Legislature gets off to a not-so-speedy start

One down, 1,513 to go! The Legislature passed its first bill of the session and, thoroughly worn out, took the next week off. Wait, that’s not fair. It was more an accident of timing than anything else. School vacation week is scheduled as down time for the Legislature, and for legislators with school-aged children it’s a good time to catch up with the family.

More significant about that first bill was the smoothness of its sailing. It kept state tax law consistent with federal law, which simplifies life for taxpayers, but it went beyond just conformity with a “bonus depreciation” clause. There were threats of a Democratic mutiny but in the end the bill was never in jeopardy.

Why not? The legislative code of honor is why not. The bill was reviewed by both the Taxation and Appropriations committees. Taxation sent it to Appropriations on a 7-6 party line vote, but Appropriations passed it unanimously. When House Democrats attempted to amend it, Appropriations House Chairman Peggy Rotundo rose to her feet and drew her long sword.

The bill had come from the Governor’s office, and he signed the bill the same day it was enacted by the Legislature. Its emergency preamble means it takes effect immediately, just in time for tax season.

The bill is the first example of how Governor Paul LePage’s budget will affect legislative procedures. His major tax policy initiative is embedded in the biennial budget. Items that would normally be the purview of the Taxation Committee are now the property of Appropriations.

All budgets have sections that impact policy areas, and in general those sections are heard by a joint meeting of Appropriations and the relevant policy committee. Policy committees vote out a recommendation to Appropriations, but Approps has the final say.

The norm is that bills that are straight money bills go directly to Appropriations while bills with policy implications go to a policy committee. The Governor has thoroughly entwined the two in his budget, undoubtedly annoying the Taxation Committee while significantly adding to the workload of Appropriations.

There are now more than 400 bills in print, so if you are wondering what to do while snowbound, scrolling through this year’s offerings provides plenty of enlightenment and entertainment. Legislators have a lot on their minds.

There are more bills proposing tax exemptions, even as the Governor wants to remove the exemptions we already have. Incorporated non-profit performing arts organizations would be exempt, as well as nonprofit corporations providing home rehabilitation and modification services to low income individuals.

The Department of Transportation would be directed to “require the word ‘danger’ to be included on all signs that caution motorists of moose crossings on the roadways.” Simply cautioning drivers that there might be a moose in the road does not make it clear that approaching a moose in the road at 75 miles per hour is dangerous.

There is a bill to designate a “youth bear hunting day,” which either allows young people to hunt bear or young bears to hunt other bears. Another bill proposes advice on “retrieving wounded bears,” and though the first reaction to this might be “Don’t!” the language of the bill allows for the humane pursuit of a wounded animal.

Another hunting bill would allow the transfer of a moose permit to a family member, presumably as an alternative hunter and not an alternative target. You will be happy to know that the bill to “reinstate the Orchard Hills Umbrella Association” has nothing to do with umbrellas.

If all this legislating is making your head hurt, perhaps you will be sympathetic to Rep. John Martin’s bill to increase the salaries of the governor and legislators. The governor’s annual salary of $35,000 was doubled in 1987 to $70,000. Rep. Martin is proposing that it be almost doubled again, to $120,000, starting in 2019, which would be the beginning of a new governor’s term.

The law on gubernatorial compensation also provides that a governor, at the end of his term, “may accept as a personal gift” the desk and chair he used while in office. Rep. Martin is proposing that if the current governor leaves office immediately, he may take as a gift the entire second floor of the Statehouse. (No, just kidding.)

As for legislators, Rep. Martin proposes increasing their biennial salary from about $18,500 to just over $41,000. This provision, if it passes, which it won’t, will not take effect until 2018. One can certainly argue that current legislative compensation is precious little for two years of long hours, hard work and occasional bouts of public humiliation, even if legislative benefits are added in, but legislators will not win the sympathy vote on this one. And while he is on the subject, the representative from Eagle Lake would also like to eliminate term limits for legislators.

And now a word to the socially challenged. Complain not about thy local snow plowers! They are performing miracles of snow removal in the face of storm after storm. Applaud them when they pass by. Blow them kisses. Buy them coffee. They are all that stands between us and total imprisonment in our homes. Thanks, people of the plows.

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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