Last week Maine Senate Democrats rolled out what they billed as their legislative agenda for the upcoming second session of the Legislature. It’s hardly an unprecedented political tactic: legislative caucuses have often announced such plans in the past, including a few years ago when Senate Democrats announced what they called an alternative to then-Gov. Paul LePage’s last budget.

These sorts of announcements are usually not so much detailed policy plans as they are campaign promises written up as a word salad, making grandiose promises with few specifics. The Democrats’ Fighting for Maine agenda is no exception: their new proposals are framed in vague terms, without any real details or links to specific bills being proposed in the forthcoming legislative session.

A major part of the problem that Senate Democrats have in launching a new agenda now is that their party is already in full control in Augusta. They’ve had one session to enact their ideas already, which may be why their so-called “agenda” is actually more of a brag sheet, listing their accomplishments from last session. Even with those items, though, they avoid details: They don’t list the actual bills that were passed (not even as footnotes), so curious readers can’t readily go look them up. That’s a baffling omission when citing past accomplishments, as it’s standard practice in Maine politics – even on mailers – to cite specific bills as reference.

The mixture of past accomplishments with future goals raises an important question for the majority party: If your new agenda is such a big priority, why didn’t it get done last session? It could create a certain credibility gap for Democrats, highlighting the new promises as failures right out of the gate – and they could end up being failures twice if they don’t get passed this session. Releasing what you’re calling a major legislative agenda between the two sessions, rather than at a much later (or earlier) date, is curious timing.

Publicizing your priorities before the second session begins gives the other party a major glimpse into your legislative strategy. Republicans can now target these bills for defeat, knowing that it will make the majority party look weak. While Republicans don’t have the numbers to simply block any legislation outright, they can work to stall them or water them down in committee. They can also take the opportunity to use these bills as vehicles for some of their own ideas through amendments. Since amendments in the Maine Legislature have to actually be germane to the topic of the bill, unlike in Congress, Republicans can’t get too far into the weeds, but if Republican leadership is wily, they can certainly take advantage of it.

It’s not a politically convenient time of year for Democrats to release what is, in essence, a political document. To most voters, the presidential election is still pretty far away, never mind local legislative races. While some legislative candidates have already filed, in most districts (especially those lacking an incumbent), it’s not clear who the candidates might be or if there will be a contested primary. By the time the general election comes around next November, voters may well have completely forgotten that Maine Senate Democrats even had an agenda, let alone what was in it. Releasing their plan now is a high-risk, low-reward move for Democrats: It could completely backfire for them, and it’s unlikely to help them much politically.

It isn’t just the timing of Senate Democrats releasing the agenda that’s curious, but that they bothered to do it at all. Generally in Maine politics, the governor gets to set the agenda, and their own party pretty much goes along with it. That pattern was broken in recent years when Republicans often fought with LePage, but when John Baldacci was governor, Democrats usually supported his proposals – even if they were frequently modified. This session, Democrats mostly went along with Gov. Mills, but it doesn’t seem as if her office had any input in the drafting of the Senate Democrats’ plan. Indeed, it highlights one goal for next session as fully funding nursing homes – a bipartisan priority that was held up by Mills.

Releasing this plan now shows that Senate Democrats are worried about the 2020 election. If they were truly confident in their position, they wouldn’t be putting this much effort into publicizing their accomplishments so early in the campaign. Essentially, they’re working to protect their incumbents, and – at least for the moment – they’re going it alone, instead of working on a unified strategy for the entire party.

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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