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Dirty tricks in Christie’s administration and divisiveness from LePage

Amy Fried - Bangor Daily News -

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie with Maine Gov. Paul LePage at a pre-election rally in Portland in November 2014. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

There was a time, not so very long ago, when Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey was a frequent visitor to Maine and a top-tier presidential candidate.

Within his state, Christie’s job approval has slipped to 35 percent. New Jersey’s bond rating has been downgraded nine times.

Nationally and in New Jersey, Christie’s star has fallen largely because of the Bridgegate charges.

When Christie came to Maine to support Gov. Paul LePage’s re-election efforts, five times altogether, the two men often looked and sounded comfortable together. Both shared a reputation for sharp language and for pushing the envelope to achieve their goals.

Today we see both administrations’ tendency to disdain people who don’t stand with them, although in Christie’s case his close allies went beyond tough talk.

Late last week, two of Christie’s staffers were indicted on charges related to the bridge scandal. Another pleaded guilty.

Bill Baroni, Bridget Anne Kelly and David Wildstein were involved in an effort to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, who had the temerity to not endorse Christie for re-election. The mayor’s endorsement was desired because it would demonstrate bipartisan appeal, thus boosting Christie’s reputation as a candidate who could attract voters from across the political spectrum.

But because Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich did not endorse Christie, a plan was hatched. In mid-August 2013, Kelly emailed Wildstein, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Wildstein replied, “Got it.” They then waited for a busier time of year to strike, and put their plan into effect on the first day of public school.

As the indictment explains, terrible traffic was unleashed, leading to pleas from Sokolich and difficulties in responding to a missing child and a medical emergency. But still the Christie staffers did not respond to the mayor or the town’s public safety officials. Instead, they gloated about the problems they had caused. Kelly messaged to Wildstein, “Is it wrong that I am smiling?” Wildstein replied, “No.”

Christie has not been indicted, although Wildstein’s attorney claims there is proof that the governor knew about the lane closings that led to the traffic disaster the day it occurred.

We’ve seen no similar dirty tricks in Maine. What we have seen from LePage is a lack of respect for our political norms.

Political systems are based in constitutional provisions, laws, rules and regulations, but there are also mutual understandings, norms, that contribute to them working and addressing public problems.

In his last term, LePage restricted executive branch members from testifying to the Legislature.

Lately, LePage broke with Maine’s usual way of operating by holding up land conservation bonds voted on by the people as leverage for an unrelated bill regarding forestry and home heating.

By the way, these sorts of bonds are quite successful at the polls.

As a recent research paper by Professor James Melcher of the University of Maine at Farmington notes, between 1990 and 2014, Maine had more bonds on the ballot than any other state. During that period, 81.6 percent passed. Bonds for natural resources passed at an even higher rate (82.4 percent) than the average, with an average of 58.4 percent of the vote. And while transportation bonds are also quite popular, their pass rate during this period was below natural resources bonds.

Republican Sen. Roger Katz has not only objected to the governor’s strategy regarding bonds. He has also introduced a bill (LR1053) to mandate that governors put out the bonds voters approved within five years, unless the project is cancelled, alternate funds are available or certain financial situations hold.

Katz, a fellow Republican from a family with a strong political pedigree — his father, also a Republican, was the majority leader of the Maine Senate — has been pilloried by LePage and his allies.

After Rep. Ken Fredette suggested Katz “wants to fight with the governor,” LePage called Katz’s bill called “the most repulsive thing he’s ever done in government.” In the same radio interview, LePage suggested of Katz, “the man doesn’t like poor people, he’s my enemy.” A Westbrook Democratic office holder’s comment on assassinating is likewise hyperbolic.

Politicians who see others who differ from them as enemies fuel dirty tricks and divisiveness. With a budget deal still to be crafted for Maine, that attitude makes it harder to prevent our own traffic problems, not on the streets but among political leaders.

It’s action time for LePage’s push to eliminate Maine’s income tax

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

It’s Tuesday in Augusta and it’s time to see how lawmakers react to Gov. Paul LePage’s attempt to strong-arm them into voting in favor of asking the Maine people to eliminate the state’s income tax.

LePage has asked for everyone who can to attend today’s Taxation Committee hearing, where the bill he unveiled last month — and gave lawmakers hours to decide if they’d sign on — is being introduced.

“I speak out for the hard-working Maine taxpayer at ever opportunity, but tomorrow, it is your turn to speak out with me,” said LePage in a written statement circulated to reporters Monday afternoon. “I know this is short notice, but it we can pull together to make this proposal a reality, it will benefit Maine’s economy for the rest of our lives.”

In April, LePage submitted a bill that proposes to change the Maine Constitution and eliminate the income tax, which requires a two-thirds vote of both chambers of the Legislature. By the end of the day, all five Republican legislative leaders had co-sponsored the bill, but not a single Democrat. LePage and Republicans already enacted an income tax cut in 2011 under a GOP-controlled Legislature, and LePage is calling for another cut in his biennial budget proposal, which is currently under consideration.

Since his re-election last year — LePage said during the campaign he wanted to cut taxes but did not talk about eliminating the income tax until his second term — LePage has made it clear that eliminating the income tax and its approximately $1 billion a year in revenues for the state is his priority as governor.

Democrats support a reduction in the income tax rate for some Mainers and have outlined their own proposal to do so, but their cuts go nowhere as far as LePage’s would.

From the sounds of his written statement, it looks as if LePage plans on attending this afternoon’s 1 p.m. Taxation Committee meeting. Two years ago, the governor spoke at a committee hearing on his priority for the previous legislative session, repaying the state’s Medicaid debt to hospitals. Watch bangordailynews.com for coverage.

Elsewhere in the State House, the House and Senate are convening this morning, but it’s hard to predict what they’ll be working on until legislative leaders decide later this morning.  There is a very heavy committee schedule this afternoon, which you can see for yourself by clicking here.

Some highlights:

  • The Education Committee is working on three bills related to curbing student hunger.
  • The Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee is being introduced to bills focused on renewable energy projects and policy.
  • The Health and Human Services Committee has work sessions scheduled on child abuse prevention laws as well as a bid to change the way the Department of Health and Human Services does rulemaking for people with autism or intellectual disabilities.
  • The Judiciary Committee will hear testimony on four bills related to treatment for mental illness. — Christopher Cousins
How would you vote on an equal rights amendment to the Constitution?

We may soon find out if a bid by Portland Democratic Rep. Diane Russell is successful. Russell introduced a bill on Monday that calls for a statewide referendum to state explicitly in the Maine Constitution that the denial of equal rights based on gender is prohibited.

Russell said in emotional testimony Monday to the Judiciary Committee that although there are a range of civil rights protections in Maine law, neither the U.S. nor Maine Constitution has an explicit statement about gender rights.

“The rights of women have been hard-earned over a very, very long time,” said Russell. “But unless equality is guaranteed in the Constitution, those laws can disappear with a vote against them in this body. We should be in this country a beacon of light for women’s rights all over the world. … We have an opportunity to tell women and girls across the state that we are valued as equals, that we are not second-class citizens in our own state.”

Russell’s bill will be the subject of more debate and committee, House and Senate votes in the coming weeks. The bill requires support from two-thirds of the Legislature to move on to the ballot. — Christopher Cousins

George Mitchell in book-signing

There just aren’t a lot of chances to meet George Mitchell in person, and he’s a person you should meet.

I had a frenzied 20-minute interview with Mitchell in January of 2014 and it stands as one of the highlights of my career as a political reporter. As I hope you know, Mitchell is a former U.S. senator and Senate majority leader from 1989 to 1995, peace envoy to the Middle East and Northern Ireland, fix-it man for doping in Major League Baseball and for three years, chairman of the Walt Disney Company.

Now, Mitchell is on a tour to promote his new book “The Negotiator: Reflections on an American Life.” On Friday, May 15, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., that tour will take him to the Maine Coast Book Shop in Damariscotta. At 5:30 p.m. the same day, Mitchell will make a similar appearance at Left Bank Books in Belfast.

“This is not a talk. It will be an informal opportunity to shake George Mitchell’s hand and chat,” reads a press release from the Damariscotta bookstore. That’s a rare opportunity indeed.

Mitchell is also scheduled to speak about his book in a more formal setting at 5:30 p.m. on May 13 at the University of Southern Maine’s Hannaford Hall. Doors open at 4:30 p.m. and tickets can be purchased from the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce either online or by calling 772-2811. — Christopher Cousins

Reading list Maine-made dog treats lauded

If only your pooch could read, canine subscriptions to the Daily Brief would skyrocket today.

