With summer well under way, it might seem to be a slow time of year state politics – but in actuality, things are beginning to heat up. The 2020 campaign has begun not only nationally, but here in Maine as well. A number of candidates have already declared their intention to take on incumbent Sen. Susan Collins, including liberal lobbyist Betsy Sweet and the current Speaker of the House Sara Gideon.

The more immediate political focus, however – unless a people’s veto campaign makes it on to the November ballot – will be the upcoming second session of the Maine Legislature. While the longer First Session can be more freewheeling since any legislator can introduce any bill, it also tends to be dominated by biennial budget discussions. During the Second Session, the leadership in the Legislature has absolute control over what bills can even be introduced. The only exception to that limit are the governor’s bills – as in the first session, she can introduce whatever bills she likes at any time. So, next year, Democrats can completely set the agenda if they like.

It’s easy for the majority party to use this session to set themselves up for re-election. They can give their vulnerable legislators accomplishments to tout in palm cards and pass feel-good bills that everyone can use as bullet points. They can also use their control to squash any potentially controversial bills brought up by the minority party, sparing their members the trouble of a tough vote in an election year. If the minority party does manage to come up with any good ideas, they can take credit for them, since in order to get anything done Republicans will need even more bipartisan support than they did last session. All of that’s pretty par for the course in the shorter session.

The foremost question in Augusta will be what legislation Gov. Mills might propose next year. In the first session, she was able to enact a number of her campaign promises – but many of them weren’t particularly unique to her administration. Instead, the majority of what she got done last session were garden-variety initiatives that liberals had been promising for years and that any Democrat sitting in the Blaine House would have embraced. To be fair to Mills, that’s not atypical for new governors in Maine: they have to immediately craft a new budget, so between that and handling the transition there’s precious little time for innovative policymaking. Moreover, since Maine almost always switches parties when a new governor comes in, they often have years of pent-up ideas from within their own party.

Now, though, Mills has the chance to truly set the agenda apart from writing the budget and fulfilling her campaign promises. Ordinarily, this would be a chance for her – and the Democrats as a whole – to move more to the center, making their lives easier as they run for re-election. It’s unlikely that the administration will propose any controversial, new, radical ideas next session: they want to avoid intra-party conflict, not increase it. That means taking wins where they can, and staying away from any issues that might cost them votes in the more rural parts of the state.

In today’s political climate, one wonders how much that approach will actually be followed by leadership, and whether the more liberal grassroots will play along. There’s already been some grumbling amongst progressives that Democrats didn’t do enough this past session, so it will be fascinating to see if they push harder on their agenda. While any bills that were defeated in the first session are done in the second session as well, plenty of bills were carried over and there’s the opportunity for brand-new ideas to be introduced.

The dynamic of a presiding officer running for higher office in the middle of session will also be an intriguing factor: While it’s not totally unheard of, it’s not common either. The last time it happened was when then-Senate President Libby Mitchell announced her gubernatorial bid in the waning days of the Baldacci administration. That didn’t have much impact on the session, but the circumstances are much different with a new governor in office. Sara Gideon may well see the second session as a chance for her to burnish her credentials ahead of the U.S. Senate race, but the question is exactly how she chooses to do so: by increasing her appeal to the base or by making inroads with moderate voters?

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: jimfossel


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