Bills mired in Augusta’s ‘mud season’

There is officially just one month left in the current legislative session. Adjournment is scheduled for June 17. There are bills being fought over on the floor of the legislature, bills remaining in committee and bills still being submitted which have not even gotten into committee, let alone out.

This is the point where it becomes difficult to see how leadership will manage to bring it all together and get the Legislature out of town on time, but they usually do. Gnashing of teeth and rending of garments notwithstanding, bills will be disposed of in one way or another: passed, amended, failed or vetoed.

There is one gubernatorial veto worth a mention, because Gov. Paul LePage in his veto message makes an excellent point regarding public health policy. LD 534 would remove an existing requirement to report deaths from long-term alcohol use to the state medical examiner.

“I firmly believe,” said the governor in his veto message, “that long-term alcohol deaths need to be reported. How else can we as a society deal with the unknowns that surround death?” He goes on to say that “… causes of death are something that we as a society should be taking very seriously.”

Yes, indeed. But just try to look at gun deaths as a public health problem in this country and see how far you get. Propose a reporting system that would make it feasible to study gun deaths with a goal of prevention, and you will provoke an outcry over constitutional rights.

We are not talking prevention by prohibiting or even restricting gun ownership, either. There are a variety of ways to make guns safer, many of them through technology that will not permit a weapon to be fired unless it is in the hands of its owner. In the hands of the owner’s toddler, or a home invader, or an intoxicated teenager or a suicidal veteran, the gun would be inoperable.

This is not seen as a response to a public health emergency but a violation of our Second Amendment rights. There is no country in the world that is our equal in gun ownership, nor in gun deaths by accident, homicide or suicide. Yet every attempt at gun safety is swiftly defeated by a gun lobby unwilling to concede that guns kill and guns could be made safer.

So it is to the governor’s credit that he acknowledges that “we as a society” must “deal with the unknowns that surround death” and that “causes of death are something that … we should be taking very seriously.” Seeking ways to prevent the tens of thousands of gun deaths each year in the U.S. doesn’t have to mean taking away anyone’s rights.

Last week saw LePage put an end to a contemplated run for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Sen. Angus King. A statement issued by his office said he opted to “remain focused on the job at hand and not enter the United States Senate race in 2018.” That leaves the Republican field to state Sen. Eric Brakey.

The fate of many of this year’s bills has already been decided. There is a growing list of legislative fancies that will not become realities. Those are bills already voted “ONTP,” shorthand for “Ought Not To Pass.”

Mainers over 70 years old will still have to pay income tax. There will be no property tax exemption for “certain trails.” Veterans and Gold Star families will still have to pay admission to the Maine State Museum. We will not be promoting “life with dignity,” limiting the size of scallop drags, establishing a recall provision for elected officials or increasing vegetative buffers in the shoreland zone. (That’s “vegetative” buffers, not “legislative” buffers.)

We will not be studying the “epidemic of childhood obesity in Maine,” allowing unlicensed cribbage tournaments in certain facilities nor establishing “Maine Buy Local” month.

It is still within the realm of possibility that we will have elephants in traveling circuses; a bill to prohibit that is not looking good.

Also sent to their final resting place (the “dead file”) were several bills proposing to raise, or even to study, the salaries of legislators and the governor. Even though these laws only become effective following the term in which they are passed, they are never popular. Hence, governors and legislators are always paid far less than the people who work for them.

An Act to Establish a Mattress Stewardship Program, a bill that created images of mattress conservation, or possibly assisted living homes for mattresses, has been given new life. The title was changed to An Act to Facilitate the Recycling of Discarded Mattresses – Oh! Now we get it – and as such, it could be on its way to passage.

The governor famously vetoed a bill to create “Maine Community Litter Cleanup Day,” alleging that during the spring thaw, “litter is known to be washed away.” If only more of the bills that emerge from under winter snowbanks could be similarly washed away. The volume of Maine statutes is growing every year. Can we really need that many laws?

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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