U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King have announced that the Loyal Biscuit Co., which has dog and cat supply store locations in Belfast, Camden, Rockland and Waterville, is the winner of the State Small Business Award of 2015. The award is part of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 52nd annual National Small Business Week.

The Loyal Biscuit Co., which is owned by Heidi Neal, specializes in healthy dog and cat nutrition. I’m going to be looking for some Loyal biscuits for my golden retriever, Boone, but don’t tell him they’re healthy. He prefers bacon. — Christopher Cousins

Candid LePage talks bond controversy, Roger Katz in radio interview

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Gov. Paul LePage, R-Maine. BDN file photo by Ashley Conti.

This morning on WVOM’s George Hale Rick Tyler Show, Gov. Paul LePage spoke candidly about his anger over Sen. Roger Katz’s bill that would force him to release more than $11 million in voter-approved conservation bonds.

LePage is using the bonds as leverage in a fight over his plan to increase the timber harvest on public lands and use the resulting revenue for home heating subsidies for low-income Mainers. It’s a repeat of a fight he had last year, in which his bill failed in the Legislature.

The governor was up-front about his no-holds-barred political strategy:

“I’m not violating any laws here,” he continued. “I’m using what’s available to me, which says I use leverage. It’s give and take. I asked and [environmentalists and lawmakers] said no. Now they see what happens until they come to the plate.”

Katz and a handful of other moderate Republicans have joined Democrats in criticizing the governor for what they describe has thwarting the will of the voters by holding the bonds hostage for an unrelated political fight.

That didn’t sit well with LePage, who called Katz’s bill “the most repulsive thing he’s ever done in government.”

You can hear the full interview here.

(HT: George Hale Rick Tyler Show, WVOM)

Will Maine become first right-to-work state in New England?

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Good morning from Augusta, where the expected 80 degree temperature is sure to have those in the State House thinking about the end of session and the summer recess.

The weather might have everyone looking forward to adjournment in June or July, but lawmakers still have a slew of bills to chew before then. Today, that includes the six GOP-sponsored right-to-work bills in the Labor Committee.

In Maine, as in 25 other states, employees who benefit from collective bargaining can be required to pay fees to the union that represents them, even if they choose not to become dues-paying members of the union.

The representation fees are meant to cover the cost of negotiations, but many on the political right believe the money is used to fund unions’ political activity — which normally benefits Democratic candidates and causes.

The Republican-controlled 125th Legislature was unable to pass a right-to-work law, but the drumbeat in GOP circles for eliminating compulsory union payments has continued unabated. Wisconsin became the 25th right-to-work state in March. To date, no New England state has passed such a law.

While the bills are ostensibly about giving workers the right to choose whether or not to fund union activity, the Labor Committee’s House Republican lead, Rep. Larry Lockman of Amherst, made clear in a statement that weakening unions is his primary goal.

Lockman is the sponsor of two of the six right-to-work bills. He said Hostess Brands was driven to bankruptcy because of ineffective and nonsensical rules imposed on it by the unions representing its workers.

“500 jobs were lost in Maine when the company shut down a little more than two years ago,” Lockman said. “An iconic American company that survived the Great Depression and World War II couldn’t survive under the thumb of the union bosses’ monopoly power to dictate insane work rules. It turns out that Twinkies are easier to digest than union work rules.”

If history is any indication, the bills are likely to split the Labor Committee along partisan lines. The Senate, controlled as it is by the Republicans, may approve a right-to-work law, but the bills’ face long odds in the Democrat-controlled House.

Still, the public hearings today will doubtless spur fiery debate about the proper role of unions — and who should pay for them.

Other committee activity of note for today:

As always the full committee schedule is available online. And don’t forget to subscribe to the Daily Brief, if you haven’t already, by clicking here. — Mario Moretto.

Angus King to chair ‘former governors caucus’ in U.S. Senate

Did you know that one-fifth of the U.S. Senate is comprised of former governors? I didn’t.

Maine’s U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent, was chosen by the 10 governors to serve as one of three chairmen of the Senate’s Former Governors Caucus, along with New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen and South Dakota Republican Mike Rounds.

King has long touted his experience as governor, saying it gave him working insight on how to get things done in government. Last week, he echoed that sentiment, saying the governors caucus could work together for “practical and pragmatic solutions.”

“Nothing can get done in the Senate without bipartisan support,” King said in a written statement. “As former governors, each of us has worked across party lines to achieve results, and together, we can use that experience to make this institution function better. We may not agree on every issue, but we share a fundamental commitment to common sense solutions and are willing to put practicality ahead of partisanship.”

The caucus includes four Republicans and five Democrats. King is the only independent. — Mario Moretto.

LePage vetoes bill to cap smoking surcharge on insurance market

LD 135, which passed unanimously in the House and Senate, would have capped the amount that health insurance companies could charge smokers for coverage. LePage vetoed the bill on Friday.

The bill would have capped the tobacco use surcharge at 20 percent, meaning smokers could be charged an additional 20 cents on the dollar for their health insurance premiums. Currently, insurance companies are allowed to charge smokers up to 50 percent more for health insurance.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Linda Sanborn, D-Gorham, said the surcharges are punitive, and do not help smokers quit. LePage’s veto will face an override vote in the House in the coming days. — Mario Moretto.

Reading list She’s no Cujo

While Maine may be a “cat state,” I know there is lots of love out there for dogs. I also know there’s lots of love out there for Maine’s favorite son, horror writer Stephen King. So without further ado, I give you: Stephen King’s new dog, a corgi named Molly. — Mario Moretto.

Less time for drug crimes in Maine? Lawmakers rethinking penalties

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

It’s Friday again in Augusta and for some reason, I like a soundtrack for my Friday mornings. How about some Sir Paul to celebrate the sun? There, that’s better. 

The House and Senate are in recess until Tuesday, but there are three legislative committees with busy days today. The Criminal Justice Committee has bills that would reduce some drug penalties on one hand and strengthen them on the other. 

Republican Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta, who is an attorney, will introduce LD 113, An Act to Reduce the Penalties for Certain Drug Offices, at 9 a.m. today. Specifically, the bill would strike language in the law that says if you possess two grams or more of heroin, you’re a drug dealer. The bill also downgrades some drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Katz’s bill has the support of former chief justice of the Maine Judicial Court, Daniel Wathen, who is also a board member for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. 

“Our criminal justice system must not be a revolving door for people with low-level drug offenses,” said Wathen in a press release. “For years we have tried this approach and for years it has failed.”

More than half of the people incarcerated for drug offenses in Maine return to prison within three years of their release. This bill seeks to lower that number. 

Another bill being introduced to the committee today by its chairwoman, Sen. Kimberley Rosen, R-Bucksport, would strengthen certain drug laws, specifically those that involve fentanyl and the manufacture of methamphetamine. 

After the bill introductions, the committee will turn its attention to a series of bills it has been working on for weeks — and really, years — which have to do with concealed handgun permits and firearms use. Those bills are in work session, which means the committee may or may not vote on recommendations for the full Legislature. 

The Health and Human Services Committee has a full day of work sessions planned, including on a bill that would classify the use of electronic cigarettes as the same as smoking regular cigarettes

The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will consider making recommendations on a series of bills related to gaming and gambling in Maine. Some of the bills are similar to proposals to expand gaming in tribal areas and other parts of Maine that have been tried and failed in recent years.

Part of the reason for the bills’ defeat — including the voting down of six gaming bills in one memorable Senate session in March 2014 — is that Maine still lacks an overall gaming strategy. Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, has proposed authorizing the Department of Public Safety and the Gambling Control Board to implement one.

Will this be the year that gaming is expanded and Maine’s tribes will benefit? I’m not a betting man, so we’ll have to just wait and see. — Christopher Cousins 

Pingree provision would boost water power projects in Maine

Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st Congressional District has introduced a measure to an energy spending bill that would increase funding for the Department of Energy’s Water Power Program, which in the past has provided grants to the Portland-based Ocean Renewable Power Co. and created more than 100 jobs in Maine.

ORPC has created tidal electricity generation projects in Maine and rural Alaska. Generating power from the tides has been a long-term goal which so far has not been implemented at a commercial level anywhere in the world.

“I’ve seen this program work firsthand in the state of Maine,” said Pingree in a press release. “Ocean Renewable Power Co. has taken advantage of this program and leveraged these modest investments into a company that has created or retained over 100 jobs in every part of our state and directly pumped over $25 million into our economy.”

