Al Diamon

Al Diamon

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Minimum effort

 

There are two kinds of people claiming to support a higher minimum wage in Maine:

1. Those who genuinely believe raising the minimum from $7.50 per hour to $12 in several steps by voting for a referendum on the November ballot will improve the lives of folks who are struggling to make ends meet, and …

2. Liars.

To help distinguish between the two, a little history might prove useful. But first, let’s take note of a comment Peter Gore, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of government relations, made to the Bangor Daily News earlier this month.

“I don’t think anyone has argued that the minimum wage shouldn’t go up,” Gore said.

That’s true – except for Gore, business groups, Republicans and an unlikely ally (who’ll be unmasked in a few paragraphs) – all of whom have long records of opposing even modest increases.

For instance, in 1988, they claimed adding a dime an hour to the base wage of $3.75 would wreck the state’s economy. The Democratic Legislature did so anyway. The economy hardly noticed.

The GOP probably could have avoided this year’s referendum if they’d accepted a Dem plan in 1990 to index the minimum to inflation, making raises automatic. But Republicans foiled the effort by claiming it would “cause small-business owners to drown in a tide of rising labor costs.” The next year, the feds jacked the rate to $4.25 per hour. Nobody required mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

In 1995, Gore said a bill to boost the minimum to five bucks would “place Maine at a disadvantage.” Then, a more influential politician killed the measure by claiming it sent the “wrong signal.” That person was independent Gov. Angus King, now our junior U.S. senator, who’d go on to veto wage increases in 1998, 1999 and 2000, arguing they’d have “an adverse impact on all workers by discouraging the creation of new jobs in our state.”

During this period, Gore was far from silent, telling a legislative committee, “[I]t’s the small business guy who would get hurt in this” and “We oppose unilaterally increasing the minimum wage because Maine is in competition globally for jobs and opportunity.”

Even though the wage didn’t go up, those jobs and opportunities never arrived. Could it be there’s not much correlation between base pay and economic development?

By 2001, Maine was tied with New Hampshire for New England’s lowest minimum, at which point both King and Gore had an epiphany: Maybe a modest increase wouldn’t be that drastic a change, after all. A measure to raise the wage in two steps to $6.25 passed easily and was signed into law.

In 2004, another increase was approved, this time to $6.50, over Gore’s half-hearted opposition: “Our economy just doesn’t warrant that.” In 2006, he actually admitted a two-step boost to seven bucks an hour wasn’t a big deal to the chamber’s members. In 2007, a bill to establish a $7.70 minimum did become a big deal for the chamber, with Gore’s boss, president Dana Connors, telling legislators, “It’s too much, too soon and it goes too far” (the same argument Gore is using against this November’s referendum). The Legislature eventually approved a gradual increase to $7.50, where the state minimum has languished ever since.

Bills calling for further hikes were introduced in 2009, 2011 and 2013, the last of which passed, only to be vetoed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage. But by 2015, both Portland and Bangor had approved higher local minimums, and the Maine People’s Alliance was on the verge of collecting enough signatures to force that aforementioned statewide vote. Too late, Gore and the Republicans noticed the writing on the walls consisted mostly of polls showing overwhelming popular support for a higher minimum. In a desperate attempt to head off the referendum increasing the wage to $12 by 2020, after which it would be indexed to inflation, Gore offered “a more reasonable alternative,” a gradual rise to $10 with no indexing.

That idea went nowhere in the Legislature, but does allow Gore to claim he favors an increase, even if it’s one he’s opposed in the past and is employing now in a feeble attempt to divide wage-hike supporters.

If that’s not lying, it’s pretty damn close.

 

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You get what you pay for

Maine legislators earn about $22,000 for a two-year term, somewhat less than the going rate for freelance political columnists. This seems fair, because state senators and representatives are only funny unintentionally.

Nevertheless, there are frequent calls to raise legislative salaries, with proponents arguing that such miniscule compensation prevents average working folks from serving. As a consequence, the Legislature is overrun with retirees, lawyers, rich people and teachers (who have a special legal exemption that preserves their jobs while they’re off in Augusta voting for higher pay for teachers). People living paycheck to paycheck (call-center employees, wait staff, factory workers, drug dealers, political columnists) can’t afford to take unpaid leave to spend nine of the next 24 months under the State House dome.

