Al Diamon

Al Diamon

Send in the clowns

Nothing says civility like a heavily armed National Guard unit.

If you’re concerned that social conventions in the United States might be breaking down, fear no more. Paul LePage, Maine’s Republican governor and reptilian invasive species, announced during a recent radio interview that he’s considered employing the military to deal with “an internal domestic problem.”

I had one of those. But a couple boxes of d-Con took care of it.

To be fair to the governor (I’m not smirking, I swear), it’s unclear from his remarks whether he actually intends to employ troops to suppress dissent. He could just be incoherent.

“I think we’re developing an internal domestic problem that, I’m told, that I think that the military, I’m deploying them,” he said. “I’m asking the National Guard to help us with. And that is the anger in our country.”

I’m going with incoherent.

Except then there was this somewhat more comprehensible opinion on the political rhetoric LePage encountered on recent visits to Washington, D.C.:

“I just think that if that’s where our country is headed, our government is going to fail.”

Will that be different from the way things are now?

LePage said he wasn’t advocating using the Guard to stop all disagreements, only those with which he disagrees: “They just won’t give you the normal respect that the office deserves.”

Within hours of his interview becoming public, the governor’s press office issued its usual series of denials, reversals, clarifications and other sludge indicating that everything LePage said was to be disregarded.

Otherwise, you might get a visit from the Guard.

A few days after LePage’s latest outburst, the Maine Sunday Telegram ran an in-depth article claiming the governor “appears to be polishing his rougher edges.” The paper attributed LePage’s “more statesman-like” demeanor to either a desire to land a job in the Trump administration (do they need a prison warden at Guantanamo?) or his promise to seek “spiritual guidance” after an incident last year in which he left a voicemail message for a Democratic legislator containing language worthy of a Trump conversation with Billy Bush. Since then, according to the Telegram, the kinder, gentler LePage has been on his best behavior.

Well, except for …

Saying in the same radio interview that the GOP state senator who sponsored a bill to move Maine to the Atlantic Time Zone must be “insane.” “The person who proposed that, we ought to call for a therapy session,” LePage said. “This is crazy.”

In a different radio interview, he referred to all the state’s constitutional officers for the past half-century as “aging ideologues.” He made no exception for former state treasurer and current Republican Congressman Bruce Poliquin. Which seems reasonable.

He sued Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills, ostensibly because she refused to represent him in several lawsuits he’s filed that have cost the state almost $400,000 for outside lawyers, but also possibly because Mills may run for governor, and a court case might stir up some dirt.

Another radio interview, another pleasantry: On May 9, LePage said House Speaker Sara Gideon’s welfare-reform bill was designed to keep people on public assistance “so that they can guarantee their votes” for Democrats.

During a town meeting in Fort Kent last month, LePage claimed the new higher tax on rich people to pay for schools that was approved in a referendum in November applied to the entire income of anyone earning more than $200,000 per year. When an audience member correctly pointed out that the surcharge only affected amounts over $200,000, LePage insisted otherwise. “It’s the full $200,000,” he said. “It’s 10 percent for the full amount, sir.” Polite touch, that “sir.”

In Washington to lobby against the Katahdin Woods and Water National Monument, LePage testified before a congressional committee that the 87,000 acres east of Baxter State Park was a “mosquito area” and claimed incorrectly that hunting and snowmobiling were banned within its confines. He called the monument designation a “federal land grab,” even though the property was gifted to the feds by the previous owner. One observer characterized his testimony as that of “a cranky dingus.”

Fortunately, the governor has the right to say whatever he chooses, free from interference from reality.

Or the National Guard.


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Fading Out

WARNING: DO NOT READ THIS COLUMN WHILE DRIVING, OPERATING HEAVY MACHINERY, STANDING ON A CLIFF OR SLURPING HOT SOUP. DUE TO THE THREAT OF BOREDOM-INDUCED CATATONIA, YOU MAY BE AT RISK OF SERIOUS INJURY, DEATH OR EVEN PUBLIC HUMILIATION. I AM NOT KIDDING.

Well, I might be kidding a little. But it’s nearly impossible to explain the technicalities of the state budget process in an entertaining fashion. Even an experienced journalist such as myself requires protective headgear and frequent injections of powerful stimulants to survive the experience intact.

ALSO, CAPITAL LETTERS HELP. LOTS OF CAPITAL LETTERS.

The budget is different from most bills the Legislature considers because it requires a two-thirds vote of the state House and Senate to pass. There are two reasons for this higher standard.