Pingree’s amendment was added to the Energy and Water Appropriations Act, which passed in the House of Representatives early Friday morning.

Reading list Strip naked and plant something

That’s kind of a weird suggestion, I know. Don’t shoot me; I’m just the messenger.

The BDN’s Natalie Feulner has astutely observed that tomorrow is Naked Gardening Day. With temps in Maine still feeling closer to winter than summer, I’d suggest you keep moving.

Just imagine the look on your neighbor’s face a few months from now at your dinner party as she’s biting your fresh-picked tomato and you say “I planted that when I was naked.” Hopefully she won’t say “yeah, I know.” — Christopher Cousins

 

New Press Herald owner speaks out on plans for newspapers

Mike Tipping - Bangor Daily News -

A headline from a previous sale of the MaineToday newspapers | BDN photo

It was announced this week that Reade Brower, owner of the Free Press and the Courier chain of newspapers in the Midcoast, would be buying the MaineToday newspapers, including the Portland Press Herald, Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, from current majority owner S. Donald Sussman.

“We are focused on a smooth transition and pledge to continue the tradition of excellence that has been re-established,” Brower said in a statement.

Now, in his latest column on the Village Soup website (behind a paywall) he has elaborated on his plans for the newspaper chain.

“The short answer is that, by agreeing to take over the Portland, Augusta and Waterville dailies, we have agreed to continue in the direction of watchdog journalism and fair and objective reporting that Sussman enabled as owner of the MaineToday papers,” writes Brower.

Brower also hints that he will continue or enhance the MaineToday’s partial-paywall model:

“In order to continue to make newspapers a sustainable model, most dailies and weeklies across the country have realized that you cannot give away your core products and now charge nominal fees for all their print and Internet papers.”

For advertisers he promises opportunities for “native advertising:”

“For those wanting just Internet, for less than 10 cents a day we provide up-to-the-moment news coverage and an opportunity through our biz memberships for our business advertising partners to share their product and service info direct to the consumers in what is rapidly becoming a viable companion product to print; we refer to this as ‘native advertising,’ because it originates from the advertiser and is often explanatory in nature.”

While he says newspapers must “morph and reinvent themselves to stay relevant,” Brower is distrustful of social media.

“Social media is like the Wild West: it is fast-moving, ever-changing and exciting – it can’t be ignored. The challenge is that, like in the Wild West, the sheriffs are few and far between. Only faintly policed and edited, it has become the new “gossip” more than it has replaced traditional media.”

He also seems to strongly disapprove of pseudonymous comments, which are currently allowed on the MaineToday websites.

“The job of an opinion column is to create dialog and for readers to think. The job of a newspaper is to moderate the discussion. This compares to social media and websites that allow pseudonyms and encourage trash talk in what often comes down as something similar to the liquid courage we might get after one-too-many adult beverages on a Saturday night.”

Over the past few years of ownership by Sussman, who is the husband of First District Democratic Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, commenters on the right often attacked the MaineToday newspapers for what they perceived as a liberal bias. Unlike under the previous owner, Richard Connor, however, there were no public reports of the ownership meddling in the newspapers’ reporting.

Brower is less directly involved in politics, but he hasn’t been afraid to share his personal ideology and political thoughts in his columns.

“As an Independent myself, I do lean to the center and perhaps teeter on left and right side of center depending on the issue. Certainly consider myself moderate and have supported Independent Sen. Angus King in both of his statewide runs for office. In this case, I have decided (at least for now) to align myself with Michael Michaud primarily because the polls suggest that he has the support to take on our governor,” he wrote during the last election.

He supports increasing the minimum wage, writing that “[c]ommon sense says why not just raise the minimum wage using CPI as the leveler from the last time it was raised? Can we at least keep up with inflation for the people who need it the most and are willing to work?”

“Although I believe in a work-fare system and a hand-up vs. a welfare system that perpetuates the plight of the poor with a hand-out that does not include enough incentives to help those struggling get ahead, I still consider myself somewhat liberal in my beliefs that a society is only as good as how it takes care of its elderly, its sick and its disenfranchised,” he wrote in Augusta of last year.

Interestingly, given the current discussion over the MaineToday employee contract, Brower doesn’t seem to be the biggest fan of unions.

“I have always been pro-worker, but am not a big supporter of unions because they often create adversarial confrontations and sometimes negotiate with bravado, stubbornness or not at all, helping create an “us against them” mentality; that is what is hard to support.”

Brower has pledged that the views of the ownership and editorial board will not affect the newspaper’s coverage and that he will “allow all viewpoints to be heard” on the opinion pages.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I write a column for the Press Herald and have a personal interest in the newspaper’s future.

Lawmakers, grieving parents teaming up to find $500,000 for cold case squad

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Good morning from Augusta, where there will be some tragic stories flying around from families and loved ones looking for closure. 

What’s worse than losing a child? Not knowing what happened to her. There are unsolved murder and missing person cases all over Maine but the one I can tell you the most about is Ayla Reynolds, who was a year old when she disappeared from her father’s home in Waterville in December 2011. In the course of years of covering the story, I got close enough to the maternal side of Ayla’s family to witness the heartbreak, anger and hopelessness that results from a little girl disappearing forever, maybe without a trace. 

I wore a “bring Ayla home” bracelet for about two years until it broke one day while I was stoking my wood stove. Someone once asked me how I could ethically wear the bracelet while covering the story, to which my response was “if I’m biased because I want a little girl to come home one way or another, so be it.” 

Anyway, Ayla’s mother, Trista Reynolds, will be one of the speakers at a noontime press conference to promote a bill to fund a cold-case homicide squad in the attorney general’s office. Also expected at the press conference are Ramona Torres, whose 21-year-old son, Angel Torres, disappeared on Mother’s Day in 1999 and hasn’t been seen since, and Lise Ouellette, the mother of 15-year-old Ashley Ouellette, whose body was discovered in Scarborough 15 years ago. 

No one has been charged in any of these cases and there are more than 120 unsolved murders on the books in Maine.

Democratic Sen. Linda Valentino and a bipartisan group of co=sponsors have brought forward a bill that would appropriate about $511,000 next year to fund two state police detectives and a forensic chemist, as well as other costs related to creating a cold-case homicide unit. A bill to create the squad passed in 2014 but lawmakers could not find the funding and neither could members of the congressional delegation. 

Valentino’s bill is up for a hearing this afternoon in the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, though whether the bill receives funding won’t likely be decided until late in the legislative session, when it will compete with the fiscal notes on numerous other bills. Lawmakers lining up behind the issue now could help push the bill to the front of the line, but only time will tell. Unfortunately for people like Trista Reynolds, Ramona Torres and Ashley Ouellette, time is all they have. 

Also holding a noontime rally today is a group of people who want a clearer path to labeling food coming into Maine that is produced with genetically modified organisms. A bill to do that is on the books but it requires a trigger clause that doesn’t put the law into effect unless four contiguous states pass GMO labeling laws. This afternoon, lawmakers will be introduced to four related bills, including LD 991, a bill brought by Rep. Michelle Dunphy, D-Old Town, which would strip the law of the contiguous states clause. Also up for debate in that committee today is a resolution proposed by Democratic Rep. Craig Hickman of Winthrop that would amend the Maine Constitution to provide that everyone has a “natural and unalienable right to food.” 

This isn’t just a Democratic issue. Republican Sen. David Burns of Whiting is sponsoring a bill that would define genetically modified products along with disclosure clauses and penalties for non-compliance. 

Also on today’s docket: 

You can see the full list of bills on today’s docket by clicking here. — Christopher Cousins 

Poliquin co-sponsors bill to locate deadbeat parents

Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin announced Wednesday that he has co-sponsored a bill to help state and local agencies collect child support payments. The bill is designed to help government agencies locate deadbeat parents with data from financial credit reporting agencies.

Poliquin’s bill, which is co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, would amend the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

“It’s imperative for Congress, Republicans and Democrats, to work together and ensure that our kids have all the possible opportunities to succeed and have a bright future,” said Poliquin in a press release.

The bill will be working its way through Congress in the coming weeks. — Christopher Cousins

Plastic bag ban bill killed

Say that five times fast.

A bill that would have prohibited store owners in Maine from using plastic shopping bags for their customers’ purchases died in the Senate on Wednesday. Opponents of the bill called it a job killer and a burden on businesses. Some said there are more pressing environmental concerns to deal with. The bill was defeated 24-10. — Christopher Cousins

Pingree voted “best politician”

Readers of the Portland Phoenix have voted 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree the “best politician” in that publication’s annual poll. This poll is, of course, unscientific and may say as much about the Phoenix’s readers it does about Pingree, but the alternative weekly cited Pingree’s advocacy for defense contracts vital to Maine while also endorsing a gradual draw-down of overall defense spending.

