Why Maine lawmakers look like ‘hamsters on a treadmill’

After three weeks of the House and Senate shoveling bills their way, legislative committees will shift into cruising speed this week with a busy schedule of hours-long, get-to-know-you orientations, public hearings and work sessions. Committees on criminal justice, education, veterans and legal affairs, and taxation are all scheduled to meet today.

That means sometime soon, some of the approximately 2,000 bills that will be considered this year will start to flow to the full Legislature. One of the first that has a chance of enactment is LD 88, which would delay portions of the recreational marijuana referendum passed in November until February of 2018. For those who are counting down the days, marijuana still becomes legal Jan. 30 (here’s your soundtrack), but the sales and regulation portions of the law will take another year.

Divesting of the preliminary work means that legislative debates — or debates between the legislative and executive branches, are about to intensify. More importantly for some freshman lawmakers who have been wondering why they’re traveling to Augusta two or three days a week for House and Senate sessions that last less than an hour, the days are going to start to fill up.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to interview former Republican Sen. Peter Mills of Cornville, who these days is the executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority. Talking with Mills is always a pleasure. Afterward, he sent me part of a letter he wrote to his fellow lawmakers in February 2009 titled “The Forces of Distraction.” It’s one of the most accurate and unflinching descriptions of what goes on in Augusta when a new Legislature is seated — even with its withering blast at the media — so I’ve opted to include some of it here:

“The effectiveness of our institution — the Maine Legislature — hangs on our ability to achieve focus in the midst of myriad distractions. The minute we arrive in January, the business community through [Maine Development Foundation] puts us on buses to get us out of town. Upon our return, the calendar is clogged with hundreds of sentiments. For the first three months, little is accomplished but the routine reference of bills, an exercise to test whether majority committee chairs can read in public. When the governor’s budget is printed, state bureaucrats distract us from the larger picture while helping to busy ourselves in the pit of Appropriations flipping pages back and forth like hamsters in a treadmill chasing series of disconnected numbers that are often without meaning.

We form budgets by passively listening first to the department heads and then to hundreds of three-minute witness stories orchestrated by lobbyists who understand the adage that “The plural of anecdote is policy.” Meanwhile, newspapers find it easier to write about cell phones and road rage rather than the fundamentals. Important issues don’t sell papers.

With the advent of term limits, the Maine Legislature is in greater danger than ever of becoming a passive, reactive and impotent body.

Our strength is in our caucuses where we can set an agenda, develop issues, gather information and struggle toward consensus. This is not a job easily done, but our failure to do it is to abdicate the power of our institution that is crucial to the future of Maine.”

Just as he was known to do while in the Senate, Mills has given us all something to think about. — Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

  • Collins’ ACA replacement: Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, in partnership with Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, will unveil their plan to replace the Affordable Care Act this morning during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol Building. The details of the plan have not been released but it is centered around returning authority for health care to the states and increasing access to quality, affordable health care insurance coverage to more Americans. Click here for an analysis of health care in the Trump era by the BDN’s Jackie Farwell.
  • Asking for forgiveness after the fact: The Maine Ethics Commission has spent its last couple of meetings adjudicating campaign finance violations made around last year’s general election and will convene again one week from today to consider more. According to the commission’s Jan. 30 agenda, preliminary penalties could range into the thousands of dollars, although commission staff have recommended fines of between $200 and $500. On the hot seat this time around are some of the political action committees directly benefitting lawmakers’ campaigns. Those include the Senate Chairmans PAC, which supports Republican Senate candidates, which failed to file a 24-hour report for a $7,600 expenditure, and the Empowering Maine Leadership PAC, which delayed reported four $1,000 expenditures just before the election until Dec. 19, 2016.
  • Harvard education researcher visiting State House: Dr. Judy L. Cameron of the Harvard Center of the Developing Child will travel to Maine on Tuesday to make a presentation to the Legislative Children’s Caucus, which consists of a bipartisan list of about 60 lawmakers, according to a news release. UPDATE: This event has been postponed due to the impending winter weather.

Reading list

‘Don’t worry, it’s not loaded’

Terry Kath, who was the guitarist for Chicago’s first two albums (and one of my favorites), was cleaning what he believed was an unloaded handgun on this day in 1978. He said “Don’t worry, it’s not loaded” before putting the gun to his head and pulling the trigger. They were his last words.

In light of this sad day in rock history and as a reminder of the first rule of gun safety — treat EVERY gun as if it’s loaded, even when you “know” it isn’t — let’s enjoy some of Kath’s music. He’s probably the best guitarist you’ve never heard of. — Christopher Cousins


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.