Al Diamon

Al Diamon

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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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Lost In Translation

Here’s an official statement from Republican 2nd District U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin’s spokesman, in response to a question from The Lewiston Sun Journal:

 

“The congressman understands that this topic raises passionate discussion on both sides of the issue. He agrees that all of us should extend compassion and support to every woman in need of care – and always offer help, never condemnation.”

 

No idea what Poliquin is talking about? Don’t worry, there’s more.

 

“For nearly 40 years, majorities in Democratic- and Republican-controlled congresses have agreed that federal tax dollars should not be used to fund elective abortions. As a Franco-American Catholic, the congressman agrees.”

 

That seems clear enough. Except the question wasn’t about funding abortions. It was about Poliquin’s vote for a bill that makes it tougher for individuals to buy or businesses to offer their employees insurance that covers abortions.

 

Let’s be more direct. The Bangor Daily News asked the congressman if he supported cutting federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Poliquin issued this statement:

 

“As a single father who raised a son mostly as a single dad after I lost my wife, I know how critical it is for women to receive health care services, especially those mothers caring for children.”

 

How does his being a single dad have anything to do with women’s health care? The rest of his response is equally opaque:

 

“In Congress, I’ve voted to increase funding for Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC’s) in Maine’s 2nd District, which provide women’s health services. Since Maine’s 2nd District does not have any Planned Parenthood locations, but is home to these FQHC’s, sending funds to these facilities increases access to women’s health care.”

 

Does this mean Poliquin opposes spending federal money on anything not located in his district? If so, that’s bad news for nuclear waste disposal, Flint, Michigan’s water supply and Trump’s Mexican border wall. A little clarification, please.

 

“I support our nation’s current laws that prohibit federal funds from being used for elective abortions. To better serve our district, I believe these dollars should go to fund those doctors and health care providers in our district who currently provide care at our FQHC’s.”

 

That almost sounds reasonable, except no federal money is spent on elective abortions. So Poliquin’s plan to divert those dollars to FQHCs won’t be happening. More meaningless blather.

 

Abortion isn’t the only issue on which Poliquin refuses to give coherent answers. He refused to comment on Trump’s immigration restrictions aimed at Muslim-majority countries. “The Congressman will not be voting on these executive orders,” his spokesman told The Portland Press Herald. (Oddly, this was just a few days after Poliquin called for the U.S. Senate to repeal its filibuster rule, another matter on which he won’t be voting, but somehow manages to have an opinion.)

 

When GOP Gov. Paul LePage called on Trump to undo the designation of a national monument east of Baxter State Park, Poliquin took no stand, even though the land is in his district. “My No. 1 priority in Congress is creating and protecting jobs in Maine,” he boldly announced in a written statement.

 

Poliquin didn’t even have the guts last year to endorse his party’s nominee for president, repeatedly refusing to answer questions about whether he supported Trump. “The Maine media is obsessed with the presidential race,” his campaign spokesman emailed reporters. “Congressman Bruce Poliquin is obsessed with curbing the opioid epidemic, creating jobs, growing the economy and fighting terrorism.”

 

Fortunately for those who prefer to know where their congress-manikins stand on important issues, a recent invention may help. It employs complex scientific stuff to uncover the true meaning behind politicians’ utterances. One merely feeds the original quote in one end – called “the mouth” – and the decoded version comes out the other end – called “definitely not the mouth.” Here’s the result:

 

Poliquin on abortion: “I don’t want to discuss this, because I want you to vote for me.”

 

Poliquin on defunding Planned Parenthood: “I’m taking a pass on this one, because I want you to vote for me.”

 

Poliquin on immigration restrictions: “Pretty please, just forget this and vote for me.”

 

Poliquin on the national monument: “Vote for me or I’ll cry.”

 

And Poliquin on Trump: “Vote for me because I’m a cute little guy.”

 

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With a conflicted heart

Ryan Tipping may be the most honest member of the Maine Legislature.

 

That’s not really a compliment.

 

The state law that governs legislative ethics can be roughly translated from the legalese thusly: Do whatever the hell you want. Just don’t get caught.

 

As ethics laws go, that’s pretty strict. In Illinois and Louisiana, lawmakers are required to commit criminal acts. And in our nation’s capital, the president is allowed to craft his foreign policy to produce maximum benefits for his business interests. Until he’s impeached.

 

But back to Tipping, a Democratic state representative from Orono, who took an outside job with an advocacy group pushing last November’s referendum slapping a 3-percent income-tax increase on rich people to pay for improved schools. Legally, Tipping did everything right. He got clearance from the state ethics commission. The money he earned was duly reported on campaign finance and financial disclosure forms. He apparently had no illicit contact with the Russian government.

 

So he’s clean, right?

 

Not exactly.

 

As the Maine Republican Party and GOP Gov. Paul LePage pointed out, Tipping is co-chairman of the Legislature’s Taxation Committee, the very group that will have a major influence on whether the tax hike goes into effect as the voters intended, or is reduced or eliminated as LePage is demanding.