“Members of Congress aren’t the most popular people these days, so I’m honored to be recognized by readers of the Phoenix,” said Pingree in a press release. “I feel fortunate to be able to serve Mainers by looking out for their interests in Washington and I’m glad Phoenix readers are happy with the work I’m doing.” — Christopher Cousins

Reading list ‘Probably work ’til I drop’

You’ve got to check out this gem of a story from J.W. Oliver of the Lincoln County News about a gem of a man, Millard Hassan of Newcastle.

Hassan, who makes hoes used to harvest clams and bloodworms from the mud of coastal Maine, is gearing up for a May 13 appearance on the National Geographic Channel’s “Filthy Riches” reality show.

Among the wisdom imparted by Hassan: “If you do a good job, you get business; make junk, you don’t get no business.”

Amen.

What’s it like having a television crew following you around? It gets in the way of progress, says Hassan, who said he was “a little nervous” by the end of the shoot, but not for the reason you might think.

“I wanted to get back to work,” he said. — Christopher Cousins

The eternal, expensive presidential primary we’ll never change

Matt Gagnon - Bangor Daily News -

GOP presidential candidate and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas waits to be introduced at an Iowa campaign event. Jim Young | Reuters

This column is what you might call, “howling at the moon.”

By that, of course, I mean that I’m going to complain about something that I have no power to change, no matter how loudly persistent I am at it. It doesn’t matter if I am right, or if my rationale is unassailable. That damn moon isn’t going anywhere.

What is the moon in my less than clever analogy? The United States presidential election. Allow me to howl a bit.

This week comes word that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a curious politician who is quite open and unapologetic about being a socialist, is planning to run for president of the United States. He will be running as a Democrat, despite the minor hiccup of technically being an “independent.”

Already we have seen the entry of Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio in the Republican primary. We are likely to see very shortly those candidates joined by 10 or 15 more.

On the Democratic side, you already have Hillary and now Bernie Sanders, but joining them you will likely see Martin O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee, Jim Webb, and if we are so lucky, Joe Biden.

All of these candidates will have settled their formal entry into the race in the next few months, after which we will be treated to nearly two years of non-stop, insufferable coverage of the presidential race.

Why is it like this? Why do we need to tolerate two years of campaigning, and billions of dollars spent on political candidates? Why must we endure such a never-ending avalanche of politics that no one with any level of sanity desires?

Look across the pond at the United Kingdom. They are currently engaged in a hotly contested general election to decide on the next prime minister. The polls are indicating that David Cameron’s Conservative Party and Ed Miliband’s Labour Party are more or less tied right now.

Yet their formal election process only started a couple months ago. Certainly preparations were underway to run the race, and the usual public squabbles between politicos jockeying for the upper hand have always been present. But the obnoxiousness that is actual campaigning didn’t really start until just recently. Short, sweet, furious, and over quickly.

Oh for that to be how we did things. So why don’t we?

Well, the howling I referenced earlier is squarely directed at our primary voting system. How we nominate party candidates for president is directly responsible for the length of our presidential election, the amount of money required of it, and the absurdity of the entire side show.

Primaries are a relatively new phenomenon, politically speaking, in the United States. What we consider the primary system was actually born of the embarrassing chaos surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Primaries existed, in limited terms, in 1968 (only 13 were held), and the nomination of Hubert Humphrey, despite Eugene McCarthy winning six primaries (Humphrey won zero), was so controversial that it led the Democrats to adopt new rules that created primaries nationwide. The 1972 presidential race was the first in which primary contests were held in every state.

The Republicans, of course, followed suit and expanded to nationwide primaries as well. New Hampshire, which has the nation’s oldest primary dating back to 1916, has always traditionally been the first. With 50 states now holding similar elections, New Hampshire adopted a state law requiring it to be the first primary.

With other states moving their primary dates earlier to gain attention from presidential candidates and be held up as important, New Hampshire began holding its primary earlier and earlier. The move to “chase New Hampshire” pulls the other states with it, and the date for presidential elections creeps ever sooner.

With that elongated schedule, and the need to compete in all 50 states, has come an insane travel schedule, a requirement for nationwide media buying, grassroots campaign organizations in as many states as possible, and a price tag that balloons to insane levels.

If you were building an election system from scratch, is this what it would look like? I hope not.

So what to do? With apologies to New Hampshire and Iowa, it is long past time we move toward either a regional primary system or a national primary. These elections must be held much later on the calendar (June of the election year maybe), and in close succession (in the case of a regional system) or all on the same day (for a national system).

The delay would allow us to catch our breath, start later, spend less, and have a much shorter general election. It might just make us hate the process a little less.

Unfortunately, the moon won’t budge. There are too many competing interests, and no one has the political will to force the issue.

Still, howling at it makes me feel a little better.

Cutting general assistance for immigrants up for votes today in Augusta

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Good morning from Augusta, where the confirmation process for four judges will unfold this afternoon in the Judiciary Committee. 

Gov. Paul LePage has been nominating and re-appointing judges in recent weeks, and there are nine due for confirmation between now and May 7. The process includes in-depth interviews by the Judiciary Committee and a committee recommendation vote, followed by final confirmation in the Senate. 

On this afternoon’s docket are Don Marden of Belgrade for active retired superior court justice; Rae Ann French of Monmouth for active retired district court judge; Andre G. Janelle of Saco for district court judge and Joyce Wheeler of Portland for active retired superior court justice. 

In the Senate, it’s difficult to predict what will happen until the moment it happens, but there’s a possibility of two interesting debates today: one on a bill that would require voters to show identification before filling out a ballot and another on a resolution to amend the U.S. Constitution with a balanced budget amendment. Both of those issues are likely to divide Democrats and Republicans and see passage in the GOP-led Senate, which means their fate most likely lies in the House, where Democrats have the majority. 

Also sure to grab headlines today is the Health and Human Services Committee, which is scheduled to make a series of recommendations on bills related to the administration of general assistance. This has been a hot-button issue since last year when the LePage administration ordered towns to stop administering the cash benefit to what the administration calls illegal immigrants. That issue is currently under litigation. There are six general assistance-related bills on that committee’s docket this afternoon and I expect a lot of lively debate. 

In the Education Committee today, much of the afternoon will be spent on bolstering the state’s stock of people studying math and science. Republican Rep. James Gillway of Searsport is proposing the establishment of a magnet school for science, technology, engineering and math in Searsport. Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, is also focused on STEM education and is proposing a STEM loan program through the Finance Authority of Maine to provide zero-interest loans to students who remain in Maine working in a STEM-related field upon graduation. 

The Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee also has its hands full today with a high-profile issue: the minimum wage. There are eight bills up for recommendations that would adjust the minimum wage in some way, though it’s unlikely any of them will make it through the Legislature. If they do they face near-certain veto from LePage, who has drawn a hard line in the sand on this issue. 

The Marine Resources Committee also has a difficult vote on what looks like a local issue but has far greater ramifications on tribal-state relations: An Act to Prevent the Passage of Alewives Through the Grand Falls Dam on the St. Croix River. That would reverse a bill enacted two years ago that let the sea-run fish into the watershed. The sides on this issue are entrenched and sharply divided, but a recommendation from the committee could be coming this afternoon. Tune in at 1:30 p.m. if you like to hear lawmakers squirm (I’m not really sure what that sounds like but I meant it figuratively). 

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Andre Cushing of Hampden is hoping for a State and Local Government Committee vote in favor of his bill to make the state’s attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer popularly elected. Is today’s schedule stacked with controversial bills or what? And I’m not finished yet. 

The Taxation Committee will undoubtedly have a long day of testimony from around revenue sharing for towns and cities and property tax relief programs. All six of those bills are overshadowed by major initiatives in those areas by LePage, who proposes to eliminate revenue sharing in fiscal year 2017 and focus property tax relief on homeowners over age 65. 

Going through the day’s schedule every morning is time-consuming, but that’s kind of why the Daily Brief exists: we do the work so you don’t have to. Forward this email — or if you’re reading it at the BDN’s website, the link — to your friends. Maybe you’ll make a political junkie out of someone. The number of free subscriptions to the Daily Brief is growing past our highest expectations but there’s always room for more. Sign up for the emails by clicking here. — Christopher Cousins

Warning: Don’t play Trivial Pursuit with the education commissioner

At least not when it comes to the Civil War.

