AUGUSTA – Ah, the second half of Maine’s two-year legislative session. It’s the quiet year. The shorter year. The year when lawmakers recover from the previous session’s bloody battles by tidying up, fine-tuning the budget and getting ready for November’s elections.

So whoa! (as horsemen say) what happened this year?

Gov. John Baldacci called it one of the most productive sessions in many years. It was also one of the liveliest.

Partisan tiffs over the cost of the state’s Dirigo health plan and the budget quickly got the legislative juices flowing in January. Things got more interesting in February when departing Maine Catholic Bishop Joseph Gerry warned lawmakers not to legalize marriage for gay couples. It was a preview of turbulence to come.

Gubernatorial crash: The next day Baldacci’s SUV crashed. Early on Feb. 4, the governor and his state trooper driver climbed into the Suburban to head for Portland. The road had black ice and the speed limit had been lowered. The Suburban was going too fast, lost control, rammed into a Toyota, then left the highway rolling over, breaking a gubernatorial rib. The state held its breath, then was relieved to find out the governor was not seriously injured.

A few days later a police report came out concluding that “excessive speed” was the cause, making it obvious the crash could have been avoided. When asked if the driver would face any punishment, Baldacci said no, the trooper should be given a commendation for his actions to assist the governor after the crash. “Accidents happen,” Baldacci told reporters. “The speed seemed prudent to me.”

But letters to the editor and talk in the halls showed that people weren’t buying that. “If that was me (driving), I’d be in Tommy Town,” one woman said, referring to the state prison in Thomaston. In coffee shops and on Main Streets a common sentiment was that traffic laws should apply to those in power.

Civic League slip-up: Attention turned back to budgets and tax relief. Press conference after press conference announced different plans, but Michael Heath of the Maine Christian Civic League was about to steal the show, making plans for a State House rally against same-sex marriages.

On March 2 an estimated 500 people turned out on the State House steps. “I love my wife, and she’s a woman!” one man yelled out. The rally grabbed headlines the next day. Heath was in his glory, but it was short-lived. When Heath began asking for “tips and rumors” to make a list of gay legislators, legislators were furious. Heath apologized and was suspended from his job for a month. Lawmakers went on to pass a law extending inheritance and burial rights to domestic couples, gay or straight.

The focus was again on property tax relief. Baldacci announced his plan; critics called it a big yawn. Topsham’s Carol Palesky, who placed the tax cap referendum on the November ballot, said the governor’s plan was no plan. It gained little support, but Baldacci did raise eyebrows by announcing he was bringing Powerball to Maine, a surprise considering he opposed expanding gambling.

Public pleas fell on political ears: March 15 was an emotional day at a budget hearing at the Augusta Civic Center. The turnout by the poor and disabled, and those who make their living by providing services to them, was huge – more than what has been seen in years. The problem was a $160 million budget shortage caused by less federal Medicaid money combined with more people using programs. Baldacci was proposing to eliminate entire services, such as help for the brain injured. Those who depend on the services were scared and angry. “Raise the taxes. My mother needs those services!” cried Angela Joyce, one of about 1,000 people who testified. Outside, protesters held signs: “We should have a voice too.” The turnout had an impact. In the days following, talk turned to possibly raising taxes.

The next day, when asked about upping cigarette or alcohol taxes to soften cuts, Baldacci said he was “willing to talk about everything.” That prompted March 17 headlines that said Baldacci was “shifting on taxes.” With that the topic of morning talk shows, Baldacci recoiled, calling a press conference to announce tax hikes were not on the table. Ultimately, cuts were made to the budget, but many services to the needy were restored.

Viva the Bangor racino. All the while, the fourth-floor committee room of the Legal and Veterans Affairs was as crowded as a riverboat. Lobbyists representing gambling firms, Indian tribes, horse-track workers and owners, and horsemen were following L.D. 1821, the bill to regulate racinos. It was like a lobbyist jobs bill, with every available lobbyist hired by someone. Things got tense when legislators increased the state’s take. Penn National said it wasn’t being left with enough profits to build a Bangor facility. The tribes were waiting in the wings saying they’d be glad to take on the project, with Foxwoods money. Despite a last-minute, full-fledged ad campaign and press conferences by horsemen, lawmakers passed the bill. Legislators are betting that Penn will build a racino in Bangor despite its warnings, but said they’d be fine with the Indians owning it instead.

The finale: No property tax relief plan. More drama came on adjournment day. As was the case all session, legislators were divided on how to provide property tax relief. House members came close to agreeing with the governor and Republicans to raise alcohol and cigarette taxes, but Senate Democrats said no. They insisted on raising the sales tax 1 cent. In the end, nothing happened.

Saying the lack of action will improve the chances of her tax cap passing, Carol Palesky was pleased, but also called the Legislature’s failure to do something “a disgrace.” Baldacci plans to call lawmakers back in August – interrupting their election campaigns – to get the job done. Hold on tight.


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