Al Diamon

Al Diamon

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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.

 

Flush away my complaints by emailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Eat this

Rules suck.

Just when you’re on the verge of have a little fun, along comes some authoritarian creep waving a rule book thicker than Paul LePage’s waistline that says you can’t legally purchase liquor for underage endangered species because that might cause them to increase the frequency of their urination into vernal pools, resulting in not only a sharp increase in water pollution, but also higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, leading to climate changes that will negatively impact property values, snowmobiling and your weird neighbor’s sexual habits, not to mention causing higher energy costs, thereby forcing the last remaining paper mills in Maine to close and the baseball season to be cancelled and replaced with some horrible sport where you can’t use your hands and have to score by pushing the ball with your tongue.

And don’t get me started on rules of grammar, which am always making it hardest for I too write good.

But every time I get so fed up with the pervasiveness of restrictions on anything I might conceivably want to do that I’m ready to embrace anarchy, along comes some damn fool with a proposal to eliminate the old rules and replace them with even worse ones. For instance, there’s the effort to pass a constitutional amendment to create something called “food sovereignty.”

No, that doesn’t mean sandwiches get to vote. (Although, considering the current presidential race, that might not be a bad idea.) Instead, food sovereignty involves, according to the wording of the proposed amendment, everyone being free to obtain food by “hunting, gathering, foraging, farming, fishing, gardening and saving and exchanging seeds, as long as no individual commits trespassing, theft, poaching or other abuses of private property rights, public lands or natural resources in the acquisition of food.”

Suddenly, that run-on sentence in my second paragraph doesn’t seem quite so absurd.

The amendment continues, “Furthermore, all individuals have a right to barter, trade and purchase food from the sources of their own choosing for their own bodily health and wellbeing. Every individual is fully responsible for the exercise of these rights, which may not be infringed.”

What this boils down to is fairly simple. If back-to-the-landers want to sell raw milk from their grubby barns, they can. If the buyers contract horrible cow-related illnesses from drinking the stuff, tough luck for them. The same goes for beef, poultry and pork raised in squalid but “all natural” conditions, even though all nature is largely composed of seething cesspools of endangered species peeing in swamps.

In addition, the amendment would attempt to negate federal patents on certain genetically engineered plants, which prohibit buyers from collecting seeds from their veggies and using them the following season without paying further fees.

As an anti-rule guy, I favor allowing farmers to do all that stuff. I say that even though I think drinking raw milk and eating uninspected meat is stupid. But one of the most elegant aspects of a society with few rules is how it automatically regulates the population of stupid people.

The trouble with this amendment is it’s designed to fix a small problem – a couple of overly anal rules promulgated by the state Bureau of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources – with a huge legal change that wipes out nearly all food safety regulations. In the unlikely event this measure were enacted – it appears to be dead in the current Legislature – it would free far more than a few scruffy hippies from bureaucratic oversight. Once it went into effect, there’d be no way to prevent the likes of Hannaford or Shaw’s from saving on sanitation by offering discounted hamburger mixed with decaying fecal matter.

What’s needed is not a new rule. What’s needed is to fix the old rules. Allow small-scale operations to sell raw milk and animal parts still dripping with bodily fluids. Consuming that stuff is probably only marginally more dangerous than eating at Chipolte. Encourage the feds to make it clear that once you buy seeds, all the byproducts thereof are your property, including the next generation of seeds and any contagions they may spread.

And continue to allow those of us who prefer our food pasteurized, pesticided and penned-in to eat in peace.

 

Free ranging comments may be emailed to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Tea and Trumpettes

Are you male? White? Angry?

I’ve got just the political candidate for you.

And his name isn’t Donald Trump.

Here’s a little taste from his website:

“Right now the white flag is up and the welcome mat for terrorists is out. … America is getting bullied and the world and our country has become a dangerous place. This has got to stop! We need to get smart and we need to get tough. We need to be less politically correct and far more pro-active. Our safety is at stake!”

Really, this isn’t The Donald.

“We must put pressure on the Islamic community to push back against radical Islam — LOUDLY. They have been mostly silent, and this represents tacit support of Terrorism. I have no problem monitoring any place or group which evidence shows is a problem. Muslims are welcome, but they must assimilate as Americans!”

Everything seems less prejudicial if you use lots of exclamation points. For instance, this pronouncement from a press release:

“Illegal aliens will have to leave. We the people must regain control of our country! I will help make our country safe, great and prosperous again!”

One more from the website:

“[T]he American people are angry with every right to be. … It will be up to us, the aspiring new guys, to buckle down, forget the political correctness, listen to the people and get this country back on track.”

Just in case the code words aren’t getting through, this Tea Party Trumpette includes a quote on his website from David Limbaugh, brother of Rush, making it clear who the real enemies are:

“People are tired of Obama's pitting blacks against whites, women against men, gays against heterosexuals, rich against poor, non-taxpayers against taxpayers, citizens against cops and his Muslims against Christians.  They can no longer stomach Obama's apologizing for America and excusing terrorists while rushing to attack Christians at every turn.”

