State of Maine: Special session costs add up

It’s the Legislature that wouldn’t die. The 128th is going on, and on, and on. Each time they convene they clear a few more bills; each time they recess, they must go back to try for more and to address the latest gubernatorial vetoes.

One of the problems with these sporadic special sessions is the attrition rate. Legislators did not plan to be in Augusta off and on all summer. Events or travel scheduled for the legislative off-season are disrupted.

What is frustrating about the stop-and-start, hurry up and wait pace of the legislature in February is simply maddening in July. By the time a midnight-ish vote was taken on a school funding bill, a full one-third of legislators had done an Elvis and left the building.

They are not the only cranky people in Augusta. Governor Paul LePage has refused to allow the sale of transportation bonds passed by the legislature and the voters, putting summer roadwork in jeopardy. He has refused to release available funds to Clean Election candidates. He nixed a scheduled appearance by his Commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services Ricker Hamilton at a recent committee meeting, even though the governor himself said the state “has to do better to make sure children are protected.”

About this latter showdown, the governor expressed his concern that matters would be raised that, for legal reasons, cannot be addressed in public at this point. Here’s how the commissioner might handle that: “Due to legal proceedings I cannot answer that question at this time.”

The governor’s other worry was that committee legislators might use the occasion to “grandstand to score political points.”

Grandstanding! The horror! Legislators (and governors) are free to grandstand at will. It is not an excuse to halt state business, especially when that business involves the deaths of two children.

The verdict on grandstanding happens at the voting booth, not in the governor’s office. Furthermore, what do you call it when a governor proposes to tax Maine hospitals to fund a Democrat-favored Medicaid expansion, as Governor LePage recently suggested? Yes. Grandstanding.

When it comes to the governor’s whims on issuing or withholding appropriated money, none is more galling than the funds owed to Clean Elections candidates. With the support of House Republicans, the governor has locked up those funds. Candidates who registered for Clean Elections in good faith and qualified under the rules of the program are now left hanging.

There are more than 200 of them. With the primary elections over, campaigning will begin in earnest, but those in the Clean Elections program have little funding with which to conduct it. The Maine Ethics Commission has the money. It just needs routine authorization to release it.

Nope, says the governor.

This is pure spite. The money cannot be used for any other purpose. About two-thirds of Clean Elections candidates are Democrats. One of the candidates is independent candidate for governor Terry Hayes. Could it be that our governor’s favored candidate, Republican Shawn Moody, would benefit from Hayes getting off to a slow start due to lack of funding?

These candidates saw their post-primary funding reduced by 72 percent. This is an absolute violation of the agreement candidates make with the state when they enroll in this program. Worse yet, one House Republican says he spotted the error a full year ago and kept silent. A disgusted Hayes said, “This is precisely why I need to be Maine’s next governor.”

Maine Citizens for Clean Elections has filed a lawsuit. Good for them, and let’s hope the courts act quickly. House Minority Leader Ken Fredette’s comment: “Many people in the House Republican caucus are not particularly supportive of clean elections.” So what? Like the program or hate it, it amounts to a contract between a candidate and the state and should be honored if the state is to have any credibility.

The legislature is scheduled to resume once again on July 9. The cost is roughly $42,000 per day and comes to us courtesy of the House Republicans. They are the caucus that refused to extend the regular session, instead forcing a special session, a costlier undertaking. Governor LePage, that watchdog of fiscal responsibility, has also suggested he will call the legislature in yet again to consider proposals he is developing.

Despite criticizing special sessions, the governor does not refrain from submitting legislation when they are called. Not “quick fix” legislation, mind you, but controversial proposals such as slowing an approved increase in Maine’s minimum wage, or restricting campaign fundraising at the polls. This keeps the legislature in longer, and the meter running on the expense.

None of the negotiations to resolve the remaining issues are taking place in public. All we can do is stand by and hope the lame duck 128th soon quacks its way out of town.

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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