‘Frequent Flier’ bills resurface

Voter ID – Does that sound familiar? It should.

It has been proposed and proposed and proposed by Republicans in Maine and rejected every time.

What’s the big deal? We must show identification for all kinds of other activities, from driving a car to ordering a beer. Why not voting? More than half the states have followed this logic to some level of voter identification.

Opponents claim that an ID requirement has an unequal effect, impacting some groups more heavily than others and suppressing voter turnout. As for the argument that it is necessary to prevent voter fraud, there is data to refute that in Maine.

A 2011 investigation into a list of almost 500 registered voters yielded a single incident of illegal voting. In a 2011 search for illegal voters among 200 college students identified by the Republican Party chairman, none were found. A 2013 report commissioned by former Secretary of State Charles Summers ended in a 4-1 vote “deferring action on proposed requirements to provide a photographic identification card in order to access a ballot.”

This report, and the thorough and thoughtful cover letter from then-incoming Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, provides a complete review of the issues, findings and recommendations. (Search Maine Elections Commission Report.)

This year’s voter ID bill includes a provision that would require the state to furnish identification cards, presumably for those without a driver’s license, at no charge to the applicant. The anticipated cost for that service at the time of the 2013 study was estimated at $6.3 million. That is a hefty price tag for a solution in search of a problem. And that does not include other administrative costs for the Secretary of State’s Office.

Another bill that is a frequent flier in Augusta is one that would ban the purchase of soft drinks and candy using food stamps. Gov. Paul LePage is again requesting approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ban those purchases, and legislators on both sides of the aisle are supportive.

Mainers are generally happy to lend a hand to those in need, but soda and candy are not on anyone’s list of essential or nutritious foods. In fact, they contribute to obesity in Maine, a problem estimated to have cost $767 million for obesity-related health care in 2014. The obesity rate has gone from 25 percent to 30 percent in the subsequent two years.

There are opponents to this change, but the governor is hoping to fare better under the Trump administration than he did under the Obama administration, which turned him down. He’s right on this one. At least some of the obesity in Maine is a problem of our own choosing through policy decisions like the one the governor is challenging.

The lottery is another example where, despite alarming data, state policy seems to work in the wrong direction.

More than 19 percent of residents in Washington County live below the poverty level. A 2014 Washington County Community Health Needs Assessment cited the report, “County Health Rankings 2014,” putting Washington County 14th among Maine’s 16 counties for “health outcomes.” It is 13th in income, 13th in alcohol and drug use, 14th in education, 15th in length of life, 15th in sexually transmitted disease and teen pregnancy, 16th in diet and exercise, 16th in access to clinical care, 16th in quality of clinical care, 16th in employment and 16th in community safety.

Factors on which Washington County “stands out from other counties in Maine?” Hospital admission rates, low flu immunizations, hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, adult smoking, adult obesity, youth with developmental delays, binge drinking, high school smoking and the teen birth rate.

Where Washington County does rank highly is in the purchase of lottery tickets, “a great way to have fun and win great prizes” according to the Maine Lottery Commission. One study found that “Maine’s poorest towns spend as much as 200 times more per person than those in wealthier areas… .”

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting tells us that “Maine residents on public assistance have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on lottery tickets…,” winning over $22 million in prizes from 2010 to 2014. The relationship between low income and high lottery spending is clear. “You just can’t attribute it to anything else,” said David Just, a Cornell University researcher.

To call this a self-inflicted wound is not to point the finger at a struggling county. Rather, it is the state that has wielded a large advertising budget to promote ticket sales despite mounting evidence that those sales are proportionately higher in the poorest areas of the state.

Heavily reliant on revenue from lottery ticket sales, Maine has long looked away from this problem. Though benefits cannot be used directly to purchase lottery tickets, it will not strike taxpayers as a good bargain to be furnishing public money to improve life in Washington County at the same time the inhabitants are setting records for lottery expenditures.

It is time for the legislature to put some systematic thought into resolving these conflicts of state interests, and then take action.

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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