First, the spending bill for the next two years is usually completed sometime in June, just days before it’s due to go into effect on July 1. Normal legislation passed by simple majorities becomes law 90 days after the Legislature adjourns, usually sometime in September. If the budget were approved in that fashion, state government would have to close down for three months. While there might be some positive results from that — we could all take the summer off — the negative consequences outweigh them: state parks closed during tourist season, no licensing for new breweries, poor people starving in the streets. So the budget is approved as an emergency measure by a two-thirbs vote, and takes effeck immediabobly ... consciousness fading … need capidal ledders … CAPITAL LETTERS … QUICK,  THROW IN SOME EXCLAMATION POINTS!!! WHEW! THAT WAS CLOSE!

Now, where were we? Oh yes, the second reason the budget requires a super-majority to pass is because of the Paul LePage problem. Maine’s Republican governor and magna cum laude graduate of the Russian Academy of Unpredictable Governance has vetoed every budget passed during his tenure in the Blaine House, even though many of them contained much of what he originally proposed in his own spending plan. To overcome LePage’s automatic antagonism to any variance from his personal dogma, the Legislature is forced to muster a two-thirds vote.

Overcoming these obstacles requires compromise, but that commodity is already in short supply at the State House, where both sides have done their best to assume negotiating positions so extreme as to preclude any movement toward middle ground. This tactic is actually interesting, but like many interesting things — traffic accidents, pornography, Donald Trump — it isn’t very productive.

For instance, legislative Republicans have announced they won’t vote for any budget that contains the 3-percent tax hike on rich people to pay for schools that was approved in a referendum last fall. “We need a budget that won’t bankrupt Maine’s economy,” GOP Senate President Michael Thibodeau told reporters. That measure, backed by the Maine Education Association and other liberal groups, has the full support of Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson has said repealing the increase is the equivalent of giving “a tax break to the wealthiest in the state of Maine.” All the elements are in place for that most mind-numbing consequence of political gamesmanship: the stalemate.

And we’re back to boring.

Further complicating this debate are the intra-party disagreements on this issue. Ooooh, that phrase, “intra-party disagreements.” Growing woozy … must shleep …

SEX! VIOLENCE! FAILED NORTH KOREAN MISSILE LAUNCH!

I’m awake! I’m alert! I promise I’m going to make this as brief as possible.

Senate Republicans are generally amenable to coming up with a substitute for the 3-percent tax. They’ve talked about increasing school spending by some unspecified amount using surplus funds and other magic money. The House GOP says education is already adequately funded, and no additional appropriation is needed.

Democratic leaders have made noises as if they’d accept some changes to the tax measure, such as increasing the level where the surcharge kicks in from $200,000 in annual income to $250,000 or reducing the size of the tax hike from 3 to 2 percent. However, the party’s left wing insists the law must remain intact, exactly as voters approved it.

There may be an intriguing proposal in there somewhere, but my mind’s gotten too foggy to find it. Forehead softening … drooping into eyes …

BOTOX! BOTOX!


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Whiskey-bent and Hell-bound

The most important issue in Maine’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign is:

Can Paul LePage pardon a dog?

Also, who is this Susan Collins person, and why has she never bothered to introduce herself to LePage?

But back to the pooch. Gov. LePage claims he can pardon dogs the courts have ordered euthanized after they’ve been found to be dangerous. Next year’s potential gubernatorial prospects are deeply divided on this issue. When asked, conservatives rolled their eyes, while liberals kept saying “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” apparently a reference to the Tina Fey movie  (I watched it, but there was nothing about pardons. Or dogs. Puzzling.)

As for Collins – the state’s senior senator and, like LePage, a Republican – she’s finally admitted she’s considering a run for governor. This prompted LePage to wax philosophic:

“I don’t know if I will endorse her,” he said during a radio interview, “because I don’t know her well enough to know whether or not she can do the job as CEO. It’s very very different to be a legislator and to be a CEO. I will tell you I don’t think I would make a very good legislator, and many legislators that I know would not make a very good governor. So I don’t know her well enough to pass judgment.”

Allow me to enlighten the governor. While it’s true that Collins is currently a legislator, she’s also served as director of the U.S. Senate’s Oversight of Government Management Subcommittee, commissioner of Maine’s Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, New England director of the Small Business Administration and deputy state treasurer of Massachusetts.

I realize that pales compared to LePage’s pre-gubernatorial background as the CEO of a surplus and salvage company and an ineffective stint as mayor of Waterville (motto: You Know, The Decaying Settlement North Of Augusta Where Colby College Is).

