Al Diamon

Al Diamon

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Dope and money

You may find it hard to believe, but the Legislature has a sense of humor. It’s pretty feeble, but any sign of comedic instincts at the State House has to be encouraging.

As proof of this tentative tendency toward funniness, I offer the official name of the task force the state House and Senate created to deal with how legal pot will be regulated. It’s called the Joint Select Committee on Marijuana Legalization Implementation.

I admit it would make for a better punchline if they’d named it the Joint Select Committee on How Joints Will Be Selected. (And it would be even more hilarious if some enterprising weed dealer honors the committee by branding a particular strain “Joint Select.”) But any joking around is better than none.

It is in all seriousness, however, that I offer this august body a little advice. Based on what’s happened in other states with legal ganja, there’s a major mistake Maine should do its best to avoid.

The biggest error Colorado, Washington and Oregon made was assuming that taxes from the sale of reefer would produce financial windfalls for state coffers. In reality, the impact was negligible. In Oregon, for instance, recreational cannabis sales were initially subject to a 25 percent tax, plus, in some cases, a 3 percent local option tax. The revenue these heavy levies generated was far below expectations. The reason: Potheads continued to buy their dope on the black market where it was cheaper.

There have been news reports claiming illegal marijuana sales declined more than 90 percent in states after legalization. But that’s a bit misleading. What actually happened is that medical pot, which isn’t subject to taxation, was diverted to the recreational market, where it was sold for less than the going rate for the legal stuff.

Rather than repeat this futile pattern, Maine should follow a more sensible path, one that will keep most sales above board and yet produce better long-term financial returns.

The idea is simple. Even better, it’s been tested in the real world and found to work. And best of all, it contains elements that will appeal to not only dope smokers, but also to conservatives who wouldn’t know which bodily orifice to stick which end of a joint.

It’s called “really low taxes – for now.”

According to an article in The Atlantic magazine last year, the idea originated with a guy named Rear Admiral Luther E. Gregory back in the 1930s. Gregory was in charge of restoring legal liquor sales in Washington state at the end of Prohibition. He realized there was no incentive for criminals to stop selling bootleg booze, particularly since high taxes on legal liquor made it less attractive to consumers. So Gregory set the tax rate at the lowest level in the nation and offered the black marketers amnesty and legitimate liquor licenses. He also instituted harsh penalties on anyone selling illegally. Within three years, bootlegging had all but vanished.

With the competition eliminated, Gregory then raised taxes to nearly the highest in the country. Buyers and sellers weren’t happy about that, but they had few options other than to accept it, because the black market no longer existed. Liquor sales held fairly steady, while state revenues were greatly enhanced.

Would the same thing work for marijuana?

Vermont has seriously considered this approach, even though a consultant’s report raised a couple of concerns. One is that low taxes might encourage more drug use. That’s doubtful, because nearly everyone who enjoys recreational marijuana was already doing so before legalization. They’re unlikely to increase their intake just because it’s legit. The other issue is that a highly profitable cannabis industry would be powerful enough to fund a major lobbying campaign against tax hikes. If so, the second part of Gregory’s plan – the part that raises most of the money – might be difficult to implement. But what if it is? The worst we’d end up with is cheap pot, which would attract tourists from places like New Hampshire. Maine might finally get back some of the millions we lose to the Granite State’s low-price liquor outlets.

This approach merits careful consideration by that committee that could have been named the High Commission on Getting High.

 

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All the small things

I’d like to think Paul LePage is a rational person.

I’d also like to think every shot of booze I drink counts as a helping of vegetables.

Sadly, evidence indicates neither of these is true.

Nevertheless, LePage, Maine’s carnival freak show of a governor, continues to say stuff that doesn’t make sense. And I continue to drink. Coincidentally, the latest examples of both those activities have intersected at the convenience store counter where they sell nip bottles.

Nips are those little 50-milliliter plastic containers of liquor, of which Mainers bought nearly 8.5 million last fiscal year and managed to dispose of most of them by littering the state’s roads. More than 40 percent of those improperly discarded nips were originally filled with Fireball, a cinnamon-flavored pesticide favored by people who want to get drunk but don’t like the taste of alcohol. Fireball is bottled in Lewiston at a plant owned by Louisiana-based Sazerac.

The Legislature decided to do something about this problem of illegal disposal. After laborious negotiations, it drafted a bill that brought nips under Maine’s bottle redemption law by placing a five-cent deposit on each undersized container. The idea is that the lowlifes who toss them from their vehicles will instead save and redeem them for more booze.

Republicans supported this plan. Democrats backed it. The Sazerac people were on board, too. Even the lowlifes voiced no objections. The measure seemed certain to pass. Except for one last-minute problem:

LePage.

The GOP governor released a statement after the bill had won overwhelming initial approval in both the state House and Senate claiming it was being financed by a “kind of secretive backroom deal that burdens the taxpayer” to the tune of a million bucks a year. As with so many of LePage’s proclamations, that one isn’t exactly true. While the proposed law carries administrative costs of a little over $1 million, that amount would be covered by surplus funds already collected from companies that sell alcohol. No taxpayer money needed.