The result is a governing body that doesn’t reflect the state’s population. The fishing industry is underrepresented, as are forest products, agriculture, janitors, panhandlers and political columnists, while the educated, wealthy and old have a disproportionate role in setting state policies. The Maine Legislature looks too much like Cape Elizabeth and not enough like Caratunk.

Several proposals have been floated for correcting this misalignment. Earlier this year, Republican Gov. Paul LePage called for cutting the size of the Legislature and using the savings to increase compensation for the remaining members. As with most LePage ideas, this one was accompanied by a spittle storm of insults and accusations of incompetence, guaranteeing that the legislative targets of his verbal assault would treat his plan with all the respect due a dog poop deposited on the front lawn.

There are, however, other proposals on how best to set the level of legislative pay. As University of Missouri political science Professor Peverill Squire (I am not making up that name) told the FiveThirtyEight blog, “The question of salaries has haunted American legislatures since the 1640s. It has been a chronic issue where lawmakers generally ask for more pay and the public is almost always resistant.”

The public has good reason. As Squire and others have pointed out, high pay bears only the slightest correlation to high quality. States providing the most generous legislative compensation – New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania, for instance – sport above average rates of corruption and idiocy. But Squire also noted that reasonable pay rates (a term that’s as squishy as “reasonable Donald Trump statements on race and religion”) do seem to be necessary to produce orderly governance (although that’s skewed by a couple of other factors I’ll get to in a moment).

By national standards, Maine’s legislative pay, which averages about $11,000 per year, is on the low side. Research by Squire and Boise State University political scientist Gary Moncrief shows the median annual wage for all legislators in 2014 was $20,833. But that doesn’t include per diems that can add as much as 10 grand per year to paychecks, although in Maine they’re only worth an extra $4,800.

Even with that perk, FiveThirtyEight found just 12 states pay their senators and representatives as much as that state’s median household income, and Maine isn’t close to being one of them. Our state’s median in 2014 was $49,462, while legislators’ pay plus per diem totaled a mere $15,852.

Before we rush to close that gap, consider that researchers have discovered that the quality of legislating isn’t necessarily elevated by fatter paychecks. Of more importance is how long legislatures are in session and the size of the legislative staff (no anatomy jokes, please). The studies found that longer sessions and more staffers greatly enhanced (ahem) the efficiency and professionalism of state legislatures.

Maine is on the short side in terms of the duration of sessions (although anyone who’s actually sat through one will tell you they last longer than the average ice age), at about six months in odd numbered years and three months in even ones. And according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, we have one of the smallest staffs in the country relative to the size of the Legislature, with little more than three-quarters of a staffer per legislator.

I hope the part that’s missing isn’t the head.

Better state government is expensive. Like better political columns.

Oh, wait.

 

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Let’s get filthy

To clean up politics, we’ve got to get dirty.

Instead of squandering millions of dollars on public financing of campaigns through Maine’s Clean Election Act, it’s time to acknowledge reality. Providing a few thousand bucks from the public coffers to a legislative candidate doesn’t reduce the amount of private funding expended on any particular race. It just diverts money that might have been donated directly to the campaign to political action committees (some run by the allegedly “clean” politicians themselves) and other outside groups with difficult-to-discern agendas and a roster of donors they’re legally allowed to keep secret.

Campaign-finance reformers’ efforts to get the big money out of politics have only succeeded in making it tougher to figure out where the private cash is coming from. That’s because the Clean Election crowd has always been obsessed with the amount spent, rather than the intentions of those behind those huge checks.

Fortunately, there’s a simple solution that relieves taxpayers from the burden of paying for politicians’ lawn signs and TV spots, and makes it easier to figure out who’s buying up candidates for nefarious purposes.

I call it the Maine Dirty Election Act.

Let’s face it, nearly all hotly contested campaigns are dirty. But under the current complicated system, it’s almost impossible to figure out who’s shoveling that dirt. Shadowy organizations with names like the Concerned Citizens Intent on Improving the Lives of Every Mainer Except Possibly the Poor and Middle Classes and Assorted Others of Their Ilk operate on the political fringes because that’s the easiest way to influence outcomes. By limiting or banning direct contributions to candidates, we’ve made it more inviting for odious special interests to cloak their activities behind these legal – but reprehensible – fronts.

But what if individuals could give any amount to any politician. The only requirement would be that such contributions must be fully disclosed immediately upon receipt. Since the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that corporations have to be treated like people for political purposes, they too should be allowed to donate without limits. The catch is they must reveal the names of their principle owners, their top management and all of their spouses, kids, pets and BFFs.