One other note on the governor’s remarks: That line “I don’t think I would make a very good legislator” has already been archived by devious political operatives for use in the event LePage follows through on his threat to run against independent U.S. Sen. Angus King next year.

But enough of this gubernatorial foolishness. Because there’s other gubernatorial foolishness that’s even better.

Terry Hayes is running for governor.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

I’m sure there are a couple dozen people who know Hayes is the state treasurer, a post filled by the Legislature every two years in an effort to make an obscure politician even more so. Hayes used to be a Democratic state representative, who once served as assistant majority leader. But she clashed with labor unions, which resulted in her being soundly defeated in a bid to become speaker of the House. She then declared herself an independent, ran for treasurer and won with the support of Republicans.

As governor, Hayes told the Bangor Daily News she’d be “collaborative” because “we can’t afford to alienate people.” Except labor unions.

Hayes’ campaign hinges on the state supreme court finding ranked-choice voting constitutional. She plans to position herself as everybody’s second choice, and emerge as the winner in the 14th round. But if Collins gets in the race, the winner may be declared about 13 rounds earlier than that.

Then there’s Democratic candidate Adam Cote, a musician with the band Wretched. I really dug their 2014 album “Cannibal,” but his shirtless, death-metal yammering might turn off tradition-minded, 2nd District voters, who prefer Megadeth or Slayer.

Oh wait. That guy spells his last name Cody. The Cote who’s running for governor is a lawyer, a decorated Army veteran and a loser in the 2008 1st District congressional primary. Since then, he’s been invisible. Sort of like Wretched.

Cote is a moderate, who’s positioning himself as an outsider. “I have not spent much time in Augusta,” he told the Bangor Daily. After this election, that’s unlikely to change.

Finally, there’s GOP Congressman Bruce Poliquin, who’s been widely rumored to be interested in the governorship. But sources tell me Poliquin has changed his mind after he realized that if he were elected, he couldn’t continue to avoid reporters by sleeping in his congressional office and refusing to be interviewed. Instead, he plans to run for re-election.

The man knows how to Foxtrot around.

 

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I don’t recall

Here’s a great idea for those of you interested in making things worse:

Let’s allow voters to recall any elected official in Maine that they don’t like, including the governor.

Democratic state Sen. Justin Chenette of Saco has introduced a bill to do exactly that. Never mind that it’s probably unconstitutional (more on that later). The big problem is it’s a recipe for political chaos.

If you think the state is currently divided — Democrats versus Republicans, urban versus rural, north versus south — just imagine the atmosphere in the wake of a successful attempt to recall a sitting governor. The deposed executive’s supporters in the Legislature would engage in all manner of obstruction against his or her successor. With gridlock gripping the State House, special interests would exert their devious influences behind the scenes. Reasoned debate would be replaced with name calling, smear campaigns and fake news. The economy would stagnate. Infrastructure would deteriorate. The education system would flounder. Tax money would be squandered.

Actually, that’s pretty much the way things are now.

Nevertheless, this dream of recalling duly elected officials is — you’ll excuse the expression — deplorable. The state Constitution already has a dandy provision dealing with governors who commit crimes. It’s called impeachment. That document also contains a clause that allows the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to declare sitting governors incompetent or impaired and remove them from office. And then there’s that election thingy. Governors who botch their duties can be defeated at the polls. Even before they come up for re-election, their legislative allies have to face the voters every two years. Surely all that provides ample safeguards against executive authority run amuck.

Not according to Chenette. He’s quoted in the Lewiston Sun Journal as saying we need to “give power to the people by providing the public an extra tool of government accountability,” because those constitutional provisions can’t be trusted to do the job. Chenette seems unaware that the people he wants to give additional powers to are the very ones who elected this doofus in the first place.

But let’s get back to that constitutional issue. In 1992, the Legislature considered a recall bill and quickly determined that such a measure ran contrary to our fundamental law. Only a constitutional amendment could authorize recall. But such an amendment requires a two-thirds vote of both the state House and Senate and approval by a majority of the voters. Chenette’s bill doesn’t call for any of that, instead opting for passage by simple legislative majorities and the signature of the current governor (as unlikely as that seems). It’s doubtful that would meet constitutional standards.

