Now that the 130th Legislature has closed shop for the summer, we can rummage at leisure amongst bills passed or defeated to see what curiosities may be found.
There are bills tiny in scope, such as “An Act to Increase the Number of Lincolnville Sewer District Trustees from 3 to 5.” They may be narrowly focused, but they are not unimportant, at least to Lincolnville (it passed.) There are bills massive in scope, such as “An Act to Expand the MaineCare Program to Cover All Citizens of the State.” (It was carried over.)
There is “An Act to Encourage Relocation to Rural Maine,” said encouragement coming in the form of a refundable property tax credit of up to $3,000 for five years, and reimbursement through a tax credit of up to $1,000 for internet connectivity expenses. Rural Maine, in this bill, is defined as Aroostook, Piscataquis, Somerset and Washington counties. (Carried over.)
The award for the most confounding bill title goes to LD 1725, “An Act to Clarify the Deferral of the Pooled Market and Link Small Employer Clear Choice to Pooling in the Made for Maine Health Coverage Act.” It is one of the few bills where the summary does not help much. A governor’s bill, it passed on a party line vote in both chambers.
There is language in bills that gives the reader pause. Nonconsensual towing. Conviction Integrity Unit. Jail resource navigator services. Abandonment of balloons. Microgrids in the public interest. Designated scattering sites. Bed hold days. It is all part of the jargon involved in law-making – language legislators quickly pick up but that which is confusing to the rest of us.
There are bills that make a reader wince and say: “Yes, please, and hurry,” such as “An Act to Limit the Decibel Level of Fireworks Near Working Farms.” Who wouldn’t be sympathetic? And, by the way, “decibel” (or Dessy-Belle) would be a great name for a cow. This bill was carried over. Think of the cows, horses, sheep, pigs and chickens and ask your legislator to support it.
A bill to “prohibit legislators from legislating while intoxicated” was voted Ought Not to Pass. This is clearly ripe for humor, but tempting though it may be, one should not assume opponents were in favor of the Baudelaire approach to legislating: “Be ye drunken ceaselessly.” There were four witnesses at the public hearing, all of whom supported the bill, one of them putting it simply: “I think everyone would agree legislators should be sober while legislating.” Indeed.
The bill sponsor, Rep. Justin Fecteau, painted a disturbing picture as he introduced the bill before the committee, alleging that “one of Augusta’s secrets is the normalized alcohol consumption while ‘on the clock’ that is afforded a blind eye.” He went on to say that a low point for him in the 129th Legislature was at the end of the first session when “the halls … were filled with drunken legislators prancing around and acting beneath their office.”
The end of a session is not pretty. Legislators are exhausted and there is way too much sitting around time as paper is passed back and forth from one chamber to the other. It used to be that a piano was wheeled out into the hall between House and Senate where a sing-along would take place while the next votes were awaited. One year, the House speaker, feeling the whole scene was beneath the dignity of the Legislature, banned the songfest but after a few days of grumpy legislators aimlessly surging up and down the halls, cried “Give them the piano!” But drunken cavorting? Times have changed.
Rep. Fecteau showed courage in raising the subject. If his allegations are accurate, they surely deserve attention. The State and Local Government Committee’s Ought Not to Pass report requires a unanimous vote, so no one in either party was persuaded.
An unusually large number of bills were carried over for further action when the Legislature reconvenes next winter. This is attributable to the fits and starts of this COVID-plagued legislative year. There were very few “legislative days” when both bodies convened to move bills through the process, resulting in a ton of bills piled up at the end. Leadership, frantic to get the Legislature out of Augusta, approved hundreds of carryovers.
They will have to pay the piper next winter. We can only hope that there will be a resumption of normal legislative process, with committees able to meet on a regular schedule and the House and Senate convening in their respective chambers rather than at the Civic Center. To that end, our state officials should continue to press for widespread vaccination against COVID to protect both legislators and staff, and to allow full resumption of the normal legislative process.
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.