Good morning from Augusta, where Jiminy Cricket, Thursday was quite a day at the State House.
In the House of Representatives, Republicans lined up to rail against the citizen-initiated bill to fund home care for all Mainers, causing a number of Democrats to walk out. In a rare hearing regarding ballot access petitions that involved signatures from dead people, a witness told an attorney “don’t be a jerk.” And of course, there was the bombshell news developing throughout the day that due to a glitch in existing law, ranked-choice voting in this June’s primary election — or ever — might be in peril. Here’s. Our. Soundtrack.
The ranked-choice voting confusion is far from over. Because two clauses in the law contradict each other regarding whether primary elections should be decided by a plurality — which is how it works now — or a majority — which is how ranked-choice voting is supposed to work — the Legislature or the courts need to step in to fix the problem. If not, according to Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, there will be fertile ground for a legal challenge from one or more of the losers after the June primary.
Fingers are pointing in previously unlikely directions. It’s nothing new to see opposing candidates in the same race attack each other, but when they’re from the same party, the rancor is usually muted. That wasn’t the case Thursday. Former House Speaker Mark Eves, who is vying for the Democratic nomination in the gubernatorial race, eviscerated Attorney General Janet Mills, who is also running in the Democratic primary. Eves and Mills are arguably among the front-runners. In a statement, Eves called Mills a “powerful insider conspiring to ignore the will of the people” and “brazenly political” with “such a conflict of interest that you’d roll your eyes if you saw it on House of Cards.”
“If you thought that kind of thing would end with the end of the LePage administration, watch out, because it just happened again,” Eves said.
As the saying goes, them’s fightin’ words. The glitch in the law was discovered late Wednesday by an analyst who brought it to Mills’ and Dunlap’s attention. Mills’ office confirmed the problem and Dunlap notified lawmakers. Mills said in a statement that the issue “needs to be addressed immediately so that the will of the people may be respected” and not “thwarted by some technicality in the law.” Mills said she would file legislation aimed at fixing the problem but, given the political makeup of the Legislature and the partisan split on ranked-choice voting, the chances of success for any legislation that preserves it lie somewhere between slim and none.
Eves and Mills weren’t the only ones tangling. Adam Cote of Sanford, another front-runner in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, said in a statement that leadership is in “short supply” in Augusta and called Thursday’s events “an embarrassment for everyone involved.” Cote went out of his way to say “I will not join others in cheap political attacks,” but then continued his attack with “people are ready to have an adult in charge.”
Republicans are loving it. Most of them oppose ranked-choice voting and the Maine Republican Party called it a “sloppy, complicated and unworkable nightmare.” Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, who is also running for governor and who co-chairs the legislative committee of jurisdiction in this matter, said Thursday that he is “very happy” about the possibility ranked-choice voting has been stopped in its tracks.
The path forward is unclear. Dunlap said his office will continue to prepare for a ranked-choice voting election until … well, until what is unclear. It’s looking like the next venue for this fight is the courts, with the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting seeking a court-ordered injunction to force the issue. Chairman Dick Woodbury accused Dunlap of “consistently avoiding its implementation.”
“I used to believe that Maine politics had integrity,” said Woodbury, who is usually known for his measured tone. “But this latest attempt to block implementation of ranked choice voting is outrageous and cannot stand.”
Bill spurred by suffering Maine veteran clears the House
Scott Couture of Brunswick returned from the war in Iraq a damaged man and because of it was let go from his job as a Maine Marine Patrol officer in 2015. “I’d always thought to myself, ‘If they find out I have PTSD or a PTSD rating, that’s the last day I’ll be working,’” Couture told the BDN in 2016. Couture was deemed disabled by the Veterans Administration but spent years trying to secure disability benefits from the Maine Public Employees Retirement System. Couture was finally granted the benefits this year, but his case prompted a bill from Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, which would align the retirement system’s criteria for deciding disability cases with the VA’s. On Thursday, after a year of deliberations, the House voted 91-48 for what has become known as “Scott’s Bill.” It now heads to the Senate for consideration.
Shipyard tax break bill is on its way to LePage
A bill that would provide Bath Iron Works with as much as $45 million in state tax breaks over 15 years is on its way to Gov. Paul LePage. The Legislature’s taxation committee trimmed the total value of the bill and added several investment and employment benchmarks that the shipyard owned by General Dynamics must meet. Opponents decried it as corporate welfare, but it sailed through the Senate 25-9 and 117-31 in the House. LePage is expected to sign the bill.
Today in A-town
Absolutely nothing shows up on the legislative calendar today. The House and Senate return on Monday. Expert floor sessions — sometimes two or three times a day — pretty much every day until adjournment, which is scheduled for April 18
- The Department of Health and Human Services missed a deadline to restore public health nursing services. After the number of public health nurses in Maine declined by more than two-thirds during the first seven years of the LePage administration, the Legislature in 2017 passed a law to get the number of public health nurses back up to about 50. More than 20 nursing positions remained vacant as of the March 1 deadline.
- LePage reopened a Down East prison in an unsafe manner, according to a lawyer for workers there. The Republican governor sent five employees and eight inmates back to Downeast Correctional Facility after a judge ruled he could not close the prison without legislative approval, the way he did on Feb. 9. A new court filing Wednesday on behalf of labor unions and former workers alleges that workers who returned to DCF feel unsafe, that medical care is lacking, programs for prisoners have not been restored and inmates have to eat cold cereal for breakfast and frozen dinners.
- The fate of the Max Linn for U.S. Senate campaign is in the secretary of state’s hands. Dunlap, in addition to his busy day with ranked-choice voting developments, oversaw an hours-long hearing Thursday in which the U.S Senate campaign of Republican state Sen. Eric Brakey accused Linn’s campaign of filing ballot access petitions with fraudulent signatures on them, including several from dead people. At issue is whether there are enough faulty signatures to dip Linn’s total below the threshold of 2,000. Dunlap has until Thursday to decide.
- The Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens’ $30 million expansion can proceed. Boothbay neighbors of the gardens have long opposed the expansion, causing town officials to grant and then rescind permits for the project. On Wednesday, the selectmen voted 4-1 to allow the project to move forward. The decision overturns a previous action by the town’s board of appeals.
Sunday is Easter. And April Fools’ Day. It’s a dangerous combination.
I’ve known editors who were fired for April Fools’ jokes and ministers who considered leaving the profession or at least taking carefully timed sabbaticals to avoid the pressure of having to preach an Easter sermon to a skeptical or demanding congregation.
I’ve covered elaborate re-enactments of the Easter story, as presented by dozens of people at a church with an amazing sound system in Augusta. The second time we wrote about it, we used the headline “Messiah returns to Augusta.” And that was not even on April Fools’ Day.
So writing about Easter is like venturing onto a minefield littered with colored eggs. Smart people steer clear.
Obviously, I am not smart. If I was, I would have learned from my parents about the perils of Easter. They used to spend the night before Easter [SPOILER ALERT: My parents worked for the Easter Bunny] sitting on the floor counting jelly beans to make sure that each one of their five miserable children got the same number of each color in his or her basket the next morning. Nothing good comes from mixing rabbits, religion, foolishness — and too much sugar.
Here is their soundtrack. And happy Passover, Easter, April Fools’ Day, open water fishing season and anything else you celebrate this weekend. — Robert Long
Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins and 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. To reach us, do not reply directly to this newsletter but email us directly at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.