I can hear the Clean Election crowd howling in protest that this system would allow rich people and their corporate cronies to buy candidates wholesale. But the wealthy already do that. Under the current rules, we just don’t know about it. The Dirty Election Act would fix that by making it clear (I know, ironic, isn’t it) exactly who is a bought-and-paid-for puppet of whom. Then, if we bothered to do a little research, we could decide which candidates to support or oppose accordingly.

“People are angry,” said a prominent political activist in a recent newspaper op-ed. “People are frustrated with a political and economic system that leaves too many behind. People want a government that either works in the interest of the American people or gets out of their way.”

I could endorse those sentiments if the activist in question wasn’t Andrew Bossie, the executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections. I have a sneaking suspicion he’s not really committed to that “gets out of the way” philosophy and wouldn’t be supportive of my system that does just that – while saving money and increasing transparency – possibly because if he did so, he’d be out of a job.

Instead, Bossie and his cohorts want to increase the amount of public funding available to “clean” candidates, apparently believing the $4 million per election cycle we’re now wasting hasn’t produced a Legislature sufficiently filled with extruded Play-Doh blob-oids incapable of accomplishing anything unless instructed to do so by their secret financial benefactors.

Dirty elections wouldn’t be pretty, but they’d be free, both from costs to taxpayers and undue restrictions. Clean elections conceal their ugliness better, but they carry a high price tag and beget ever more complex regulatory structures. In March, for instance, Bossie’s group released a poll asking voters if they favored forcing gubernatorial candidates to use public money. Such a law would almost certainly be unconstitutional, but the organization nonetheless took pleasure in claiming “almost half” of those polled supported the idea.

Get real. And then, get dirty.

 

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Blue newspaper

Republican Gov. Paul LePage loves to tell audiences that buying a Maine daily newspaper is like paying someone to lie to you.

Of course, the same could be said of the factually challenged governor.

Matthew Gagnon, the chief executive officer of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, sent out an email recently attacking the state’s largest daily. “It's no surprise that a libral (sic) rag of a publication like the Portland Press Herald reguarly (sic) disregards inconvenient facts and omits information to paint conservatives in a negative light,” Gagnon wrote.

It appears spell check is guilty of the same crime.

In early May, the Maine Sunday Telegram published an in-depth investigation of questionable tactics used in an undercover sting operation by the Maine Warden Service. The agency responded by accusing the paper of printing “misrepresentations and inaccuracies.”

The wardens seem to believe those words are synonyms for “facts.”

Despite these mostly specious attacks, there are plenty of legitimate criticisms that could be leveled at the state’s newspapers. The copy editing is sloppy (the Lewiston Sun Journal has run headlines referring to the NFL team in Seattle as the “Mariners,” even though that’s the city’s baseball team, and the wire-service stories correctly identified the football team as the Seahawks). Upper management is timid about publishing anything that hints of, you know, S-E-X (rumors of Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling’s affair with a prominent lobbyist were ignored for weeks by the Press Herald until the story broke on a monthly magazine’s website). Enormous effort is wasted on trivialities (the Bangor Daily News website can’t go a day without a story about how Maine rates as a place to walk your dog or as a producer of quality meth or as a venue to have an affair with a prominent lobbyist). And papers are losing quality journalists (the Press Herald recently bragged about being a finalist for a major business journalism award, but two of the three reporters who wrote the articles on poor oversight of state development investments have since left the paper).

Whether it’s these shortcomings, the political attacks or demographic trends, the state’s dailies have been bleeding readers for more than a decade. From its high-water mark of an average of nearly 80,000 copies sold daily, the Press Herald now unloads just over 31,000, according to new figures from the Alliance for Audited Media. The Telegram, which once boasted circulation of 120,000 each week, is down to less than 48,000. Those figures represent a loss over the last year of 8 percent for the Press Herald and 7 percent for the Telegram.

Other papers showed similar declines. AAM reports the Bangor Daily shed 8 percent of its readers this past year and is now selling about 27,500 papers on weekdays and a bit over 34,000 on weekends. The Sun Journal is off 9 percent both on weekdays (17,873) and Sundays (19,515). The Morning Sentinel in Waterville and the Kennebec Journal in Augusta slid between 5 and 6 percent for all editions. (The state’s other two dailies, Biddeford’s Journal Tribune and Brunswick’s Times Record haven’t submitted circulation figures to AAM for several years.)

