Saturday, March 8, 2014
Guns. Liquor. Marijuana. Agenda 21. Tanning. If you didn’t know any better, you might think they’re the storyline of a B-movie. Instead they’re a sampling of the issues to come before the Maine Legislature so far this session.
Now, to be fair, these certainly don’t represent the full measure of the Legislature’s work to date and some, like gun control, are deadly serious issues.
But to the majority of Mainers toiling outside “the dome” with scant opportunity to follow the particulars of the legislative process, it’s easy to think the silly season arrived early in Augusta.
In large measure, that’s because neither the governor nor the political parties have advanced a real legislative agenda, especially as it relates to job creation and economic growth.
Without a plan, there’s little ability for leaders to drive the policy debate or deliver a consistent message that continually refocuses and redirects from the daily distractions.
And for voters, the lack of plan means there’s no ability to contextualize action or see progress toward goals.
So with the Legislature on vacation this week, it’s time for our political leaders to recommit themselves to advancing a real plan for job creation and growth that recognizes the meaningful work occurring:
• The Joint Select Committee on Maine’s Workforce is poised to pass legislation that will help address the skills gap by strengthening job training.
• History was made with the passage last week of a bill to restore alewife runs up the St. Croix River after an 18-year blockade, a measure supported by fishing interests and environmentalists alike.
• And a consensus is emerging about repaying the hospital debt largely modeled on legislation originally advanced by the governor.
• With any luck, perhaps we’ll even see a constructive, bipartisan biennial budget emerge that addresses the $800 million structural gap, restores revenue sharing and eliminates some of the governor’s more draconian cuts to health and human service programs.
The challenge for lawmakers and citizens alike is that these substantive policy successes struggle for attention alongside more readily digestible bits of politics, trivia, conflict and bluster that also emanate from the State House.
While that’s not uncommon, the lack of a clear policy agenda from any of the major political actors makes this session seem unwieldy.
Let’s be clear, paying off the hospitals is not an economic plan. Closing the skills gap is not a plan. Saying you want to lower energy costs (while admirable) is not a plan. Raising the minimum wage is not a plan. Right to work is not a plan. Bonding is not a plan. Tax cuts or increases are not plans.
Individually these policies may (or, in some cases, may not) have value, but how do they hang together with others to create an agenda for growth that voters can hang their hats on?
This policy vacuum constitutes the greatest political opportunity for the governor and the parties leading into the 2014 elections.
Whoever moves most aggressively to fill it can drive the debate around voters’ top-priority issues and reap the political rewards.
With that in mind, let me offer some unsolicited counsel to my Democratic friends, which, if they’re so inclined, Republicans or the governor can appropriate.
Use this vacation week to take stock of the session to date and the work that remains. Identify the economic issues that are your priorities for the remainder of this session.
When the Legislature reconvenes, announce them as a prioritized policy package that resets and refocuses the agenda.
Ask voters to get behind your vision and then go after it, continually reminding Mainers that job growth and expanded economic opportunity is the order of the day.
Even if not everything gets done, even if you compromise along the way, voters will reward an effort they understand and progress toward goals they share.
Michael Cuzzi is a former campaign aide to President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and former U.S. Rep. Tom Allen. He manages the Portland office for VOX Global, a strategic communications and public affairs firm. He can be reached at: