Friday, March 7, 2014
Most of the news reports that come out of Augusta are what I'd call "glass-half-empty" stories about chaotic fights, loud arguments and lost opportunities. Good news stories also happen there, but they tend to lack the spicy language and mud-wrestling moves that produce headlines.
For glass-half-full people, three things happened in the Legislature recently that are both noteworthy and encouraging.
- The first is the bipartisan tax bill that I wrote about last week. It's bold, forward-looking and tackles longstanding problems plaguing both government and the economy. Not that the bill is perfect, but it's a terrific start that offers an encouraging example of what can be done to fix Maine's problems when people work together.
- Another example is the bipartisan effort to fix the "skills gap" problem in Maine. It turns out that there are plenty of good jobs going unfilled in Maine because we don't have enough trained and skilled people to fill them. That may soon change, thanks to legislators from both parties, businesses, chambers of commerce, unions and educators. All sides worked together to produce a bill that has now passed both houses of the Legislature with universal support.
Their work will improve the lives of thousands of Mainers. It will provide 1,000 Maine adult learners with scholarships for retraining, help 500 existing workers upgrade their skills, expand programs for apprentices and interns, fund new community college classes that are in high demand and push the university and community college systems to streamline credit transfers.
That approach to solving problems -- bringing people together for the larger good -- is crucial to tackling new challenges in a rapidly changing world. In this case, the economy has been evolving quickly and educational institutions haven't been able to adapt fast enough. Mainers need jobs and employers need skilled employees.
So people came together to find practical solutions to tough problems. They got beyond yelling at each other across the barricades and engaged in a full and honest exchange of views, focusing on solutions. They had patient leadership that pushed them to find common ground. That's called Change 101, and we need more of it.
- The third example of good news from Augusta comes from the Appropriations Committee, which works long hours during the legislative session, juggling income projections and public needs, to come up with a budget. Since state budgets usually require the support of two-thirds of the Legislature, the Appropriations Committee has developed the habit of working together across party lines.
This year, they've been quietly making good progress toward a budget, but apparently not fast enough for Governor LePage. On Friday, at 5 p.m., he issued a sniping letter threatening the imminent collapse of the Department of Human Services if the committee didn't complete a budget within a few days. It was classic LePage and, not surprisingly, it was overblown.
Apparently, when things get a little boring at the office, and the governor feels left out, he can't corral the impulse to create an all-or-nothing crisis, poke somebody in the eye, and stir the pot. None of which is helpful to making change happen.
The committee, being of sound mind, held an emergency session on Sunday to find out what the governor was talking about. They heard again from the governor's fiscal chief and DHS Commissioner, who assured them that there was nothing new to report. The takeaway: another loud false alarm from the governor and more wasted time for everyone.
Just as the committee was wrapping up its work, the governor himself rose to speak. As he strode to the podium, the committee's chair, Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, declined to allow him to speak. She told the governor, as politely as she could, that the committee didn't need any more "politics" (read: theatrics) injected into the process. "We're done for today," she said, "and we're going to end on a positive note."
It was, perhaps, the committee's finest hour.
It's noteworthy when a governor isn't allowed to speak at a hearing, but what was even more significant was that no Republicans on the committee rose to the governor's defense. It was almost as though they were saying, with a sense of collective exhaustion over the governor's antics, "we're actually doing work here, so please leave us alone."
In these three examples we can see the dim outline of the future in Augusta, in which we'll see more people working together and paying less attention to the politics of frustrated bombast. In other words, the grown-ups in Augusta are beginning to take matters into their own hands.
Alan Caron is a partner at the Caron & Egan Consulting Group and serves as president of Envision Maine, a nonpartisan organization that promotes Maine's next economy. He can be reached at email@example.com