Tom Desjardin was appointed as the state’s acting education commissioner in January, and could well be in line to become the permanent commissioner if the governor so chooses. I explored the possibilities around that in a story for The Point earlier this week, but that’s not why Desjardins is in this morning’s Daily Brief.

According to a press release from the Rising Picture Co., Desjardin is a well-known historian about Gettysburg and has penned the final chapter in a book of essays about the Gettysburg Address. There is also a film documentary upcoming on the subject, in which Desjardin is also involved. Desjardin, who hails from Lewiston-Auburn, holds a Ph.D in U.S. history and has been involved in numerous historical books and movies in the past.

Meanwhile, he’s running one of state government’s biggest and most influential departments so maybe he doesn’t have time for Trivial Pursuit anyway. Consider yourself lucky — Christopher Cousins

Reading list Politics: not the most interesting thing

If you’re reading this, I’m probably not referring to you when I say most people don’t know much about politics. But what do I know about about what people know and don’t know? Not much.

Chris Cillizza, the author of a fantastic Washington Post political blog called The Fix, detailed the results of a recent Pew Research Center study which showed the majority of people can’t identify which party holds the majority in the U.S. Senate, can’t pick high-profile Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren out of a crowd and can’t identify the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

As Cillizza observed, this is pretty depressing stuff for political reporters like me whose business is trying to inform the masses. But then again, I’m not talking about you. — Christopher Cousins

 

 

 

In slamming Katz, Fredette calls for less judgment, more partisanship

Amy Fried - Bangor Daily News -

Bennett D. Katz, Republican member of the Maine Legislature (1962-1980), Maine Senate Majority Leader, and father of Sen. Roger Katz

If you take a look at how different issue groups ranked Sen. Roger Katz, it’s clear he doesn’t fit comfortably either on the right or left.

Project VoteSmart reports that Katz had a 40% rating by the Maine Right to Life Committee, 25% from the Maine People’s Alliance, 65% by the Defense of Liberty PAC, and 67% by the Maine Education Association.

Roger Katz is a lifelong Republican, as was his father, Bennett Katz, a former Majority Leader in the Maine Senate.

But today comments from the Republican leader of the state House show how right the Maine GOP has moved.

As Mario Moretto reported:

House Republican Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, blasted Katz during a news conference Tuesday, and later said Katz needs to step in line “instead of always criticizing conservative Republicans who simply want to move Maine forward.”

What did Katz do to prompt this response from Fredette?

Katz took the position that the governor should do what the voters voted to do — to spend bond money on conservation projects.

“When the people of Maine have spoken at the ballot box, no one person — even a governor — should be able to veto that decision,” [Katz] said. “Politics is rough enough out here these days, but we should not add to the meanness by holding innocent bystanders hostage.”

Rep. Fredette’s statement suggests the Maine GOP has embraced partisanship and a strict ideological focus.

Instead of respecting Katz’s position and the legacy of service he represents, Fredette calls for Katz to put aside his own judgment. Rather, Fredette believes Katz should follow “conservative Republicans.”

How different that is from Republicans who used to represent Maine voters, people like Bill Cohen, Margaret Chase Smith, and Olympia Snowe.

All called for respecting one’s opponents. They didn’t believe in cutting corners on governmental processes. And they didn’t espouse party loyalty as a good unto itself.

Are centrists no longer welcome in the Maine GOP? Are elected Republicans expected to toe the party line?

If Fredette is out of line, other Maine Republicans should say so. If not, this suggests they support Fredette’s vision of the Maine GOP.

Want to hear politicians talk about taxes? You’re in luck

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Republican Gov. Paul LePage, left, and Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves, right. BDN file photos by Ashley Conti.

You’ve got several opportunities to hear the competing budget visions of Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic leaders this week.

  • Belfast: LePage will hold a town hall meeting on his budget at 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 28, at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center.
  • Scarborough: House Speaker Mark Eves and Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, the top Democrats in the Legislature, will pitch their alternate vision at 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 28, at Camp Ketcha.
  • Machias: LePage will hold a town hall meeting on his budget at 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 29, at the Rose M. Gaffney Middle School.

LePage has been on his whistle-stop budget tour for several weeks. Tuesday’s event in Scarborough marks the Democrats’ second public forum on their “Better Plan for Maine,” after last week’s town hall in Bangor.

Questions from the audience will be taken at all three events.

With 2 bills at odds, fight over conservation bonds poised to boil over

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Good morning from Augusta, where a simmering showdown over conservation bonds and the limits of Gov. Paul LePage’s authority seems poised to finally boil over.

Today, Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, will speak with reporters about a bill he’s presenting that would force the governor to release voter-approved bonds. Katz has the backing of four of his Senate GOP colleagues, as well as bipartisan support in the House.

LePage has been holding off on releasing about $11.5 million in voter-approved conservation spending, jeopardizing the future of some 30 land preservation projects throughout Maine.

Lawmakers have recoiled at the Republican governor’s apparent willingness to kill the projects, all of which have already been vetted and approved by the state. Yesterday LePage doubled down on a game of chicken he’s been playing with legislators behind closed doors for months:He announced in a memo that he’d reintroduce a failed bill to open more state land to loggers, and use the added revenue for home heating subsidies.

If the Legislature passes it, he said, he’ll approve the bonds. Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, will introduce the timber-for-heat bill on LePage’s behalf.

So lawmakers are presented with two paths forward to getting the conservation bonds released: Strong arm LePage into releasing the money with Katz’s plan, or make a horse trade to get it done. It should be interesting to watch play out.

Also expected today is a continued debate in the Senate over whether the state should join the national effort to convene a first-of-its-kind Constitutional Convention, with the goal of drafting a federal balanced-budget amendment. Debate on the bill, sponsored by Senate President Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, began last week but was tabled because of time constraints.

In the Labor Committee at 1 p.m., a public hearing will be held on a governor’s bill that would prevent individual towns and cities from increasing the minimum wage for employees working within their borders. The bill, sponsored by Assistant Senate Majority Leader Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, represents an effort by LePage to preempt nascent efforts in Bangor and Portland at raising the minimum wage. — Mario Moretto

As always, don’t forget to sign up to receive the Daily Brief in your email inbox every weekday morning. That way, you can keep up to date with #mepolitics in Augusta and beyond before you even drink your second cup of coffee.

In letter to LePage, Bernie Sanders says GOP budget will hurt Maine

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, everyone’s favorite congressional socialist, has sent letters to the governors of all 50 states decrying the GOP budget bills from both chambers in Congress, which are being melded in conference committee this week.

Sanders, the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, wrote to LePage in a letter dated April 26. In it, he decried many of the cuts that Republicans have said are needed to rein in government. He said that under the GOP plan, Mainers would face higher taxes, a loss of health insurance, job losses due to government shrink and cuts to education funding and food assistance programs.

In short, Sanders said: “In my view, the proposals contained in the Republican House and Senate budgets will be devastating for the middle class and working families of our country, and will move us in exactly the wrong direction.”

Now, LePage and Sanders are about as far apart ideologically as any two sitting politicians I can think of, so I’m not inclined to believe Maine’s governor will pay much attention to Sanders’ request that he lobby Maine’s congressional delegation to oppose the budget.

But it is an interesting bit of political theater from Sanders, who is preparing for a presidential bid. It’s not really meant to change the budget conversation in Washington; It’s meant to increase Sanders’ profile nationally.

You can read the full letter here. — Mario Moretto.

Reading list At least it’s not just us

In the roughly two years since I joined the State House press corps, I’ve seen the state office building evacuated a handful of times due to smoke alarms. If it’s not a planned drill, the culprit is always the same — burned popcorn.

Or at least that’s the story that gets to me. Generally, I don’t investigate any further than checking the rumor mill. With deadlines looming, I’m usually too busy to care about why I had to stand outside for 20 minutes. I’m just glad it’s over.

Yesterday, I felt a pang of sympathy for the workers in the Iowa State Capitol, whose work day was similarly halted by an unexpected evacuation. We relied on the Des Moines Register’s William Petroski to reveal the culprit: Kraft Easy Mac. — Mario Moretto (HT: The Hill.)

Anti-bear baiting group files appeal to Maine Law Court, continues battle against DIFW

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Political group Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting has filed an appeal to the Maine Law Court after the group’s lawsuit against the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife was dismissed by a Maine Superior Court justice last month.

