Democratic lawmakers, from left, Reps. James Handy, Margaret Craven, Heidi Brooks and Kristen Cloutier and Sen. Nate Libby share a laugh during the Great Falls Forum at the Lewiston Public Library on Friday. Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover

LEWISTON — The city’s five Democratic legislators told a friendly crowd at Friday’s Great Falls Forum about the range of issues they’re dealing with in Augusta, including everything from hearing aids to professional licensing.

Taken together, their discussion reflected the one big change from recent years: They barely mentioned the governor.

With Democrat Janet Mills at the helm, they said, they no longer have to worry about a barrage of vetoes — one of the hallmarks of Republican Paul LePage’s eight-year tenure in the Blaine House. Instead, they can focus on “pocketbook issues” that can help ordinary people lead productive lives, Sen. Nate Libby said.

Speaking to about 30 people at the Lewiston Public Library, the lawmakers talked about issues they’re pushing and some of the more controversial measures facing the state. They didn’t always agree with each other.

Libby, the Senate’s majority leader, said much of the effort during the first few months of Democratic control of the Legislature and the governor’s office has been focused on rebuilding parts of the government described as ravaged by LePage, especially the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Labor.

Rep. Margaret Craven said, for example, the new administration has been able to fill 40 of 111 vacant but funded public health positions so far.

Finding qualified people, though, is tough — and not just for the state government.

Libby said that dealing with a shortage of trained workers for thousands of private- and public-sector jobs in Maine is the state’s “biggest pending crisis.”

It’s also a problem that is likely to grow more severe as more and more baby boomers retire at a time when unemployment is at record lows.

Solving the crisis, several legislators said, is going to take more training programs and streamlining a professional licensing system that is holding back talented, trained immigrants from other states and countries.

Rep. James Handy said it is necessary “to remove some of those barriers” that block access to too many jobs. But, he said, it has to be done in a way that preserves public safety.

Rep. Kristen Cloutier, who also serves as mayor of Lewiston, said she’s pushing for a state program that would do more to lend a hand to immigrants trying to get into the workforce.

Handy and Libby mentioned the need to help college graduates deal with student loans that may hold them back. Handy said he could see providing assistance to students who are willing to take on critically needed jobs serving people with mental health issues.

Libby said there’s a compelling case for providing relief for some student loans for graduates willing to stay in Maine, or to move to the state. He said they’d have to remain at least five years in return for a $10,000 benefit.

Rep. Heidi Brooks said health care issues are “really close to my heart” and the thing she has focused on in the State House.

Brooks advocates universal health care coverage but also intermediate steps that would provide more coverage for more people.

For instance, she said she wants medical insurance plans to include dental coverage in Maine.

She also supports Craven’s bid to have the state do more to care for families dealing with Alzheimer’s disease.

Craven said she wants to see more funding for home visits to parents with new babies, something that might help combat “the enormous amount of child abuse and deaths” in recent years. She said the program has been successful in reducing shaken-baby incidents elsewhere and teaching parents the dangers of smothering an infant left in bed with adults, especially those using opiates.

Handy is lobbying lawmakers to approve a hearing aid bill he convinced them to pass last session only to see the measure vetoed by LePage.

His bill calls for insurers to cover up to $3,000 for two hearing aids, a change he said would fill “a social and cultural need” for many Mainers, including allowing some to take jobs.

Libby said the lack of hearing aids has proven “a big impediment to being in the workplace” for too many people.

The lawmakers took different stances on a proposal to impose a seasonal gas tax that would increase the cost of fuel during the summer in a bid to have tourists pay more to travel Maine’s roads.

Libby and Handy said they oppose the idea, while Cloutier and Brooks said they are leaning that way. Craven said she hadn’t made up her mind given the necessity of funding infrastructure repairs.

“We want stuff,” she said, “but we don’t want to pay for it.”

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