Good morning from Augusta. The founding head of the Legislature’s watchdog agency, Beth Ashcroft, will leave her post in August at a time when her staff is likely to be in the middle of its probe into Maine’s child welfare system.
Ashcroft is one of the more respected people in state government. Under her direction, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability has authored landmark reports — particularly around state economic development incentives and expenses at the Maine Turnpike Authority that led to the conviction of its former executive director.
Her office is unique in that it’s controlled by a bipartisan legislative panel, the Government Oversight Committee. Ashcroft, a former Central Maine Power auditor, was hired 13 years ago to enshrine the office, which has wide authority to investigate state departments.
The office’s value is not questioned much these days, but leading legislative Democrats wondered in 2002 if its authority was too wide. The bill to start it passed overwhelmingly after an effort from key lawmakers — including David Trahan, a Republican who now runs the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, and Matthew Dunlap, now the Democratic secretary of state.
Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, who was a Democratic lawmaker then and is on the Government Oversight Committee now, said the office has gone “way beyond my expectations” and he attributed a lot of that to the “outstanding” Ashcroft.
Lawmakers are concerned about the office’s workload given her imminent departure, but she has given them a long runway to find a replacement. The committee authorized OPEGA to investigate Maine’s child welfare system on Friday after the recent deaths of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy and 4-year-old Kendall Chick, allegedly at the hands of family members.
The office will investigate the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and produce a May report on the girls’ deaths and another, more time-consuming report on the child welfare system. But Saviello said he also expects OPEGA to investigate the state’s unemployment system and perhaps a forestry issue before another committee that he leads.
He said Ashcroft’s departure has him “concerned” about the workload. Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford, the committee’s co-chair, said her “heart sank” when she found out Ashcroft is leaving, but that her “wonderful staff” will provide continuity.
Ashcroft said Tuesday (during a massive snowstorm) that she and her husband have long talked about wintering in Arizona, so they’ll remain in Maine part-time. She’s sticking around until Aug. 24 to help find and train her replacement and the job is already being advertised.
Bill to aid Maine shellfish harvesters clears U.S. House
A bill to resolve harvesting and boundary disputes around Acadia National Park passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday. It was co-sponsored by Maine’s two representatives, Republican Bruce Poliquin and Democrat Chellie Pingree. It came after a donation of 1,400 acres at Schoodic Point to Acadia in late 2015 stirred objections from local leaders who said that its transfer without direct congressional approval violated the intent of a 1986 federal law that requires Congress to support large expansions of Acadia. The National Park Service has argued that a 1929 law allows the park to accept land donations without congressional approval. The bill still needs approval in the Senate and the signature of the president.
Tribal rights become a campaign issue
Tribal sovereignty rights over water quality and sustenance fishing exploded as a gubernatorial campaign issue Tuesday among Democrats. Two of Maine’s Indian tribes and a number of environmental and progressive groups took advantage of Tuesday’s slow, snowy news cycle to release a letter excoriating Attorney General Janet Mills, who is vying for the Democratic nomination in the governor’s race, for her role in disputes over tribal water rights.
The AG’s office defended Mills’ environmental record, highlighting her activism on issues ranging from President Donald Trump’s proposal to drill for oil off the coast to fighting against a number of attempts by Trump to roll back environmental protections.
Fellow Democratic candidates Adam Cote and Mark Eves made public statements criticizing Mills. Cote’s didn’t mention that he works for Drummond Woodsum, a law firm that has represented Maine tribes in two major lawsuits over water rights, losing both of them.
A spokeswoman for the Cote campaign said Tuesday evening that he had no involvement with those cases — he works on the firm’s energy sector team — and learned about Tuesday’s letter by reading the newspaper.
Today in A-town
The House and Senate are not in today and all legislative committee work has been postponed because of the storm.
- Mainers who are 65 or older will outnumber everyone else here by 2020. The U.S. Census bureau said Tuesday that the nation as a whole won’t meet that milestone until 2035. It’ll be the first time in U.S. history that has happened. More cheery news: Between 2020 and 2050, the number of deaths will rise substantially as the population ages. Here’s your soundtrack.
- Central Maine Power wants to spend $214 million on infrastructure upgrades near Portland. CMP made the pitch recently in a letter to state regulators, but some lawmakers and members of the Public Utilities Commission say there are cheaper alternatives to the company’s proposal to upgrade 32 miles of power lines and upgrade eight substations.
- A special election for a Pennsylvania U.S. House seat has turned into a barnburner. Democrat Conor Lamb has claimed victory over Rick Saccone in Tuesday’s election, but election officials were still calling the race too close to call this morning. A victory by Lamb, who is a political newcomer, would be a major win for Democrats in a predominantly GOP district that Trump won by 20 points.
- The number of loons in Maine is holding steady. Maine Audubon says there are still about 2,800 loons in Maine and that the number of loon chicks is increasing. “It’s probably nothing to get too excited about,” the group wrote on its website, but could lead to a population spike six to seven years from now. Here’s your soundtrack.
- Compare your misery to that of other Mainers. The BDN created this snowfall map so you can see which areas were hit hardest by the latest blizzard.
Eyes on the pies
Today is National Pi Day, in honor of the fact that the numeric presentation of the date (3.14) is closest to an approximation for pi, which has something to do with math and circles. I am a journalist, so that’s as much as I know about pi, math and circles.
Allegedly, the first observation of National Pi Day was in San Francisco in 1988. A physicist, Larry Shaw, led celebrants who marched around in circles and ate fruit pies. Sounds like my kind of holiday.
It’s sadly ironic that news of the death of perhaps the most renowned modern physicist, Stephen Hawking, arrived on National Pi Day.
In 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a nonbinding resolution to mark National Pi Day. Observances have spread to include deals on pizza and more consumption of pies.
Send us pies. Send us pizza. We’ll let you know which ones win the National Pi Day prize, which is undetermined but probably involves eating leftovers with the Daily Brief team. Here is your soundtrack. — Robert Long
Tuesday’s Daily Brief misidentified which candidate is expected to submit ballot access petitions this week. Former Biddeford Mayor Donna Dion had scheduled a time to submit the petitions, not state Sen. Mark Dion, D-Portland. Here’s the Dions’ soundtrack.
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.