For Christmas, I received a puzzle of the state of Maine. At a thousand pieces, and depicting our storied fishermen, loggers, blueberries and moose in such small pieces it was hard to tell where to place them, it was maddeningly difficult to complete. It took forever and when almost finished, I found there were three pieces missing.

That’s what a session of the Legislature is like. And putting that puzzle together will be the mission of the people who represent Maine’s hundreds of cities and towns in the Maine Legislature when it convenes next week.

As a former state representative and candidate for U.S. Congress, I have some hard-earned perspective on the process to share. But first, please join me in thanking those citizens who choose to serve. It is an incredible amount of work, engaging 151 representatives and 35 senators, often toiling seven days a week and frequently past midnight, even while maintaining day jobs. And I would be remiss if I did not mention all of the wonderful staff at the State House who quietly make the operation run.

Democrats hold greater majorities in the Legislature than in many years, and it is tempting to think the session will be free of partisan rancor. But there is a high likelihood of a hangover from the last session, the longest and most contentious in state history, to this one.

That year’s Legislature was similar, beginning as bipartisan. But the ending was trench warfare. Issues were held open, not to solve them, but to generate headlines and use as election issues. Renewable-energy policy is Exhibit A, where the possibility of good bipartisan work was headed off by the desire to hold the issue open to drive voter turnout.

The citizens of Maine simply shouldn’t stand for that this time around. The extremes of both parties set the agenda, to no good result. Legislators of all stripes should remember that their opponent is not the other caucus, or the people on the opposing side of an issue: It is the states we compete with, and the significant structural and social problems we face.

The House independents, with whom I served, are uniquely positioned to play this nonpartisan role, and electoral reforms like open primaries can help bring more moderates to the table, too.

Democrats should resist the urge to reintroduce the almost 700 bills vetoed by Gov. LePage over the last eight years. There is a dog-catches-car element to such a sweeping political win, and Republican leadership will be tempted to just stand aside and let Democrats drive the car into the ditch. Instead, legislators should collaborate to increase the benefits of work and reduce the cost of living with provisions like support for career and technical education and rewards for corporations that increase training. A strong economy is the engine that drives all social progress, and the way to do that is more carrot, less stick.

And don’t forget to focus on rural economic development. Every government program in the world won’t replace a good job in rural Maine.

The Maine Development Foundation convenes tours and policy briefings for elected representatives. Unfortunately, many legislators skip these events, believing them to be either a waste of time or an excuse for a left-leaning policy immersion. Nothing could be further from the truth – by statute, the foundation is nonpartisan, and the events are uniformly excellent. Legislative leaders should require attendance of at least three foundation events per session; the result will be increased knowledge of statewide issues and strengthened across-the-aisle friendships.

Partnering with Maine’s nonprofit sector, which employs one in six Mainers, is an overlooked opportunity. Incoming legislators should find time to meet with nonprofits and grantmakers in their district and learn their priorities, involving them in the legislative process extensively. A legislator’s job is to create a structure in which Maine people can succeed, and those connections will help deliver results.

With the help of my family, I finally did get that puzzle put together. We found the missing pieces, and it was pretty satisfying to finally complete it and see Maine for all she is. Here’s hoping the 129th Maine Legislature can do that same thing.


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