State of Maine: Zombie bills seen in Augusta

The 128th Maine Legislature continues to assure us that they will reconvene and finish the business of the session. They had better. Rarely has a legislature left so much undone in the second year of a two-year session.

Data searching at the Maine State House is not a simple proposition. The separation of powers seems to extend to computer systems, which, like the political parties, do not communicate with each other. One needs a Sherpa. Fortunately, there are some great ones, and no, there will be no sharing. They can cross electronic boundaries, pull a little from here, a little from there, and voila! You’ve got data.

More than 250 bills have not been finally disposed; 134 of them are sitting on the Appropriations Table awaiting funding decisions, and more than 40 are floating around in the House or Senate. Almost 50 bills have not even been voted out of committee. These numbers are excessive, if not record-breaking.

Unprecedented is the Legislature’s “solution” to this failure to finish its work. Under normal circumstances, incomplete bills die upon final adjournment. This year, that happened on May 2 at the end of “veto day,” when the Legislature considered the last of the bills Gov. Paul LePage rejected.

In order to avoid the untimely death of all unfinished bills, the Legislature took the precaution of passing a joint order on their final April work day, directing that “all matters not finally disposed of … be carried over to the next special session of the 128th Legislature.”

When is that? Well, you might ask. No special session is scheduled, and the sides have laid down different requirements for getting back together. House Republicans insist that a package of bills be unbundled and voted on individually. Democrats insist that Medicaid be expanded as voters directed.

This has created a situation of interest to the politically obsessed. If incomplete bills die upon adjournment “sine die,” but the 128th has already adjourned sine die, these are now zombie bills — the undead. By definition, they are technically “still animate,” but without a special session, they will die when the 128th does, on Dec. 5, 2018, when the next Legislature convenes.

All of this raises a question. Among the candidates for Congress and governor are members of the Legislature, including members of leadership. Given the failure of the Legislature to complete its work, just why do these legislators feel they should be rewarded with higher office?

Members of the rank and file might have an excuse, even if they are not entirely off the hook. They include, for election to Congress, Eric Brakey (state senator running for U.S. Senate) and Martin Grohman (Independent representative running in the 1st Congressional District). In the governor’s race are Democrats Mark Dion and Diane Russell.

Members of leadership have a harder case to make. They control much of what happens, or doesn’t happen, in Augusta. They must accept responsibility for the failings of the 128th, and now they want us to elect one of them to the Blaine House or Congress.

They include Jared Golden, Democrat and House assistant majority leader, running for the 2nd Congressional District seat.

Also, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette and Senate Majority Leader Garret Mason both are Republicans running for governor. Gubernatorial candidate Mark Eves, a Democrat, was not eligible for the 128th Legislature due to term limits but previously served four House terms, two as speaker (2012-16), so he has a leadership track record, too.

The shortcomings of leadership may be due to term limits. Smart and well-meaning they may be, but with a four-term horizon, ambitious legislators must quickly get on the leadership ladder before they have gotten fully versed in the legislative process, especially in committees where legislating really happens. They might spend their first term on a committee but then seek election to leadership, hoping to climb to a presiding officer position by their final term. The unfortunate results are what we see in the 128th.

If candidates with a legislative history have not proven themselves worthy of our support, what about candidates with no experience as elected officials? Are they qualified for statewide office? At this point, they might be worth a roll of the dice. A new approach is needed, and it is not going to come from people who have been schooled by the legislature.

If the primary elections result in candidates forged by the legislative process, it will be all the more reason to take a look at the independents running. For governor, Terry Hayes and Alan Caron are experienced, viable candidates. In the 2nd Congressional District, the independents are untested politically but remain alternatives to the party candidates.

On primary day, those of you permitted to vote should remember that if you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got. It’s time for something new.

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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