State of Maine Improving legislative efficiency

The 129th Maine Legislature convened on Dec. 5 for its organizational meeting. The list of senators certified by the Secretary of State to have won election was duly “examined and reported.” A provision was made for the designation of Chaplains of the Senate, to be paid $30 for “each officiation.” A process was provided for legislators to receive their pay and expenses.

The members were sworn in and the oaths of office taken. Since the late 1800s, legislators have been sworn in by the governor. The state constitution dictates that to happen on the first Wednesday in December. On this particular occasion the governor, despite the date certain per the constitution, had reportedly scheduled back surgery on that very day and was unable to preside over the swearing-in.

One hesitates to criticize someone in need of medical attention, but one cannot help but wonder whether the governor simply could not bring himself to face a legislature now in the complete control of Democrats. It was his last opportunity to take a shot at the loyal opposition, and he took it. Maine Supreme Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley stood in for him.

As expected, majority Democrats elected Senator Troy Jackson of Aroostook County as senate president and Sarah Gideon as speaker of the house. There was some tinkering with the joint standing committees of the legislature, the policy committees that consider bills. Health coverage was moved from the Health and Human Services Committee to the Insurance and Financial Services Committee.

Labor, which had been lumped in with commerce, research and economic development, was pulled back out into a committee on Labor and Housing, for a net gain of one policy committee. What had been “L-Cred” (Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development) became Innovation, Development, Economic Advancement and Commerce. IDEA. With a “C.” Get it?

The rules of the Senate from the 128th Legislature were adopted by the 129th. Amendments may be offered until the 3rd Friday in January. Herewith, a modest proposal to reduce the volume of bills going to floor votes.

In the first year of a legislative session, bills may be submitted by legislators without limitation (in technical language, “willy nilly”). Those bills are not camera-ready. They must be drafted by the Revisor’s Office, checked for conflict with existing statutes, referenced to a policy committee, given a public hearing, considered by the committee in work session and sent to the floor of both chambers for votes. (The exception: bills unanimously voted “Ought Not to Pass” in committee go directly to the “dead file.”)

That is an awful lot of work, often on behalf of a bill that stands no chance of passing. Changes to this system have been defeated over and over. Here is one that empowers the chambers, so what’s not to like? A bill requires only one vote in committee to be sent for floor votes. If a bill comes out of committee on a 12-1 vote with a single House or Senate member voting in favor (there are 13 members of each policy committee), it is surely not going to pass.

The chamber which cast all “nay” votes is not going to approve that bill on the floor. It’s just not. So how about requiring one “yes” vote from each chamber to bring the bill forward? It would reduce the number of doomed bills that go to the floor, are argued endlessly by the sponsor and ultimately consigned to the dead file anyway. Anybody?

Even lobbyists have boxes to check at the start of a session. A little-known statute requires lobbyists to take “annual harassment prevention training.” Hold on, isn’t harassment their job? Just kidding, of course, but lobbyists must show proof that they have completed in-person training in harassment (the prevention thereof) in order to register as lobbyists.

Lest you think lobbyists are being singled out for their harassment potential, legislators and legislative staff must also take the training. The Legislative Council must “develop and implement this course of education and training” at no charge to the trainees. Funds in the amount of $2,650 were appropriated for the purpose in 2017-18.

In the afternoon a Joint Convention was held in the House to elect the constitutional officers for the next two years. Matt Dunlap was re-elected secretary of state, Aaron Frey as attorney general and Henry Beck as state treasurer. Both Frey and Beck have previously served as Democratic legislators.

There have long been rumblings about publicly electing those officers rather than leaving it to the legislature. More campaigns, more TV ads, more money spent? No, thank you. But it might be wise to put some qualifications in place for these offices. Currently there are none. Legislators will be back to kick off the session on Jan. 2.

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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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