Another little problem with this proposal is the grounds for removing a governor. They include “incompetence in the performance of duties” (goodbye John Reed, James Longley, John McKernan, John Baldacci and Paul LePage), “obstruction of voter-approved initiatives (so long Angus King, Baldacci and LePage) and “neglect of duties” (you’re out of here McKernan and LePage). These rules are so over-broad and vague that it’s doubtful any Maine governor — including such prominent figures as our first chief executive, William King; Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain; or a national figure like Ed Muskie — could have escaped their reach.

To initiate recall of an elected official, Chenette’s bill requires the collection of signatures of disgruntled voters equal to 15 percent of those who cast ballots in the election that put this miscreant in office in the first place. Compared to most other states with recall provisions (Rhode Island is the only one in New England and look how swell things are there), that’s on the low side, with most setting the threshold at 25 percent. The failed 1992 effort to institute recall in Maine required at least 35 percent. Chenette’s 15-percent figure would encourage recall petitioners to hit the streets every time a governor did anything the least bit controversial. Election season would never end.

Actually, that’s pretty much the way things are now.

 

Correction: In my column two weeks ago, I misidentified the sponsor of a sleazy legislative fundraiser as the Maine Republican Party. The actual sponsor was the Maine Senate Republican Majority PAC, which is almost — but not quite — the same thing. Sorry about that.

 

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Angus King of Nothing

“An independent,” writes P.J. O’Rourke, “is a person who doesn’t know what to think. And is proud of it.”

O’Rourke’s comment — from his latest book, How The Hell Did This Happen? — wasn’t specifically aimed at independent U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine. But it could have been.

King has a reputation for taking thoughtful stands on issues. Which is a polite way of saying he dithers around, before reverting to his default setting: whatever the Democrats want him to do.

As a result, his critics complain he’s not a true independent, but a Ideological Democrat In Other Trappings (IDIOT). That’s not entirely fair, since it implies that King blindly follows the donkey party line and doesn’t have a political philosophy of his own. But he does. It’s just kind of simplistic. During his eight years as governor and five-plus years as a senator, King has consistently supported the status quo. The guy doesn’t like change.

That ought to brand him as an old-fashioned conservative, and indeed, he’s occasionally acted like one, vetoing a minimum wage increase when he was governor. But mostly, he avoids anything that carries the slightest hint of original thinking, because fresh ideas seem to upset him.

King isn’t stupid, just a bit dull in that stodgy public-broadcasting way that examines every issue as if it was a recently discovered chunk of petrified dinosaur dung. Fascinating in the abstract. Upon closer inspection, slightly disgusting. Best not to meddle with it.

“I started this process with an open mind,” King said of his much-delayed decision to oppose the Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch. And he ended the process with his mind still ajar, flapping in the breeze. By the time he announced his opposition to Gorsuch, his vote made no difference.

Ironically, King decided against supporting the nominee because he felt he wasn’t independent enough. By which he meant he suspected Gorsuch harbored actual opinions about things. Definitely not his kind of guy. If King had his druthers, the vacancy on the court wouldn’t get filled at all, because no matter who got nominated, sooner or later they’d have to decide something. Can’t have that.

Repealing Obamacare and replacing it with a Republican alternative? King had concerns, which, he would be quick to note, are not the same as opinions. Concerns are, you know, vaguer. “Making coverage more affordable and more accessible should be our shared goal,” he told the Lewiston Sun Journal, “but [the GOP] bill never came close to accomplishing that. I have long said the Affordable Care Act needs to be fixed, and I am prepared to work with those who are interested in improving it, along with our health care system.”

When President Trump decided to launch cruise missiles at a Syrian military installation earlier this month, King told the Portland Press Herald, he was sorta OK with that, but he also sorta had reservations. “The Syrian civil war is horribly complex, incredibly dangerous and damaging,” he said, “and to enter into that war on one side or the other would be very difficult for us to find the right place to be engaged.”

King has a 67 percent approval rating, according to the latest Morning Consult poll, which should make him a shoo-in for re-election next year. But so far, he seems to be approaching that task as if it involved cleaning up a steaming dump deposited in the Capitol rotunda by a regenerated T-Rex. He hasn’t raised much money. He hasn’t responded to criticism from potential opponents. He appears to be relying on his folksy charm to overcome his glaring lack of an agenda. Suggested campaign slogan: Angus is more or less in favor of whatever you’re in favor of. Probably.

This approach worked back in the 1990s, when he won two races for governor, and it even carried over to his Senate bid five years ago. But times have changed. Challengers such as GOP state Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn and Republican Gov. Paul LePage aren’t shy about discussing their platforms in blunt terms that resonate with a sizeable portion of the electorate. Voters will know where they stand.

