Monday, March 10, 2014
Here we go ...
The 126th Legislature officially convened Dec. 5, but the real work begins this week.
The Legislature's budget-writing committee will get back to work Tuesday digging into Gov. Paul LePage's $35.5 million curtailment order. The panel nibbled around the edges last week, but expect department heads to begin appearing before the panel to discuss the impacts of the order, which lean heavily on cuts to education aid to local districts and in human services.
The curtailment proceedings will soon be overshadowed by the governor's two-year budget proposal. That comes out Friday and it's expected it will be accompanied by a supplemental budget to fill a gap in the current budget that ends June 30. The gap in the current budget is driven by a projected $100 million shortfall in the state's Medicaid program.
Details of the governor's budget proposal are of keen interest. The spending plan doubles as a policy agenda. Its contents could set the tone for a session that some anticipate will yield nasty conflicts between the Democratic majority and LePage.
The administration hasn't discussed the contents of the budget, but a few lobbyists who met with the governor's legislative liaison Monday dropped a few hints via Twitter, including "big surprises in municipal revenue sharing."
— Speaking of policy agendas, expect the Democratic majority to release its legislative agenda sometime this week. Other than the skills gap issue, Democratic leaders have been mostly tight-lipped about the policies they plan to pursue.
— On Monday afternoon, LePage will swear in the Legislature's new constitutional officers, Attorney General Janet Mills, Secretary of State Matt Dunlap and State Treasurer Neria Douglass.
The swearing in of constitutional officers is usually a little more low-key than the swearing in of legislators. However, expect more attention on the constitutional proceedings because LePage is involved. He proved during the Dec. 5 legislative ceremony that he is willing to use such occasions to share his views.
— Mills and Dunlap are familiar faces. Both held the same offices before Republicans were swept into power in 2010. Douglass, the former state auditor, will be new to most members of the public.
It will be interesting to see if any of the three officers will be as partisan as their Republican predecessors, AG William Schneider, SOS Charlie Summers and the most prolific of them all, former treasurer Bruce Poliquin.
The offices are partisan by definition, but the outgoing Republican officers were perhaps more overtly intertwined with the policy agenda of their party and the LePage administration.
The Twitter pundits likened Poliquin's last missive to a campaign release. The reaction may be attributed to rumor and speculation over at the conservative forum As Maine Goes, where there are rumblings Poliquin is considering a run for the U.S. Senate in 2014.
None of the speculation is substantiated and it's hard to imagine Republican party leaders giving their blessing to a divisive Republican primary between Poliquin and the popular U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.
Poliquin didn't respond to a request for comment.
— Expect a fresh round of debate over charter schools. LePage is reportedly pushing to lift the cap on the number of charter schools that can be established in Maine. The cap is currently 10.
The proposal comes as StudentsFirst, the California-based organization founded by Michelle Rhee, continues its push for education reforms in Maine.
StudentsFirst deployed two lobbyists to the Legislature last session. The organization hasn't registered advocates for this session yet. However, the same StudentsFirst lobbyists, Craig Wallace and Tim Melton, are now registered with the group Great New England Public Schools Alliance.
Given its name, one would think that GNEPSA is a New England-based organization. It's not. According to lobbying disclosure filings, GNEPSA shares the exact same address as StudentsFirst: 825 K Street, Sacramento, Calif.
Steve Mistler covers politics and government for the Portland Press Herald. He spends a lot of time in the hallways of the State House.