There is one glimmer of hope in the AAM statistics. The Press Herald, Telegram, KJ and Sentinel – all owned by Maine Today Media – added significant numbers of paid subscribers to their digital editions. The increase in online readers in the last 12 months more than offset the loss of print customers. If these figures are accurate (counting digital subscribers sometimes reflects certain fudge factors), Maine Today’s total circulation is now its highest since 2012, with a combined readership of over 45,000 for the Press Herald and over 62,000 for the Telegram (although it’s worth noting that online readers are far less valuable to advertisers than buyers of the print edition).

This turnaround isn’t showing up at other papers. The Bangor Daily, which places heavy emphasis on its online offerings, added just 31 new digital customers, hardly making a dent in the 2,500 print readers that vanished. The Lewiston paper, which has always appeared to be double-counting its online audience (it claims over 25,000 e-readers, 8,000 more than its weekday print circulation), lost over 600 digital customers.

Maybe Mainers are taking LePage’s advice, after all.

 

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I wanna be your dog

I suspect Bruce Poliquin has hired one of my dogs as a political consultant.

Which might not be a bad move on the part of the freshman Republican congressman from Maine’s 2nd District –  if he gets the right advice. You know, like how to look so cute when being scolded that there’s no chance he’ll be punished.

Me: Bad boy, Brucie, bad boy. You switch positions on issues such as LGBT rights, foreign trade, funding Planned Parenthood and gun control based on how they affect your chances of re-election. You consistently support legislation helping rich people and big banks avoid paying their fair share. You try to distract me from your misdeeds by introducing meaningless bills like the one denying welfare benefits to terrorists. You’re a bad, bad boy.

Him: (rolls over, wags tail, looks at me with big brown eyes filled with love, while whimpering to indicate he wants me to scratch his belly)

Me: Oh, Brucie, how can I stay mad at you, when you engage in such adorable, nonverbal modes of communication. Here’s a doggie treat in the form of a campaign donation. But you be a good boy from now on.

Unfortunately, that’s not the lesson our representative has learned. Well, maybe not so unfortunately. The thought of scratching Bruce Poliquin’s belly is repulsive.

No, the tactic he’s adopted from my dog Hooper, a 12-year-old terrier-hound mix with slightly less intelligence than my couch, is how to deal with uncomfortable interactions with the real world.

Hooper is not only dopey, but also mostly deaf. When called, he either doesn’t pay any attention or reacts with a look of mild confusion while remaining sprawled on the couch in case he needs to seek its wise counsel concerning whatever issue may have arisen.

Poliquin has obviously studied Hooper’s methods. Reporters in Washington have twice approached him asking if he’s going to endorse Donald Trump for the GOP presidential nomination. Poliquin knows that no matter what he answers, it’s bound to do some political damage. If he says yes, it fires up liberals and provides fodder for attack ads from his Democratic opponent, Emily Cain. But, more importantly, a yes reply also threatens to inflame the passions of many conservatives, who don’t trust Trump. That latter group is a crucial part of Poliquin’s base he can’t afford to alienate.

At the same time, the congressman doesn’t have the luxury of blowing off Trump. Refusing to endorse him would be perceived by many potential donors as disloyal to the Republican Party. Without their support, Poliquin’s chances of winning a second term diminish greatly.

The best course for a smart pol is to do what Hooper does. Silence offends no one.

Although, it can make even someone as short as Poliquin look like a giant dork.

In March, a reporter from Politico asked him if he was backing Trump. Poliquin admitted that was a “good question.” Then, he shut up and waited awkwardly for an elevator to save him from having to say what he really thought.

In May, after liberal blogger Mike Tipping made public a tape recording of Poliquin telling a GOP women’s group that he didn’t even know what half of Trump’s policies were, but was ready to lead the charge in the House to refine and implement them, a journalist from Roll Call repeated the endorsement query. Poliquin “refused to answer or acknowledge the questions” and “stared straight ahead and occasionally looked at his phone, walking briskly from the House floor to another press conference.”

That’s exactly how Hooper would have handled it – except for the phone.

Hooper, however, has an excuse. He’s a dog. He has no idea who Trump is and would only care about his candidacy if doing so involved pork chops.

Poliquin isn’t deaf, and he’s probably smarter than my couch. The only reason he’s not answering is because he’s fundamentally dishonest and is hoping to deceive at least some of his constituents about his intentions.

One last point: Trump needs the endorsement of an insignificant congressman from northern Maine about as much as he needs more orange facial makeup. It’s likely The Donald doesn’t even know who Poliquin is.

