Independence Day is one of perhaps just two American holidays, the other being Thanksgiving, over which its seems we can all agree – no small feat in our turbulent times.
The Fourth of July marks not only the beginning of a nation that has grown to astonishing size and influence, but also celebrates the ideas that inspired its founding – that government should be devoted not to controlling the populace, but to preserving individual rights: “Life, Liberty and” – wonderful phrase – “the pursuit of Happiness.”
Given the trials of recent years, some might question whether we haven’t gotten off track a bit, but the Founders – whatever their flaws – realized that their democratic experiment couldn’t achieve permanent success, but must be renewed with each new generation. We may be witnessing the beginning of such a renewal.
Not since 1994, when the Republican Party broke 40 years of Democratic Party dominance over the U.S. House of Representatives, has a congressional election seemed as potentially significant as the one that took place last November.
When I began an 18-month sabbatical from political themes, I had no idea how transformed Maine’s landscape would look when I returned. Since Maine endured its own form of Trumpian disruption earlier, it seems the experiences of this one, small state could provide clues to how the nation will fare in the years ahead.
Janet Mills, the first woman elected Maine’s governor, has been almost everything her predecessor was not. She has been in public service nearly her entire life, and her style is direct, businesslike; she rarely seeks the limelight.
Mills has given few interviews, and appears in public almost entirely in connection with her official duties. She does not tweet, nor does she issue daily broadsides on radio talk shows; with her, it’s actions, not words.
Perhaps the most experienced governor of recent times, Mills is working with a Legislature that seems, by contrast, brand new. There are 57 new House members, a high number, but even more striking is that women now make up a majority of the Democratic caucus, and women hold 14 of the 34 joint committee chairmanships – both unprecedented events.
A lot of new voices and agendas are on display at the Statehouse, but at least for now there’s been far more harmony than discord. Mills’s most controversial stance as governor has been her support for a major new electric transmission line across western Maine. Legislative Democrats disagree, but this is a regulatory matter that long predates her administration, and it seems there’s agreement to disagree.
A host of significant bills were enacted and signed into law. Many of them were measures her predecessor had blocked through vetoes that may have exceeded the total of all previous governors combined, and for which there was already bipartisan support.
These policies range from encouraging solar energy to banning hand-held cellphone use, and emphasize a return to funding mental health services, revenue sharing, and a major expansion of child protective services – the latter another point on which almost everyone could agree.
Several hundred bills were carried over to next year’s session. It just isn’t possible to do everything, but it’s noteworthy that the session began and ended on time, the state budget was enacted without fuss, and no current legislator took to social media to denounce the proceedings.
True, a major bond package didn’t emerge, and will almost certainly be the subject for a special session later this summer. Republicans, now in the minority, are dug in against new revenues from any source, but Mills defused this issue by promising not to raise taxes for at least two years, much as her mentor, Gov. Joe Brennan, did when he was first elected in 1978.
And while the two-year, $7.98 billion general fund budget that could be funded “within existing resources” may seem like a whopping increase, it’s driven mostly by strong state revenues, and still falls far short of where it would have been without the sweeping cuts that began in the late Baldacci administration and accelerated throughout the LePage administration.
Maine, like several other states, chose tax cuts over maintaining services, and now we will have to recalibrate what state government needs to offer, and how to pay for those agreed-upon services. With a national recession looming somewhere in the middle distance, revenues will begin heading down and we’ll back to confronting choices similar to those we had to make during other economic downturns.
But that’s work for another day. For now, it’s time to relax, celebrate – and hope that Maine can, once again, become a model for the nation.
Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, opinion writer and author for 34 years, publishing books about George Mitchell and the Maine Democratic Party. He welcomes comment at email@example.com.