AUGUSTA — Democratic lawmakers said Wednesday they're going to focus during the legislative session on developing workforce skills, strengthening schools, lowering health care and energy costs and investing in research and infrastructure. Republicans questioned how the Democrats could afford to pay for the programs without higher taxes.
Democrats this month created a panel to address a "skills gap" cited by employers. A study by the state's community college says 4,000 jobs between now and 2018 will go unfilled because workers don't have skills that are sought by employers. In addition, Democrats said they will focus on public schools and early childhood education.
"We will make the classroom the best learning environment it can be by supporting our teachers, providing our schools with the tools they need and the dollars needed to acquire these tools," said Senate President Harold Alfond, D-Portland.
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said lawmakers should continue to focus on bipartisan energy solutions, including increasing energy efficiency and reducing reliance on oil.
Eves and Alfond talked about collaboration with Republicans.
"We need to come together in order to solve our problems. We must do better, and if everyone pitches in, we can make Maine a better state," Eves said in a statement. "While we might not always agree, we will always seek common ground in order to strengthen the economy and grow the middle class."
Unimpressed, Republicans responded with a statement accusing Democrats of going light on details and of resurrecting "decades-old talking points about throwing more money at the problem of poor education results and maxing out the state's credit card for stimulus spending."
House Republican leader Ken Fredette, of Newport, said the GOP already increased spending on schools but additional reforms are needed including a teacher assessment program and improved career and technical training.
"We must continue to break up the status quo and put students first with reforms that shake up the education establishment and breathe new life into our schools," he said.
Assistant House Republican Leader Rep. Alexander Willette, R-Mapleton, worried that Democrats' solution for economic recovery and other programs will involve more taxes and borrowing.
"The Democrats were noncommittal on whether they wanted to raise taxes," he said. "I can say without hesitation that in the face of tax increases at the federal level and the fact that we remain one of the most heavily taxed states in the nation, we cannot punish Maine taxpayers further."