Behind closed doors at State House, fight brewing over committee power

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AUGUSTA — While leading lawmakers talk bipartisanship on the floors of the House and Senate after a heated election season, a fight simmers behind closed doors over the partisan makeup of the 17 legislative committees.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, must choose the 13 members of each committee. There will be three senators, chosen by Thibodeau, and 10 representatives, chosen by Eves, assigned to each panel.

The primary conflict is taking place in the House, where Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, says he’s concerned his caucus won’t get a fair shake. Tradition dictates that two of the three senators on each committee will be Republicans, thanks to their majority status in the upper chamber. In the House, however, the balance is less certain.

Fredette said Thursday that he believes Republican victories in last month’s elections — when the GOP bolstered its minority position in the House with 10 additional seats and won control of the Senate — should be reflected in the partisan balance of the committees.

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The Republican leader opened the curtain, just a bit, on what had until now been private negotiations with Eves.

“The Democrats think we should have four members on each committee, and two Senate Republicans, giving Democrats a 7-6 majority on all the committees,” Fredette said. “We hold a majority in one of the branches of the Legislature, so that obviously shouldn’t be the case. There are 17 committees, including the Government Oversight Committee, so there ought to be at least eight committees where the Republicans (have the majority).”

On Thursday, Eves said in an interview that while no final decisions about committee assignments have been made, Democrats — because they outnumber Republicans overall in the 151-member Legislature — will likely hold majorities in all but two committees.

That’s just a mathematical reality, he said, when his caucus holds 83 seats, including four independents who caucus with the Democrats, compared with the Republicans’ 68.

“Making sure all the members of the House are seated, that’s the only standard in the rules (for committee assignments),” Eves said. “(Fredette) wants well over what that would provide for.”

Fredette said frustration with Eves’ reticence to hand Republicans the keys to half of the committees was the reason for his surprise bid for the speaker’s gavel on Thursday, when the new Legislature convened for the first time.

But Eves cautioned against letting the debate over committee assignments overshadow the work ahead for the Legislature.

“This is all a bit of inside baseball,” he said. “I really don’t think the people outside this building — who are worried about putting food on the table, feeding their kids — care about committee assignments. They care about jobs, and that’s what we’re focused on.”

It’s been 20 years since Maine had a Legislature in which each party controlled one chamber. After the 1994 election, the 117th Legislature saw the GOP control the Senate with an 18-member majority. Democrats held 16 seats, and there was one unenrolled senator. In the House, Democrats held a 77-74 majority.

Back then, Democrats held control of 10 committees, including the most powerful ones of the bunch — Appropriations, Health and Human Services, Energy and Education. The Republicans had majorities on seven committees.

Majority control over committees means the ability to give the green light to bill proposals. That’s important, especially on powerful panels such as the Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for crafting the biennial budget, and the Health and Human Services Committee, where Republican welfare reform bills opposed by advocacy groups aligned with the Democrats are expected to spark the most contentious partisan battles of the new session.

However, given the divided nature of the Legislature, committee control will likely be less important in this Legislature than in prior ones. Fredette and Eves both conceded that neither party will be able to pass legislation without the cooperation of the other; Democrats in the House or Republicans in the Senate can effectively kill any bill — not to mention the often-used veto power of Gov. Paul LePage.

Still, Fredette said Republican gains must be recognized. It would be unfair for Democrats to continue owning the committee process as they did in the last session when they controlled both chambers, he said.

“It’s a distinction without a difference at the detail level, but the distinction that the Republicans control one of the two ends of the Legislature has to be recognized,” he said. “Substantively, and practically, it is important.”

Eves and Thibodeau said they expect committee assignments to be finalized before Christmas. The new Legislature begins its regular business on Jan. 7.

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