Legislating ‘while fatigued’

The Legislature recently considered a bill to make it a crime to operate a motor vehicle “while fatigued.” That would mean driving after being without sleep for 24 hours, while in a “state of sleep” (meaning asleep?) or when one’s “ability or alertness” is impaired by lack of sleep. The bill addresses a real safety problem, but enforcement is hard to picture.

What about legislating while fatigued? At this point in the session, that poses a genuine risk to the public. In this case, “fatigued” could be defined by numbers of hours in a seat during hearings or work sessions. At some point, it becomes difficult for even the most dedicated legislator to focus, and “language,” the ultimate outcome of the legislative process, can get squirrely.

At least a legislator may leave his or her seat for a few minutes, do a lap or two around the Hall of Flags and grab a bottle of water. The remarkable legislative analysts who serve the committees do not have that advantage. They are captive at their desks, bound to try to answer each and every legislator’s question and to fully understand – and eventually represent in the bill text – “legislative intent” as the bill is discussed and amended.

Scientific studies abound on the hazards of prolonged inactivity, particularly sitting. Cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and even dementia have been linked to sedentary behavior. The report of a study in the January 20, 2015 “Annals of Internal Medicine” suggests “standing or moving around for one to three minutes every half hour while you’re at work.”

While going to the gym or taking a brisk walk before or after work is surely commendable, it might not help all that much if you spend most of the rest of your day sitting. Bottom line from the study: “Prolonged sedentary time was independently associated with deleterious health outcomes regardless of physical activity.”

It would not be easy for our legislators to model healthy work-time behavior. Committees are quite disciplined when they are seated, but release those bodies from those seats, and it is not always easy to retrieve them.

A five-minute break flies by when a legislator gets busy checking email, making a phone call or facing a queue of constituents and lobbyists dying to get a word in during the break. A committee chairman without an iron fist could lose an hour of work time over the course of three or four breaks during an afternoon. A break every half hour? ‘Tain’t likely, chummy.

Not every legislator is guilty of a level of industry hazardous to his health. Senator Linda Baker proposed a bill to dock the pay of legislators frequently AWOL. There are no consequences of missing session days unless constituents are on the ball and exact a price in the next election.

It means, of course, that that particular district has no voice in the proceedings that day. No one will fault a legislator who is ill, has a family emergency or is otherwise legitimately unable to attend. Baker’s bill provides for eight excused absences over a two-year session. But some absences are for less compelling reasons, such as vacations.

Few legislators will miss the hearing for a bill they are sponsoring, but they might not show up for a work session, which delays committee work and may seriously inconvenience the public. Work sessions are the committee’s opportunity to ponder what was presented at the hearing, consider information brought in by the committee analyst, and craft the language of the bill in its final form.

The public is not permitted to speak at work sessions except at the request of the committee. However, anyone who has spent much time in Augusta knows the perils of skipping the work session. The committee could have a question. Members can be lobbied during breaks. And it is much more difficult for the committee to kill a bill when a hopeful citizen is sitting on the edge of his seat in the audience.

When a bill sponsor is not present at a work session, whether for good reason or not, the committee will usually table his bill as a courtesy. This often happens after notice of the work session has been posted. Those who have gotten themselves to Augusta to monitor the meeting are out of luck.

Perhaps when a sponsor does not show up at a work session, the committee should move and second an “Ought Not to Pass” motion before tabling the missing sponsor’s bill. This would get the sponsor’s attention, and he or she might be more likely to show up the next time around.

No one should underestimate the amount of work done by the average legislator. What may appear to the kitchen quarterback to be unnecessarily prolonged discussion, wrangling and wordsmithing is what gives a bill its best hope of ending up as a practical, readable and enforceable law.

Most legislators are committed to their jobs. Those who are more cavalier about their responsibilities give the whole institution a black eye and perpetuate the general contempt in which legislative bodies are held.

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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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