A black bear walks near Taylor Bait Pond in Orono. Photo courtesy of Sharon Fiedler

The lawsuit, filed last year, attempted to stop the MDIF&W from spending taxpayer dollars to oppose the referendum that sought to ban bear baiting and other practices. Maine Superior Court Justice Wheeler dismissed the lawsuit on March 31, finding the issue was moot since the election was over, according to a previous BDN story.

Voters on Nov. 4 rejected a citizen-initiated referendum to ban bear baiting, hounding and trapping, by a vote of 54 percent to 46 percent.

The judge said the plaintiffs, Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, which received funding from the Humane Society of the U.S., should have filed their lawsuit earlier than late September.

The lawsuit sought to force DIF&W to immediately comply with previous Maine Freedom of Access Act requests as well as prohibit the department from any further campaigning against Question 1. It also asked that the court require the department to remove all political content from its website, repay any funds to the state that were used in campaign activities and remove the television ads from the air.

“It is no surprise that the Humane Society of the United States, under the guise of ‘Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting’ has filed this appeal,” said James Cote, campaign manager for the anti-referendum group Maine Wildlife Conservation Council, in a prepared statement.

“I think Maine people are getting tired of these acts of desperation and frivolous attempts to smear the reputation of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife,” said Cote. “Fighting these issues again and again is absurd. We will continue our efforts to defend the voice of Maine’s wildlife experts, and Maine’s outdoor hunting heritage.”

Five weeks after the election, it was determined that DIF&W spent at least $31,000 on campaign materials, television ads, debate coaching and staff time to fight Question 1, according to a previously published report. The spending was detailed in internal agency documents and invoices released to the Bangor Daily News under the Maine Freedom of Access Act.

Katie Hansberry, campaign director for Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting and Maine Director for the Humane Society of the U.S., was not immediately available for comment.

 

Former Maine sheriff proposes law to seize firearms from violent offenders

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

It’s Monday from Augusta, where even though the Senate and House of Representatives aren’t in session, there is a slew of committee work happening. One of the major areas of focus today will be Maine’s medical marijuana program, which is the subject of a dozen bills that are in public hearings today before the Health and Human Services Committee. 

Maine has allowed medical marijuana since 2002, three years after 62 percent of Maine voters supported the measure in a statewide referendum. Voters approved Question 5 in 2002, which established the Maine Medical Marijuana Act, a body of law that has been the subject of countless attempts at legislation ever since. 

The bills range from attempts to expand the number of ailments that qualify for medical marijuana treatments to allowing the use of marijuana in hospitals to increasing the number of patients one person can grow for. 

It’s going to be a long day of testimony for the lawmakers on the Health and Human Services Committee. 

Across the rest of the State House complex, the list of bills under consideration today is long and varied. The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee starts the day with a trio of bills that would increase oversight of amusement park rides and this afternoon will hear testimony on four bills related to the prevention of domestic violence, including attempts to expand the use of electronic monitoring of offenders to keep them away from victims. 

Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, a former sheriff and long-time member of the Criminal Justice Committee, is trying something that’s been tried and failed in past years: a bill that would force anyone who “has been proved” to pose a danger to another person to turn over his or her firearms. The bill would require the guns to be either turned over to a law enforcement agency or sold by a federally licensed firearms dealer. 

The Judiciary Committee will hold work sessions, which means they might be voting on recommendations, on eight bills related to the property foreclosure process. Those are spread throughout the day beginning at 9:30 a.m. 

The State and Local Government Committee has an interesting study in contrasts today: In the morning they will consider two bills related to the maintenance of ancient burial grounds. In the afternoon they’ll make recommendations on a trio of bills that would either extend or eliminate term limits for legislators. The votes on those three term limits bills will be interesting to watch and will be an example of a committee making a stand, either way, for bills that will likely be the subject of robust debate up on the House and Senate floors. 

And last, but definitely not least, is the introduction of 10 bills to the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee that all have to do with casinos, harness racing and gaming. That hearing begins at 9 a.m. and is likely to take most of the day. 

With such an abundance of controversial and high-stakes hearings all happening on the same day, parking will be at a premium around the State House. But unless you work there, you don’t have to worry about it. You can read about all those bills and others (if you’re into the disposal of solid waste, there are bills up for consideration on that, too), as well as stream live audio of all the action, by clicking here. — Christopher Cousins 

Rally for Knight’s Pond

A bipartisan group of lawmakers will gather in Cumberland this morning at Knight’s Pond and Blueberry Hill, which is one of dozens of conservation initiatives that could be in trouble due to Gov. Paul LePage’s refusal to issue voter-approved bonds from 2010 and 2012 to replenish the Land for Maine’s Future program.

The word around the State House is that LePage is using the bonds as a bargaining chip in his efforts to increase timber harvesting on public lands, which would create revenue LePage is said to be eyeing for energy programs.

According to a news release from Senate Democrats, there are 30 conservation projects across 15 Maine counties that are in jeopardy if LePage doesn’t release the $11.5 million in bonds.

Among the state and local lawmakers expected at a news conference this morning in Cumberland are Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, and Rep. Michael Timmons, R-Cumberland.

“Local taxpayers have put $300,000 into preserving this precious site,” said Breen in a release. “Now is the time for Gov. LePage to follow through on Maine voters’ commitment to conservation and issue the Land for Maine’s Future bonds, securing the state’s commitment to preserving this site.” — Christopher Cousins

Reading list Must have been a gem of a man, judging by his daughter

The Orono community and people across Maine are morning the death of 74-year-old Ted Curtis Jr. on Friday. Curtis was a lawyer, lawmaker and Vietnam veteran who served in both houses of the Legislature, on the Orono School Board and on numerous other boards and committees. He was a well-loved guy, evidenced by the fact that a touching and detailed remembrance story by Judy Harrison was the second-most-read story on the BDN’s website over the weekend.

I never knew Ted, but he left behind a lot that has changed Maine for the better, not the least of which were the 18-year-old voting age limit and the state’s bottle bill. At the top of his list of triumphs for me, though, is his daughter, the BDN’s own Abigail Curtis, who in addition to being our dedicated, compassionate and award-winning Waldo County reporter, is a ray of warm light upon everyone she’s near.

Abby, my friend, I hope you don’t mind me using something you posted on Facebook over the weekend, which I still can’t read without tears:

We will miss him and love him every day, and while it seems impossible to go through this world without my father’s cheer, energy, joy, singing, bread-baking, care-taking and all the million other things he was and he did, I know that we will somehow find a way to muddle through. If you loved my dad (and I know that so many people do), I think he would like it if you would sing a goofy song, hold your honey’s hand, plan your next set of travels and smile at the world real big in his honor.

I’m trying, but it’s hard. — Christopher Cousins

Hilllary Clinton kicks off Maine campaign effort

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Hillary Clinton waves to supporters at a political rally in Scarborough last October. BDN file photo by Troy R. Bennett.

Hillary Clinton has hired a veteran Democratic campaign hand to kick off her presidential campaign effort here in Maine.

Chuck Quintero of Richmond will serve as Clinton’s “Maine Grassroots Organizer,” for what’s being described as the ramp-up portion of the former U.S. secretary of state’s 2016 presidential bid.

Quintero most recently led the Democrat’s coordinated campaign in 2014. He was chief of staff for Senate President Justin Alfond of Portland during the 126th Legislature, and ran the Democrats’ successful campaign to regain the majority in the Senate in 2012. Quintero also has worked in the New Jersey Statehouse and in the White House under President Bill Clinton.

His wife, Jodi Quintero, is the communications director for House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick.

A Clinton campaign official said Quintero’s role is to work with supporters and volunteers to build the initial volunteer infrastructure for the state’s Democratic caucus and, eventually, the general election. Clinton’s campaign is focused on door-to-door, “old-school organizing” in all 50 states leading up to next year’s Democratic primaries and caucuses, the official said.

Clinton, who was a U.S. Senator and First Lady before taking over as Secretary of State under President Barack Obama, is the first 2016 hopeful to make a formal foray into the Pine Tree State.

Bill to help fund infertility treatments defeated in unanimous committee vote

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Good morning from Augusta, where the Legislature is slowed to its Friday pace with only a few committees meeting and the House and Senate on recess until Tuesday. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t some interesting and impactful bills on today’s docket. 

Much of the action today will be in the Criminal Justice Committee, where the perennial issue of concealed weapons permits is again under consideration from numerous angles ranging from providing them automatically to active members of the military to abolishing them altogether. These bills will really become interesting when they go to the full House and Senate for debate and consideration. 

