STANDISH — State lawmakers from across the Lakes Region converged at Saint Joseph’s College last Saturday for a forum that allowed residents, business owners and town officials to ask questions directly of the people who represent them in Augusta.
The event, organized by the Sebago Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, focused mainly on issues affecting area businesses, such as the referenda passed by Maine voters last November, tax policy and building codes.
The eight lawmakers in attendance are part of the Lakes Region Delegation, a bipartisan coalition formed recently to work together in Augusta on behalf of the region.
“Here’s the best part: we all like each other and get along,” said Rep. Jessica Fay, D-Raymond, after the forum. Though new to the Legislature, Fay is credited with initially bringing the delegation together.
“We have so much in common, and some of the same challenges. Having been elected, I realized that there is power in working together to address those challenges,” Fay said.
“When you look at the Legislature, there are people – maybe from Washington County or Aroostook County – who are very good at advocating for their region. No matter what party they are in, they always stick together and they always make sure that they get things done for their region,” said Rep. Patrick Corey, R-Windham. “So, I think it only makes sense that we work together to try to make things happen for the Lakes Region.”
The panel discussion at the college’s Baggot Street Cafe was heavy on talk about the ballot initiatives passed by Maine voters last November – particularly Questions 2 and 4 dealing with an education tax on households making more than $200,000 and the minimum wage increase – and how they might affect Maine businesses and economic growth.
The lawmakers took turns addressing questions and comments from the audience of about 40 constituents. They spent a good deal of time discussing the referendum process in general, and how the Legislature might try to address some of the concerns surrounding the measures passed by voters.
Corey suggested that the citizen initiative process has become more of a “special interest initiative process,” where referenda are driven largely by money spent by special interest groups. He argued that the Legislature has the resources and public hearing process to be more deliberative on issues.
Rep. Dale Denno, D-Cumberland, who represents part of Gray, expressed frustration that middle ground often is lost in the referendum process because there are only two choices: yes or no.
“When we have something come before a committee, we have give and take,” Denno said. “That’s the process that, I think, that the framers of our Constitution intended. It’s a give and take, it’s a compromise, it’s try to bring new ideas to the table. The referendum process does not allow for that.”
However, Denno also acknowledged that referenda can sometimes come about because of inaction on the part of the Legislature.
“Part of the responsibility, frankly, is with the Legislature,” Denno said. “The reason why things are going to referendum is because we in the Legislature are not bringing things to closure and dealing with some of the things that are concerning Maine citizens.”
Though some in the room seemed eager for the Legislature to make adjustments to the citizen initiatives passed in November, Windham business owner Allan Phinney urged caution despite his personal concerns about the referendum process and opposition to Questions 2 and 4.
“I agree that the referendum process needs to be changed,” said Phinney. “However, any tweaking that we do to this stuff needs to be sensitive to the will of the voters.”
The Lakes Region Delegation is made up of 10 legislators from the area: Rep. Susan Austin, R-Gray; Rep. Mark Bryant, D-Windham; Rep. Richard Cebra, R-Naples; Corey and Denno; Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham; Rep. Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester; Fay; Rep. Phyllis Ginzler, R-Bridgton; and Rep. Lester Ordway, R-Standish.
Aimee Senatore from the Sebago Lakes Region Chamber led the way in organizing Saturday’s forum, the first event of its kind for the newly formed delegation.
“I was extremely pleased with the turnout and the diversity of businesses represented. I was encouraged by how civil and respectful the discussion was and am grateful we were able to cover several key issues impacting our local businesses,” said Senatore. “We will definitely be scheduling another forum of this type in the coming months.”
Matt Junker can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @MattJunker.
Members of the Lakes Region delegation answer questions during the legislative forum at St. Joseph’s College in Standish.