Senate President Justin Alfond, left, a Portland Democrat, will be among those meeting with Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, right, to talk about city priorities.
By Randy Billings
PORTLAND – Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and other city officials are gearing up to lobby the Legislature on several key issues in the upcoming session, including charter school funding, revenue sharing, bonds and business tax breaks.
With Democrats back in control of both legislative chambers, and Justin Alfond, a Portland Democrat, serving as Senate president, the prospects for Portland and other urban areas to make gains appear to be improving.
"I look forward to making sure the economic hub of Maine has a strong voice," Alfond said. "As Portland goes, so goes the state."
Brennan, city councilors and staff will meet with the city's 10-member legislative delegation on Thursday. It will be the first meeting since the November elections, which returned Democrats to power in both the House and Senate.
"We're going to talk to them about what we see are the priorities of the city," Brennan said.
Back in October, the City Council's Legislative Committee discussed priorities for the upcoming session.
Initiatives included pursuing a regional sales tax, regional tax increment financing programs to encourage economic development, and expanding the state's so-called circuit-breaker program to help reduce property taxes.
The committee also expressed interest in continuing the city's opposition to charter schools by trying to repeal the enabling legislation or removing the public funding mechanism that would direct money earmarked for public schools.
If those efforts fail, the city could advocate for charter schools to be funded by a separate line item in the state budget, rather than by existing education subsidies.
Both Alfond and Brennan are concerned about the potential impact of Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, slated to open next fall in Portland. The opening of that school could reduce the city's public school budget and increase local property taxes because the state education aid for each student attending the academy will follow that student to the academy.
"The mayor and I have been very carefully watching Baxter Academy because it will have a huge financial impact on Portland residents," Alfond said, noting his desire to see charter schools succeed.
"Equally, I want to make sure our public education stays incredibly strong and fully funded," he said.
Brennan said protecting revenue sharing to municipalities and increasing Portland's share of those funds are also priorities.
Alfond and Brennan also noted the need for bonds, especially along the city's working waterfront where dredging, infrastructure upgrades and incentives to keep ground fishermen here are needed. Bonds for research and development, and upgrading stormwater systems will also be sought.
Brennan would also like to see a bill passed to allow regional tax increment financing, an incentive for economic development that returns property dollars to developers or regions without affecting state subsidies for education and the like.
While the city's agenda seems ambitious, Brennan argues otherwise, since more than half of the state's gross domestic product is produced in Sagadahoc, Cumberland and York counties.
"I don't know I'd say it's ambitious," Brennan said. "I think it's one that's strongly supported in terms of the role Portland plays in the regional economy and the state's economy."
In addition to discussing priorities, Brennan said he is interested to hear what committee assignments the Portland delegation will seek.
Some of the more influential committees include appropriations, taxation, health and human services, and -- for Portland -- the marine resources committees, he said.
Alfond said committee assignments will be made public on Dec. 17.
CIRCLING THE WAGONS
Over the last year, Brennan has been building coalitions statewide that could give the city more pull.
He, along with Bangor Mayor Cary Weston, formally organized a coalition of 10 mayors from Portland, South Portland, Biddeford, Saco, Westbrook, Lewiston, Auburn, Waterville, Augusta and Bangor.
In recent weeks, Brennan has reached out to the Service Center Coalition and the METRO Coalition to develop a common agenda.
The service center group is comprised of administrators of 44 communities that draw and serve people regionally, but don't receive any additional revenue to maintain infrastructure.
The Metro Coalition is an alliance of Portland, South Portland, Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth, Scarborough and Westbrook that largely seeks to lower operating costs through collective bidding.
Biddeford City Manager John Bubier, who chairs the Service Center Coalition, said he believes the alliance will be helpful in the upcoming session, because the mayor's coalition can speak with their state delegations with more authority.
"I think in many cases legislators think of senior staff and management people as just that -- we provide support to councils and mayors throughout the state, but we are not elected officials," Bubier said.
Also, John Martin's loss in November could be a blow to the influence of the rural caucus at a time where urban areas are gaining momentum economically and politically.
Martin, of Eagle Lake, had served in the Legislature for more than 40 years, getting around term limits enacted in 1993 by alternating between the House and the Senate.
Bubier praised Martin's legislative experience and his willingness to hear other viewpoints, but noted the legislator's ability to organize and advocate for rural interests in the Legislature.
"He certainly was very powerful and he had his own way of looking at things," Bubier said.
LEPAGE IS A FACTOR
Perhaps the defining interaction between Gov. Paul LePage and Alfond was when the governor called Alfond a "little spoiled brat."
Since being chosen as senate president, Alfond has reached out to LePage, sending him a hand-written invitation to dinner so the two could find some common ground.
LePage has yet to respond to that invitation, Alfond said.
Brennan doesn't think the icy relationship between the two will hurt Portland's ability to enact its agenda.
"I don't think he's in any different position than anyone else in the State House at this point in terms of his relationship with the governor," Brennan said. "I think everybody is at a distinct disadvantage. I think it's been shown that Republicans have had difficulties at times dealing with the governor in the same way Democrats have."
Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: