Maine, the way life should be?

Maine, the way life should be? Au contraire, mon frere. So far this session, our legislators have come up with 1,432 ways to improve life in Maine. How can this be? Can there really be a need for 1,432 additions, revisions or perfections to our state statutes? And there is still over a month to go. There could be hundreds more.

In 2005, the Maine Legislature contracted with the National Conference of State Legislatures to evaluate “operations and practices” of the legislature. NCSL made 24 recommendations to create efficiencies and enhance the effectiveness of the legislative process. Most have gone the way of the dodo bird.

Even the simplest of proposed changes has vanished in the mists of time. NCSL’s report stated: “The Maine Legislature spends too much time and too many resources on legislative sentiments.” Their recommendation was for a “citation or certificate … as the main instrument for expressing commendation, condolences, appreciation or congratulations.”

Yet sentiments still appear by the hundreds in the course of a session. Each one is drafted in the Revisor’s Office, taking up precious time that could be devoted to bills. Then the sentiment appears on the chamber calendars and is subject to a vote. Though they are mostly routine, they still take time to organize, print and process.

There were 24 sentiments on the House calendar May 21, remembering the dead (all of whom will be “sadly missed”), congratulating the successful, offering best wishes for retirements, and giving shout-outs to salutatorians, valedictorians and honors essayists.

The volume of bills submitted every session has received its own scrutiny over the years, but nothing has been done to close the floodgates. Maine legislators cherish the opportunity to submit as many bills as they choose, and limits are never even given serious consideration.

Many bills are submitted for reasons other than their merits. Some are put in at the request of a constituent. The worst of these, bills that are irredeemably bad or irrecoverably hopeless, are actually marked “By request” on the bill’s title page. These are bills for which the sponsor will not lift a finger. He may not even appear to present the bill at its public hearing. So why bother? Because the legislator can tell a constituent: “I tried.”

There are bills about which a sponsor knows so little at the time of submission that by the time the bill is teed up in committee and word is out about its impact, the sponsor is ready to disavow it. Sponsors may ask leave to withdraw the bill or ask the committee for a unanimous “ought not to pass” report, which sends the bill directly to the dead file without a floor vote.

Once upon a time, the Joint Rules of the Legislature did not permit withdrawal of a bill. That meant that if a legislator legislated in haste, he had to repent at leisure. It is too easy to toss a bill in knowing it can be withdrawn, and it still puts the Revisor’s Office through the trouble of drafting a proposal.

We regret to inform you that a bill to assist individuals to obtain a permit to grow and sell water spinach has been killed (LD 546), likewise a bill regarding captive amphibian and reptile permits (LD 746), nor will we be increasing the salaries of the governor and legislators (LD 406). It’s dead.

Among the 1,432 ways to make life more worth living, we are contemplating giving hunters the choice of wearing red clothing instead of orange should they practice a faith that frowns upon dressing in orange (LD 1430).

Divided reports are stacked up on House and Senate calendars, awaiting debate and votes. In many cases, 11 or 12 of the 13 committee members agreed that a bill was a non-starter, while just one or two dissented. Never mind. A single affirmative vote is enough to bring a bill forward to the full legislature.

Most bills come out of committee with amendments to the original. Again, the large majority of the committee might have signed off on one version of an amended bill, but a single legislator might put forward his own amendment. Sometimes two legislators each have a separate amendment of their own.

This is madness. It is very difficult to explain the subtle distinctions between three or even four committee amendments to the rest of the chamber. When 10 committee members, from both chambers and both parties, have supported a committee amendment, it is distinctly not helpful to have outlying members lobbying for a version all their own.

Now is the time when regular order may be abandoned in favor of expediency. Normally, two weeks notice must be given prior to a bill’s public hearing. As the June 17 adjournment date looms, that notice can shrink or evaporate altogether, making it far more difficult for the average citizen to keep up with the action.

The Legislature as a whole is resistant to change. Any interest in improving the legislative process dissipates when real suggestions are put on the table. No private enterprise would survive the level of inefficiency we tolerate in our Legislature.

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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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