Another LePage nominee faces legislative roadblock

Good morning from Augusta, where Senate Democrats and Republicans are poised to face off today over Gov. Paul LePage’s pick to lead the Maine State Housing Authority.

The Senate is scheduled to vote today whether to confirm George Gervais, LePage’s current economic development director, to the post. Most of the time, these nominations breeze through the Senate. But in this case, a two-thirds vote will be required for confirmation because a legislative committee recommended against Gervais after a bruising interview with the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee last week and a partisan 7-6 vote against him.

Although he had won unanimous approval as economic development commissioner in 2011, Democrats weren’t satisfied that Gervais’ professional experience in the housing sector is strong enough and said they were concerned about his past work for a mortgage lender and as owner of restaurants that went bankrupt. Gervais said he never sold a subprime loan and attributed the bankruptcy to how rough the restaurant business can be.

History does not favor Gervais’ nomination, which appears on today’s Senate calendar, While the majority of LePage’s nominees — even some who irked Democrats, such as judicial nominee Dan Billings in 2012 — have sailed through, legislative Democrats have occasionally used their majority status on committees to thwart the governor. In 2013, former Republican state Rep. Jonathan McKane of Newcastle withdrew from consideration for the Dirigo Health board of trustees after Democrats on the Legislature’s Insurance and Financial Services Committee voted 8-5 against recommending him. McKane had been a leading Dirigo opponent during his time in the House.

In 2014, Democrats on the Legislature’s Education Committee attacked Susan Dench of Falmouth, a marketing professional, during the recommendation process. Dench, nominated by LePage for the University of Maine System board of trustees, came under fire for some of her conservative views on gender roles, some of which she wrote about as a Bangor Daily News blogger. The Senate, then controlled by Democrats, voted 17-15 against her nomination.

In February 2016, LePage pulled back his nomination for education commissioner after a brutal interview with the Legislature’s Education Committee. Former Husson University president and gubernatorial candidate Bill Beardsley –– who like Gervais had previously won Senate approval for his nomination as a commissioner — came under fire for his past involvement with Robert Carlson, a disgraced Bangor-area minister, and for his views on transgender issues. LePage reacted by withdrawing Beardsley’s name for consideration. LePage shuffled Beardsley and others through the education department’s top spot until April 2017, when he nominated Robert Hasson Jr. to the post. He breezed through the nomination process.

In March 2016, Democrats scuttled LePage’s pick for an unemployment insurance appeals board. Democrats on the labor committee voted 7-6 against South Portland police Detective Sgt. Steven Webster because of what they perceived as a faulty temperament and social media posts. LePage responded by rescinding Webster’s nomination.

In April 2016, LePage’s nomination for the Maine Board of Environmental Protection, barely made it to a positive recommendation in the committee vetting process with a 6-5 vote. Former state Rep. Kathleen Chase of Wells came under fire from environmental groups, but was confirmed to the position anyway.

And in October 2017, LePage rescinded five judicial nominees on the day they were to be confirmed in the Senate, but quickly canceled that action. All five judges were confirmed.

With a two-thirds vote required for confirmation, Gervais will have to win over seven Senate Democrats. Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, who serves on the labor committee, voted against him and was one of his harshest critics during last week’s committee hearing. So he’s unlikely to secure her vote. That leaves 16 Democratic senators in play. We’ll keep you posted.

Maine’s U.S. senators sign onto bipartisan school safety bill

They’re among 22 sponsors of a bill commiting $1 billion to improve training and safety infrastructure. The effort, led by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is a response to the school shooting in Florida last month. His office says it would provide $75 million in 2018 and $100 million for each of the next 10 years to train students, educators and police to identify warning signs of violence, improve school safety infrastructure, develop crisis intervention teams and improve coordination between schools and police. In a statement, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, called it “one of many sensible steps we can take right now to protect our communities” and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said it was “an important step forward.”

Collins has also re-introduced other bills on guns, but it’s unclear how far they can get. Last month, Collins re-introduced a so-called “no fly, no buy” bill that would keep people on the federal no-fly list or another list mandating more screening before boarding planes from buying guns. While King, six Democrats and three Republicans are sponsoring her bill, the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union have previously opposed it. In 2017, Collins and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, reintroduced a bill to ban straw gun purchases.