 

Technically, the chairmanship isn’t a conflict of interest because Tipping doesn’t benefit financially from the higher tax. But it certainly has the appearance of a conflict, because if he supports the increase, it’ll look as if he’s doing the bidding of his former employer. That could tarnish not only Tipping’s reputation but that of the entire Legislature. (It could, but it won’t because the Legislature’s reputation is already thickly coated in layers of decaying weasel entrails.)

 

Tipping should have anticipated this controversy and avoided it by not taking the job, but he can be excused for believing it would all come to nothing. Legislators have a long history of behaving in seemingly sleazy ways while somehow not violating ethical standards. For example:

 

In 2013 and 2015, Time Warner Cable put on lavish two-day conferences for a select group of state House and Senate members at the ritzy Inn By The Sea in Cape Elizabeth. This purveyor of overpriced channel packages, sluggish internet speeds and frustrating service calls picked up the tab for attendees’ meals and rooms, but due to a glitch in the ethics rules, legislators didn’t have to disclose these “gifts.” To this day, we still don’t know who took advantage of Time Warner’s “hospitality.”

 

In 2014, Democratic state Rep. Stephen Stanley of Medway sponsored a bill to amend certain energy agreements because the owners of an East Millinocket paper mill said they needed that change to reopen the facility and rehire its 200 workers. One of those workers was Stanley. No conflict there, ruled the ethics commission.

 

For years, Stacey Fitts, a former Republican state representative from Pittsfield, advocated for bills favoring the wind-power industry, while employed by an engineering firm that did work for the wind-power industry. Asked by the Portland Press Herald about the appearance of conflict, Fitts dismissed it as “a perception [of a problem] that isn’t real.”

 

In 2009, Libby Mitchell, then the Democratic president of the state Senate, lobbied to remove bowling alleys from the list of businesses subject to an expanded sales tax. Her son was part owner of a Portland bowling alley, but she insisted that had nothing to do with her position.

 

Also in 2009, Ken Fletcher, then a GOP state representative from Winslow, accepted a loan towards a nonprofit group he headed from Preti-Flaherty, a law firm that regularly lobbied the committee on which he served. Move along, sheeple, nothing to see here.

 

In 2006, Tom Saviello of Wilton was an independent state representative and an employee of International Paper in Jay. Saviello, who’s now a GOP state senator, urged environmental regulators to revoke a violation notice against the mill, while also serving on the committee that oversaw those same regulators. No harm, said the ethics commission, no foul.

 

Actual legislative conflicts of interest are so rare they should be protected by the Endangered Species Act. Except there are people a lot less ethical than Ryan Tipping who plan to repeal that.

 

Feeling conflicted? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Do nothing ‘till you hear from me

The Maine Legislature doesn’t like to be told what to do.

That’s because the Legislature would prefer not doing anything.

For a politician, doing stuff is risky. No matter how innocuous the action (a proclamation declaring National Don’t Do A Damn Thing Day), there are going to be people who won’t like it (probably the Alliance of Highly Motivated Doers). Once legislators are on record for or against, the folks annoyed with whatever they did are going to light up social media with nasty comments. Protesters will take to the streets. Prominent political figures will issue statements of condemnation.

You can understand why the Legislature might prefer to punt. (Although even that gutless step could bring down the wrath of the Anti-Punting League.)

Trouble is, nature abhors a vacuum. (It’s never been clear why nature singles out this particular household appliance for its disdain, although it may have something to do with lobbying by Citizens United In Opposition to Suction-Producing Devices.) Legislative reluctance to take a stand creates lots of vacuums. (Which may account for why so many voters believe the Legislature sucks.)

Increase the minimum wage? Your state senators and representatives meant to tinker with that, but you know how the hours slip by and suddenly it’s dinnertime.

Boost education funding? So complicated that it might take awhile. Like forever.

Draft a new energy policy? Jeez, you think that education thing is confusing. This is way worse.

Approve Medicaid expansion? Gosh, look what day it is. Time for adjournment.

In the absence of detectable legislative activity, special interests have stepped into the gap with sloppily worded petitions seeking to put ill-considered referendum questions on the ballot. While some critics of this process — notably Paul LePage, Maine’s Republican governor and mutant snapping turtle — have blamed this trend on liberals, the truth is conservatives have made use of the initiative process when circumstances suited them (eliminate the state income tax, repeal same-sex marriage). No part of the ideological spectrum is immune to the temptation to take their crusades directly to the voters.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. The drafters of our system of governance (known as representational indifference) wisely included the referendum mechanism in order to allow the people to take action when the Legislature found itself unable or — more likely — unwilling to do so.

But nothing stirs the sluggish blood of a hibernating elected official like the possibility they’re being rendered irrelevant. And thus the Legislature — bypassed in recent years on issues ranging from ranked-choice voting to marijuana legalization to casino gambling — is finally threatening to do something.

