Daily Brief: The state of higher education, and a hard number for Dems

 Good morning, Maine.

The troubled state of Maine’s public system of higher education, Maine’s flagging bridge infrastructure and Gov. Paul LePage’s efforts to woo veterans to move here are the topics of the day in Augusta. 

Leaders from Maine’s besieged university and community college systems will address a joint session of the Legislature about the roles and futures of the systems.

Lawmakers will look to James Page, chancellor of the seven-campus University of Maine system, to address the falling tuition and “turmoil in management” that last week led to Standard & Poor’s downgrading the system’s credit outlook. Three of the system’s seven campuses are currently operating with interim presidents, and one — the University of Southern Maine — has been a hotbed for student protest against program cuts and austerity

Derek Langhauser, interim president of the Maine Community College System, was chosen to pick up the pieces after LePage, showing his political strength, forced longtime president John Fitzimmons to resign after 25 years at the helm. LePage questioned MCCS’ commitment to his education goals, and Langhauser will be looking to quell any fears that the system is not capable of doing its part. 

Rounding out the list is Bill Brennan, president of Maine Maritime Academy, the only state college to escape the ire of elected officials or the finance industry. Expect a rosy address detailing the school’s high job placement and starting salaries for graduates.

After the joint session, the Transportation Committee will hear from DOT Commissioner David Bernhardt about the state’s struggling infrastructure of bridges. A recent report by the department indicated that while Maine’s bridges are safe, for the most part, current funding levels are just half of what’s needed to maintain bridge safety in the state. 

Meanwhile, LePage has set up a meeting with veterans at the State House to discuss his biennial budget proposal around eliminating the tax on military pensions. LePage argues that doing so would spur more military families into retiring to Maine, where he hopes they’ll opt to start a second career and contribute to Maine’s workforce.

It’s hard to imagine any veterans opposing LePage’s proposal, which calls into question why he would host a meeting with them. However, a press conference will follow, which gives LePage another chance to tout his overall tax reform proposal and endear himself to the state’s military veterans. — Mario Moretto and Christopher Cousins.

As Nebraska goes, so goes Maine?

Maine could become the only state in the country that splits its Electoral College votes in presidential elections if a proposal in Nebraska is passed into law.

At present, Maine and Nebraska are the only states in the country where some Electoral College votes can go to one presidential candidate and some to another. Maine, which has used the system since 1972 and has never split its votes, has opted for the Democrat in presidential elections dating back to 1988. In 2012, one of Republican Mitt Romney’s potential paths to victory involved winning Maine’s 2nd Congressional District’s electoral vote while Obama took the state’s other three.

It was exciting for us political observers to imagine the presidential election coming down to the votes cast in northern and eastern Maine, but it was fleeting. In Maine, two votes are given to the statewide winner and remaining two votes are given to the winner in each of the two congressional districts. The then-New York Times data blog FiveThirtyEight gave that scenario a 0.7 percent chance of unfolding but, alas, the outcome of the election came down to Florida and Ohio, as usual.

KWBE radio in Nebraska reported Monday that the measure made it handily past preliminary approvals but faced more debate and votes. — Christopher Cousins

A bad number for Democrats

910. That’s how many state legislative seats the Democratic Party has lost, nationwide, since 2008.

The figure showed up in a post-mortem of the 2014 elections, which saw Democrats lose control of the U.S. Senate and several governor’s mansions. The group who published the report, the Democratic Victory Task Force, was convened by DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz after November’s thumping. Its report is preliminary, and the group plans to publish a more detailed playbook. If the whole song and dance sounds familiar, it’s because the RNC did a similar bit of soul-searching after Obama easily held off GOP advances in 2012.

Back to those 910 state legislative seats, and why they matter. Those seats represent the pieces of state legislative chambers Democrats have lost since 2008.

For the visually inclined, the following chart by Pew is instructive:

legislative makeup

In just under 40 years, Republicans have made huge advances in control of state legislatures. While these deliberative bodies are often ignored by a political class obsessed with Washington, D.C., state legislatures are where future party leaders cut their teeth, where regional party strength is built and — perhaps most importantly — where congressional districts are redrawn following each decennial census.

Maine’s two congressional districts were redrawn in 2011, after Republicans took over control of the State House for the first time in decades. That scenario played out all over the country after 2010’s wave year for the GOP.

Wasserman Schultz’s group makes clear the importance of a renewed focus on state legislatures, and the ability to redraw congressional districts is a big reason why. She chalks up the GOP’s pickup of 69 U.S. House seats since 2008, in part, to control of state legislatures and the ensuing congressional gerrymandering.

“The current GOP stranglehold on state houses, governorships and congressional seats is a by-product of more than 30 years of organizing, fostering talent and significant financial investments at the state and local level,” the report states. T”he DNC must develop — and accelerate — programs at the state and local level to ensure that the next redistricting and reapportionment projects encourage Democratic growth.” — Mario Moretto

Hunters in pink

It could happen.

Lawmakers on the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee today will workshop a bill by Rep. Ricky Long, R-Sherman, to allow hunters to wear “hunter’s pink,” rather than the traditional “hunter’s orange,” in the month of October. The choice is intended to promote recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

The Department of Inland Fisheries opposes the bill, arguing that while hunter’s orange has a demonstrable record of reducing hunting-related injuries, there’s no “common definition or standard” for hunter’s pink. That would make enforcement of the law difficult, the department says.  — Mario Moretto

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.