Lawmakers ready to work – sort of

The Maine Legislature returned to the state house on Jan. 4, fresh and dewy, ready to dig into a workload of its own creating. That means bills, usually numbering more than 1,500.

Cloture, the deadline for bill submissions, was last Friday at 4 p.m. As of that day, the legislative bill directory showed exactly zero bills in the queue. That doesn’t mean they are not coming, but it is unusual that there are not even titles listed yet.

It takes a while for the Office of the Revisor of Statutes to get bill requests whipped into shape. That office drafts the official language of bills, and a legislator’s intent can be difficult to determine. A bill blithely titled “An Act to Change the School Funding Formula” could take weeks to draft. Change it how? What are the costs and the consequences?

A diligent legislator will invest significant sweat equity in bill preparation, meeting with relevant departments and potential supporters and opponents. But the more freewheeling among them will offer only a vague description and leave it to the revisors to work out the details.

A sponsor must sign off on the final language, and at times, they abandon the effort before the bill is printed. That means a lot of wasted time in an office in overload mode for the first months of a session.

A document titled “People Tentatively Scheduled to Perform at the Maine House of Representatives” has no entries. Help them out, people. If you can juggle, or sing, or tap dance, sign up.

The House “Fast Facts” document shows that 77 Democrats, 72 Republicans, 1 Independent and 1 Common Sense Independent will serve this term. There are also three nonvoting members representing the Penobscot Nation, the Passamaquoddy and the Maliseet.

Good that the Independents found a way to distinguish themselves from each other. Too bad the just plain Independent didn’t go for “Uncommon Sense Independent” or even the light-hearted “Nonsense Independent.”

The website of the Majority Office of the House of Representatives is advertising itself as “currently under construction,” a worrisome sign from those who are expected to lead the chamber. It seems like they could have put something together in the eight weeks since the election. The House Minority office website is up and running, full of news and information.

Committee members have been appointed. The majority party in each chamber will hold the majority of seats on the committees. That means two of the three senators on each committee will be Republicans, and on most committees, six of the 10 House members will be Democrats.

Most Hancock County legislators are staying put, assignment-wise. Rep Walter Kumiega (D-Deer Isle) will stay on as House chair of the Marine Resources Committee, and will become a new member of the Transportation Committee. Rep. Ralph Chapman (D-Brooksville) remains on the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, a helpful slot to hold in a county with a burgeoning local farm movement.

Rep. Richard Malaby (R-Hancock) will stay on the Health and Human Services Committee, Rep. Karl Ward (R-Dedham) will remain on Taxation, and Rep. Dick Campbell (R-Orrington) will stay on Environmental and Natural Resources.

Sens. Kim Rosen (R-Bucksport) and Brian Langley (R-Ellsworth) will continue as Senate chairs of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, and the Education Committee, respectively. Rosen will stay on the Transportation Committee. Langley also will serve on the Labor Committee, as will Rep. Larry Lockman (R-Amherst).

Rep. Louie Luchini (D-Ellsworth) will continue as House chair of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee. One hot issue before that panel is that of the referendum to authorize a casino in southern Maine. This one has weirdness written all over it, from the fact that it essentially authorizes just one specific individual to develop a casino, to the fact that it “helps” harness racing but does not have a race track, to the checkered past of the would-be developer.

The biggest news in the county is Rep. Brian Hubbell’s (D-Bar Harbor) move to the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee. A seasoned and respected member of the Education Committee, his loss will be felt there, particularly by Langley. Despite their opposing political orientation, the two worked well together.

Considered the most powerful committee, Appropriations is a plum assignment. The learning curve is steep; Hubbell is up to it. Once upon a time, it was expected that every member of the committee would get a gift for his district. Those days are over, mostly, but committee members are in a good position to advocate for the needs of their districts, as well as take the broad view on state issues. Hubbell is just the sort of thoughtful and ethical legislator who will serve that committee well.

Adjournment is set for June 21. That seems a long time from now, but it will come soon enough. Gov. Paul LePage has an agenda of his own, and the legislature will have to manage that, too. Remember, in Maine, you have a role to play. Let your legislators know what you think about this year’s bills. It matters.

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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