Grab the popcorn — this legislative session is going to be a doozy

Maine’s next legislative session is going to be a madhouse.

To begin with, this is Paul LePage’s last legislative session as governor (cue the hallelujah chorus). It’s pretty hard to guess what move LePage is going to make next, but he loves attention, and will go to almost any length to get it. As the end of his second term comes to a close, and the specter of irrelevance looms larger, LePage will go to greater and greater lengths to see his name in headlines. As we’ve seen in the past, that could mean lawsuits, government shutdown, racist tirades, profanity-laced gun violence threats, or virtually any depth of depraved attention-seeking one could imagine.

The Maine State House. Troy Bennett | BDN

LePage’s last dance with the Legislature will be crazy enough, but there’s also a host of controversial issues the Legislature is slated to deal with, including ranked-choice voting and Medicaid expansion.

Ranked-choice voting (RCV) became law in Maine by referendum in 2016, but the Legislature effectively squashed it last session by delaying its implementation until 2021 and requiring a constitutional amendment to address the state Supreme Court’s concerns with its constitutionality. But proponents of RCV are gathering signatures to put a People’s Veto of the repeal law on the ballot. Assuming the proponents turn in their signatures, this will freeze the repeal law and solidify RCV as the law of the land, at least for this spring’s primary elections.

This means the Legislature has a stark choice: either accept RCV as the law for the next primary, or replace RCV completely with a different solution that can garner the two-thirds bipartisan majority necessary to implement it before June.

One option is a traditional runoff system, like Georgia uses, and like Lewiston uses for their mayoral races. A runoff would satisfy the voter intent evinced by the RCV referendum by ensuring that Maine’s elected officials are supported by a clear majority of voters. (RCV is often referred to as “instant runoff voting.”) RCV’s complicated execution, the need for significant financial resources to implement it, and the questionable legality of the law make it unlikely to survive intact, and it may behoove RCV supporters to get behind a compromise that leaves primary elections alone and simply creates a runoff election if a candidate fails to garner majority support in the general election.

Medicaid expansion also passed by referendum, but LePage has vowed to block its implementation unless the Legislature finds funding for Maine’s share within existing resources. Democrats are staking out a firm position that expansion is the law and will be implemented regardless of what LePage says. So a standoff is in the making.

Democrats may feel they have voters on their side, but they better think again if they assume that will carry the day. This is an election year, and welfare reform has been the GOP’s most successful issue. Expect LePage’s Department of Health and Human Services to begin rolling out examples of welfare fraud and abuse throughout the session to erode public support, and expect all kinds of unreasonable posturing by Republican legislators whose audience is not the general electorate that voted for Medicaid expansion, but the anti-welfare base.

Which brings us to the final complicating factor of this session:Three of the five Republican leaders in the Legislature are running against each other in a primary for governor. Senate President Mike Thibodeau, Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette are all vying for the GOP’s nomination to succeed LePage as Maine’s chief executive.

This means, on top of the complicated negotiations already necessary to deal with these issues, there will be a far higher level of internecine warfare within GOP ranks. While Democrats will negotiate as a bloc, Republican leadership will be angling for advantage with the primary electorate. So if one member seeks to hold a conservative line on an issue, Medicaid expansion in particular, you can expect another member to go even further right to outdo him.

Though Democrats may attempt to simply kick the Medicaid expansion issue to the next Legislature, and the next governor, welfare is too good an issue for the GOP base, and you can expect Republicans, especially Fredette, to swarm on the expansion issue as a way to assume the LePage mantle and outflank another GOP primary candidate, former DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew, on her core issue.

Complicated issues, competing Republican interests, and a reckless governor in his final days of power — this is all a recipe for complete disaster at the State House this spring. It will probably not be good for the future of the state, but it sure will be entertaining to political observers. Grab some popcorn and watch the fireworks commence in just a few days.


Lance Dutson

About Lance Dutson

Lance Dutson, a principal of Red Hill Strategies, is a Republican communications consultant. He has served on the campaign teams of U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Kelly Ayotte, as well as the Maine Republican Party.