Heedless of his lack of a sensible reason for opposing the bill, LePage went even further. If the measure passed, he promised to veto it. If, as seems likely, his veto is overridden, he’ll move to ban the sale of nips in the state. If it turns out he has no authority to do that (and it turns out he doesn’t), he’ll do something else equally spiteful. Wait and see.

A day later, after somebody gently indicated to LePage that his argument might be more compelling if he had a real reason for opposing the bill, he went on the radio and announced, “The issue is drinking and driving.”

In a rare intersection of the governor and reality, LePage is correct. Nip bottles do contribute to drunk driving. If people weren’t shooting them down while they were in cars, the empties wouldn’t end up messing up roadsides. But that’s always been true. Why is LePage suddenly so concerned? And if his concern is legitimate, why is he only threatening to ban nips if the deposit bill becomes law? If they’re so bad, why not outlaw them regardless?

LePage’s epiphany that small bottles of booze are major contributors to operating-under-the-influence cases has the air of being something hastily manufactured to cover up the guv’s real reason for opposing the bill. Which is that he strongly dislikes the measure’s sponsor, state Sen. Tom Saviello of Wilton. Saviello is a Republican, but not the sort that LePage prefers, namely mindless clones of House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, programmed to uphold LePage’s position even when there’s no rational basis for it. Saviello has bucked the governor on numerous occasions, most notably by trying to craft a compromise on Medicaid expansion.

This battle over tiny bottles isn’t the most important conflict to arise this legislative session, but it is indicative of LePage’s preferred method of governing, involving hefty doses of pettiness and stupidity. If you think that’s excessive, keep in mind that LePage’s threat to outlaw nips just to spite Saviello would eliminate 15 percent of all liquor sales and cost the state $3 million per year in liquor taxes.

I’m going to need a much bigger drink than just one of those little things.


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Let the games begin

The field for the 2018 U.S. Senate race in Maine is set. Independent incumbent, Angus King will take on Republican state Sen. Eric Brakey and a Democrat whose name will be no more memorable after the election than it is right now.

GOP Gov. Paul LePage had said on several occasions that he might challenge King, but in early May, his top political adviser announced LePage would take a pass. His official reason was that he has too much work to finish in Augusta before his term runs out in January 2019. His unofficial reason is that even LePage recognizes his meager talent for governance is ill-suited to the legislative branch since he’s congenitally incapable of being courteous, respectful or abiding by the Geneva Conventions.

With all other potential Republican contenders focused on succeeding LePage in the Blaine House, that leaves the Senate nomination to Brakey, a libertarian-leaning conservative from Auburn. In two terms in the Legislature, Brakey has earned a reputation for hard work, innovation, collaboration and being slightly nuts (he continues to be vigilant against even vague hints of the United Nations’ Agenda 21). Best known as a gun-rights advocate, he’s also fought to make it tougher to get welfare, make it easier to get marijuana and make it legal to drive without wearing a seatbelt. He’s summed up his political philosophy thusly: “Government must get out of the way.”

With Brakey as their nominee, Republicans will have to abandon one of their most beloved attacks on King, that he wasn’t born in Maine. King moved here from Virginia as a young man. But Brakey relocated from Ohio. Another knock on King is the false claim he made big money in the wind industry at taxpayers’ expense. While he earned a small profit off wind, King became a millionaire by selling his energy efficiency company to Central Maine Power. On the other hand, Brakey’s family runs a consulting business with a reputation for aiding corporations in avoiding mandatory energy conservation standards.

As for the (reasonably valid) claim that King’s voting record shows he’s nothing but a closet Democrat, much the same attack can be launched against Brakey’s GOP credentials. He led a libertarian revolt against the mainstream party at the 2012 state convention. He’s regularly supported increased spending at the Department of Health and Human Services. And there’s that legal pot thing.

The 28-year-old Brakey will also have to overcome his lack of experience. Aside from his (almost) three years of legislative work, he’s done a bit of acting and not much else. That won’t stack up favorably with King, who just turned 73 and has been a lawyer, successful businessman, two-term governor, TV talking head, author and senator.

But enough about those two. Let’s examine the fallow field of possible Dem candidates. Some party leaders aren’t worried about that because they believe putting forth a strong Democratic contender would split the moderate-liberal vote and hand victory to Brakey. Others are convinced the term “strong Democratic contender” is an oxymoron.

Portland attorney Tom Connolly, who once ran a quixotic gubernatorial campaign against King, is busy putting his kids through college. Cynthia Dill, the Dems’ nominee when King ran in 2012, has spent her time since then repeatedly demonstrating in her newspaper column that she’s learned absolutely nothing from her disastrous third-place finish. Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling is occupied with self-destructing. Perennial candidate Barry Hobbins just got chosen by LePage to be the new public advocate in utility rate cases and may finally have recognized that’s the highest government office he’s ever going to hold. Shenna Bellows has already lost a hopeless U.S. Senate race to Susan Collins in 2014, won a state Senate seat in 2016 and has shown no inclination to repeat her earlier mistake. Windham state Sen. Bill Diamond sure wishes somebody would include his name on a list of possible candidates for something, but no one ever does.

Finally, there’s Pruneface, the old Dick Tracy villain. Aside from being fictional and horribly deformed (hey, I have absolutely no problem voting for nonexistent people with physical disabilities), he’s also an elitist and a Nazi terrorist.

That doesn’t necessarily make him the worst possible choice.

 

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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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