Is the auto insurance card in your car’s glove compartment out of date, even if your actual policy isn’t? A bill making its way through the Legislature would increase the penalty for that substantially if you’re ever in a serious accident that results in injuries. A bill sponsored by Rep. Lori Fowle, D-Vassalboro, makes that a felony-level Class C crime and also elevates the charge for failure to have an active insurance card from a Class E to a Class D misdemeanor. The Criminal Justice Committee could be making a recommendation on that today. 

The Health and Human Services Committee will receive testimony from the public today on a handful of bills that seek to improve treatment for substance abuse. Those include an open bill title that could allow the committee to write its own bill to deal to consider measures that would expand the availability of methadone treatments for opioid addicts. Rep. Deb Sanderson, R-Chelsea, has a bill that would create a pilot program to use acupuncture to treat drug and alcohol abuse.

Fighting substance abuse was pegged as a major issue going into the current legislative session and could emerge as a dominant issue in the coming weeks. That will depend a lot on committee-level work where hashing out the details of how to pull people out of addiction is probably among the most daunting and important challenge facing lawmakers. 

The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee is scheduled to continue what has been weeks of work on bills related to the Maine Clean Election Fund, including a bid by Republican Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn to abolish the fund and route the money in it to public education. — Christopher Cousins 

Infertility bill voted down

A bill by Republican Sen. Garrett Mason of Lisbon that sought to require private insurance companies to cover part of the cost of infertility treatments was voted unanimously ought not to pass on Thursday in the Insurance and Financial Services Committee. That leaves the bill all but dead.

Last week when Mason presented the bill to the committee, it looked like the issue of infertility treatments — how many Mainers need them and how they’re funded, among other things — would be sent to a study commission before any new mandates on insurance coverage were enacted, but that is now in question.

Mason said late Thursday that he hopes the Bureau of Insurance will choose the issue for study regardless as part of an ongoing process of reviewing insurance mandates.

Aside from the merits of helping people have children, this bill garnered attention for other reasons, not the least of which was the unusual spectacle of a Republican proposing new mandates in health insurance providers. Mason also found himself in a hornets’ nest over provisions in the bill that would have excluded unmarried couples and anyone who is infertile as the result of a sexually transmitted disease, though he has argued passionately that those provisions were carried over from a previous attempt at the same initiative in 2011 and that he wanted them pulled out of his bill.

“The last time this issue was studied in Maine was 2003,” said Mason to the BDN Thursday evening. “I think it’s time to take another look.” — Christopher Cousins

Katz re-proposes ban on buying junk food with food stamps

A preview of something you’ll be reading more about in the coming days: Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, has brought back a bill to outlaw the use of the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program — which are food vouchers provided to the needy by the state — for purchasing soda, chips and candy.

Katz, who proposed a similar initiative two years ago but saw it fail behind arguments ranging from the bill being unfair to poor people to it being impossible for retailers to enforce, referred to the current system as “paying people to get sick.” — Christopher Cousins

Reading list What is a culch?

Seriously, folks, help me out. This is the second question in a new BDN quiz titled “What do you think these Mainer-isms mean?” 

I’ve lived in Maine all my life, save for a couple of temporary stints to other states to further my education, and I’ve never heard the word. I’m a frequent user of all kind of Maine-talk. If you spent any time with me last winter, you probably heard me say it was “colder than a dead man’s tongue.” Yes, when my car is dented I call it “all stove up.”

Now that I’m confronted with a Mainer-ism I’ve never heard of, does that just mean I’m more numb than a bag of hammers? Hard tellin’ not knowin’. — Christopher Cousins

Five smart things Democrats are doing with their “Better Deal” tax plan

Amy Fried - Bangor Daily News -

Mr. Eves and Mr. Alfond went to Bangor last night, with handouts and a Powerpoint to show the audience.

These Democratic legislative leaders spent more than 90 minutes explaining their tax and budget plan and taking questions. It was a thoroughly open meeting, with no screening of questions beforehand.

Gov. LePage never mentioned his tax plan when he campaigned for reelection. Sure, he did say he wanted to lower taxes, but candidate LePage kept things generic. There was no mention of items that would be distasteful to many, certainly including those in his own party, like applying the sales tax to over two hundred new situations or zeroing out revenue sharing altogether, and ending the homestead tax deduction for people under 65.

But it’s been a central part of political conversation since LePage unveiled it.

Democrats are doing five smart things right now.

1. By not just saying “no,” Democrats aren’t letting LePage define the conversation about taxes and spending.

Simply putting out an alternative plan gives Democrats greater credibility to criticize the LePage plan.

It makes it clear that there isn’t just one way to decrease taxes and, in fact, theirs will make the most difference for the vast majority of Maine people.

Political decisions can be a choice about alternatives or a referendum on something or someone in particular.

Besides actual referenda – say on marriage rights or bonds – people can look at a situation and think about rejecting or endorsing that option.

On health policy, Maine Republicans have done that on health policy, as they have no alternative to covering people who make too little to qualify for subsidies for private insurance. They just said “no” to Medicaid expansion. Nationally, Republicans reject the Affordable Care Act and have no real alternative, despite the fact that a flat repeal is not at all popular.

That shows a lack of seriousness.

On taxes, Maine Democrats have avoided that situation because they do have an alternative.

2. Democrats are clear about how their budget would affect particular families.

As individuals and families, we pay our own income taxes, property taxes and sales taxes. That money comes out of our paychecks and pockets, going to support schools, roads, health care and other priorities.

It matters to us how much tax plans affect individuals and families.

So it was smart for Democrats to present the below graphic with three families and how their tax situation would change under their plan vs LePage’s plan.

A more detailed analysis of the differences between the plans, by the way, was produced by the Maine Center for Economic Policy and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Here is their key chart:

In contrast, Gov. LePage has tended to emphasize the total tax change.

I guess that makes sense since his plan would cut taxes less for the vast majority of Maine people. Also, tax collections would fall in the aggregate under his plan, while they would go up in the Democrats’ plan. But individuals are typically more concerned about their own taxes, and Democrats have 98% of cuts going to the bottom 95% of taxpayers.

3. Democrats are talking about how their plan and LePage’s are tied to their philosophies about how to grow Maine’s economy.

Democrats say that the bulk of funds are aimed at 95% of taxpayers because they see the state of the middle-class as critical to the Maine economy.

Those citizens will have the money to buy their kids’ shoes or go out to a diner and will put their money in the local economy. This helps those families and it helps the state prosper, as more funds circulate, keeping businesses going and growing.

In contrast, LePage contends that lower taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations will help the economy. It is a different philosophy, which has backfired badly in Kansas, and Democrats call it “trickle down economics.”

4. Democrats keep property taxes and the budget’s balance in mind.

So, so many people at the Bangor town meeting asked questions about property taxes. And, given that legislators tell me that this is what voters ask about, that makes sense.

While LePage would zero out revenue sharing and the homestead exemption for people under 65, the Democrats’ plan does neither. In fact, it would double the homestead exemption for everyone.

Moreover, while LePage’s plan leaves a $300 million gap between projected revenues and spending, Democrats do not. This, by itself, demonstrates a concern for responsible budgeting for the state. And the help for property taxpayers emphasizes a top tax concern for Mainers.

5. Democrats held an open meeting, while LePage’s public presentations are more controlled.

The atmosphere at the Bangor town meeting was wide open. If you wanted to ask a question, someone would come over with a microphone.

At one point, a line formed, as people moved to where one questioner stood. But, to make sure others, including several elderly people, could ask questions, the person with the microphone moved so their question could be addressed.

Based on reports about LePage’s meetings, this is not how his are run. In contrast, his press secretary controls the questions and their flow.

In fact, one man at the Bangor meeting mentioned this difference, saying he had attended LePage’s Ellsworth budget event and the format and feeling was very different.

The relative openness of the Democrats’ event is more like what Mainers expect. It also gives confidence that they are in fact willing to listen and to respond.

DHHS enters agreement to help cash benefit recipients volunteer in schools

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Good morning from Maine’s capital, where the State House is expected to be awash in the blue and tan uniforms of hundreds of visiting Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts. It’s Scout recognition day! Can you guess when Boy Scouts of America was incorporated? Keep reading for the answer. 

The House and Senate are in session this morning and committees will convene this afternoon. 

It’s a big day for Republican Sen. Paul Davis of Sangerville and his ongoing efforts to find a solution for funding problems at the state’s county jails. Earlier this year, lawmakers appropriated $2.5 million to cover budget gaps that threatened to close some of the jails, but attached to that funding was a decree by Gov. Paul LePage for the Legislature to revisit how the jails are funded. Currently, it’s mostly local funding borne by property tax payers. In addition to the funding issues, oversight needs to be sorted out because LePage rejected major reforms enacted by the Legislature in 2014 by refusing to appoint members to the now-defunct board of corrections. 

