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New Maine lawmakers sworn in amid promises to change course

December 5, 2018
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Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, arrives in the House Chamber after being re-elected Speaker of the House, Wednesday, Dec., 5, 2018, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — The state’s chief justice swore in lawmakers Wednesday as Democrats laid out plans to counter Trump administration policies and change course from outgoing firebrand Gov. Paul LePage.

Democrats flipped the Senate and gained seats in the House in a race marked by calls to improve health care access, protect the environment against President Donald Trump’s policies and address the opioid crisis.

But Chief Justice Leigh Saufley cautioned the newly Democrat-controlled Legislature not to overreach.

“You can’t fix everything. If you try, you may find you haven’t fixed much,” Saufley said.

The governor typically administers oaths of office, but LePage had back surgery scheduled Wednesday.

Maine’s legislative library said it was the first time since 1880 that a sitting governor hasn’t sworn in lawmakers. That year, a Supreme Judicial Court clerk did the honors after a contested race for governor resulted in a dayslong armed standoff at Maine’s Statehouse.

Lawmakers will be working with Maine’s first female governor, current Attorney General Janet Mills, who has said her top priorities will be promoting renewable energy and fulfilling voters’ demands to expand Medicaid and roll out marijuana sales.

Though LePage was absent, leaders spoke of a need to restore civility following discord between lawmakers and the governor, a Republican who has long decried the influence of highly paid lobbyists and “rich liberals in southern Maine.” Such tensions fueled a three-day government shutdown last year.

“We had a heck of a hard time,” Gideon said.

Sen. Troy Jackson, the chamber’s president, told lawmakers to avoid the pressure to “revert to immense hostility and division” when contentious bills came up.

Democrats now have 21 seats in the state Senate and 89 in the House, up from 17 and 74, respectively. Republicans are down to 14 seats in the Senate and 57 seats in the House, down from 18 and 70.

Democratic Secretary of State Matt Dunlap will serve another term, and lawmakers voted by secret ballot Wednesday to elect attorney Henry Beck, also a Democrat, as the state’s new treasurer. He’ll replace incumbent Terry Hayes, an independent who unsuccessfully ran for governor this year.

Democrats got a boost in the election from out-of-state liberal groups hoping to influence upcoming political redistricting in 2021.

Lawmakers will be greeted by hundreds of thousands of dollars in higher-than-expected tax revenues, and Republicans fear Democrats will usher in an era of big spending.

Maine GOP Chair Demi Kouzounas said that after years of fiscal conservatism under LePage, she’s concerned Democrats will spend more and ultimately resort to raising taxes, despite the extra revenue, to pay for campaign promises.

“My biggest concern is probably going to be out-of-control spending,” she said. “You can’t do everything for everybody. We have a small state.”

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