Signs of a “great unraveling”

It’s springtime in Maine. Rushing rivers, the scent of lilacs, the threat of a government shutdown … . Both parties are making shutdown noises over the education funding tax surcharge. The R’s are balking at its implementation despite the state electorate voting in favor of it. The D’s are hinting they could see a shutdown coming if the surcharge is abandoned.

In the executive branch, another thread came loose in the “great unraveling” that marks the end of most administrations. Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew left her post at the end of last week. There being no mention of wanting to spend more time with her family, the move amped up speculation about Mayhew’s possible bid for the Blaine House.

Gov. Paul LePage offered a warm farewell to his DHHS commissioner, praising her for her “grit and grace.” The grit included facing down the feds after the Riverview Psychiatric Center was decertified, the “unlawful diversion” of federal funds for the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) program, capping eligibility for TANF funds and fighting for photographs on electronic benefit cards.

The grace – well, not sure where the grace comes in, but the governor and the commissioner were clearly like-minded on cost-cutting efforts under Mayhew’s DHHS leadership. Of course, in the same newspaper edition reporting on Mayhew’s departure and the program reductions she spearheaded, there was a letter to the editor describing a capital campaign to expand a food pantry.

The writer, from Union, cited a 30 percent increase in use of the food pantry in 2014, and another 30 percent increase in 2015. Connect the dots to see the result of reduced public assistance at the state level. It is not that the need has decreased. People formerly aided by the state now are turning to local, volunteer-run food pantries.

One candidate who already has declared her intention to try for the Blaine House is now the first in the nation to be endorsed by the Centrist Project. Terry Hayes, Maine state treasurer and independent gubernatorial candidate, also has been endorsed by former independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler.

The Centrist Project is supporting independent candidates for state legislatures in what they call the “fulcrum strategy.” In closely divided state houses, a small group of independent legislators could have an influence on decision-making from outside the party perspectives. Maine has its own chapter of the Centrist Project in Portland.

An effort supported by voters in the fall referendum to assure that the ultimate winners of certain elections would have majority support has been tossed into a cocked hat by the Maine Supreme Court. Responding to a request from the Legislature, the court reached the conclusion that ranked-choice voting (RCV) is unconstitutional.

The cures at this point are a constitutional amendment to permit RCV or to strike down the citizen-passed law. Many Republicans favor the latter approach, but certainly the supporters of RCV are hoping at the very least to salvage other parts of the law and to pursue the constitutional amendment route. The Legislature will get back to us on the plan.

Meanwhile, Washington County has bigger fish to fry. In a move that caught the county flat-footed, LePage issued pink slips to the entire staff at the Downeast Correctional Facility. Not only is the facility a source of jobs in a jobs-scarce area, those serving time at the facility are an important source of labor for local public works.

The Washington County delegation is fighting back. Sen. Joyce Maker (R-Calais) submitted an order to fund the facility for another year. Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle supported it, 30-3. That sound you hear? That’s the governor backpedalling. Rumor had it that on closer inspection, LePage might keep the facility afloat for the time being.

News of the termination of obstetrics services at Calais Regional Hospital did nothing to brighten the mood Down East. Small hospitals around Maine have long struggled with providing birthing services close to home. Most cannot support an obstetrician, and the low number of births and high cost of insurance for labor and delivery doctors has meant the regional consolidation of services.

Finally, in a move that would be hard not to describe as spiteful, LePage refused to allow the Department of Transportation to post highway signs directing travelers to the newly designated Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

Citing the current review of monument status, the governor does not want to waste money erecting signs that might have to come down again. The challenge of locating the monument surely would cause limited visitation, making the governor’s predictions of doom for KWW a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Predictably, locals took matters into their own hands, installing handmade signs on overpasses or on the highway right-of-way. Ixnay, said the governor, and the signs were disappeared.

How about memorializing this best-kept-secret of a monument in roadside shrines? The Maine legislature has shied away from regulating these, except to allow their removal if they generate unsafe driving conditions. A tasteful “RIP KWW Exit 264” might do the trick.

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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