AUGUSTA — The 127th Maine Legislature officially began Wednesday after Gov. Paul LePage administered the oath of office to 186 new and returning lawmakers in the House and Senate.
LePage’s comments in both chambers were brief.
“There’s an awful lot of work in the state that needs to be done,” LePage first told the 149 members of the 151-member House, where Democrats retained their majority during a tough election season that saw Republicans make gains throughout the state. “Sharpen your pencils and let’s get to work.”
In the Senate, which Republicans now control with a 21-14 majority, LePage’s comments were much the same: “I wish you all a very good session over the next two years. We have a lot of work to be done, and I want you all to know that my door will be open.”
Presiding officers of both bodies were largely determined before Wednesday’s formalities, with the Democratic and Republican caucuses having chosen their leaders during votes held between Election Day, Nov. 4, and Wednesday’s swearing-in ceremony.
After a lengthy delay caused by disputes between Democrats and Republicans on how balloting should be conducted, the House elected Rep. Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, to his second two-year term as House speaker. Republicans initially nominated Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, but after a four-hour delay caused wrangling over the ballots, Fredette withdrew his name and the House elected Eves.
As was the case in the previous Legislature, Fredette will serve as House minority leader.
Several House members complained about partisan maneuvering on a day that was meant to be ceremonial and designed for dozens of lawmakers’ friends and family members who packed the House chamber.
“This is disgraceful,” said Rep. Jeff Evangelos, I-Friendship, who blamed the delay on Republicans for contesting a House speaker vote that was never in question. “This is a day for grandparents and children. What example does this set?”
Evangelos and others said Wednesday’s events cast a cloud over the possibility that the parties will collaborate over the next six months.
Eves said during his acceptance speech that creating jobs will top his agenda.
“Maine faces many challenges,” Eves said. “Our economy is not producing enough jobs, our wages are stagnant and we have the oldest population in the country,” he said. “Maine is recovering jobs lost in the recession only about half as fast as the rest of the country and our New England region. If we were creating jobs at the same rate as our New England neighbors, we would have more than 16,000 additional Maine jobs right now, today. Think of it. That’s 1,000 new jobs for each and every Maine county.”
Eves also drew attention to the plight of older adults in Maine, an issue he worked on throughout the 126th Legislature.
“If you work hard your whole life, you deserve a secure retirement,” Eves said. “You should be able to stay in the community where you raised a generation.”
In the Senate, the new GOP majority elected Sen. Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, as Senate president. Thibodeau had served as minority leader for the past two years. Republican Sens. Garrett Mason of Lisbon Falls and Andre Cushing of Hampden were officially named majority leader and assistant majority leader.
Thibodeau called for cordial bipartisanship in the new session, saying the will of the electorate was clear after voters restored a GOP majority in the Senate but kept Democrats in control of the House.
“This means nothing happens unless we work together,” he said. “The voters said, ‘Work it out.’ They don’t want excuses.”
While he called for civility and cooperation, Thibodeau made clear that his agenda will be vastly different from his Democratic predecessors. Outgoing Senate President Justin Alfond of Portland will now serve as minority leader. Democratic Sen. Dawn Hill of Cape Neddick, who led the budget-writing Appropriations Committee for the past two years, will be assistant minority leader.
Welfare reform, an elusive goal for minority Republicans last year, was the first policy priority on Thibodeau’s list. He recounted a story from his hometown in Winterport, where he saw a woman allegedly using welfare money at the checkout of a local store.
“She didn’t buy a gallon of milk. She didn’t buy a little gas. She bought six lottery tickets,” he said. “What message does that send to the cashier who began her day at 4 a.m. to open the store? She probably makes nine or ten dollars an hour. What message does it send to all of us who are responsible for funding that purchase? It’s time for real, responsible welfare reform.”
Thibodeau also echoed LePage’s call for a reduction in energy prices, and pushed fiscal responsibility in the upcoming budget-writing process.
The Legislature will reconvene to begin official business on Wednesday, Jan. 7.