The independent senator from Yarmouth is going to look for ways to influence the process from outside.

You should never be surprised when someone decides not to run for the Legislature. It’s not like you need a good reason.

The hours stink, the pay is lousy and you have to have a high tolerance for tedium.

With the usually bipartisan Appropriations Committee melting into partisan dysfunction this week, you might wonder why anyone would want to go to Augusta.

But it’s still a surprise that state Sen. Dick Woodbury is going to give up his seat.

Two Sundays ago, the Yarmouth independent sent out an email to supporters with the subject line “Stepping back,” announcing that he wouldn’t be seeking a third term (he already served three terms in the House). The candidate who ran promising to be a bridge between the two major parties has come to the conclusion that maybe the parties are more interested in burning bridges than building them. Although he’ll serve out the rest of his term, Woodbury is going to find other ways to influence the process.

Legislators come and go, but Woodbury’s decision seems like a particular loss. Maine’s politics are as polarized and mean-spirited as they have ever been, and Woodbury’s idea of creating a consensus based on sound ideas that would improve life in Maine was especially appealing.

We sometimes seem to be in the middle of a reallignment. Independent, nonparty candidates compete against better-financed and better-organized opponents in almost all statewide races. And sometimes (if their name is Angus King) they even win.

But Woodbury’s inability to make traction in Augusta should give pause to anyone who thinks that the answer to partisan gridlock is a centrist with good ideas but with no team for support.

Maine voters may say they are “independent,” but state government remains a highly partisan operation. Success is more dependent on how well someone applies leverage than on winning debates with the best ideas.

Woodbury found that when it comes time to develop policy, there is not much need for an independent senator, even if he’s an economist with a Harvard Ph.D. The long-term effect of the partisan trench warfare, Woodbury says, is a structural problem that can’t be fixed by the usual means.

“We’ve got an imbalance between what government says it’s going to do and what it can afford, and that needs to be corrected,” Woodbury said in an interview. “Something is broken in the institution.”

The state has failed to keep its promises to cities and towns and school districts for years, but there is no consensus on whether to raise more revenue or promise fewer services.

Last year, Woodbury worked with five members of each party to draft a tax reform plan that would raise revenue and redistribute the burden, asking tourists and other nonresidents to pay more.

The income tax rate would be cut in half and the inheritance tax eliminated, creating relief for high-income residents. Sales taxes would be increased and extended to goods and services that are currently tax-free.

All resident homeowners would get a property tax rebate, and lower-income residents would get sales tax credits that could exceed what they owed, enabling them to get a check at tax time instead of writing one.

The plan was promptly shot down by the right and the left and barely made it out of committee. It was never a serious contender to become state policy.

But what did the Legislature pass instead?

A budget that increased the sales tax (temporarily), cut property tax relief, dumped thousands of people off MaineCare coverage and left school districts and local governments to make the hardest choices. In the meantime, Maine still has a tax code that has not been reformed since the 1960s, when some of the services that are now tax-exempt didn’t even exist.

Why was this more palatable?

“I think because it gives politicians the illusion that everything is going to be OK in the next budget,” Woodbury says. “I suppose that could happen. Economies can go wild.”

But don’t bet on it.

Woodbury hasn’t decided how he can stay involved most effectively after his term ends.

He’s considering creating a nonpartisan think tank that would offer an alternative to the left-leaning Maine Center for Economic Policy and the right-leaning Maine Heritage Policy Center.

He’s also thought of organizing something like a third party, that would recruit candidates committed to bipartisan solutions. They wouldn’t have to win majorities – just three senators in a closely divided Senate could have great influence on the process.

A third possibility is the one usually rejected by independent candidates: Join a major party and change it.

American political parties are coalitions, and we have seen them change quickly. The Maine Republican Party’s move to the right has been dramatic and swift.

The pro-choice, pro-environment and fiscally conservative party of Bill Cohen and Olympia Snowe became the party of Paul LePage almost overnight. There’s no reason that the right leadership couldn’t bring it back to the center.

It takes discipline and teamwork to run a big organization like a government. We may all be tired of partisan bickering, but that may still be the best way to make things move.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at [email protected]