State of Maine: Some Republican reform proposals may be worth considering 

Funny how the minority party in a legislative body is the one to call for reform while the majority party likes things just the way they are, thank you very much. So it goes in Maine, where there has been a little burst of reform proposals from Republicans, the party currently in the minority in both House and Senate. 

Let us consider those of Jim Fossel, long-time Republican campaign worker who also served on the staffs of Senator Susan Collins and former House Republican Leader Josh TardyFossel put out a call for reform after the November election with ideas that have been raised before but are still worth considering. 

He proposes a change in how the Legislature may convene itself outside of a regular session, a subject of much debate during the pandemic. Currently it requires a majority of each of the four political caucuses (both parties, both chambers) to agreeFossel proposes a super majority. Wouldn’t this make it harder? Another of his ideas might be more helpful, and that is super majorities of the members in each chamber.   

Next, he takes on the guts of the legislative process: bill makingIt is a process deigned to be cumbersome enough that bills are not passed willy-nilly, but the result is extraordinarily wasteful of time and money 

The Revisor’s Office must accept all bill proposals with a straight face, write the language and work out the overwhelming details that properly drafted bills require, reviewing every one for constitutionality and compatibility with existing law. The potential costs of every bill must be determined. Bills with insurance mandates receive special screening to detect any impact on insurance costs. 

Then there is the dreaded “concept draft,” where a legislator may submit an idle thought and leave the rest to the revisors. Never mind that legislators are supposed to provide sufficient detail to allow drafting of the bill in accordance with the legislator’s intentions. Sometimes the legislator has no intentions. The light bulb moment has burned out before the bill reaches a committee.  

Concept drafts were meant to allow development of a bill by a policy committee rather than to draft a bill fully and have the committee shoot it down. The actual result is that the sponsor may not even show up for the committee hearing, no committee member wants to carry the sponsor’s water and the bill becomes an orphan.   

Legislative staff is surely the Legislature’s greatest asset. The staffs of OPLA (Office of Policy and Legal Analysis), OFPR (Office of Fiscal and Program Review) and the Revisor’s Office (where all bill drafting happens) are experts in their policy areas. Some are attorneys. It falls to OFPR and OPLA to staff the policy committees. They do brilliant work. 

OFPR has Appropriations and Taxation; OPLA has all the other committees. Working at an extraordinary level of commitment, they hurl themselves into the process each December and do not come up for air until the Legislature adjourns in the spring.  

Every bill is assigned to a policy committee for consideration. Almost every bill gets a public hearing. Every public hearing requires public notice. Every bill is then discussed in committee, more than once for the big ones, and then gets voted out of committee and sent on to the third floor with the committee recommendation: “ought to pass,” ought not to pass,” or “ought to pass as amended.” Every one of these steps takes administrative work. 

The only exceptions are the bills that do not receive a single affirmative vote. They are sent directly to the “dead file,” minus a funeral. This is an easy opportunity for reform. Jim Fossel rightly identifies the problem but offers a worrisome solution, suggesting that a committee chair could decline to post the bill for a hearing. 

This would empower the majority to a dangerous degree, as would any change that rested disposition of a bill in a single person’s hands. Fossel moderates his own suggestion by alternatively proposing that the hearing decision be the responsibility of two committee leaders, one from each chamber. Now he’s talking. That would work for sending bills to the floor, too. It should take both a majority and a minority vote to generate a chamber vote. A bill with zero votes from one of the parties is a bill with no oxygen supply. 

Third on Fossel’s list of reforms is transparency. Good luck with that. In a state with aggressive “sunshine” laws, the Legislature sure spends a lot of time working behind closed doors. Rick Bennett, a Republican returning to the Senate after a two-decade gap, has also put forth some “outrageously bold” proposals (his words) but they are of uncertain virtue and workability. Prediction: They’re DOA. Fossel has brought up some real possibilities. They should be considered. 

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.

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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