One of the things that we as legislators can always take pride in is the fact that Augusta is not a miniature version of Washington D.C. While we may have our disagreements and often spirited debates about the issues of the day under the dome at the State House, the atmosphere is nothing compared to the partisan divide and gridlock seen in the nation’s capital.
Unlike the federal government, the Maine Constitution requires us to produce a balanced budget. This means that despite all of the bickering and brinksmanship that occurs in every state budget negotiation, cooler heads almost always prevail and we reach a compromise that doesn’t make anyone completely happy, but allows our government to function. During the previous legislative session, there was all kinds of speculation about a state government shutdown, simply because we have a republican governor and democrat-controlled Legislature. There was a federal government shutdown, but here in the State of Maine we were able to work things out.
I was, however, disappointed to see that same spirit of bipartisanship did not rule the day during the past legislative session in the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee where I serve as the ranking republican.
During my first eight years on this committee, we prided ourselves on our ability to work together. This year it seems that we had many issues where nearly all democrats were on one side of an issue and republicans on the other side. I don’t think that it needs to be this way on the Criminal Justice Committee since most of the issues that we deal with are not generally partisan issues. Committee members staked out their positions and it became difficult to find a middle ground. At times the lack of proper decorum allowed comments to be made that were taken personally and interfered with our ability to arrive at good decisions.
I often have philosophical differences with the Chair of the Committee, Senator Stan Gerzofsky, but I have profound respect and admiration for him as a public servant. I know that he, like me, cares deeply about the State of Maine and wants to do what is in the best interests of our citizens.
That is why Stan and I met recently in his home community of Brunswick with the aim of setting a new tone for the upcoming legislative session, one that is predicated on trust and respect for different points of view. We had a nearly two hour, no holds barred meeting. We both spoke frankly about what went wrong during the session and what each of us needs to do to avoid a repeat of the problems that we encountered.
We agreed that it is extremely important for the democratic committee chair and the ranking republican to set a positive example for the rest of the committee. We will accomplish this by meeting frequently to discuss issues before they are presented to the committee. We will also meet frequently with our respective party members on the committee to encourage them to keep all discussions respectful regardless of how strongly they feel about the issues.
At the end of the meeting, we sealed the deal with a handshake, and I left knowing that Senator Gerzofsky and I are both committed to using our experienced leadership to assure a much better committee experience.
Hopefully, what we discussed will carry over into the legislative session that begins in January. I believe the people of Maine deserve no less from those whom they have chosen to represent them in Augusta.
Senator Gary Plummer (R-Cumberland) serves on the Maine Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.