Meet Mark Holbrook, who describes himself in a press release as “a non-lawyer, non-politician, conservative Republican.” Holbrook is also a psychologist and National Rifle Association instructor from Brunswick, who fancies himself the “Tip of the Spear” because he’s the “leading point of a movement aimed at the heart of Washington, while the shaft is the will of the voters in Maine’s 1st District who want change.”

I’m no psychologist, but that seems sorta phallic.

Holbrook is seeking the GOP nomination to run against Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, who he regards as an illegal alien (“I am working to send Ms Pingree back to her home state of Minnesota”). He also seems to think the key to wrenching the liberal southern part of the state – with its high concentration of foreign immigrants and other people who weren’t born in Maine – from the grasp of the Dems (who’ve held this seat for all but one term since 1986) is to go all Trumpazoid.

While Holbrook claims his top priority is jobs and the economy, most of his campaign seems focused on stirring up irrational fears in red-blooded American males with anger-management issues. It remains to be seen if that constituency is sufficient to win him the GOP nomination.

Because Holbrook has a primary opponent. Ande Smith of North Yarmouth, a lawyer who owns a cyber-security consulting company and serves as an appointee of Gov. Paul LePage on the state Board of Education, comes off as slightly less Trumpish than Holbrook. Emphasis on “slightly.”

From Smith’s website: “As I, along with many of you, watched the cold-blooded massacre in Paris and the slaughter of innocent Americans in San Bernardino by Islamist Jihadists, Iranian hostage taking and a nuclear deal so bad as to light the powder keg of the Middle East, Syrian refugees being brought to the country without real vetting, a border unsecured, a listless economy shackled by massive federal regulation, a President – enabled by supporters like Chellie Pingree –, abusing the Constitution by unbridled executive action threatening our 2nd Amendment rights,  it became clear how best I can serve the people of Maine.”

Wary Republican politicians have been distancing themselves from Trump (hello, Bruce Poliquin), but these novice candidates seem more than willing to dance to his tune.

 

I prefer trumpeting done by Clifford Brown or Miles Davis. Blow your own horn by emailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

No cover, no minimum

Some people, mainly old coots, think there’s nothing more entertaining than listening to other old coots complaining about how tough things were in their younger days, and how easy today’s spoiled brats have it.

Whatever “it” is.

If you think about it (not that “it,” another “it”), there are actually many more pleasant ways to waste time than enduring the caterwauling of coots, including passing a kidney stone, presidential debates and recent Adam Sandler movies. Nevertheless, the cootly contingent has convinced itself – having grown up racist, sexist, homophobic, denouncing Darwin and enjoying the blandest popular music ever produced – that it’s qualified to advise everyone else on the optimal way to live their lives.

Take, for instance, the minimum wage.

“When I got my first job,” a typical coot will announce unprompted, “there wasn’t any of this communist minimum wage. I worked a 25-hour day, and I got paid a bucket of dirt. I took that bucket home and grew my own food in it. And I was damn grateful to have that, let me tell you.”

Actually, the coot kinda has a point. Which, in standard cootish fashion, I’ll get around to eventually.

Maine’s current minimum wage is $7.50 per hour or almost enough to buy a fancy craft beer in a trendy bar. So, if you have a full-time job at the minimum, you can slug down at least six of those beers each day (seven if you don’t tip). But if you have taxes and Social Security deducted from your paycheck, it’s more like four beers. If your employer doesn’t cover health insurance, that expense is going to cut you off somewhere south of two beers. And if you’re not living in your parents’ basement, rent, utilities and food are going to leave you searching under the couch cushions for enough loose change to share a suitcase of Coot Light with several friends.

Obviously, the minimum wage needs to be raised, and the Maine People’s Alliance has collected the required signatures to put a referendum on the November ballot to do just that. It would boost the base wage to nine bucks in 2017, followed by annual increases until it hits $12 in 2020. After that, it would rise each year based on inflation.

This would greatly benefit workers in dead-end jobs – unless the price of a quality pint somehow keeps pace.

A coalition of business groups (a polite way of saying a bunch of greedheads studying for the coothood) has been trying to convince the Legislature to place an alternative proposal on the ballot that would limit the increase to 50 cents yearly until the minimum hits $10 in 2020, where it would remain until the state’s entire population of coots has expired. Proponents of this less generous increase argue it would protect small companies from the burden of paying their employees a subsistence wage, but their real goal is far more devious.

State law requires that when legislators put a competing proposal out to referendum alongside a question initiated by popular petition, the ballot must also include an option allowing voters to choose “none of the above.” Rather than pushing the 10-buck-an-hour plan they’ve put forward, the proto-coots plan to quietly campaign for no change at all.

It’s doubtful the Legislature will accommodate this plot, and (if polls are to be believed) equally unlikely non-cootified voters will be conned into buying it. The passage of the 12-buck minimum looks like a safer bet than finding coots at an early bird special.

