Legislative committees short on specifics

September is here, and the kids are back to school; cute as a button, happy in their new clothes, proud parents walking them to the schoolhouse or seeing them onto the bus, they are stepping into the world outside of home.

Then there are those other kids, the Augusta ones. They are back too, back to the State House, but no one is snapping photos, buying them new sneakers or tucking love notes into their lunch boxes.

The legislative session is still almost four months away, but as summer ends, the work of the legislature resumes. Four legislative committees will gather in September. Other than listing the time and place, the legislative information calendar is not all that informative.

The Appropriations Committee will meet on Sept. 14, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (“All times are approximate,” says the calendar) for the purpose of a “Legislative meeting.” What’s it about? Who knows? You may click till the cows come home, but anything like an agenda is nowhere to be found.

The Fund for a Healthy Maine (FHM) will meet twice this month, times still approximate, agenda unknown. But these are really meetings of the Health and Human Services (HHS) Committee, and if you are on that committee’s distribution list you will be in the know.

The committee will review whether allocations from FHM are aligned with Maine’s “current public health care and preventive health priorities and goals.” There will be an additional two HHS Committee meetings in October.

FHM was created in 1999 with funds Maine received from the national Tobacco Settlement. Eight areas of “health promotion” were listed in the original statute, including smoking cessation efforts, unhealthy weight and obesity treatment, prenatal care and home visits, child care, dental care, substance abuse prevention and treatment, and school health and nutrition programs.

Former House Speaker Steve Rowe deserves much of the credit for the original design of the program and his fierce commitment to keeping the fund focused on improving public health. According to the 2014 Maine Treasurer’s report, Maine received more than $796 million in Tobacco Settlement money. That’s real money. The treasurer projected another $170 million in receipts over 2015-17. Focusing 24 hours of committee time on FHM is clearly worthwhile.

Also on the September calendar is the Office of Policy Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA) and the watchdog’s watchdog, the Government Oversight Committee. The legislative calendar lists meetings on both Sept. 4 and 8 but is otherwise of no more use than with any of the other listings.

Fortunately, OPEGA is a trim little ship, and a visit to its website is much more helpful. OPEGA started work in 2005 to ensure that “public funds are expended for intended purposes, and that programs and activities are effectively, efficiently and economically managed.”

It was meant to be independent of the legislature, but in order to get it passed, supporters yielded to Democrats’ wishes to put the legislature in charge and created the Government Oversight Committee to monitor OPEGA.

Their listing shows nothing for Sept. 4, but gives an agenda for Sept. 8 that includes a briefing on the matter of Governor Paul LePage’s intervention with the Good Will-Hinckley School which resulted in the firing of just-hired Speaker Mark Eves as the school’s executive director. OPEGA’s upcoming work plan is also up for discussion.

If OPEGA was meant to be a “model for best practices,” its website is a good example. Despite numerous revisions, state websites, including the legislature’s, leave much to be desired. OPEGA’s is better. You can find mission statements and authorizations, committee membership, a work plan, meeting schedules and agendas, and minutes of past meetings.

Why, oh why, can’t the legislative calendar link to committee listings? Not that that would do us any good. Go to the website for Insurance and Financial Services Committee, on the calendar for a Sept. 16 meeting, and you will see a list of committee members with contact information for committee staff, but nothing about a meeting. What kind of public notice is that?

The Right to Know Advisory Committee is meeting on Sept. 15. Maybe they could recommend some changes for the calendar. What will the Right to Know committee be discussing? We don’t know.

The Environment and Natural Resources Committee is the other legislative standing committee to meet in September, along with the legislature’s management group, the Legislative Council. Then there are a variety of non-legislative groups: the Department of Labor, the Indigent Legal Services Commission, the Commission to Study the Public Lands Management Fund, the Citizen Trade Policy Commission and the Division of the Deaf, Hard of Hearing.

Full legislative engagement will not resume until Jan. 6, 2016. In the meantime, 10 new studies have been authorized by the legislature, and five ongoing groups are meeting at the legislature’s behest. 175 bills were carried over from the first session of the 127th Legislature to the second, and plenty more will be introduced for the winter session. With forecasts calling for another doozie of a winter, all that should help take our minds off our misery.

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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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