Pass or fail: Did the Maine Legislature make the grade?

Ethan: Professor Harriman, now that the members of the 125th Legislature have finished all their papers, completed all their tests and participated in oral exams ad nausea, do you have a comprehensive assessment of their performance?

Phil: I do.

Ethan: Excellent! I assume that your comprehensive assessment includes the fact that the Maine economy shrank in the past two years, while all the other states in New England grew.

Phil: No, Ethan. Actually it doesn’t.

Ethan: What? Then it must include the fact that Maine lost 1,300 jobs since Republicans took control?

Phil: Nope.

Ethan: How about the fact that Moody’s credit rating agency downgraded Maine’s financial outlook due to “tax changes leading to revenue reductions that leave [Maine] vulnerable”?

Phil: No, sir, it doesn’t. At some point, Ethan, are you actually going to focus on the Legislature?

Ethan: Phil, I am focusing on the Legislature. Republicans came to power saying three things: They would get the economy back on track; they would put people back to work; and they would be fiscally responsible with taxpayer money. An honest professor would have a tough time giving them a good grade after two years of working on these issues without any real progress. I give them a D in regard to moving Maine forward. Is there something I’ve missed?

Phil: Yes, a little patience. As we both know from our time as senators, it takes months after the Legislature adjourns for the regulatory departments to write the rules and for the impact of all the new policies to take effect.

Ethan: I wish you showed the same patience with President Barack Obama. Two months in and you were complaining he hadn’t yet saved the world. So, what’s your grade for the Legislature?

Phil: A solid B. Here are a few reasons why. They added $63 million more for local
education and $104 million more for roads — all without borrowing. They also tackled regulatory red tape, tax relief and paying long overdue bills to Maine hospitals. They eliminated the automatic gas tax increase, created more competition in health care and reduced our public pension debt by $1.7 billion. That’s billion with a B!

Ethan: I love that two of your examples are about spending more money on education and infrastructure. (I always knew you were liberal at heart!) But the problem is that your Republicans also eliminated health care for thousands of Maine families, reduced benefits for the severely injured, took away vacation pay for laid off workers and passed legislation that will raise health care rates for small business owners in rural areas. At the same time, the income tax relief you ballyhoo was entirely unpaid for and transfers $300 million to our wealthiest residents. All the while, Maine fell to dead last in personal income growth!

Phil: Your dour outlook omits the fact that 7,000 people lost their jobs as a result of the closing of the Brunswick Naval Air Station. Nor does it take into account the fact that we are the oldest population in America and that for years our state has basically encouraged the better off to seek refuge in more tax-friendly states. Maine has finally faced the facts that we need a growing small business environment and that we must perform basic math when it comes to state budgeting.

Ethan: Sorry, Phil, but that sounds like a whole lot of excuses and rhetoric. How can you justify giving them a B when Maine is one of only five states at risk of slipping back into a recession? C’mon Phil, don’t outcomes mean anything to you?

Phil: You know as well as I do that our bond rating outlook was mixed. One said negative, the other neutral. But more importantly, you can’t have it both ways. First you jump all over me for not giving Obama enough time, and then you are jumping all over the Republicans for not reversing 40 years of Democratic rule in 18 months. Ethan, you sound like a two-handed economist.

Ethan: It’s the Republicans who have the two hands. On the one hand, they say they are fiscally responsible, but on the other they pass tax cuts that create deficits. On the one hand they say they want to help struggling families, but on the other they take away vacation pay from laid-off workers. On the one hand they vote to create hundreds of research and development jobs, but on the other they reverse their vote and take those jobs away. I actually wish more of your compatriots only had one hand, as Harry Truman used to say.

Phil: Harry was a good conservative Democrat. Speaking of that, what about your Democrats? You got a grade for them?

Ethan: When the Senate Democrats stood up and finally stopped one of LePage’s budgets, I gave them an A+. For five days they were clear in their values, focused on the right people and had fire in their bellies. We could really use more of that “give ‘em hell, Harry” attitude in our ranks these days.

Phil: While you reminisce over those five days of glory (which ended in a whimper when Democratic leadership cut a lame deal), I’m looking at the 500 days that the Legislature has been led by Republicans. The environmental regulatory process has been reduced significantly — in one department by 77 percent! There has been pension reform, welfare reform, and financial gimmicks have been eliminated. Departments have begun the cultural shift to finding ways to make things work for the private sector. Maine is on the move again.

Ethan: Well, this fall will tell us whether the electorate thinks the move is in the right direction (the extreme right), or whether we should go back to common sense that helps struggling people right now.

Ethan Strimling and Phil Harriman are former state senators. Their column appears online every Friday and in print on Saturdays. They are also political commentators on your local NBC affiliate and WGAN Radio.