Many find speech hits proper notes
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BY ETHAN WILENSKY-LANFORD
Staff Writer
Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel 01/22/2010

BY ETHAN WILENSKY-LANFORD

Staff Writer

Most lawmakers and observers accepted Gov. John Baldacci's final State of the State speech as toned appropriately for the uncertainty of the times.

"I thought he hit the right tone," Rep. Patricia Sutherland, D-Chapman, said. "He was realistic, with some hope. I think Maine people are 'cut to the chase' people, and would accept nothing less from the governor."

Baldacci highlighted achievements and plans for the future, particularly in the areas of renewable energy, efficiency, education and forest conservation.

"I think that it was appropriately balanced," said House Minority Leader Josh Tardy, R-Newport.

But perhaps the most substantial new idea the governor raised -- for merit-based pay -- got lesser support from some.

In his speech, Baldacci cited "no less of an authority than Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers" as acknowledging that merit- or performance-based pay was necessary.

But Sutherland, the House co-chairwoman of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, did not express support.

"We certainly look forward to examining what he proposes," she said. "We need to have that discussion with our education partners: the Maine State Superintendents Association, the Maine Principals Association, the Maine Education Association and other professionals involved with our schools at the local levels."

Baldacci received bipartisan applause for his commitment to not raise taxes to balance the budget.

"I like his idea we just cannot raise taxes," said Rep. Kenneth Fletcher, R-Winslow. "I also like the idea of streamlining the state government," he said, referring to a proposal by the governor to improve coordination between the state's four natural resource agencies.

Fletcher went a step further, saying that the key to reducing bureaucracy in state government would be to cut layers of oversight in each department.

"Now is the time the state government needs to do what the private sector has done for years," he said. "You really make it a more cost-effective organization."

To some observers, the speech sounded very moderate.

"I think if you came in from in from another state, you would almost wonder if this was a Republican governor speaking," said Jim Melcher, associate professor of political science at University of Maine at Farmington.

While Baldacci earned bipartisan applause on numerous occasions, one exception was his mention of the new tax reform law that could be repealed at referendum in June.

"Last spring, we passed legislation that cuts income taxes in Maine," Baldacci said. "The Wall Street Journal editorial page called it the 'Maine Miracle.'"

At this, the Democrats jumped up and cheered, joined by one or two Republican lawmakers. But some Republicans were unamused.

"I think there is a big difference between applauding something you agree with and cheering like they are at a high school basketball game," Tardy said. "My question is: Were they cheering the governor because they agree with him? Or were they jeering the 71,000 people behind the veto effort?"

Sen. David Trahan, R-Lincoln, led the effort to collect those signatures and favors a repeal vote in June.

"To think that raising nearly 100 taxes on services and items while cutting taxes on the wealthy is somehow a good thing -- while at the same time giving people in the ski and golf industries a free ride -- is out of touch with people in Maine," Trahan said.

Sen. Joseph Perry, D-Bangor, who crafted the legislation and is co-chairman of the Taxation Committee, saw an inconsistency in Tardy and Trahan's logic.

"I just found it odd that the Republicans cheered like crazy that there would be no new taxes in this budget, but sat on their hands when they had a chance to weigh in on this tax cut," he said.

Ethan Wilensky-Lanford -- 620-7015

ewlanford@mainetoday.com