Members of LePage Legislature face voters

As state legislative races ramp up, it’s time to look at the Gov. Paul LePage Legislature.

The hard votes are the most instructive because they suggest how legislators react when the political climate is most strained and what they might do in the future.

I’ve asked people who spend their professional lives in Augusta — independents, Democrats and Republicans — what they saw after January 2011. They told me there were two pieces of legislation the Republican party apparatus pressed hardest to pass.

One was the law that did away with election day registration, an effort like others passed in states that elected Republicans in 2010. Senator Nichi Farnham chaired the committee that removed election day registration. Secretary of State Charlie Summers and GOP Chair Charlie Webster looked for fraud but found none.

While the 2011 people’s veto secured same-day voter registration, if Republicans hold the legislature, they may seek other laws making voting harder.

The other priority was a health insurance bill, LD 1333, that taxes individuals with insurance $48 a year and makes it easier for insurance companies to raise rates.

Getting it passed required upending normal processes. The Legislature’s Insurance Committee was handed a detailed 50-page amendment at the last minute that substituted for the bill under consideration.

This left no time for the Maine Bureau of Insurance, which typically does careful analysis, to determine the law’s impact.

(What a contrast to Obamacare, which was put online and assessed by the Congressional Budget Office, health policy experts and others all over the country.)

One Maine Democrat said, “I’ve never seen anything ramrodded through committee without facts, discussion and public input.” Republican Patrick Flood, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, temporarily resigned his chairmanship.

You can also follow the money, which flooded in from insurance companies to Republican legislators. Some say insurance companies wrote the bill or point to the involvement of an insurance lobbyist who now works for the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a group closely linked to LePage.

But community-based support was lacking, as the Maine Chamber of Commerce took no position and the Maine Medical Association opposed the law.

Advocates said it would save money. But in its first year, costs increased rapidly. Across the state, big cost differences by region developed. An analysis by Consumers for Affordable Health Care found that premiums increased by 40 percent or more for 24 percent of small businesses in Aroostook, Piscataquis and Penobscot counties, but only 4 percent in southern Maine had rate increases that high.

The promises made by those who pushed through the law have not panned out.

Yet voting for LD 1333 continues to be a litmus test for LePage’s organization. Just take a look at the rankings of legislators by People Before Politics, based on office-holders’ support of the items the group sees as most critical. A vote for the insurance law helps a legislator to be designated a “champion.”

And it turns out that bipartisanship is not dead in evaluating members of the LePage legislature. Five legislators designated by Democrats as LePage “rubber stamps” because of their votes on the governor’s priorities — Senators Nichi Farnham, Thomas Martin, Garrett Mason, Chris Rector and Lois Snowe-Mello — are also designated as champions by People Before Politics, in part because they voted for the health insurance bill.

In these last weeks before Election Day, voters should look at how the LePage Legislature acted, particularly in pressure-filled, partisan cases, for other contentious issues will arise.

While examining incumbents’ records is important, there will be plenty of distractions, fueled by substantial amounts of money in some districts.

With this money has come potentially serious violations of campaign finance law. Since Farnham is a Clean Election candidate but sits on the board of the group spending $73,000 on her behalf, she faces ethics complaints. GOP Chair Charlie Webster, whose party just criticized a candidate’s video game hobby, said “it’s not dignified” to investigate Farnham. And in 2010, campaign violations in this and other legislative races led to $41,000 in fines.

Who will determine what happens with the next budget, now squeezed because of tax cuts and job growth below the national average? As Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett notes, the structural gap likely means less money for schools, health care and towns. These state legislative races matter.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.