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Lessons from the Back of the Legislative Bus

Lessons from the Back of the Legislative Bus

As members of the 126th Legislature flocked to Augusta for the new session, about 75 members of the House and Senate kicked off their terms by boarding a tour bus for a three-day program that highlights people, places, and organizations in Maine that many had never seen before. The bus tour, which is part of the nonpartisan Maine Development Foundation's biennial Policy Leaders Academy (PLA) program, provides an opportunity for lawmakers to learn from different communities and local leaders about issues, concerns, and creative solutions to some of Maine's most challenging issues. 

Since 2007, MeHAF has been a PLA sponsor. Because of our involvement, MeHAF was invited to send a staff person to ride along on the tour.  From the events of the first day, I took home a few lessons from the back of the bus.

First, bus rides give you the chance to get to know your fellow travelers. It's been said that a factor driving the partisan rancor in Congress is that lawmakers rush back to their home districts at the end of the week rather than spending time in Washington getting to know each other.  Developing personal relationships is an important step to understanding different points of view and establishing trust - all key factors that make lawmakers more open to compromise. On our bus there was lots of friendly conversation across the aisle (literally and figuratively) as legislators got to know new and returning colleagues.     

Second, bus rides give you time for reflection between stops. The first day of the tour included lunch at the Hollywood Casino where a diverse panel discussed Bangor's long term strategy for the city's revitalization. It was clear that Bangor's local leaders exercised great wisdom in identifying and implementing some really ambitious, exciting goals that garnered bipartisan support for fruition. It affirmed the notion that developing vibrant communities with a growing economy takes time, commitment, patience, and sustained investments - not short term fixes.

Our final tour stop of the day was the University of Maine where we split into several groups to hear first-hand about education, research and development programs. At the College of Engineering our group learned about amazing, cutting edge research using forest bioproducts where researchers and students are turning wood waste chips into jet fuel or ultra micro nano-fibers.  The degree of innovation and collaboration of the University with business entrepreneurs was exciting and upbeat. It's the type of story about Maine's business climate that outside critics should hear about.

Every day we read and hear about what's wrong in Maine. Our economy is sputtering. We're the oldest state in the nation. Maine isn't doing a good job attracting business startups. Yet, at the end of a long bus day legislators were seeing for themselves how there's a lot of good things happening in our state. Mainers are resourceful, innovative, collaborative, and they want to make their mark in a state where it's good to raise a family and enjoy the outdoors. 

So instead of focusing on problems, perhaps policy makers will come away from the bus tour discussing how future laws and policies can tap into our strengths and build on successes as they strive to revitalize Maine's economy, strengthen our communities, while keeping Maine as the way life should be.  That's a good news story - and one we should be hearing and talking a lot more about.

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