March 12, 2010

Portland delegation suffers power shortage in Legislature

MATT WICKENHEISER

— By

Staff Writer

For the first time in years, Portland's legislative delegation has no members in leadership or heading powerful committees -- a potential detriment to the city as the state deals with a fiscal crisis.

The delegation, which is now split about evenly between legislative newcomers and experienced hands, has been meeting as a group to make sure that all members are up to speed and working together to represent the city in the State House.

That said, the power shift ''does have implications for us,'' said Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland.

Over the past 10 years, Portland has been in a pretty good position, said Glenn Cummings, a Portland Democrat who was most recently House speaker and was previously House majority leader. Term limits forced him out of office this year.

Attorney General Steven Rowe of Portland will leave office on Jan. 5. In addition to that state leadership position, Rowe was speaker of the House from 1999 to 2000. He was followed by Michael Saxl, a Portland Democrat who was speaker from 2001 to 2002.

Other Portland lawmakers were on important committees, Cummings noted.

Sen. Joseph Brannigan, who has been both a senator and a representative, was on the Appropriations Committee and later chaired the Health and Human Services Committee. Former Rep. Boyd Marley chaired the Transportation Committee.

Both Cummings and Portland's Michael Brennan, who was a Senate majority leader, have chaired the Education Committee. In fact, Cummings said, when both of them were on that committee, the state's school funding formula was rewritten and became more favorable to Portland.

The formula shifted to include factors such as how many students qualified for free and reduced-price lunches, how many were taking English as a Second Language, and how many were in special education.

Having leaders who are cognizant of Portland's interests was a key part of that work, said Cummings. Legislative leadership and committee heads hash out many broad concepts before they get to the rank and file, where details are worked out.

''This is going to be a building year, a year when the Portland delegation may not be in strategic positions -- but will be'' in the future, Cummings said.

He noted an interesting twist: The number of Democrats in the House is at a historically high 96 members. In the past, the party split was narrower, and Portland's eight-vote bloc was significant enough to stop legislation that might harm or be unfair to the city. But with 96 members in the caucus, the Portland vote isn't necessarily critical.

''You don't have the power bloc to be able to stop key pieces of legislation,'' Cummings said.

Committee assignments aren't expected until next week, but the Portland delegation is lobbying for positions on the Education and Appropriations committees, Haskell said.

Strong candidates for Education include Reps. Charles Harlow, Joan Cohen and Stephen Lovejoy, all Portland Democrats, Haskell said. Brannigan would be a strong, experienced voice on Appropriations, she said.

Five of Portland's nine representatives are State House newcomers, as is one of its senators. Haskell hopes to chair the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, and get a seat on Government Oversight.

In addition to working to get on committees, Haskell said, the delegation is striving to act as a cohesive group. It has met twice, mainly to discuss how cuts to the current budget will affect Portland's school system.

It was set to meet again Tuesday night on the same issue, with plans to hear from a Department of Education official.

The budget will continue to be a priority; the state faces an $838 million budget gap in the next two-year period, starting July 1.

''Having a whole delegation who at least understands what the implications of the issues are gives us the capacity to speak to our neighbors and confidently speak the facts,'' Haskell said.

Cohen said the delegation is aware of the potential loss of clout, ''but we're also working hard to compensate for it.''

''We are just going to have to put in double the effort to position ourselves the best we can, as quickly as we can,'' she said.

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be reached at 791-6316 or at:

mwickenheiser@pressherald.com

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