Hooper, apparently, does know – and that’s disturbing.

 

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Diminishing returns

As Donald Trump has so colorfully reminded us, size matters. Nobody wants to be perceived as … er … teeny weenie.

Given the populist belief that bigger is better, it’s difficult to understand the logic that drives persistent efforts to reduce the size of the Maine Legislature. As pitiful as the current House (151 denizens) and Senate (35 critters) have been, there’s nothing to indicate that a legally mandated shrinkage would improve their performance.

The most recent legislative shriveling initiative splashed down like a cold shower from Republican Gov. Paul LePage in March. LePage has always been fairly balanced in his support for contraction (government spending, solar power, Democrats) and expansion (manufacturing, mining, his waistline). But when the guv introduced his proposal, his spokesman said cutting the Senate to 25 seats and the House to 100 was necessary because the current configuration made it “hard to work together, keep everyone informed and get work done.”

Of course, the same could be said of the governor, and no one is claiming that sweating 50 pounds of blubber off his gut would improve performance.

Over the years, misguided reformers from both major political parties have advocated for a smaller Legislature, claiming it would increase efficiency. There’s no evidence of that in states like Rhode Island, where there are only 113 legislators, but the economy sucks and corruption runs rampant. Meanwhile, New Hampshire, with 424 senators and representatives, enjoys boom times and minimal graft.

It could be argued that cutting the size of the legislative appendage is another one of those feel-good reforms – such as term limits, publicly financed campaigns, ranked choice voting, recycling congressional candidate Emily Cain – that produce no discernable improvements in the body politic. But there’s another reason to resist efforts to chop off a sizable portion of the legislative branch:

It would leave rural Maine with almost no representation.

Actually, rural Maine doesn’t have much in the way of representation now. Most districts are of LePage-like dimensions, and most legislators already come from larger municipalities. A smaller Legislature would exacerbate that problem. Add to that the demographic trends that have seen steady out-migration from the state’s economically depressed countryside, and the next census could leave Aroostook County, which is bigger than Rhode Island, with less representation than the average North Korean peasant.

If Maine had only 25 senators, it’s probable that 15 of them would come from the 10 largest cities. While LePage might have deluded himself into believing that fewer senators would be easier to deal with, he apparently hasn’t noticed that most of the state’s biggest municipalities are heavily Democratic. Likewise in the House, losing 51 seats would hasten the shift of power from northern Maine, where the GOP has an edge, to the southern part of the state, where Dems prevail. Reduction would likely leave LePage with a Legislature firmly in the hands of the opposition.

It’s worth noting that this scenario is almost certainly going to occur over time, even if there’s no legislative deflation. As mills continue to close and forestry jobs disappear, the entire half of Maine north of Bangor will gradually revert to wilderness interrupted by meth labs and the occasional national park advocate. Legislative representation in these sparsely inhabited regions will become the responsibility of absentee officials in distant locations.

At least, they won’t have to put up with the meth stink.

Whenever these issues are raised, certain individuals – whom I’ll politely refer to as drug-addled numbnuts – always announce that the solution is returning Maine to the system it once used of allocating two senators to each county. In this way, the few remaining residents of Piscataquis, Somerset and Franklin counties would have as much influence in the upper chamber as those of Cumberland, York and Androscoggin, where most of the state’s population resides. Trouble is, this arrangement violates the U.S. Supreme Court’s one-person-one-vote rule. It also grants more political juice to trees than people.

What LePage and other shrinkage advocates don’t seem to understand is that the Legislature, like Congress, is inefficient by design. The drafters of the state and federal constitutions erected these obstructions because they recognized that citizens needed to be protected from ill-considered laws proposed by small-minded demagogues.

And that was huge.

 

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It’s not over

It’s time to relax and take a break from politics.

The Legislature has adjourned, not to return until December when there’ll be some new faces, but many more old faces, so don’t expect any change.

Gov. Paul LePage has announced he’ll no longer make as many public appearances, because “rich college kids” and “idiots” show up to protest the idiotic things he says, while the media ignore his accomplishments and make a big deal out of him being offensive and inaccurate.

There are five referendum questions to be decided, but not until November, and most of us already know how we’re voting on legalizing pot, ranked-choice voting, raising the minimum wage, requiring background checks for private gun sales and some kind of education-funding thingy that (like all education-funding thingies) promises more than it can deliver, because our elected leaders regard education-funding-thingy referendums as mere suggestions that are meant to be ignored.

