gov. LePage pulled back his list of major rollbacks, including repealing the Kid Safe Products Act, protections for vernal pools and rezoning 10 million acres in northern Maine for development. Some of those ideas survive as standalone bills, but one of LePage’s targets, BPA in children’s products, was banned with an overwhelming vote in both houses of the Legislature and will become law over his objection.

How much of this was the work of the Democrats and how much credit goes to the grown-ups in the Republican leadership is hard to say. But the Democrats have got to be happy with the outcome of this process.

Pension reform

Grade: Frowny-face sticker

House Minority Leader Emily Cain often says that she is not leading the party of “no.” “It is the party of not this, but this and here’s why.” We’re still waiting to hear the “but this” on the state pension system.

There is a lot of push-back by teachers, state workers and retirees who don’t want to be the only ones who suffer when the state balances its budget.

LePage has proposed $400 million in savings, mostly by freezing retirees’ cost-of- living increases for three years and capping them at 2 percent permanently, no matter what happens to inflation.

He justifies this by having state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin run around flapping his hands in the air declaring a debt crisis.

But the Democrats telling us that there is no crisis is not an adequate response to a $4.1 billion unfunded liability in the pension system.

Telling us that it’s not the state workers’ fault is not the same thing as addressing the problem.

At some point the Democrats have to offer an alternative that addresses both the shortfall and the state’s commitment to its retirees.

Budget

Grade: Incomplete

This is the one area in which the Democrats have the most leverage. It’s also the one area that has the greatest opportunity for disaster.

Gov. LePage has built his budget on big cost savings from the pension system which he spends on a $200 million tax cut. Any adjustment to pension reform will mean less money to spend elsewhere — like the tax cuts. But unlike most of the other legislation moving through the system, the budget will require a two-thirds vote, giving the Democrats a lot of influence.

LePage has threatened to veto a budget that does not look just like the one he submitted, but Republican leaders may find that with the same two-thirds vote needed to pass a budget or override a veto, they can live without his support, but not without the Democrats’. A bipartisan compromise budget looks like the clearest path to success, but it could fall apart in so many ways it’s hard to pick the trickiest one.

Message

Grade: Check minus

Maybe because they are fighting on so many different fronts, a single Democratic message has not emerged from the session so far.

What does it mean to be a progressive in a slow-growth, aging state where the need for services outstrips our ability to pay for them? Where will the next generation of jobs come from?

It won’t be enough for Democrats to go back to the voters claiming that they are different from Paul LePage — that’s what most of the Republicans will be saying. The Democrats will have to make a different case than that and different from the one that led to their three-way defeat at the polls last November.

The Democrats average passing marks so far. But the grading book doesn’t close until June.

Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: [email protected]