It wants to change the referendum process to make it more difficult for voters to consider issues the Legislature refuses to deal with (an idea endorsed by the Union Of Elected Officials Concerned That Somebody Else May Dare To Do What We Don’t Dare To Do). And make no mistake, this is a bipartisan blunder.

“I think the process has gotten out of hand,” Democratic Sen. Bill Diamond told the Bangor Daily News. “I think something has to be done about it.”

“This process needs to be changed,” commented Garrett Mason, Senate GOP leader, to Maine Public. “It is interfering with our elected job as representatives of the people.”

Several bills have been introduced in an effort to stop mere voters from considering issues their wise leaders have determined would best be addressed by ignoring them. They include a number of barriers to collecting the required signatures to get a question on the ballot, currently 10 percent of the votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election or just over 61,000 names of registered voters. These roadblocks include requiring at least some signatures from every state Senate district, requiring equal numbers of signers from each congressional district, outlawing initiatives that deal with hunting and fishing, and not allowing anyone whose name “sounds Muslim” to sign.

These are all stupid ideas (that last is not only stupid, but false), and legislators — if they were ever going to do anything — should reject them. Because there’s a simpler way to reduce the number of referendums:

The Legislature could do its job.

Sign my petition to make not doing anything the official job description of the Maine House and Senate by emailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Looking for the next bad thing

Rick Bennett isn’t going to be Maine’s next governor.

 

Too bad.

 

Bennett is probably what the state needs: a fiscal conservative with common sense and no pathological aversion to compromise. In other words, he’s 10 percent like current Gov. Paul LePage and 90 percent not.

 

One other difference: Bennett is pro-choice, LePage pro-life. With the U.S. Supreme Court likely to overturn or restrict Roe v. Wade, abortion is going to be a hot-button issue in the 2018 gubernatorial contest. In the Republican primary, where nearly all voters want it outlawed, there won’t be much tolerance for a candidate who believes otherwise.

 

That renders Bennett — an experienced and media-savvy politician, who retired last month as chairman of the Maine GOP, served as president of the state Senate and ran a credible campaign for Congress — unelectable.

 

Winning elections in this state used to be about attracting support from the center of the ideological spectrum, a now-mythical territory much like Shangri-La or an open table at Fore Street restaurant on a Saturday night. The new reality is everyone is polarized, fearful that giving any ground will allow fanatics (defined as anybody with different views) to rampage into power and trash every ideal you hold dear.

 

I can’t imagine how they developed such an outlandish phobia.

 

In any case, it spells curtains for Bennett and other moderates who dare enter the Republican scrum next year. No wonder GOP U.S. Sen. Susan Collins is considering abandoning her party label and running for governor as an Independent.

 

This altered landscape also blocks the path of state Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta (pro-choice, anti-LePage) and former House minority leader Josh Tardy of Newport (shows flashes of rationality, works as a lobbyist), as well as nonstarters like Deril Stubenrod of Clinton (unknown, spells name funny).

 

That leaves the GOP with three choices: 2nd District U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, health and human services commissioner Mary Mayhew and Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, all of whom are unwaveringly conservative and utterly unacceptable to most voters in southern Maine.

 

On the Democratic side, it’s even more muddled. The merest hint of Clintonism is tantamount to treason. The minimum requirement is now a fiery socialist populism that’s distinguishable from Donald Trump’s approach only in that it costs more and annoys Mexico less.

 

Attorney General Janet Mills is the nominal frontrunner. Mills gets points with party stalwarts for standing up to LePage, but opposed legal pot and is suspected of harboring centrist sentiments. Like Bennett, Mills wouldn’t make a bad governor, but she’d make a bad primary candidate.

 

Adam Cote ran for the 1st District seat back in 2008. Since then, Cote may have done something to keep his name in the public consciousness, but it escaped my notice. A lawyer from Sanford, he used to be a middle-of-the-road Dem. If he still is, he’s out of touch with the times.

 

Adam Lee comes from a family with deep roots in Democratic politics. He’s all over the tube in commercials for his car dealerships. He has excellent hair. None of that matters to radical leftists.

 

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree might run if she can figure out a way to win even a handful of votes in northern Maine. Former House Speaker Mark Eves got his butt kicked repeatedly by LePage. As a political resume, that’s a little thin. Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap is pro-gun, which ain’t gonna play in the Dem primary. Former Senate minority leader Justin Alfond is liberal enough to win the nomination — and lose the general election by landslide numbers. Lucas St. Clair is politically savvy (he got his mom’s land next to Baxter State Park declared a national monument) and has financial backing (his mom is rich). But his mom is Roxanne Quimby, and nobody likes her.

 

Anybody else?

 

Oh yeah, that guy who swore off running for governor, telling the Portland Press Herald he was “taking a vow of abstinence.” Someone should have told him condoms work better, because independent Eliot Cutler is again bloated with gubernatorial ambitions. Unfortunately, his moderate base no longer exists, so his third bid for the Blaine House looks like an abortion.


I didn’t forget independent Shawn Moody. I just ignored him. Others who deserves similar treatment can be reported to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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