January 29

Maine delegation likes middle-class focus

But concerns are raised about talk of bypassing Congress on issues and support for trade pacts.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Members of Maine’s congressional delegation largely praised President Obama’s focus Tuesday on strengthening the middle class and restoring opportunities for low-income Americans.

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President Barack Obama waves after giving his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Jan. 28, 2014. Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio applaud.

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

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Obama hit various themes popular with the Democratic base in his State of the Union speech, calling on Congress to increase the minimum wage and overhaul immigration laws but also vowing to use executive powers in the absence of legislative action.

“I thought the tone was good,” said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who supported the call to increase the minimum wage and for reforming job training programs. “There was all of this press beforehand that he was going to be confrontational ... and there were a few of those moments. But generally it was nonpartisan and talked about issues that we need to work together on.”

Maine’s only Republican member of the delegation, Sen. Susan Collins, said she shared the president’s desire to strengthen job training programs. Collins said she was also pleased to hear he plans to launch an initiative to encourage people to save more for retirement.

But Collins was concerned that president said he may bypass Congress on some issues.

“While the president has called on both parties to work together to tackle other important issues, I am very concerned that it appears the President is willing to circumvent Congress in an attempt to counteract the frustrating gridlock in Washington,” Collins said in a statement. “This approach ... will only serve to heighten partisan tensions and exacerbate the problem.”

King said he also shares those reservations but didn’t not believe Obama “went overboard.”

“I’m uncomfortable with the president assuming additional authority, but there wasn’t as much of that tonight as I had expected,” King said.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-District 1, said Obama’s comments on raising the minimum wage were a highlight and that he laid out a series of ideas that Congress could pass on a bipartisan basis. She also praised the president for urging extension of unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless.

“These are very real issues to people in Maine and I thought this is the kind of speech that would really hit home with the people there,” Pingree said in an interview. “Given what a challenging year we have had in Congress, he did a very good job inspiring us to keep working and get something done.”

Maine’s minimum wage is currently $7.50 an hour, 25 cents higher than the federal minimum.

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud also welcomed the president’s comments on minimum wage and his call for expanding job training opportunities and strengthening pre-K education.

“I’m very pleased that the president talked about income equality and the middle class,” Michaud said. “I definitely will be looking forward to see whether he can put policies in place that will actually implement that.”

But Michaud, a 2nd District Democrat who is running for governor this year, took issue with the Obama administration’s trade policy.

Dana Connors, who heads the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said it was “a strong message by a very powerful speaker ... intended to give people help but also hope." Among the highlights for Connors were the president’s focus on job growth, helping small businesses expand and addressing the “skills gap” that has been a problem in Maine.

But Connors said the minimum wage proposal will be controversial and said it was too early to speculate how Maine businesses would react.

“It will be an issue that will divide Congress and divide people, but I think that if there is going to be an increase, it is better to have it at the national level where businesses are not competing state to state.”
 
But Garrett Martin, executive director of the left-leaning Maine Center for Economic Policy, said the president’s proposals would create jobs and help stimulate Maine’s economy.

(Continued on page 2)

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