That could make it more obvious that King doesn’t stand for much of anything.

 

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Shift it into gear

So you want to buy a legislator.

You’ve come to the right place. Honest Al’s Discount Political Emporium has the state’s largest selection of new and used lawmakers, and we’re ready to deal. It doesn’t matter what model you want — conservatives, liberals, ultra-left city slickers, alt-right country bumpkins — we’ve got ‘em. And at prices even the lowliest lobbyist can afford.

Before I show you what’s on sale, let me give you a few tips, stuff only us insiders know. You may think you want a traditional wheeler-dealer. You know, a fat, white guy with a sweaty brow, an ill-fitting suit, and a comb-over. But that model went out of fashion back in the last century. While there are still plenty of those stereotypical boobs taking up legislative space, nobody pays attention to them. If you need their vote, it can be had for a nip bottle and a coupon for free beef jerky.

Likewise, don’t waste your money on bright young things. While they have loads of energy, they burn it off fast. Before you know it, they’re out of gas, complaining that the system is rigged against them (they’re not wrong about that) and quitting the Legislature to take jobs as lobbyists or bureaucrats. You’re left with nothing for your investment.

No, what you need is a politician who’s reliable, one who understands that what’s best for this state is whatever you say is best. Not so smart as to have original thoughts, but not so dumb as to fail to appreciate your advice. They’re not flashy, but they become committee chairs and members of leadership.

The most important thing to remember about buying influence is that it’s sort of illegal. I say sort of, because, like most statutes dealing with political finance, the law banning lobbyists from making campaign contributions to legislators during a session has more loopholes than there are potholes on Main Street. So don’t worry. That mumbo jumbo won’t be a problem. You can be the operator of your very own representative or senator, and there’s very little the legal system can do about it. Why? Because — and here’s the beautiful part — your personal pol will be the one making those laws.

According to an excellent investigative article by Naomi Schalit of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, the state’s ethics statutes are clear in their intent. “If public confidence in government is to be maintained and enhanced,” the law’s preamble reads, “it is not enough that public officials avoid acts of misconduct. They must also scrupulously avoid acts which may create an appearance of misconduct.”

If you’re thinking that sinks your chances of exerting undue influence over elected officials, think again. As Schalit discovered, “[T]hose are nice words that don’t appear to carry much influence with some legislators, many of whom edge up to within a hair’s breadth of the law without actually crossing it.”

Her story lists case after case of lawmakers raking in dough from lobbyists by charging them for fun-packed events such as a “Legislative Chairman’s Breakfast” (tickets ran from $100 to $5,000), with proceeds going to the Maine Democratic Party. The state Republican Party put on a “Breakfast Before the Gavel Drops” (seats went for $100 to $2,000) with the cash being funneled to seven GOP-affiliated PACs. Essentially, both these affairs served as money-laundering schemes, whereby donations were recycled to help the very legislators you’re not allowed to contribute to.

There are also “policy discussions” and “dialogues” put on by legislative “experts” on various topics. Entrance to these events requires a hefty fee, but the “experts” are well aware of who paid to hear them publicly expose their ignorance, and they’re grateful to attendees for their polite applause. For those with a lower tolerance for boredom, there are charity events organized by legislators, during which special interests are coerced into giving money to local causes, thereby enhancing the sponsoring politicians’ reputations.

There’s currently a bill in the Legislature to prohibit lobbyists from making these thinly disguised bribes, but like I said, the people deciding its fate are the same ones you’ve bought and paid for. Plausible deniability comes standard on all models.

It’s sort of like an extended warranty.

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The road goes on forever

It’s tempting to blame everything wrong with state government on stupidity. But according to scientists, I’m probably making up, only 42.5 percent of governmental screw-ups are caused by dopiness. The rest is due to something more complex.

Namely, complexity.

It turns out that a lot of what appears to be simple about running Maine’s bureaucracy isn’t. That’s a lesson Republican Gov. Paul LePage doesn’t seem capable of learning, mostly because LePage is a major contributor to that 42.5 percent mentioned above. In spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he continues to pursue unworkable solutions to complicated problems.

To solve the drug crisis, LePage advocates increased law enforcement, along with a healthy dose of racial profiling, even though arresting addicts doesn’t cure them, and most dope dealers are white.

To reduce energy prices, the governor wants to import Canadian hydropower, which would cost about the same as what we’re paying now – if there was any way to get it here without spending millions on new transmission lines.

