A rare compromise in Augusta

Well, there! With about a month left to go in the legislative session, Augusta put one of the biggest issues of the year to bed.

The parties disagreed on the terms of conforming to federal tax law, and Democrats injected a poison pill into the tax debate, seeking to poke school funding money into a tax conformity bill. With some nipping here and some tucking there, a tax agreement was struck, and some additional school funding money was provided in a separate bill. Now, wasn’t that easy?

Now the legislature has set its sights on welfare reform. Republicans have been out front on this issue, proposing legislation to deal with “waste, fraud and abuse” while Democrats have accused Republicans of victimizing the poor over mostly unsubstantiated claims that welfare abuse is a problem.

The trouble is that the average Mainer, like the average Republican, does see a problem with welfare clients buying cigarettes, liquor, soda, tattoos and lottery tickets with their benefits. The Democrats finally blinked, calling Maine’s welfare program (in a March 16 press release) “too susceptible to fraud and abuse.” “Mainers, we have heard you,” declared House Speaker Mark Eves at a press conference. Republicans, he might have said in this election year, we heard you, too.

The Democratic proposal tracked what Republicans have long been promoting, banning certain purchases with EBT (electronic benefit transfer) cards. Republicans were quick to “welcome Democrats to the party,” as House Republican Leader Ken Fredette put it. Likewise, the governor’s spokesperson applauded the proposed restrictions on EBT cards but cast the Democrats’ plan as cover for the upcoming election season.

Among other provisions in the Democrats’ proposal are some that Republicans might find hard to swallow. The Dems have included ideas for “transitional jobs, training and education” and “services to ensure Mainers get the tools they need to succeed.” Funding for these programs was not addressed at the roll-out.

Democrats also proposed a Citizen Oversight Board, adding fuel to the fire for those who accuse Democrats of seizing every opportunity to expand state bureaucracy.

The Democrats’ penchant for government expansion is reflected in LD 1525, a bill to support preferential treatment for Maine or American businesses in state contracts for goods and services. Democrats like the idea of a seven-member Independent Procurement Review Board that would review all spending over $1 million.

That’s a lot of review. The board would be authorized to hire an executive director, making it a whole new unit of government. The State and Local Government Committee is divided on the bill. Despite a committee vote on Feb. 17, it is still in the committee’s possession.

Another bill that would add more process to the process is LD 1560, an act to “strengthen intragovernment communication.” The bill was submitted by Republican Sen. Roger Katz following Gov. Paul LePage’s restrictions on appearances by his commissioners and other agency staff before legislative committees.

LD 1560 would require a written request for a “commissioner or director of a state agency or the commissioner’s or director’s designee” to attend a public hearing, work session or meeting of a joint standing committee or study group officially convened by the legislature.

On the face of it, this might not seem unreasonable. Far too much time is wasted when Maine’s highest paid employees sit by the hour in committee rooms just in case a question comes up that the commissioner or his designee could answer.

But this was not the only motivation for the governor’s ban on committee appearances. He felt that some of his staff, DHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew in particular, were being “abused” by legislative committees. True, there are committee members who relish making administrative staff squirm, but Mayhew seems quite capable of taking care of herself, as any commissioner should.

Further, a committee chair should be quick to rein in committee members who truly are being unfair to those appearing before them. This petty tyranny is abundant at the federal level; Maine should take care not to emulate it. It’s a cheap thrill for a legislator because the officials can’t fight back.

To require a written request for administrative staff to participate in a committee meeting really puts the brakes on committee action. There are many circumstances that make committee agendas subject to unexpected change: more time needed by committee analysts to gather information the committee requested, the absence of a strategic legislator who has a bill running in another committee, instructions from leadership to temporarily defer a discussion. Legislative sessions are relatively brief. It is helpful to be able to adjust the committee schedule on the fly.

The sponsor, Katz, citing improving relations with the department and agency staff, actually asked the State and Local Government Committee to kill the bill. But the committee voted the bill out on party lines, with one House independent giving the 7-6 edge to Democrats’ “ought to pass” vote.

Too many legislative proposals increase the complexity and the expense of state government. Some have merit; others are attempts to solve narrow problems with unnecessary regulation. The bar must be set higher for Maine to expand its bureaucracy.

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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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