August 31, 2011

Sen. Justin Alfond confides with a fellow State Senator. photo by Ramona du Houx

Two young, dynamic leaders in the Legislature exhibited great commitment and direction to improve Maine last session, as they skillfully worked with their caucuses to hold back extreme, conservative measures. Health and Human Services were spared draconian cuts, and environmental laws stayed intact, as regulatory reform was enhanced by Democratic leadership. Two legislators who worked on these issues and stood up for working people and their families are Rep. Emily Cain and Sen. Justin Alfond.

Here are Sen Alfond’s insights from the session.

In January State Senator Justin Alfond became the assistant democratic leader of the Maine state Senate, after only serving one term previously. The young, energetic, intelligent entrepreneur also started his own business last year in Portland—Bayside Bowl. The restaurant/bowling alley is invigorating the community, and Alfond has brought his businesses experience to Augusta serving on a special regulatory reform committee.

In 2004 Alfond founded the Maine chapter of the League of Young Voters. He then became the Maine chapter’s state director, leading initiatives such as Opportunity Maine, the Maine Energy Efficiency Disclosure Form, and Portland’s inclusionary zoning ordinance. Prior to that, he attended Tulane University and earned a degree in Business Administration. Last year Alfond married, and he is now, age 36, celebrating the birth of a child.

You served with Gov. John Baldacci; how was that legislative session different from this one?

“Gov. Baldacci truly respected the legislative process. He understood that there are three branches of government. He knew his role as the executive was to work with everyone in state government. He, as the executive, had his goals, and he understood they weren’t always what the legislative goals were. He kept a laser focus on getting Maine through a very tough economy by reducing state budgets and making tough decisions that didn’t make everybody happy. He wanted to ensure that the person who followed him would be in a better place than when he was first elected to office. He treated everyone with respect. When he needed to be tough and firm, he was. He governed with strategy and reason.

“When Gov. LePage came in with his harsh, brash style of speaking and governing, it seemed like he felt he could treat the Legislature like a bunch of worker bees. We were expected to do what he wanted, when he wanted, and how he wanted. He was either inexperienced, didn’t understand that every word mattered, or just didn’t care how he interacted with the Legislature or the press. At on point, twelve Republicans in the Senate wrote an open letter saying that Gov. LePage’s public antics were bad for the state. They told him enough is enough.

“Where were the jobs — what was he doing to help the economy? People wanted to know if he was going to keep his promises. He spread out his agenda so thin all at once, not focusing on any issue fully, making it hard to take any action to actually solve pressing problems. It was a 180-degree shift from Gov. Baldacci.”

When the recession took hold, Gov. Baldacci and the Legislature passed a comprehensive bond package to create jobs immediately. Why didn’t Gov. LePage have a bond package?

“Thousands of jobs were left on the table, while we are still climbing out of the recession. It’s shortsighted not to help out people with job creation, improving our education system, and transportation systems. It directly counteracts Gov. LePage’s message about creating jobs, improving the economy, and getting Mainers back to work.

“When Gov. Baldacci left office, we had a Rainy Day Fund with over $100 million. We had transportation, public works, and education bonds that strengthened our economy and put thousands of people to work. The last bond package we put through helped put construction workers who had no jobs because of the recession back to work. This governor has stopped that progress in its tracks.

“The reason we aren’t doing bonds is that lawmakers and the people of Maine were given a false premise that somehow the state’s fiscal environment is in such a crisis that we can’t pay our bills. Nothing can be farther from the truth. The state has been unbelievably responsible meeting our obligations, looking at our liabilities, and paying them back. We have a sterling bond rating. This governor and especially the state treasurer started running around Maine creating a firestorm of ideas that the state has this enormous liability, that we’ve been spending widely, racking up debt. With Gov. Baldacci, the state was fiscally responsible, had surpluses every year excluding the recession, and increased the Rainy Day Fund.

“Gov. LePage and Republicans also prevented thousands of jobs from being created from moral obligation bonds, which help hospitals and other educational entities and affordable housing. Moral obligation bonds don’t require the people’s vote to be issued — they do require the governor to sign them, which he refused to do.”

The last thing anyone should want to do during a recession is to cut jobs. But by cutting state government, public servant’s jobs have been lost. What’s Gov. Le Page thinking?

