March 26, 2013
The new Speaker of the House Rep. Mark Eves in his office. Photo by Ramona du Houx

The new speaker of Maine’s House of Representatives is confident, articulate, energetic, and dedicated to improving the lives and livelihoods of the people of Maine. His adopted state has a special place in his heart, as he and his wife Laura have chosen to raise their three young children here, after relocating from Louisville, Kentucky, ten years ago. When not in Augusta, he is helping people resolve conflicts, as a marriage and family therapist, and serves as business development director for Sweetser, a statewide behavioral health-care organization for children, adults, and families.

Mark Eves holds a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Louisville.

He was first elected to the House in 2008. By 2010 Eves became the Democratic lead on the Health and Human Services Committee, where he negotiated to preserve funding for programs besieged by that two-year budget. He has a disarming manner, which helps to make him a strong negotiator, and he clearly is focused on fighting for Maine’s middle class.

Recently Speaker Eves sat down for a conversation about his new job.

How have your work experiences helped you transition to your new role?

It’s been very helpful to have the background that I have as a family therapist with clinical training. The work I’ve done over the last decade has been helpful as there are a lot of parallels with the Legislature. It’s all about building relationships, conflict management, and being able to see far enough into the future to avoid potential pitfalls.

We started really well with our Republican colleagues with constructive dialogues, and that’s been an intentional effort form day one. We hope to continue to work in that way. If we want to get anything done, we need to do it together.

I really enjoy the job. I’m honored to be speaker at a time in our state when many people are looking for hope.

Republicans often argue that welfare programs are too generous and don’t create incentives for recipients to find work. A year ago LePage said, “To all you able-bodied people out there, get off the couch and get yourself a job.” How will your bill help this situation?

We just can’t slash and cut programs and expect things to get better. That’s not the way to grow the middle class. The Ticket to Work legislation focuses on citizens so they get comprehensive pubic assistance when they come through the door. What are the skills and tools these individuals need to gain and maintain long-term employment and a good paying job? We need to know what they need at the front door not the back door, to make sure state government is doing everything it can to help people climb out of poverty and into the middle class. I want to make sure recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families get the tools and training necessary to enter the workforce and secure long-term employment.

Republicans have indicated that they would be supportive of it, because it is a bill that represents the sprit of how to make government work better for the people.

How to pay for it?

We need to look at the governor’s original budget proposal. His budget proposal that is on the table is unacceptable.

Democrats unveiled a plan that addresses job growth, health care, education, economic development, and the skills gap of workers, why?

We felt we needed to address these pressing issues directly; a lot of them we heard about from people during the campaign last year. With the skills gap, a lot of employers are telling us what they need, and we need to help them. The people of Maine told us during the election what their concerns are, and it is our job to make sure we do all we can for them.

Our focus is on Maine’s economy and rebuilding the middle class through partnerships with the business community, investors, local communities, and the public. We want to work with the Republican leadership, legislators, and the governor’s office. We felt the best place to start was where there is common ground.

Throughout Governor LePage’s two years, he has consistently and constantly been in the press sounding off in a negative manner about Maine and her people. Fitch Ratings service agency noted that with LePage there is, “an increasingly contentious decision-making environment.” That led the agency to downgraded Maine’s debt rating by one notch. Is this good for Maine’s economy?

There have been 4,200 jobs lost on his watch; that’s the landscape of the governor’s first two years.

We need people to visit, move here, and bring a business here. Part of our job as elected officials is to promote our state and tell the true stories of Maine. There are many successes and great reasons why we raise our families here. Having a strong public school system is one reason people love our state, and our workforce is second to none — these stories are missing the dialogue right now.

If we really want to encourage businesses to come here, we need to promote the great things that are happening with the business community, too. I think it is incumbent upon leaders to talk about Maine in a very positive light. It’s not the whole solution, but if we are not promoting Maine, we are missing a big part of how we can attract business to the state.

In his budget proposal, the governor wants to end municipal revenue sharing for two years, which will probably make property taxes increase. Why is he making these cuts?

Extremely concerned with the governor’s tax shift of over $400 million onto municipalities, small businesses, working families, and seniors. They will have to pick up the tab for something he didn’t pay for — his tax cuts for two-percent, the wealthy citizens. That’s the real conversation that needs to happen.

We’ve been curious as to how he was planning to pay for his tax cut that was passed last term; now we’ve found out — with his budget proposal. He plans to shift costs onto the middle class and property owners. It’s going to hurt our economy and really crush the middle class.

Isn’t shifting costs to towns just another way of increasing taxes?

The governor did put forward a budget that does raise taxes, and that irony can’t be lost on anybody. The governor campaigned on lowering taxes, and his proposal is a massive tax increase onto small businesses, working families, the poor, seniors, and people that have fixed incomes. They will see their property taxes increase by hundreds of dollars that they can’t absorb.

We have heard loud and clear that the people of Maine want a fair tax system, and that’s what we will be looking at. We want to make sure everyone is paying their fair share.

Republicans say by getting rid of income tax for people who earn $20,000 or less, along with the tax cut for the wealthy, is fair.

The tax breaks that were passed last time disproportionately benefit the wealthy. And property taxes aren’t based on income.

If Health and Human Services cuts go through, where will people get the help they need?

It’s clear when you don’t provide services that are needed, the needs don’t go away. Too many individuals will end up going to hospitals or some other venue for help, if the governor’s cost-shifts happen, and that hikes costs. If these cost-shifting measures are going to cost everybody more than leaving things as they are, then why make them? Jobs could be lost in our health-care sector, which is where one in four jobs are in Maine.

The people of Maine approved bonds, but the governor is holding them back. What are you doing about it?

With 26 percent unemployed in the construction sector, and we’re sitting on bonds that can put people back to work immediately, they should be released. The governor needs to release the bonds that the voters approved — that’s the consensus on both sides of the aisle. We are ready to address this dilemma. There has been damage caused by not releasing them to our economy.

How insurance companies operate in Maine was changed by the majority of Republicans last session. Do you have plans to roll back the law known as LD 90?

We’re not interested in rolling everything back and starting over. There are good things we need to keep in the law, but we know, talking with many small businesses, that the changes in their insurance rates have hurt them. There are also too many elderly, particularly in rural areas, that have witnessed a rate hike. We want to fix it, so when there is a hike in the rate, it is reviewed thoroughly. We will address the transparency issue with the reinsurance poll — at the moment there is no public, transparent process.

The Affordable Care Act is being implemented across the nation, but Gov. LePage is refusing to have Maine become part of the federal law. The federal government would pay 100 percent of the state’s costs for the expansion of Medicaid from 2014 to 2016. In subsequent years, reimbursements would gradually decline to 90 percent of the state’s costs. What should be done?

The ACA is right thing to do morally, practically, and economically. The best reason for Maine to expand Medicaid eligibility to the limits of the federal Affordable Care Act is that it would make over 55,000 uninsured Mainers eligible for the program. Any Medicaid expansion should be part of a comprehensive system-wide reform that includes reducing our debt to hospitals, cost controls in our hospitals, and transparency in medical billing.

We should take advantage of all the opportunities that the ACA has to offer, and there are many. I think we are missing the boat if we sit on the sidelines. Right now the state decided not to have a state-based exchange; we’re going to watch that carefully and see if we should bring it back stateside.

*NOTE: Since the interview LePage has reconsidered his position. Two years ago he told the President to “go to hell.”