This past legislative session had its fair share of twists and turns and political curveballs. The governor unleashed a record number of vetoes in particular. On our last day we dealt with 48 vetoes. Of that number, 32 had already received two-thirds support in either body.
As I stated on WCSH 6’s Morning Report, taking a red pen on bills that are not effective is one thing, but a complete disregard for the institution is another. Through his reckless leadership style, the governor drove a wedge between legislators as many Republicans who sought previously to compromise to get things accomplished, switched their votes at the first sign of the governor’s verbose and often contradicting disapprovals. One glance over the veto letters the governor sent out and you can could see either a lack of understanding of the policy or simply come to the conclusion that he or his staff just didn’t read the bill prior to the stroke of the veto pen. When you disagree with something, you don’t dig your heels in and not budge. Compromise shouldn’t be a dirty word.
There were glimmers of bipartisan action though, like both the biennial budget last year and this year’s supplemental budget, crafted solely by legislators. I mention that because it is the governor who is ultimately responsible for putting forth a budget and subsequent supplemental budgets. I’m not one for turning away hard work or a challenge, but for any governor, Democrat or Republican alike, to simply not participate in the budget process would be like you not showing up to work or refusing to go to school just because you don’t feel like it. That’s not leadership. That’s not being an effective CEO for our state.
But in the thick of all the tension and campaign-style maneuvering, our legislative youth caucus stood firm in our mission. Comprised of 13 legislators under the age of 30 on both sides of the aisle, we sought to set the example for the rest of the Legislature. While you might not have heard too much about our accomplishments, we often worked behind the scenes in a positive and civil way to pass important legislation.
Education reform seemed to unite us the most, as many of theproposalsweren’taDorRtypesolution,butsomething that just made sense. My community service bill last year became law, enabling educators to grade service learning projects as a high school graduation standard. Fellow youth caucus-er Rep. Matthew Pouliot’s bill to include financial literacy in the high school curriculum became law, which I was proud to help get passed as a co-sponsor. The expansion of the Opportunity Maine program passed but was not funded by the Appropriations Committee, so the proposal will have to be reintroduced in an upcoming session. This would have meant more students could take advantage of the vital program to help pay down college loans, especially for the ones that leave the state to go to school because their program doesn’t exist at a public institution here. We should be incentivizing their return to live, work and play here in the state and to help make college more affordable. These are just a few of the key victories that may have flown under the radar, but represent how both sides can come together when they really want to accomplish something more than talking at each other.
Having a fresh perspective on the challenges our state faces should be a welcome addition to any legislative team. In order to really move Maine forward, young people should have a seat at the table and our youth caucus was one outlet for that. When we are increasingly having a hard time keeping my generation and the next here in Maine, we should be focusing on the long-term vision for the state with immediate action taken to get us there.
There might have been a few critics out there that didn’t believe electing the youngest legislator at 21 was going to pan out. How could someone who barely graduated college really make a difference and play political ball with the seasoned individuals in the State House? I hope that I’ve been able to prove why I’m supposed to be there at this time.
Over the last two years, I’ve tried not to think too much about where I’m at, what my title is, or about anything that would distract me from the work at hand to stay grounded. When someone says Rep. Chenette, I always correct them and say, “Just Justin.” But as I clear out my desk and locker, reminiscent of the final days of high school, after adjourning session at 1 a.m., it’s easy to sit back and reflect on what this place truly represents, what this institution stands for. It’s bigger than me, you and any one individual or party. No doubt there are major issues that need solving. No doubt the system as a whole needs reform, but for all the long nights, intense debate, little pay, hotel living and rising blood pressure, I do enjoy trying to make a difference on behalf of the people back home in our community and the state of Maine as a whole. Not to sit on the sidelines, but to turn that complaint I or others have into a possible solution. So no matter what issue we may differ on, what side of the aisle we may sit on, the collective goal of making our state better and the people we strive to serve remain constants in this political landscape.
This has truly been an incredible journey of service that I hope to continue.
Justin Chenette is the state representative for Saco, owner of Chenette Media LLC, and is founder and president of the Saco Bay Center for Civic Engagement.
Beyond the Headlines
Weekly Column featured in The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier Newspaper by Rep. Justin Chenette of Saco