“To Gov. LePage everything was wrong with state government. It’s so far from the truth. It’s a disservice to state employees and the legislators who have really worked so hard to come up with bipartisan decisions, year after year. There are certain Republicans that want people frustrated, angry, and distrustful at government, so they can shrink government to the smallest size, thinking the private sector can take care of everything.

“I think the private sector does incredible things, but they can’t do everything. Government and nonprofits play important roles. These three legs of the stool make a healthy, strong state, environment, economy, and culture to raise children.”

Gov. LePage has continually bashed union workers and state government workers, but in the same breath he says he’s for workers and creating jobs. Isn’t that a big conflict?

“This governor has the most anti-worker administration that Maine has seen in a very long time. You can’t grow jobs and be anti-worker at the same time. It’s a conflict every single day. His policies and rhetoric have really created an environment that has become a disincentive to business. It lacks a marketing plan to incubate business to grow or attract businesses. No business wants to go to a place that is unstable, unpredictable, and has public policies that are anti-worker. That’s what this governor has done.

“He has devalued state employees from the first day in office. They want to do the best they can to make the state strong. Attacking workers doesn’t bring in new jobs and businesses.

“So much of his agenda is based on a national, Republican-driven agenda, which is funded by the Koch brothers [billionaires who donate to extreme Republican campaigns and causes]. They want to put a cookie-cutter, small-government, larger-private-sector solution on Maine. LePage is looking to multistate and large corporations — disregarding small businesses. We know small businesses are the backbone of Maine’s economy, but they don’t rate in the LePage administration.

“The people of Maine said no to his extreme environmental and business agenda, when we successfully changed his original LD 1 proposal. Now we have real regulatory reform, and our environment remains protected. It’s so sad that this governor is so committed to going after policies that hurt workers, instead of thinking how we can we create an environment that is pro-worker, pro-business.”

Coming out of this recession, the budget was austere and benefited wealthy Mainers. Why did it pass?

“I voted for the budget, because I saw the original, radical, extreme proposal improved considerably by the committees of jurisdiction and the Appropriations Committee. I was involved with the negotiation process on the Appropriations Committee, and we took that proposal and made it a lot better. What concerns me mostly is that it is a blueprint to starve the people of Maine of the services that they need by being forced to create smaller government. The tax cuts are $153 million. These tax cuts are unfunded — benefiting the top ten percent disproportionally. In the next biennium budget, we will have a $400 million hole from these tax cuts that we will have to fill.

“The irony is that the same people that live in rural Maine, that voted for LePage, that count on government services, will now be squeezed going forward. Health and Human Services, transportation, education in future budgets will be squeezed, because of the tax cuts that benefit the wealthiest Mainers. Essential programs that create the infrastructure and confidence for businesses to invest in Maine will have to be trimmed for tax cuts that mean no more than a $100 for the middle class — and $72 of that for every person with health coverage will have to go to a new Republican health-insurance tax.

“Everybody wants good schools, roads, health and human service programs to maintain Maine’s quality of life. This session we didn’t get to invest in transportation, energy efficiency, and education the way we should have with bonds. The budget’s priority was tax cuts. State revenues can’t keep up with those tax cuts.”

What is the role of government to you?

“Government should make investments that individuals and communities can’t make on their own. Those investments should be geared towards improving society, making better infrastructure for roads, and making education be successful. Government should look at research and development to grow businesses. We should look at how we can streamline regulations in order to grow businesses. We need to look at the environment, our quality of life, and brand, and ask, How do we create a healthier balance — to work on Maine’s asset of being different from other states, and grow small and large businesses here?

“People want to live here for the quality of life, to take a bike ride, get in a kayak, go for a walk, discover downtown, and enjoy a healthy environment. These are things that make Maine successful and brand our state. Government could work by being a partner with businesses and workers to improve our brand. To make sure that our profile in the U.S. is something where people continue to have this nostalgia about Maine of, ‘I want to be there — send my kids there for camp, and maybe go there and start a business, or retire there.’

“Unfortunately this governor has moved our state backwards in so many of these pieces. He goes out and boasts about how he has improved the sate, but a trickle-down economy has been proven to fail. It failed the Bush administration with their tax cuts. Trickle-down economics is a race to the bottom. Companies in other states that get huge tax cuts come into communities and set up for a few years. Then when costs become cheaper overseas, they pull out; they have no commitment to the community they are doing business in. To them, it’s about their bottom line, which I understand, but it’s not a race we want to be in. It’s not how to grow jobs in Maine.”