GOP tests Maine House speaker’s leadership in pushing ethics probe

Good morning from Augusta, where freshman House Speaker Sara Gideon had a first big floor test on Thursday, when majority Democrats turned back a Republican bid to convene a committee to probe a lawmaker’s paid work on a 2016 ballot initiative campaign.

The party-line vote came after more than two weeks of partisan heat around Rep. Ryan Tipping, D-Orono, who was paid $9,000 by a committee funded by progressive groups — including the National Education Association — that helped pass Question 2, which placed a 3 percent surtax on income over $200,000 to increase school funding.

Tipping was an Education Committee member at the time of his work last year and he now co-chairs the Taxation Committee, which will consider bids this year to repeal the surtax.

Republicans have said that’s a clear conflict of interest, but Maine ethics laws for legislators are relatively broad and weak. Democrats have countered that it’s not much different from everyday conflicts in a citizen Legislature, such as voting on bills that affect one’s profession.

Gov. Paul LePage set off the controversy by calling for Tipping to resign on Valentine’s Day. The Maine Republican Party has pressed the issue by calling for Tipping to be reassigned to a different committee and recuse himself from work on the issue.

Gideon, a Freeport Democrat, has resisted all of those calls, including rejecting a request from a Republican lawmaker that asked her to convene the little-used House Ethics Committee to look at Tipping’s situation and make recommendations to the full House of Representatives.

On Thursday, Republicans took that fight to the floor, looking to convene the panel by an order introduced by Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester. Democrats defeated it, but only after a messy floor fight overseen by Gideon, a first-term speaker who had to stop at times for direction from the clerk on how to handle certain situations.

Republicans were often interrupting Democrats to hold them to points of order, including when they defended Tipping by noting that he checked with the Maine Ethics Commission before accepting the work, which House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said was irrelevant because commission staff only give non-binding opinions.

Gideon also had to admonish members on both sides of the aisle as the parties volleyed over claims that each side was “impugning the motives” of the other side against House rules.

There was finger-pointing after the vote, with Fredette saying Democrats’ refusal to address the Tipping matter “impacts the public trust” with the Legislature. But it’s perhaps a window into how far Fredette can push Gideon on the floor as the fights get more consequential going into the spring. — Michael Shepherd

Quick hits

  • King and Collins vote for Carson and Perry. While much of the attention Thursday on Capitol Hill was focused on the controversy surrounding Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Senate did take confirmation votes on two more nominees to President Donald Trump’s Cabinet. Ben Carson was confirmed as secretary of Housing and Urban Development while Rick Perry won the Senate’s approval to lead the Department of Energy. Maine Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins, who had split on a number of other Cabinet nominees, both cast votes in support of Carson and Perry, two of the many 2016 GOP presidential hopefuls whom Trump left in his wake.

  • The Department of Education has a new communications director. Rachel Paling of New Sharon, who formerly was spokeswoman for the University of Maine at Augusta, becomes at least the fourth person in that position in the past couple of years.

Today in A-town

The schedule at the State House eases a bit today after a busy week. The House and Senate are off until Tuesday and there are only a few legislative committees in town. That doesn’t mean there won’t be action. The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee is holding work sessions — which means there might be committee votes — on some controversial perennial bills to require photo IDs to vote.

Also on the schedule is Fredette’s bill to establish a residency verification to vote, which follows on LePage’s stated desire to force college students to become full-on Maine residents if they want to vote here. The VLA committee has several other bills that involve voting and campaign finance laws. Check out the full list by clicking here.

In the Appropriations Committee, the stream of lobbyists and members of the public commenting on LePage’s biennial budget proposal continues. Education funding is likely to be the hot topic during today’s hearing.

Also happening this morning is a meeting of the Maine Ethics Commission, which will be deliberating campaign finance filing snafus by political action committees and two Democratic lawmakers. Check out the full agenda by clicking here. — Christopher Cousins

Reading list

(WARNING: The following item includes adult content.)

Juan not watch porn at work?

Be careful what you say if someone with a video camera sticks a microphone in your face. That’s what Juan from Augusta, Maine, is probably thinking after his recent appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

Juan, who says he works at a bus station and was wearing a Jesus shirt for the interview, was asked if he ever watches porn at work.

OK, let’s stop for a minute. Regardless of your internet habits as an employee, what would you say here? Even if it was your JOB to watch porn at work, would you admit it in front of a camera? Wouldn’t you be worried about the follow-up questions? Anyway, back to our story.

“Juan, have you ever watched pornography at work?”

Juan: “All the time. Oh, yeah.”

Luckily, I already go for the hand sanitizer after I touch just about anything at a bus station. You should too, obviously.

Next up on the show was a schoolteacher from Utah, who said she does NOT watch porn at work. The contrasts between Maine and Utah have maybe never been more stark. Are we being stereotyped?

Anyway, Juan, here’s your totally PG soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins

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Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.