North Berwick Democrat Mark Eves is returning to the rostrum as House Speaker when the Legislature swears in new members in early December, but his position in the balance of power in the State House is different in the wake of the shakeup voters demanded at the ballot box earlier this month.
Last year, Eves was an equal partner in leadership with Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland. But with Democrats losing the senate majority this year and President-elect Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, poised to take the gavel, Eves now stands alone as the highest-ranking Democrat in the state.
That means Democrats will no longer be able to force bills through the Legislature and on to the desk of Republican Gov. Paul LePage. GOP lawmakers often complained last year that Eves and Alfond were pushing bills they knew the governor and Republicans opposed — such as Medicaid expansion, five times — to earn political points with voters.
That dynamic regularly led to public and intense fights between LePage and his Democratic counterparts in the Legislature. In a recent interview, Eves said that he has no interest in seeing a resumption of that pattern. He said things were more confrontational last year than he would have liked.
“We can all acknowledge that we played a part in that, big or small,” Eves said last week. “People want that to stop. They want us to work together and get something done that matters to their lives.”
Eves said that his personality was better suited to cooperation than confrontation, and it showed last year. The fiercest attacks against LePage and Republicans were rarely lobbed by Eves — that task was often left to Democratic lawmakers further down the totem pole, or to Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant (who resigned after this year’s election).
“None of us are going to do right by Maine if we’re just fighting with each other,” Eves said. “I’m not delusional about how difficult this may be, but I’m committed to blocking out distractions.”
Eves said he was hopeful that both parties and the governor could come together on the sort of economic development that voters approved in a slate of bonds that all passed at the ballot box, including investments in the marine economy, small business capital funding, biotech and clean water initiatives.
The Speaker is also pushing a package of reforms aimed at making Maine a better state for its sizable — and growing — elderly population. Eves spent much of last year crafting the proposals with a bipartisan group of lawmakers and outside stakeholders.
The end result is a plan centered on “aging in place” — including a $65 million bond to build 1,000 energy-efficient apartments for elderly Mainers in 40 sites in all 16 counties; an increase to the state’s Property Tax Fairness Credit for older homeowners; and an increased Medicaid reimbursement rate for home health care workers.
One item that’s unlikely to see nearly as much time in the limelight this session is Medicaid expansion — Eves’ top priority in the previous session, which was passed and vetoed five times. He said Democrats still stand firm in their conviction that the state-funded health insurance plan for low-income Mainers should be expanded, but that the caucus must be realistic.
“We need to recognize that it didn’t pass the Legislature last time, and it’s unlikely to this time,” he said. “It’s an area where we’re not going to agree, but we need to stand on our values. However, I have no interest spending two years replaying that record and ending up in the same spot.”
The 127th Maine Legislature will convene for swearing-in and to elect presiding officers on Dec. 3. The Legislature’s first day of new business is Wednesday, Jan. 8.