To cut welfare, he favors throwing people off programs like food stamps, claiming that will force them to get jobs – even though he’s so far failed to produce any statistics indicating his approach does anything except make them hungrier.

Healthcare? LePage was against the Obamacare repeal. Then he was for it. Now he’s calling for a state-run insurance program, which he used to be against.

Education? If the state would just eliminate a bunch of school superintendents, students could learn a whole lot more.

Taxes? With all he won’t be spending on welfare, health care, schools and solving problems, Maine can get along fine without an income tax.

Given LePage’s impressive record of ignoring reality, it comes as no surprise that the governor recently announced his plan to deal with the state’s decaying transportation infrastructure:

Flying cars.

Also, those jet-pack thingies.

I may have made that up. Unfortunately, my fantasies make more sense than LePage’s real idea:

Get rid of the Maine Turnpike Authority and most of its tolls.

The governor wants to merge the MTA with the state Department of Transportation (motto: Unable To Get Out Of Our Own Way) and eliminate all toll plazas with the exception of the one in Kittery.

Except there isn’t one in Kittery. The pike’s southernmost tolling station is in York. But why quibble about that minor geographic disparity.

“The only toll we should have is for the visitors coming in and out of the state in the summer months,” he told a town-hall meeting in Gorham last month.

In 2016, the York tollbooth collected $57 million from those entering and leaving Maine. The rest of the pike brought in $77 million, which means that single southern barrier was responsible for 42.5 percent of all revenue.

Now, where have we heard that number before?

Oh yeah, it’s the percentage of state problems caused by stupidity. What a remarkable coincidence.

Under LePage’s carefully thought-out plan, Maine’s road system would sacrifice $77 million in revenue, while assuming responsibility for $385 million in bonds the turnpike authority has issued. The DOT budget, already as much as $80 million short of what’s needed to maintain the rest of the state’s highways, would suddenly be on the hook for the $43 million a year the pike spends just keeping itself in usable shape, as well as over $18 million annually in bond payments. That means the $57 million in tolls would fall about $4 million short of covering the added cost, even before the tax credits LePage is promising for commuters who have to pay tolls to reach their jobs in New Hampshire.

The problems with this idea aren’t entirely financial. There’s also the fact that the MTA is one of Maine’s best run public agencies because it concentrates on its core mission – operating a single highway of a little over 100 miles – and mostly steers clear of political entanglements.

On the other side of the car, DOT is a morass of conflicting agendas driven by ideology, geography, and idiocy (42.5 percent). It would be hard pressed to operate a technologically complex toll highway that’s vital to the state’s economy.

LePage’s ill-considered idea should take the next exit to Stupidville.

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Faking it

Maine has many serious problems, so it’s only natural the Legislature would devote all its efforts to finding solutions.

 

Except there’s nothing natural about the Legislature (warning: contains androids, invasive species and random bits of plastic), so it’s no wonder legislators dither away their time on insignificant matters. As everyone in this state knows, actual issues of importance are settled by referendum.

 

Shuffling complicated policy questions off on the voters frees legislators to cavort across the political landscape pursuing all sorts of mythical creatures. From Republican state Rep. Lawrence Lockman’s obsession with radical Islamic terrorists hiding in sleeper cells in Wytopitlock to Democratic state Rep. James Handy’s inspired effort to force dogs in cars to wear seat belts to GOP state Rep. Beth Turner’s bold initiative to allow people who don’t want emergency medical care to get “Do Not Resuscitate” tattoos on their chests to Democratic state Rep. Matthea Daughtry’s “An Act Regarding the Regulation of Rabbit Production for Local Consumption,” lawmakers fill their days with careful consideration of trivialities.

 

Which would be fine if these excursions into fantasy had no real-world consequences. But all too often they do. Thanks to Lockman’s xenophobia, immigrants are regarded with unwarranted suspicion. Handy withdrew his bill, but not before I got all paranoid about letting my dogs stick their heads out the car windows. Turner will have to answer to her right-wing constituents who think adding “Do Not Resuscitate” will alter the message conveyed by their chest tattoos of Steve Bannon. And Daughtry is going to catch flack from Christian conservatives convinced her bill will lead to condoms for cottontails.

 

But these concerns pale in comparison to the potential fallout from another piece of legislation proposing a solution to an imaginary problem. Republican state Rep. Bradley Farrin of Norridgewock (town motto: Radical Islamic Terrorist-Free Since 1788) believes our democratic system is under siege by squadrons of fraudulent voters.