Today in A-town

The House may vote to fund the Downeast Correctional Facility. In the House of Representatives, a bid from Rep. William Tuell, R-East Machias, to fund the shuttered Downeast Correctional Facility may get an initial vote today. Another vote in the House of Representatives is scheduled on a bill to form a 36-member Maine Coastal Risks and Hazards Commission, which would make recommendations to the Legislature to prepare and address effects of climate change. Five Republicans on the environment committee opposed it. The House will also hold an initial vote on a bill that would make it harder for the state to cut or delay cost-of-living increase to retired state workers and teachers. Five Republicans opposed that bill in the budget-writing committee.

Things are getting busier in the Senate. Alongside the pending Gervais fight, the Senate is expected to approve John Gallagher, the former executive director of the Maine State Housing Authority, as a commissioner to the authority after his unanimous recommendation by the labor committee. A bill to strengthen a state business tax break by banning “same-day loans” that the owner of a shuttered East Millinocket paper mill got is up for a final vote in the Senate.

Committee sessions will be highlighted by a report on Maine’s 2018 revenue forecast. Members of Maine’s Revenue Forecasting Committee will go before the budget committee at 1 p.m. to discuss their latest forecast, finding that the state can expect $128 million in extra revenue by the end of the current budget cycle in mid-2019. Committees will also hold work sessions on high-profile bills to establish a paid family leave system and ban conversion therapy.

Reading list

  • Ranked-choice voting has been revived by a successful petition drive — for now. Supporters of the voting method, who originally brought it to a successful referendum in 2016, received word Monday that their second attempt at gathering more than 61,000 signatures on behalf of the issue was successful. That means there will be another referendum in June asking Mainers to overturn a law passed last year in the Legislature that would likely end ranked-choice voting if left on the books. The people’s veto question that will appear on the June 12 does not address the Maine Supreme Judicial Court’s opinion that the system conflicts with wording of the Maine Constitution for legislative and gubernatorial general elections, but it does clear the way for ranked-choice voting to be used in primary and congressional elections this year.
  • LePage’s lawyers told a judge Monday that even if employees and inmates are returned to Downeast Correctional Facility, it would be until only June 30. That’s because that’s when money budgeted for the prison, which LePage closed abruptly on Feb. 9, runs out. Plaintiffs in the Maine Superior Court case argued that only the Legislature has the authority to shut down the prison. Justice Michaela Murphy hopes to render a decision in the case by next week.
  • Dogged police work and the emergence of a new witness were what cracked the Joyce McLain murder case after nearly 40 years. The lead investigator on the prosecutors in the case, which earlier this month saw an East Millinocket man convicted for her murder, sat down with the Bangor Daily News to discuss what changed between then and now.
  • A Maine man dispatched a rabid raccoon with a bread knife. Hope resident Charlie Weidman found his 10-year-old dog, Jake, tangling with the animal, and one of his daughters trying to kick the animal out of the dog’s mouth. Weidan held the sick animal down with his feet and sent one of the girls inside for a knife. She returned with a “dull, serrated bread knife. The rest is history — for the raccoon.

Seed money?

A candidate for a House seat in southern Texas has reported that she received $87,500 worth of deer semen for her campaign.

We’ll let that soak in for a minute. Err, we’ll let that register for a minute. We swear we are not making this up.

“The containers are reportedly a common way for deer breeders in the state to donate to political campaigns,” reads the article from The Hill. A single straw full of deer semen is reportedly worth $1,000, and $885,000 worth of deer semen has been donated to political campaigns since 2006.

“If you have a desirable animal,” someone told the Dallas News, “it’s a way to bring value.”

We’ll make no comments about “the way,” though we’ll observe that if a Maine animal’s semen were as valuable, moose would be much, much happier. And we do wonder if publicly financed candidates could only accept semen from ungulates inhabiting state parks. Here’s your soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins and Michael Shepherd and edited by Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

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.