As for the presidential race, it’s all but settled, which means we no longer have to pay attention to one nominee’s inability to be truthful and the other’s inability to perform even a flimsy imitation of a normal human being.

There’s nothing to do except kick back, open a cold one and – wait – primary election? WHAT PRIMARY ELECTION!??!

Apparently, against everyone’s better judgment, Maine has scheduled a primary for June 14. This will be an opportunity for voters to decide such important questions as which of two right-wing Republicans will be given the honor of being crushed by 1st District Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree. If you care deeply about this matter, please get help.

Also, there are several intra-party squabbles over legislative seats. I’d list some of the more interesting ones, but because they’re legislative races, there aren’t any interesting ones. Nevertheless, as a public service (and because I’m nowhere close to my word count), I’ll mention a few, so you can see why democracy is a highly overrated form of government.

Democrats in Biddeford, Alfred, Arundel, Dayton, Kennebunkport and Lyman will have to choose between boring-but-rational state Sen. Susan Deschambault and eccentric-but-annoying Joanne Twomey, a former Biddeford mayor and legislator best known for once throwing a jar of Vaseline at LePage’s feet during one of those public events the governor has cut back on. Twomey may make some noise, but Deschambault will slide to victory like she was greased with you know what.

On the Portland peninsula, the most liberal Senate district in the state, two of the most liberal state representatives in the state are looking to succeed Justin Alfond, the term-limited incumbent. Democrats Diane Russell and Ben Chipman are in a frantic contest to prove who’s the bigger leftist, while a third candidate, Charles Radis, has deluded himself into thinking he has a chance, even though he’s a doctor and ought to know better.

Senate District 2 takes up a chunk of Aroostook and Penobscot counties roughly the size of Afghanistan, only with a worse economy. Republicans state Rep. Ricky Long of Sherman and Presque Isle resident Emily Smith both contend they’re the best bet to hold the seat of retiring GOP Sen. Mike Willette (he of the offensive Facebook postings), but it may not matter because Democrat Mike Carpenter of Houlton, a former legislator and attorney general, is the early favorite in the November vote.

Another open Senate seat, this one in the Gardiner-Hallowell area, due to the retirement of Republican Earle McCormick, has prompted primaries for both parties. Democrat Shenna Bellows, who ran for the U.S. Senate in 2014, is the Democratic frontrunner, with George O’Keefe and the delightfully named Terry Berry offering such competition as they may. The GOP race features Bryan Cutchen and Maureen Blanchard, both of whom may be swell people, but I haven’t bothered to check.

In Saco, Democratic Sen. Linda Valentino has had her fill of Augusta. The Dem primary to replace her features state Rep. Justin Chenette, one of the party’s bright young polliwogs, against state Rep. Barry Hobbins, a dinosaur thought to have gone extinct centuries ago.

The political season isn’t over yet. There are still important decisions to make. Like what kind of beer to drink while ignoring the primaries.

 

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Eliminate the unnecessary

There must be something positive to be said about Maine’s county governments, just like other obsolete entities such as vinyl records, dial telephones and polio. Think of all the good times you’ve had dealing with the county bureaucracy, like … well, I guess being thrown in jail can’t really be classified as a good time.

Counties do fill a void in the lives of people who believe we have too few layers of government. And counties are reliable sources of services that duplicate those provided elsewhere. Without counties, we wouldn’t have sheriffs – although we’d still have state troopers and municipal cops. Without counties, we wouldn’t have that jail – although there’d always be state prison. Without counties, we wouldn’t pay so much property tax – although we’d still owe sales and income taxes.

If counties ceased to exist, the only thing we’d really miss is their charming incompetence. Also, the constant bickering between the governor and the Legislature over how to pay for all the stuff counties can’t seem to cover in their annual budgets, which have traditionally been based on the possibility the tooth fairy will bail them out, or there’ll be a leprechaun with a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, or their investment in lottery tickets will pay off big time.

Nowhere is the uselessness of county government more evident than in the operation of the aforementioned jails. Several years ago, there was a move to have the state assume control of the local lockups, thereby creating a coordinated system that avoided overcrowding at some facilities while others had empty cells. Such a shift would have been efficient and cost-effective. But it had one serious flaw: It took power away from sheriffs and county commissioners, two classes of politicians noted for their large egos and small brains.

