Republicans rule the roost: A glimpse at the last time this happened

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A changing of the guard of historic proportions is now occurring in Augusta. For the first time since the Maine government which convened in January l963, Republicans will soon be inaugurating a governor to serve simultaneously with a GOP senate and house. Though various occasions in recent decades have seen the GOP controlling one or more of these institutions, at no time in 48-years has it been given the keys to all of them at once.

Moreover, January 5, 2011, the very day when Paul LePage takes office, is the 90th birthday of the last GOP governor who experienced this privilege, John H. Reed. It’s thus a fitting occasion to take a look at the last time this happened and see what history may have to say about what may lie ahead.

On the surface, there are some intriguing parallels between the Maine political scene today and that which attended the l963 or l0lst legislature. Besides the GOP control, Maine government was conducted against the backdrop of a Democrat in the White House, John F. Kennedy.

Speaker of the Maine House, David Kennedy (no relation to JFK) was a small town pharmacist. So too is the Republican recently elected to the same position, Robert Nutting.

Mayor of Democratic Waterville was a conservative Franco-American Republican. In l963, this was Cyril Joly, Jr. To be sure, Joly would not be elected governor even though he was occasionally mentioned as a possible contender for the Blaine House and would, like Paul LePage, become an influential player.

Another phenomenon with a contemporary ring was welfare. South Portland State Senator Samuel Hinds drew attention to a situation similar to one that still arouses the ire of many. This was news that some 650 Maine mothers receiving Aid to Dependent Children benefits were living with unrelated men. Hinds then sponsored a bill to cut off payments in such cases but was forced to withdraw it when he learned that the measure would jeopardize federal funding. Even in l963, government child support payments were largely federalized even though administered through the state. Maine Republicans of the second decade of the 2lst century may thus encounter similar challenges in attempting to curtail welfare eligibility.

Though both the l963 legislative session and today’s feature GOP management, the margin of 1963’s Republican control was far more overpowering than today’s. Back then, Republicans ruled the Senate with a 29 to 5 majority and the House by a margin of ll0 to 4l. It would be the last session in Maine history in which any party has mustered more than two-thirds control of both houses.

In l963, with one party so firmly in control one might well imagine that it could set the tune to which the entire government would easily march. Such would not be the case.

To being with, the Maine GOP band itself did not by any means march to the beat of the same drummer. At issue was Governor Reed’s proposed $l55 million two-year budget, up $27 million from the l96l-63 biennium. Such figures of course pale by comparison to today’s $5.6 billion and Reed justified the increase in part by the expanding role the state was taking in stabilizing local property taxes by providing public school subsidies to the newly formed SADs.

The 20 percent increase was, however, a bit too much for many of Reed’s fellow Republicans to bear. Enhancing the political cleavage was Reed’s prescription to fund the increase. This was a proposal to hike the sales tax from 3 to 4 percent.

Frustrating Reed’s proposed fiscal measures was the need for the sales tax increase to win a two-thirds vote in each chamber. Such a super majority was made necessary in order for it to avert the specter of a People’s Veto referendum override. Though the Senate gave its two-thirds backing, support in the House was another matter. There, the opposition rallied behind freshmen legislators Ken MacLeod and Alan Pease, both conservative Republicans.

MacLeod, who would later move on to become a three-term president of the State Senate, shifted the focus from school subsidies to some of the more controversial budget items, including the Aid to Dependent Children Fund, which he ridiculed as “encouraging immorality.”

Pease, later the chief judge of Maine’s District Court system, attacked the administration for proposing “a program which reeks with departmentalism, which is full of duplication of services and effort, and frankly one which is very slowly but surely going to swallow up our whole system of government in a mass of bureaucracy.”

Spurred by the support of some Democrats, many of whom represented low income urban districts resistant to higher sales taxes, MacLeod and Pease were temporarily able to muster more than the 50 votes necessary to block the tax increase.

But in the closing days of the session, Reed and GOP legislative leaders were able to win over the Democrats, by agreeing to a constitutional amendment increasing the representation of Maine cities – then as now dominated by Democrats – in the Maine House. The Democrats along with most Republicans forged a coalition that achieved the l0l-vote two thirds majority by which the House enacted Maine’s second sales tax increase in six years. The vote also ended a 25-week session in late June that was the longest then on record.

The lessons of such sessions as the l963 Maine Legislature are by no means lost on today’s Republican leaders. Having emerged from so many years in the minority, they know that even the seemingly outnumbered can possess decisive power and appear aware of what is required to avert protracted stalemate.

Many of the incoming leaders referred to the need to “reach across the aisle,” well knowing that even having a majority does not, any more than in l963, always confer control.

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