 

In Maine’s 2016 election alone, there was one case of someone voting illegally. According to the Secretary of State’s Office, there have been four such attempts in the last 22 years. And those were just the ones who got caught. If we figure in the fake voters who escaped detection, the total could be 10 or more. That’s enough to change the results of this many major elections: zero.

 

Nevertheless, as Thomas Jefferson never said, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance (Jefferson actually said the price of liberty is $49.99 plus tax). Without safeguards, it’s only a matter of time before radical Islamic terrorists, unrestrained dogs, tattooed dead people and pregnant bunnies are sneaking into polling places and casting ballots. In Lockman’s hometown of Amherst, this could already be the case. Which would explain a lot.

 

Farrin’s bill would require all voters to show a photo ID. Acceptable identification would include a Maine driver’s license (not currently accepted by the federal government because counterfeiting it is easier than convincing rabbits to copulate) or a state-issued ID card (I got mine about 35 years ago, and, strangely enough, it’s still valid, even though it shows the wrong address and my hair is darker than a stereotypical radical Islamic terrorist). Anyone who didn’t have one of those would be eligible to receive a special free ID from the state at a cost to taxpayers of more than half a million dollars (which turns out to be the current inflated price of liberty).

 

There are a few problems with this plan. First, it would force ballot clerks across the state to look at thousands of extremely unbecoming photos. Mainers may be no uglier than the national average (looking down at you, Mississippi), but everyone’s ID photo, with the possible exception of Gisele Bündchen’s, is transformed by some secret government process into appearing to show a face that’s recently undergone an ineptly performed autopsy.

 

Second, anybody who’s going to the trouble of voting where they’re ineligible to do so is probably capable of obtaining false identification. They won’t mind the inconvenience. It’s part of the job of being a fake voter. They can probably write off the expense on their income tax.

 

Third, a law like this will stop some honest people from voting. And even one case of that is too many.

 

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Give the credit where it’s due

Here’s a rule they don’t teach in economics classes:

 

It’s not just about lower taxes. It’s really about paying less in taxes than the competition.

 

Allow me to use myself as an example. Years ago, I developed a successful scheme to reduce my tax bill: I decided to make my living as freelance political columnist, thereby severely limiting my earnings. But even though my annual bills from the tax collectors in Augusta and Washington are for miniscule sums, I’m not satisfied. I can’t shake the uncomfortable feeling that other columnists are paying even less than I am.

 

I won’t be satisfied until I’m assured that Cynthia Dill of the Maine Sunday Telegram is facing a stiff surcharge every time she contradicts herself. The IRS should crack down on the Bangor Daily News’ Lance Dutson for willful impersonation of a reasonable person. The Forecaster’s Edgar Allen Beem and the Portland Press Herald’s Bill Nemitz have always favored tax hikes, so let’s grant their wishes.

 

I’m willing to pay my fair share, so long as “fair” is defined as “less than those guys.”

 

I readily confess that this attitude is self-serving and contrary to the principles of democratic government. In other words, it’s exactly like most tax policy.

 

Over the last few decades, the state has granted nonsensical tax breaks to all kinds of businesses. If you buy a yacht in Maine, but move it out of state within 30 days, it’s sales-tax-free. If you own a big shipyard, you can receive $2.85 million in tax credits from the state each year for doing nothing more than existing. Paying property taxes on business equipment? There’s a reimbursement for that.

 

According to Republican state Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn (campaign slogan: Weird, But Not A Complete Loon), there are at least 47 of these credits or exemptions for corporations that cost the taxpayers around $225 million a year. Brakey told the Press Herald the idea behind these sweet deals was to improve the business climate.

 

“But I think that what happens, in essence, is the only people who really benefit from these carve-outs are the companies that are big enough to afford the lobbyists to get the carve-outs in the first place, and then the companies who can afford the legal teams to figure out how to use the carve-outs,” he said.

 

Brakey originally introduced a bill to do away with the entire lot them — he’s since scaled it back to remove only the largest and most abused ones — and use the savings to eliminate the corporate income tax. In other words, every corporate entity would pay lower taxes, not just a privileged few.

 

Naturally, the business community is opposed to that, because it would destroy the hierarchy that allows the favored few to avoid taxes, while their competition has to make up the difference.

 

Take, for example, the Maine New Markets Capital Investment program, a shell game that allowed out-of-state investors in the now-defunct Great Northern Paper mill in East Millinocket to qualify for $16 million in tax refunds for investments they never made. A recent study by the state Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability found that for every dollar in New Markets credits the state paid out, the net benefit to the local economy comes to 19 cents. Or how about the quarter-million dollars the state cheerfully refunds to moviemakers for producing films nobody ever watches — except their unfortunate friends and relatives. They could at least have given us free tickets.