After prolonged wrangling, a compromise was reached in 2008, whereby the counties would retain most of the control over jails, although some small measure of authority was granted to the State Board of Corrections, a body that was supposed to oversee inmate transfers and allocate funding. This system functioned well for roughly half an hour before it devolved into a series of squabbles over who was really in charge.

In frustration, Gov. Paul LePage refused to appoint anyone to serve on the board. In response, legislators last year abolished that panel, and set up a system to fund the jails that called for the counties’ contribution from property taxes to be capped at an amount well below what was actually needed, while the state would appropriate an additional sum that would always be less than the amount required to cover the shortfall.

This is the same economic system used so successfully in Greece, the paper industry and mega-movie flops featuring Batman and Superman.

To everyone’s surprise, this makeshift solution resulted in a financial crisis, with expenses outstripping revenues by an annual amount of $2.4 million. Or possibly more. No one seems certain. In any case, the Legislature passed a bill appropriating that sum for jail costs for this year and next. LePage promptly vetoed the measure because it contained “no incentive for counties to rein in jail spending.”

By the time you read this, the Legislature will probably have overridden that veto, so the status quo will remain intact, at least until 2018, when this whole process will have to be repeated.

Because no one is fully responsible for jail budgets, no one feels compelled to budget responsibly. There are several possible solutions for this mess.

As LePage has suggested, jail costs could become entirely a county responsibility, a move that would raise property taxes statewide.

The state corrections department could assume full control of the jails, increasing expenses by $20 million or more and creating everlasting enmity between itself and county politicos.

Or the state could abolish county government, integrate the jails into the corrections system, and shift other county functions such as registering deeds and wills to the secretary of state and/or municipal clerks. The savings from eliminating county administrations and other prehistoric offices would just about offset the increased cost.

And we’d finally have something positive to say about county government:

Namely, that it’s gone.

 

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Fight for the throne

Republican Gov. Paul LePage says he’s “seriously, seriously giving [running against independent U.S. Sen. Angus King] some very serious thought.”

When a politician says some variation of “serious” that many times in one sentence, he’s probably suffering from a vocabulary deficit – of the serious sort.

But he could also be sort of serious. Which is not the same as being sort of rational. According to a poll taken late last year by Critical Insights, King has an approval rating of 65 percent, one of the highest in Congress. LePage’s approval rating is 32 percent, one of the lowest of any state’s chief executive. More than half of respondents said they disapproved of the job he was doing. The conventional wisdom says there’s no way LePage could beat King.

Except there is.

The last time King had a serious (there’s that word again) election opponent was when he first ran for governor in 1994. Since his only tough race, he’s brushed aside such political afterthoughts as Tom Connolly, Pat LaMarche, James Longley Jr. and William Clarke Jr. (all in the 1998 gubernatorial election), not to mention Charlie Summers, Danny Dalton, Andrew Ian Dodge and Cynthia Dill (2012 Senate campaign). Most of them would have lost to a reasonably priced burrito.

Even so, King won his Senate seat with a mere 54 percent of the vote. Considering the anemic field, that’s not all that impressive.

Of course, LePage failed to capture a majority of the vote in either of his gubernatorial bids, benefiting from fractured opposition and less-than-inspiring opponents (Libby Mitchell, Mike Michaud, Shawn Moody, Eliot Cutler). But there’s no guarantee he wouldn’t encounter the same advantageous situation if he ran for the Senate.

The Democratic Party hasn’t elected a senator in Maine since George Mitchell retired in 1995, just about the time most people became aware of something called the internet. The Dems might not want to step aside to let King and LePage slug it out, instead putting forward a nominee of Dill-like incompetence (hello, Emily Cain), a sacrificial burrito barely capable of reaching double digits. But those few liberal votes would come at the expense of the moderate King, creating an opportunity for LePage to sneak into national office with his traditional conservative plurality.

Even if the Democrats restrain themselves and support King, that wouldn’t necessarily assure victory. That’s because the senator’s campaign style is ill-suited to a political landscape much altered since last he faced an actual challenge. Gone are the days when he could simply ignore attacks on his record or turn aside wild accusations with a laidback lecture on the complexities of governing. King doesn’t seem to realize the game is being played with new rules. Already he’s allowed LePage to hit him with farcical claims that the senator has so far not bothered to refute.

“He ripped us off by $104 million during his eight years as governor,” LePage told an Orono audience earlier this month. “He ripped us off royally, and I can’t wait until 2018, because I’m thinking that’s the guy I’m going after.”

