Maine lawmakers returning to politically divided chambers for the 1st time in 20 years

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AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine lawmakers will confront a new political reality when they return to Augusta this month and walk into legislative chambers that are divided for the first time in two decades.

While Republicans seized control of the Senate in October, Democrats remain in power in the House, setting up a potentially difficult session filled with battles over the state budget, taxes and welfare.

"I think you can imagine a legislative session that is marked by deep partisanship, strong ideological division and fierce policy debates," said Mike Cuzzi, a former Democratic strategist who worked on President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign.

Yet top lawmakers say they are confident that the two parties can put aside any hard feelings that still linger from the campaigns and work with each other — and with Republican Gov. Paul LePage — over the next two years.

The new Senate president, Michael Thibodeau, said the split between the chambers could encourage cooperation because both Republicans and Democrats understand that compromise will be a vital component in getting anything done.

"There's a lot of folks talking about all the stuff that's going to be challenging, but I think there's going to be a lot of good stuff that comes out of this," said Thibodeau, R-Winterport.

The chambers were last divided after the 1994 election, when independent Angus King became governor.

In 2000, the Senate was initially divided with Republicans and Democrats each holding 17 seats and one independent, so a special agreement was made in which a Democrat served as president in the first year and a Republican in the second.

Negotiations over a new state budget, which must be in place by June 30, will dominate the session and will begin as soon as LePage introduces his proposed spending plan Friday. He'll be sworn in for a second term Wednesday in front of a joint session of the House and Senate.

Taxes and welfare are also expected to be top issues.

LePage has said he wants to slash the state's income tax and push again for changes to welfare programs that the Democrat-controlled Legislature denied last session, like requiring recipients to show they've applied to work to receive benefits.

It's incumbent that Democrats to find areas in which they can compromise with Republicans this session "so they aren't simply seen as obstructionists or protectors of the status quo," Cuzzi said.

Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick said he believes his party can find common ground with Republicans on things like investing in transportation infrastructure, making college more affordable and improving resources for Maine's elderly population.

But he suggested that there are areas in which Democrats will remain firm.

"People are ready to step up to the task and work with the governor and work with Republicans when we can, and when we can't it will be because we are protecting seniors, students and our environment," Eves said.

At the same time, Republican lawmakers have been saying since their success in the November elections that voters gave them a mandate — a view that could embolden them as they push for more conservative policies, leading to more clashes with Democrats and gridlock.

"If the GOP genuinely believes that a vast majority of (voters) coalesced behind their particular set of policies, then they may not just be positioning themselves for a tough Legislature but think they can pass whatever they want," said Ron Schmidt, a professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine.

"If that's the case, it's going to be a rough couple of years," he said.


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