Davis’ two bills are the subject of work sessions scheduled for 1 p.m. in the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. 

The Education Committee is working a handful of bills related to student privacy and the protection of student data, which could be nearing a committee vote this afternoon.

The Environment and Natural Resources Committee is hearing an attempt today to create the Recycling Grants and Low-interest Loan Program, the Maine Recycling Fund and the Recycling Public Advisory Council to help municipalities and the recycling industry enhance their operations. The project would be funded by a fee paid by manufacturers of bottles greater than 32 ounces in capacity, which would no longer be subject to the state’s bottle redemption laws. 

The Health and Human Services Committee will take testimony on three bills designed to put new restrictions and controls on the use of electronic benefits transfer cards, which are the vehicle the state uses to administer cash benefits for social services recipients. 

The Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee, as usual, has its eye on outdoor recreation and will consider several bills related to ice fishing rules and making registrations of snowmobiles and ATVs from neighboring states valid in Maine. 

In the Insurance and Financial Affairs Committee, Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon, is expected to support an amendment to his bill titled An Act to Provide Access to Infertility Treatment, which would require private insurance companies to pay some of the cost of infertility treatments. Mason said controversial provisions in the bill that would exclude non-married couples and people who are infertile because of sexually transmitted diseases were included mistakenly and he wants them out so the rest of the bill can move forward. 

The Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee is scheduled to do more work on An Act to Improve Access to Treatments for Lyme Disease, a bill whose sponsor said last week she would scuttle the bill if there was any attempt to insert an informed consent clause that would require doctors to attain patient sign-off for the administration of long-term antibiotics. 

Click here to sign up to receive the Daily Brief in your email inbox here! — Christopher Cousins 

New program links state aid recipients with volunteer opportunities

The Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday announced that DHHS has partnered with Portland-based LearningWorks to help social services recipients find volunteer opportunities with the AmeriCorps “AIMS HIGH” program.

The program recruits, trains and places AmeriCorps members in five high schools across Maine, where there are currently 45 open positions. Upon completion of 300 hours of volunteer service, participants will be eligible for education grants of $1,195.

In addition to providing an all-around benefit, the program will help SNAP recipients achieve a new 20-hour-a-week work requirement by the state to receive their benefits. LearningWorks is run by Ethan Strimling, a former Democratic legislator and well-known political pundit and columnist.

The participating schools include Carrabec High School in North Anson, Spruce Mountain High School in Jay, Kaler Elementary School in South Portland, Riverton Elementary in Portland and East End Community School in Portland. Able-bodied adults without dependents or anyone interested in the program can called LearningWorks at 775-0105. — Christopher Cousins

Collins in Cosmo

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins is in the news again, speaking out about the sexism she has experienced en route to becoming one of the U.S. Senate’s senior members. There’s some pretty shocking stuff in an article published this week by Cosmopolitan magazine. Like this quote from Collins regarding her 1994 run for Maine governor:

“I’ll never forget a young male banker coming up to me and telling me that he agreed with my views on all of the issues but he just couldn’t imagine a woman running the state of Maine. … I could see him thinking it, but that he felt no compunction about actually telling me why he wasn’t going to vote for me?”

Check out the full article for more. — Christopher Cousins

Reading list Back to Boy Scouts

Could you guess when the Boy Scouts were incorporated? It was a long time ago. The organization was founded in 1910 in Washington, D.C., and by 1911 had established its national headquarters in a YMCA office in New York. Cub Scouting, which is designed for younger boys, was launched in 1930.

As of a couple of years ago, the program included more than 2.6 million youth members and more than a million volunteers. My son and I can vouch for the fact that the program is amazing. If your son is entering the first grade, he’s eligible. Your local pack or troop shouldn’t be hard to find. — Christopher Cousins

Exclusive: Ad takes aim at legislators who want to loosen gun laws

Press Herald Politics -

Local and national gun safety groups have bought airtime in Maine this week to run a campaign-style TV ad that aims to put pressure on lawmakers who want to make a permit, background check, or safety course unnecessary for carrying a concealed handgun. I have seen the ad and it is powerful.

I received a sneak peak and have previewed the ad below, which will will start running on Thursday from Everytown For Gun Safety & Maine Moms Demand Action. The statewide buy (TV, radio and digital) calls on voters to contact their legislator and tell them to vote no on LD652. If this bill passes, any individual, including dangerous criminals, could legally walk into a day care, the library, or a bar with a loaded weapon in their pocket without first having to get a background check, receive a permit from local law enforcement, or even take a basic gun safety course.

The ad mentions recent polling that shows 84% of those of us in Maine support requiring a background check and safety training before someone can carry a concealed weapon (I have actually seen this polling and can verify its veracity). The ads also highlight law enforcement officials across the state who oppose the law change and the radio spot is a narrative from retired Police Chief Googins. Maine Moms and Everytown have over 16,000 members across Maine.

The spot is an reminder as to how much is at stake with this vote. Here's hoping the legislature listens and doesn't put our public safety at risk.

Click here to watch the ad and listen to the radio spot, or simply watch below.

 

Death to the income tax? Sign me up

Matt Gagnon - Bangor Daily News -

Five years to eliminate the state’s income tax? Sign me up.

This week, Gov. Paul LePage made his long awaited proposal to fully eliminate the Maine income tax, and he is giving lawmakers until 2020 to figure out how to do it.

Under LePage’s proposal, the Maine Constitution would be amended to specifically restrict the state from being able to collect income taxes after the year 2020. That’s the goal. The big picture. The 30,000-foot view.

Absent is any plan or recommendation for how to get there. While this has caused a fair amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth from my friends on the political left, I actually believe very strongly that this is the proper way to go about it.

If LePage’s goal is truly to get rid of a tax on income, and if he truly — as he has said for months — is open to any and all ideas for how to get there, than this strategy is entirely appropriate. Set a benchmark that has no choice but to be met (thereby putting pressure on legislators who are notorious for not pursuing sweeping change), and then leave it to them to come up with a compromise that achieves that goal in the allotted time.

And they’ll have the time to do it. Legislators will have three budgets — the 2016-2017, 2018-2019 and the 2020-2021 biennial budgets to be precise — to make the necessary changes.

Don’t get me wrong, it won’t be easy. But state legislatures have, for decades, failed to undertake wholesale, deep reform, and I won’t be shedding a tear that they would be given a ticking clock to force their hand and make them confront the need for major change.

A good start would be to finally take seriously the issue of spending, as I made clear in my column two weeks ago. Only once in 40 years — the 2010-2011 biennium — has a Maine budget gone down. Gov. LePage’s own budget proposal for this year raises spending by roughly $166 million.

The argument in fashion on the left right now is to tell you that “income tax cuts don’t work and don’t matter,” and they love to point to examples like Kansas, which recently passed a major tax cut, to demonstrate why.

But the Kansas tax reform package hasn’t been around long enough to tell you much of anything about its impact, and the “disaster” Democrats keep referring to is, like so much of government, a spending problem. Kansas cut taxes, and they grew spending at the same time, so now they face a revenue problem. Who knew? Maybe, just maybe, spending is the problem.

I would suggest that in the 2016-2017 biennium, we aim for a budget that is “only” $6 billion, rather than the $6.5 billion that is currently being proposed. The exponential increases built on top of exponential increases have created a bloated mess, and it is time we admit that and try to do something about it.

The Democrats, of course, are already demagoguing the proposal to eliminate the income tax, cherry picking the amount of money that would be “lost” to the state if we did not collect an income tax.

What they fail to tell you, of course, is that there are many ways of getting revenue, and the recent push to move from an income tax base to a consumption tax base provides not only a more stable revenue stream to government, but off-boards much of the funding to non-residents and tourists.

Extensions of the sales tax to areas it does not currently touch are but one of many options. Don’t let the left get away with terrifying threats. The government could easily be funded without a single program cut, if lawmakers in Augusta wanted to go that route. They shouldn’t, but they could, which makes the entire argument nonsense.

But back to the proposal, it is long past time to make a major and dramatic change to Maine’s tax code. The income tax being eliminated will make Maine a more attractive location for entrepreneurs and labor, it will be a phenomenally helpful thing for small business, which makes up the backbone of the Maine economy, and it will represent the biggest raise workers of all income levels will get in Maine for years.

Long overdue.

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