Second-session bill screening, by the numbers

Senate President Justin Alfond. BDN photo by Troy Bennett.

Wednesday was a good day to be a Democrat, especially one in leadership.

Over nearly four hours, the Legislative Council — made of top lawmakers from both parties, six Democrats and four Republicans — made preliminary decisions on which bills would be taken up during the second session of the Legislature, which starts in January.

The Council is charged with deciding which bills will be allowed into the second session which is typically reserved for emergency matters.

About 100 bills got the green light, out of roughly 400 that were proposed by lawmakers. About 80 of those accepted bills were submitted by Democrats.

That seems high at first — and it is — but it’s not the best figure to look at, because Democrats also submitted more than twice as many bills as Republicans, 259 to 132. So a better stat to consider is the conversion rate, or what percent of bills submitted were approved.

(A caveat before we go any further: The numbers below are preliminary because lawmakers who saw their bills rejected will have a chance to appeal before the Legislative Council on Nov. 21. Still, the figures presented below what the Council did on its first pass, which is important.)

In total, Democrats had a 31 percent conversion rate, meaning just less than one-third of the bills they proposed will hit the floor in January. The GOP conversion rate was just 11 percent.

That’s probably not surprising, given the fact that six of the 10 members of the Legislative Council are Democrats. The party has a majority in both chambers of the Legislature and, as is often said, “Elections have consequences.” Recent history demonstrates that political maxim as well: In the 125th Legislature, which was controlled by Republicans, the GOP got 56 percent of their bills in for the second session, compared with 33 percent for Democrats.

While the party figures are impressive, the number that really stands out is the amazing conversion rate of members of the Legislative Council themselves: 62 percent. That’s more than three times higher than the conversion rate for all the other members of the Legislature combined.

Democrats on the Council did especially well, thanks in no small part to the fact that the six of them constitute a majority, if they all vote in agreement, even if every Republican on the panel opposes them. The Council accepted a whopping 81 percent of proposals from its Democratic members.

Senate President Justin Alfond had a perfect score: Five bills proposed, five bills accepted. House Speaker Mark Eves got four out of five; House Majority Leader Seth Berry won three of five; House Whip Jeff McCabe got five of six; Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson saw six of his seven bills go through; and Assistant Senate Majority Leader Ann Haskell got two of three.

Republicans, who needed at least two Democratic votes to get any of their bills through — and that’s if each member of the GOP on the Council supported it — didn’t do quite as well, converting only 33 percent of their bill proposals. But that’s still three times better than their party counterparts outside leadership.

House Minority Leader Ken Fredette saw two of seven proposals accepted; House Whip Alex Willette got one of three; Senate Minority Leader Mike Thibodeau saw his one bill rejected, and Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz won two of his four bills.

The bills submitted for the screening process are not yet fleshed out, and in some cases, lack much detail. They each have a title, and a short description of the bill, which is sometimes the same as the title.  

Alfond, who is co-chairmen of the Council, said he recognized that the figures are lopsided, but said it’s the nature of the beast. Because the second session is reserved for emergencies, leaders are hesitant to give a bill initial approval if they don’t know exactly what’s in it.

But party leaders are familiar with each other and communicate regularly. That means they have a better idea of their colleagues’ bills than the bills from rank-and-file lawmakers, he said.

“Not only do you know more about them because you speak with them regularly, but you also have a relationship working with them, working in partnership, across the aisle, on bipartisan issues,” he said. That’s why there’s an appeals process, he added: to let other lawmakers present more information so the Council can review the bills with fresh eyes. 

One lawmaker who will be filing an appeal is Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough. She proposed a bill to expunge prostitution convictions from the record of victims of human trafficking, a measure supported by the Polaris Project, a leading anti-trafficking group.

Volk’s bill was defeated at the Legislative Council 6-4, along party lines. She said that while she’s “not surprised” that top lawmakers and majority Democrats saw more success than their opposites, that doesn’t make it any easier to accept.

“This process, for a lot of people, seems way too political,” she said. “I’d say it’s disappointing. We continue to hope, and I think the Maine people want, for us to work together on issues they understand are important.”

Another lawmaker, Rep. Brian Jones, D-Freedom, had even harsher criticism for the process. He submitted three bills, one of which was accepted. He also looked at the numbers for bill screening, and had this to say:

“The process is distorted and the perception the data would seem to support is that the decisions of the Legislative Council are not merely based on good policy, but politics and partisan interests.”

One might think Fredette would agree, having seen his three bills aimed at welfare reform — a top Republican priority — rejected. While Fredette and other Republicans are angry Democrats did not support welfare reform, the House Minority Leader does not fault the process.

“All we have to go on is the title, and a very little blurb, a small blurb, about what the bill is about,” he said Wednesday. “If members feel their particular bill needs a hearing, they have an opportunity to file an appeal.”

Alfond said he fully expected to be lobbied by lawmakers in the three weeks leading up to the appeal deadline.

“If there are 100 appeals, we’ll have 100 opportunities to say yes or no,” he said. “In the end, I think every bill has a chance at being successful.

Mario Moretto

About Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and, now, in the State House.