You might not believe this, but you can see for yourself if it’s not too late. The prettiest place in Hancock County last week was the municipal parking lot in Ellsworth at City Hall. All along the edge were flowering trees dense with pink blossoms. Go and look. It will cure what ails you.
In Augusta, legislators can only gaze with longing as the trees along the Kennebec redden with buds then turn gauzy green as spring edges toward summer. Legislators want nothing more than to run and play with the other kids, but first they have work to do.
It’s the end of the session. Though the end is nigh, Gov. Paul LePage continues to submit bills. One cannot imagine how he thinks they will pass. Item: On May 18, a governor’s bill entered the system that would begin the process of terminating the Maine Turnpike Authority.
Mind you, this may be a perfectly good idea, or at least one worthy of debate, but now? It is the policy of the legislature to give two weeks’ notice prior to a bill’s public hearing. At the end of the session, this provision is often waived, putting the public at a distinct disadvantage. Should we really terminate the Turnpike Authority without full opportunity for debate?
This bill would transfer the “duties, responsibilities and assets” of the Turnpike Authority to the Department of Transportation and remove all toll booths except the one in York. It would take 10 years to unwind the authority.
Surely, members of the public, including the “sand and gravel” sector of the transportation industry, would like to weigh in on this proposal. And don’t we want to know the impact of the loss of all those tolls? There is simply not enough time remaining to give the bill fair consideration.
Another governor’s bill submitted on the same day was LD 1615, a proposal that would rely on a “written screening tool” to prevent drug users from accessing TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) funds unless they entered a substance abuse treatment program. Also submitted that day was a bond bill to fund Maine STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) loans.
The day before, on May 17, the governor submitted a bond bill “to assist in the commercialization of Maine products and services” and a bill addressing the hotly controversial minimum wage and “tip credit” issues.
On May 16, he submitted bills to address family members as surrogates for medical decisions, remove a reporting requirement in the Office of Victim Services, provide flexibility for education technology programs, authorize a bond for agricultural water resource development and marketing, and phase out the pet food surcharge.
That’s 10 bills within a month of adjournment, and it would be hard to make the case that more than one of them was aimed at a recently breaking issue. Most of them could have been submitted much earlier in the session, and should have been if the governor expected the legislature to do them justice.
The legislature, for its part, is guilty of some late-session sins of its own. As noted, public hearing notice may be waived for late bill submissions. Session and committee schedules evolve on the fly, making it difficult for interested parties to follow the action.
But the big transgression is when committees, particularly the Appropriations Committee, sound the retreat and disappear behind closed doors to work out partisan positions on the issues and attempt to reach cross-party agreements.
How is it that selectmen in our municipalities are advised not to travel together to a meeting or event lest the public miss out on discussions leading up to a vote, yet legislators may cloister themselves until they reach a decision point, then emerge to vote before they vanish again for further discussion?
Maine.gov has a page entitled “Your Right to Know.” On it, it says: “Transparency and open decision-making are fundamental principles of the Maine Freedom of Access Act … .” Oh yeah? Legislators are required to take Freedom of Access training, but the answer to “How come you get to work behind closed doors?” seems to be “Because we always have.” There have been efforts by the media to gain access to those back rooms, with little success.
Another example of monkey-say but monkey-don’t-do is the recent bill to prohibit lying to legislators in public hearings. The bill looks unlikely to pass, having received a mostly partisan vote in the House. But the delicious irony is that the bill would have applied to lobbyists, executive branch officials and the public but not to legislators themselves. They could lie with impunity till the cows came home.
There are many bills on the calendars for the House and Senate that are there because only a single member of a 13-member committee voted for them. And there are many others where the vote split along partisan lines. Neither one of these is a useful endorsement of new legislation.
All things considered, ours is not a bad system. It would be made better if the legislature did not waive customary rules during crunch time.