Maine State Senator Peter Mills

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Loss started out low, then started to grow

By John W. Porter
Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram November 12, 2006

Quietly, Republicans were projecting confidence they would take the Maine House of Representatives this year. In the preceding Legislature, Democratic control hung on a single vote at times, depending on some party switching, so all the GOP needed to do was pick up a couple of seats.

And why shouldn't they? The governor's popularity had ebbed when his agenda stalled in the second half of his term. The state's economic performance was lackluster. Complaints about taxes seemed to be everywhere.

All I could think of Wednesday morning when it became clear that Democrats would have around a 20-seat House majority in the next Legislature (there are a handful of recounts pending) was the Grinch. Remember that scene from "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" (the Chuck Jones cartoon classic, not that piece of overhyped crud that Jim Carrey was in)? I'm thinking of the scene where the Grinch, after stealing all the material goods associated with Christmas, still hears the villagers singing in the valley below. And there he was, puzzling and puzzling.

"They did it without TABOR. They did it without tax cuts. That did it with Dirigo and budget gimmicks and a tax on cigarette butts!"

Comments posted by Republicans on our Web site and elsewhere have ranged from very unkind words about the intelligence of Maine voters to laments about the power of public employee unions and other big government interest groups.

I keep waiting to see the light bulb go off in a manner similar to the Grinch's growing heart and his understanding of the true meaning of Christmas. "Maybe an agenda isn't just about tax cuts galore. Maybe, just maybe, it's about a whole lot more."

Yes, Republicans, the true meaning of politics in Maine extends way beyond tax cuts. That's not to say that lowering the tax burden doesn't hold appeal for Maine people. Given their rejection of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights referendum and their support of a party that raised a wide range of fees and cigarette taxes over four years, though, it seems obvious that a majority of people in this state don't place lower taxes at the top of their agenda.

The most liberal just plain like the idea of big government trying to address a range of problems. Others inherently understand that the state's economic fortunes hinge on many more factors than just our tax burden; they don't buy into the line that cutting taxes will by itself produce prosperity. But I think more than anything, Mainers don't just want their taxes lowered, they want value from the public sector.

Which means they want lower taxes and they want good schools, benefits for the poor and investments in roads, bridges and technology.

Now, in pointing this out, I'm not suggesting that, in order to win, Maine Republicans have to abandon their core values and try to appeal to the big-government crowd. There are plenty of Mainers who are inherently thrifty, and they would welcome smaller government and less regulation. But the pitch has to go beyond "I'll slash taxes!" What they hear when the GOP promises that and little else is that the public services they care about are at risk.

Also, Republicans lose credibility when they tout tax cuts as a stand-alone economic development policy. Few Mainers have taken a 400-level economics course, but most have a sense - and it's an accurate one - that improving our economy is more complex than just lowering our taxes.

Those who have taken Economics 401 know that economic development is a stool with three legs: work force development, technology investments and capital and other costs to business. Taxes are just a part of the capital piece, which also includes real estate prices, construction costs, utility charges and the cost of health insurance, among others.

State Sen. Peter Mills, who lost to Chandler Woodcock in the Republican gubernatorial primary, understood all this. He crafted a far-reaching plan and talked about a whole lot more than tax cuts when on the stump. It's an easy Monday-morning call to say that Mills would likely have beaten Gov. Baldacci, but it's also an accurate one.

To sell itself, the GOP has to take the counterintuitive step of getting specific about what it would cut to lower Maine taxes. I know that political consultants counsel candidates to talk about the benefits of a frugal fiscal policy and be vague on the pain, but that assumes that voters are either stupid or trusting. They're neither.

For many voters, if they are going to take the lower taxes plunge, they want to know exactly what it will cost them in government services. Yes, there's a risk that some will be turned off when the cuts are made real, but they're not now buying into vague talk about "taking a look at the Medicaid budget" and "wringing out inefficiencies."

Beyond fiscal policy, the GOP has to start talking about its spending priorities and ideas for reform. What's the plan for making our schools better? How do we keep college here affordable so that our kids might stay closer to home? What about those roads and bridges - where do we get the money for that?

It's not that Woodcock and other Republicans ignored these questions on the stump, but they did make cutting taxes the core message of their campaigns, leaving many voters with little idea of what that would mean to them.

No doubt, the national mood played a role in giving Democrats here a boost last Tuesday. But that's more of an explanation than an excuse. At the state level, the Democrats turned in a so-so performance over the past couple years. There was an opportunity there.

It would have helped, too, if the GOP didn't indulge in doomsday rhetoric. The Democrats have been in control for four years. Their performance hasn't been stellar, but to suggest that the Maine economy is on the brink of collapse, or that the state has no hope of competing in the future, doesn't ring true. Don't tell me how bad things are going to be with the other guys in charge. Tell me how much better they'll be under your leadership.

Talk about how Maine is poised to take off in the information age, but it has to make some course adjustments to realize its full potential. Besides accuracy, that message also has an upbeat appeal. Remember, the slogan wasn't "Food tastes bad with Pepsi." It was, "Things go better with Coke."

So what will happen to Republicans as they look down on the valley, puzzling and puzzling? "Well, in Punditville they say, their message has to grow three sizes this day."