 

Brakey’s bill is a tentative step in the direction of a simpler tax system stripped of undue advantages handed out for dubious reasons. His plan to end the corporate income tax is flawed by the fact that 70 percent of Maine businesses are so small they don’t pay it anyway, instead filing as part of their owners’ personal returns. So the Brakey measure would give the larger corporations a break — no income tax at all — that smaller companies couldn’t take advantage of. Instead of focusing on the corporate tax, perhaps the extra cash should be spread across the spectrum of taxpayers, reducing bills for everyone.

 

Except Dill, Dutson, Nemitz and Beem. Those suckers have to pay more than me.

 

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Vanishing Land

Nobody likes moderates, anymore.

 

Once upon a time, middle-of-the-roaders were considered thoughtful and measured in their actions. They weighed a proposal’s advantages and consequences and attempted to craft a course that produced as much as possible of the former and as little of the latter. They preferred pragmatism over ideology and were open to fresh perspectives even if they came from the opposition. They got things done, although not quite enough for those on one extreme, while just a little too much for those on the other.

 

Or to filter all that through the current political climate, they’re mushy opportunists, fearful of taking strong positions, more concerned with trying to satisfy everybody, while ending up satisfying nobody.

 

Yeah, they’re talking about Susan Collins.

 

Maine’s senior senator, a Republican and potential gubernatorial candidate in 2018, is taking heat from both the right and left. Earlier this month, Collins told the No Labels Problem Solvers Conference that the middle ground she occupies is “melting like late-winter snow in Maine.”

 

Curse you, climate change.

 

The GOP is furious with the senator for refusing to back Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy last year, for voting against a couple of his cabinet nominees and for supporting her party’s position less than any other Republican senator.

Which means she’s backed Trump’s agenda over 84 percent of the time, according to Nate Silver’s 538 blog. That’s more often than I agree with my wife. According to my wife.

 

As far as the GOP right wing is concerned, Collins is a RINO (Russian Infiltrator Negotiating for Obama).

 

Collins tried to accommodate the liberal group Mainers for Accountable Leadership by meeting with its members. The next day the same activists picketed her in Bangor for being inaccessible. Meanwhile, another leftist organization, Allied Progress, slammed her for not opposing more Trump nominees.

 

“Sen. Collins’s vague calls for an investigation into the Trump team’s ties to Russia aren’t enough,” said Karl Frisch, the group’s executive director, in a news release. “Mainers didn’t send Collins to Washington to be a rubber stamp for Donald Trump and the Russians. It’s time for her to take a stand where it counts.”

 

Otherwise, she’s a Politician United with Trump to Increase Nationalism. Also known as a PUTIN.

 

No matter how Collins votes on the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court, she’s going to end up smeared with one of those unpleasant acronyms – or, more likely, some even less polite description.

 

“The lack of civility is really disturbing,” she told the No Labels dweebs. But then she added this optimistic note: “I still believe that most Americans are in the middle.”

 

Don’t count on it. If they were, neither Democrat Chellie Pingree (1st District) nor Republican Bruce Poliquin (2nd District) would be representing Maine in Congress. And GOP Gov. Paul LePage would be spending his winters in Florida being mistaken for a land-based manatee. (Oops, there’s that lack-of-civility thing.)

 

The truth about Collins is she sometimes sticks to her principles (when she can), sometimes compromises (on those rare occasions when she can find somebody willing to do so) and occasionally folds (when that seems like the better part of valor). On March 5, the Maine Sunday Telegram did a decent survey of her voting record on controversial issues. The article shows a consistency in her voting patterns – mostly. It should be required reading for her critics on both ends of the spectrum.

 

Unfortunately, few of them will bother, and those that do will dismiss any facts that are in conflict with their skewed world views as the manipulations of the biased media.

 

For Collins, the altered political landscape is a major factor in deciding her political future. If she runs for governor next year, should she do so as a Republican, thereby subjecting herself to a bruising primary against as many as three hard-right opponents? Or does she opt for an independent candidacy, even if it means trying to stand out as a moderate in a general election field that could feature a half-dozen candidates? Or might she hunker down in Washington until her term is up in 2020, hoping the political atmosphere is less toxic by then?

 

If not, she could always pull an Olympia Snowe and retire.

 

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