LePage hasn’t explained where he got that figure. It’s true that King made millions (although not that many millions) when he sold his energy conservation company, well before he ran for governor, but that transaction didn’t involve any public money. He also sold his share of a wind-power company he started to one of his partners for a much smaller sum, but that was after he left the Blaine House and before running for the Senate. Again, there was no taxpayer funding as part of the deal, although the company did receive some federal tax credits.

Rather than making it clear LePage is – once again – spewing fiction, King has mostly ignored the charge. His spokesman airily dismissed the claim as an obvious falsehood, apparently reluctant to be seen as defensive. Nevertheless, the governor has now positioned the senator to appear as just that. Expect the mysterious $104 million ripoff to become a staple of LePage outbursts for the next two years.

The guv is already in full campaign mode. Unless King makes a similar shift, it’s not that farfetched to imagine LePage taking his seat on the Senate floor in 2018.

Seriously.

 

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Feel the burn

POLITICS & OTHER MISTAKES

by Al Diamon (for publication the week beginning 4/18/16)

I used to think “biomass” was a prissy name for poop. Now, I know it’s a polite way of saying a poopy business model.

Wikipedia defines biomass as “organic matter derived from living, or recently living organisms. Biomass can be used as a source of energy and it most often refers to plants or plant-based materials which are not used for food or feed.”

So, it’s less like poop and more like Congress.

Biomass was supposed to use scrap wood, the stuff left over after the trees suitable for making paper had been cut. But these days, hardly anybody in Maine is making paper, so biomass now includes material that used to go into newspapers and other obsolete products.

Which would be fine if that was the only thing biomass plants burned. But in addition to trees no one else wants, these facilities also burn money – specifically public money. Since at least 2009, the biomass industry has been receiving huge federal subsidies for the electricity it produces. That year saw an initial check for $44 million arrive from Washington to boost the amount loggers were paid for their harvest. The money was supposed to help reduce dependence on foreign oil and build a sustainable industry, or as then-Congressman Michael Michaud put it:

“This program will contribute greatly to the development and investment in a clean and profitable renewable energy future in Maine. In addition, the program will provide positive economic benefits to the forest industry that will lead to job creation.”

It didn’t work out that way.

The trouble is biomass – like other energy scams such as ethanol, cold fusion and perpetual motion machines – isn’t very efficient. Whether the wood is used to create electricity or refined into “biofuel,” it requires huge subsidies. To that end, in 2010, the feds gifted the state’s biomass industry with another $150 million.

In addition, then-U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe pushed to create a tax credit to funnel even more cash into the biomass fires. Snowe promised it would “spur job growth, reduce the consumption of fossil energy and reduce carbon emissions. It is exactly the tax policy that will keep our industry competitive and begin to curtail carbon emissions.”

Of course, there were also studies showing that burning biomass was less efficient and more polluting than even coal-fired power plants. But since Maine has no coal and lots of trees, the state’s leaders dismissed this claim as blithely as West Virginia politicians ignore complaints from New England about how its coal is fouling our air. In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency decided to measure the impact of biomass plants in a way that allowed the facilities to offset their high level of emissions with the positive effects of trees that hadn’t been planted yet.

But federal foolishness and funding could only obscure the truth for so long. By 2016, reality began to intrude. New Jersey-based Covanta Holding Corp. closed its two biomass plants in West Enfield and Jonesboro because of low energy prices. ReEnergy Holdings, owned by a New York company, warned that the state’s remaining four plants – in Livermore Falls, Stratton, Ashland and Fort Fairfield – could be shuttered within two years if the governor and Legislature didn’t come up with substantial new subsidies.

The result was a bill that would have directed the Public Utilities Commission to negotiate power deals with the plant owners at above-market rates, thereby adding somewhere between $8 million and $41 million to consumers’ electric bills. Since that would increase the already high energy costs for industrial users, opponents argued it would result in more layoffs than the approximately 400 jobs allegedly supported by biomass. They also made much of the fact that neither Covanta nor ReEnergy would guarantee their facilities would reopen or keep operating even if they got the extra cash.

So, instead of screwing ratepayers, legislators decided to screw the taxpayers. The new bill was amended to take $13.4 million that was supposed to go into the state’s rainy day fund to instead prop up decaying biomass operations. But because it only underwrites the industry’s expenses for two years, ReEnergy said it would still close at least two of its plants.

Which brings to mind a far less prissy word than poop.

 

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