AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Gov. Paul LePage readied an ambitious agenda of energy, education and economic issues as Maine lawmakers opened their 2012 election-year session on Wednesday to a State House full of citizen and union lobbyists prepared to have their own say on matters to be decided during the next 3½ months.
Lawmakers will conclude business left unfinished during last year's opening round of the 125th Legislature, plus take up new matters submitted by the governor. As the session begins, the state budget will be the dominant issue as lawmakers analyze and debate proposed Medicaid cuts LePage says are needed to avoid having the program serving nearly a third of Mainers go broke in April.
The first-term Republican governor, who took office a year ago, said in an interview he hopes the sharp partisan rhetoric that accompanies election-year politics can be avoided. State House debates will likely be framed around presidential, congressional and legislative elections to be held in November.
"I will tell you; right now we have a very difficult agenda we need to work on. I pray every day that both sides will just sit down and find a resolution. There are resolutions out there, and we'll even find them and help work them out. It's not time for rhetoric, it's time for action," LePage said.
The Senate's top Democrat, Barry Hobbins of Saco, issued a similar plea, saying "there'll be plenty of time to play hardball politics" outside the State House.
"Politics aside, we need to work together," said Hobbins. "We have a lot to do this session."
The Medicaid cuts, urged by the governor as a way to bridge a $221 million budget gap through mid-2013, are being reviewed by the Appropriations Committee. LePage briefly outlined his other major proposals.
His energy plan calls for lowering energy costs in a state that's heavily dependent on home heating oil. LePage wants to encourage investment in natural gas pipelines, including a proposed 80-mile Madison-to-Richmond line, and make natural gas available to the Great Northern Paper mill in East Millinocket through an existing pipeline. He also wants to encourage transmission of cheaper Canadian power into the state.
"Education is going to be a major part of this year's work," said LePage, who wants to make it easier for high school students to obtain technical training if they don't want to attend college. His education plan also seeks to improve the effectiveness of teachers. The administration plans to complete details of energy and education bills in the weeks ahead.
The governor's economic agenda, aimed at reducing Maine unemployment rate, which was 7 percent in November, ties into those proposals plus an array of other bills LePage sees as beneficial to job creation.
But some groups were in the State House on its opening day to warn that LePage's proposed Medicaid cuts would kill jobs and harm working families.
"This legislative session, there is an effort to dismantle these systems that provide basic economic security to Maine families," said Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, which led dozens of union workers in a lobbying effort.
The workers are also concerned about bills they say would weaken workers compensation protections, damage public sector union protections and make unemployment compensation rules tougher.
"Jobs and the economy is what needs to be attended to, not doing a sucker-punch to the ones who are already down," said Jamie Bassett, who went on workers' comp after he was injured while working as a guard in the state prison.
Roughly a dozen members of the Occupy Augusta movement, many of whom camped out in nearby Capitol Park during the fall, fulfilled a promise by showing up at the State House. Members said they intend to be a regular presence as they express their views on such issues as energy subsidies and importation of solid waste from other states in the weeks ahead.
Opening day also saw history being made as lawmakers seated for the first time a member of the Maliseet Indian tribe, David Slagger. The Kenduskeag resident joins members of two other tribes already represented in the Legislature.
Lawmakers will also meet Thursday and Tuesday before they depart for their three-day bus tour sponsored by the Maine Development Foundation, a private non-profit that promotes economic growth. The tour to southern and western Maine businesses and educational institutions is to give lawmakers a better look at what makes the state's economy tick.