A conversation with Maine's House Majority Leader, Hannah Pingree
Article and photos by Ramona du Houx
Hannah Pingree currently in finishing her third term in the state Legislature and her first as House majority leader. She is the third woman in Maine history to serve as House majority leader and the youngest woman ever to hold the position. She is the second youngest person to hold the position in state history.
What’s it like being majority leader?
"In many ways it’s a fun and exciting job; important job because you can help a lot of legislators get their policy agenda to move forward. You also look at things with a more global perspective, like how do we get a budget that protects people, how do we move forward on tax reform, how do we deal with healthcare issues," said Pingree. "There are times it’s daunting. There are 90 Democrats in the House; they are a diverse group, so we are always trying to work with everybody, keeping them happy and ensuring their voices are heard. There are plenty of times in our caucuses when people disagree with each other. We try and work out those differences there before they get to the floor of the House. It’s an incredibly rewarding job, which is challenging at times.
Every morning you meet with the minority leader, Josh Tardy, why?
"It makes this institution work better when the two parties can find areas of common ground. Clearly there are plenty of places where we diverge and we become more partisan, but in places where we can find bipartisan agreement it makes sense. Josh is easy to get along with; he’s trying to find ways to bring our two sides together. It’s important to have a good working relationship with the minority leader. For me having a good process is important. Making sure we are respectful of the minority party, whether it’s in committees, in the budget appropriations process, or on bonds.
"In the mornings if Josh requests another day to run something I’ve proposed to his colleagues, it’s only respectful to do so. It could easily be the other way around. So having an institution that respects all the members, because we are all here to represent our constituents, is the best way of conducting business. There are times things get ugly, those times the press reports on the most. We do have difficult times because we do have core differences, but so much of the Legislature’s work is bipartisan, if not unanimous, coming out of committees. Due to the press, people only hear about the controversy. Keeping things positive with a bipartisan working environment is important."
PHOTO: Hannah Pingree stands behind Gov. John Baldacci as he signsr her historic flame retardant bill
Even though the economic downturn left the state with a $190 million shortfall, the budget was balanced with the governor’s consolidation efforts and other cuts, while maintaining core services. It took three months, but brought everyone to the table. What was the process like?
"The budget was incredible. A lot of people on both sides didn’t think we could find as much common ground as we did. The Health and Services Committee, in a bipartisan way, looked at all the issues and made recommendations that the Appropriations Committee took. They decided they could only restore half the money recommended. Everyone during that process worked well together.
"The Democratic solution in the end didn’t raid the Rainy Day fund or increase taxes. When you look at the budget in the end, it’s hard to find disagreements, though some did. It’s an election year."
You’ve always been a great promoter of broadband. What do you think of its progress?
"I’ve been here six years. Starting issues early in your career allows you to keep progressing them and you get to see the results. When I started working on broadband issues I had people e-mailing me from all over Maine saying, ‘I’m having problems running my business because I can’t get access to the internet.’ I’ve taken it through several bills and now through the governor’s ConnectME Authority, which I was able to sponsor. That was great. We now have rural areas that have been given grants to start high-speed internet business. There are too many areas that still lack access, so more work need to be done. But it’s actually great to see how you can put through policy and see positive changes taking place around that issue as they happen."
Pingree continued her efforts to eliminate the presence of poisonous chemicals from Maine homes with the new law to establish a comprehensive toxic identification and replacement program. Her previous law eliminated all categories of PBDE flame-retardants from household products in the state.
"A group approached me five years ago and asked me to sponsor a flame-retardant bill because of my work as chair on Health and Human Services The bromine industry spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to defeat that bill which we presented, after years of study showed inarguable proof that the chemical was dangerous.
"I’ve become associated with healthcare issues because I’m very passionate about them, and I believe it’s the right thing to do. It’s an issue that’s very important to the people of Maine."
Hannah Pingree stands with firefighters after her historic flame retardant bill was signed into law by the governor.
The minority leader has supported Dirigo Health reform since its inception. She just sponsored and helped pass the bill that makes DirigoChoice’s funding mechanism sustainable. What’s the process been like?
"Dirigo Health reform passed with over a hundred votes in the House in 2003; it was bipartisan at the beginning. It turned partisan. If you ask the average member of the public, Do you think we should be doing more to cover the uninsured and lower the cost of health care? Everyone would say yes.
"And that has been the goal of Dirigo — to cover the uninsured, provide coverage for small businesses, with another insurance option that is affordable. To provide insurance that is based on people’s ability to pay. These all are ideas that resonate with the pubic. Presidential candidates are talking about universal health coverage and hopefully one of them will implement it. Maine has been leading the charge with Dirigo in a very good direction. It’s frustrating with an issue like this which is so obvious when they become so political.
"I got an e-mail from a woman in South Thompson. She’s a thirty-year-old woman who bought Dirigo because her family thought she needed health insurance. A couple of months later she came down with cancer. She thanks God she has Dirigo. We are providing an important service to many people who previously could not afford insurance. Our challenge has been figuring out how to sustainably fund it, which we have done. In the balance there were 18,000 people relying on this health care; we couldn’t let them down.
"Maine’s rate of uninsured is at nine percent, when the national average is at fifteen percent. So we continue to find ways to help the uninsured become insured though Dirigo, while the rest of the country has been moving in the other direction. This has been a model other states have looked to."
PHOTO RIGHT: Hannah Pingree speaks out, in the Hall of Flags, about all the efforts Maine is doing to protect the environment
What’s it going to be like for you when we get a federal government that can be more of a partner with Maine?
"I’ve only been here under the Bush administration, which has only gotten worse over the years. Rule changes will have a big impact on Medicaid funding, Head Start, and special education programs. It’s incredibly damaging to our safety net. As long as we have a Republican president I feel it’s an uphill battle. We are all holding our breath for a new federal administration. We are completely at odds with fundamental policies of how you take care of people. The Bush administration, at the very end, has really ramped up its efforts to roll back social progress. I can’t wait to be a legislator under a new administration.
"With the economy as it is, things won’t change overnight, but at least we’d have an administration that shares Maine values.
"I don’t think the average person in Maine understands how the federal government has contributed to our budget problems. We’ve lost drug enforcement officers, and federal prosecutors, all these things are run by the federal government. The Legislature has put money towards our roads and bridges, but this usually is an area where states can count on the federal government being a partner. But they have cut back on funding for our infrastructure.
"People have come up to me and said, ‘I’ll give my $600 stimulus to fix the roads or pay for Medicaid. At the beginning of a recession to have the federal government say we are pulling back funds with rule changes is criminal. These cuts make no sense."
What do you think about the 46,000 people that came out for Democratic caucuses?
"We saw a record turnout at our caucuses in Maine, and we are seeing that across the country. It’s great news. People are feeling incredibly frustrated with the federal administration, which is motivating them to make a change. The caucus turnout is good news for electing a new federal administration, it’s good news for Democrats running, across the board. In stark contrast, the Republicans left ten seats open in the primaries. That shows the lack of enthusiasm Republicans have right now.
"Maine should be proud on the number of issues that the state has taken a lead on. I feel positive about the state’s future. The next year may be hard for people, as we work through the recession, but I’m confident the state is moving forward in the right direction, so I’m hopeful for the future."