Which brings us back to that cooterized solution hinted at above, namely:

Abolish the minimum wage.

Think what that would mean for modern Maine.

In places like Portland, where there’s a worker shortage, it would have almost no effect.

In rural Maine, reducing paychecks would exacerbate the exodus of people to places where the money is better, thereby making more cheap land available for Roxanne Quimby’s proposed national park.

And in struggling mill towns, labor unions would see their ranks swelled by workers unwilling to submit to pay cuts.

In other words, getting rid of the minimum wage could be the best thing that ever happened for liberals.

Maybe I’ve misjudged those coots.

 

I don’t even get paid minimum wage for reading emails sent to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Greetings from the welfare state

When it comes to welfare, Mainers have three different philosophies.

Republicans believe giving taxpayer money to those in need to cover the costs of life’s necessities encourages dependency, engenders fraud and creates Democrats. To the extent such programs must exist, they should be oppressively monitored, severely limited in their coverage and expire faster than Carly Fiorina’s presidential campaign.

Democrats believe most people who fall into poverty do so through no fault of their own and remain in reduced circumstances only because hostile societal forces – mostly Republicans – thwart their hopes and dreams at every turn. To counteract these negative influences, they support exhaustive, long-term efforts to provide the impoverished with everything their hearts might desire, except, possibly, household servants and nude dancers.

Normal people – by which I mean those whose partisan instincts are moderated by a bit of common sense – agree with the Dems that welfare is always going to be necessary and with the GOP that it should be somewhat limited in both duration and coverage. They’re willing to help their less fortunate neighbors, but they don’t want to be taken for suckers.

For the past six years, Republicans have done a much better job than Democrats of convincing average folks that their approach is superior. This has resulted in the election and re-election of GOP Gov. Paul LePage and dramatic gains by the pachyderm party in the Legislature. It has also produced numerous restrictions on who gets welfare and how those benefits can be used, some of which were even reasonable. However, Republican claims to the contrary, these efforts neither saved much money nor reduced poverty.

After repeated trouncings, Democrats have finally realized they need to make at least a halfhearted effort to reform welfare to avoid another clobbering in November. So, the jackass party drafted a plan called “Welfare That Works.”

Also known as “We Have No Fear Of Oxymorons.”

“Mainers, we have heard you,” Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves proclaimed at a March 10 news conference, while failing to explain why it took nearly four election cycles for his party to clean the wax out of its ears. But he did present a proposal that contained several items the Dems had previously opposed, plus a handful of other stuff that has no chance of passage. It’s welfare reform in much the same sense that Trump University is higher education.

The Democrats’ plan calls for making it illegal for those on the dole to use their electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards to withdraw money to buy lottery tickets. How this would be enforced is a mystery, since a Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting investigation found that since 2010, welfare recipients have won over $22 million in lottery prizes, mostly without suffering any loss of benefits. There’s nothing in the bill to improve procedures at LePage’s chronically inept Department of Health and Human Services for comparing the list of lottery winners to the roster of welfare recipients to see if there are any matches.

Other items Democrats don’t want those on public assistance buying include alcoholic beverages, tobacco, firearms, ammunition and tattoos. In addition, poor criminals wouldn’t be able to use their EBT cards to post bail.

Since both Republicans and normal people support such restrictions, there’s no good reason a bill containing these reforms couldn’t become law. There is, however, a bad reason:

Politics.

Similar measures have failed repeatedly in the past because of squabbles over petty details, partisan conflicts or LePage’s propensity for boorish behavior. In this case, the Democratic plan – which also calls for converting some housing subsidies to direct payments to landlords, crafting individual plans for health care and job training, and creating an oversight board to study whether any of this is working – is almost certain to meet the same fate.

And that’s OK with the Dems.

Although House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe and state Rep. Henry Beck wrote an op-ed claiming, “This is too important to be a political football,” that’s exactly what this reform package is intended to be. It’s designed to make it appear the Democrats favor welfare reform – without actually producing any.

The Dems haven’t changed their philosophy concerning welfare. They’ve just concocted a cynical scheme to obscure it.

 

Pour out your thoughts on the poor by emailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Primary colors

Once again, Maine has demonstrated that when it comes to presidential politics, this state is only slightly more critical to the outcome than such American territories as Palmyra Atoll (year-round population of zero) or Bajo Nuevo Bank (which is run by Columbia, but claimed by the United States, because it’s a major source of guano).

On an otherwise lovely March weekend, Ted (Booger-Eater) Cruz won a plurality of votes in Maine’s Republican caucuses, which were attended by a record crowd of 19,000 or slightly less than the census tally for Sanford. Bernie (Free Bird – And Free Everything Else) Sanders took the Democratic contest, which also produced an unprecedented turnout of 48,000 or 20,000 fewer folks than live in Portland.

What this reveals is that the evangelical underground, run through an assortment of fundamentalist churches and the Christian Civic League of Maine, can rally a crowd of supporters for their guy that’s somewhat smaller than the number of residents of Old Orchard Beach. On the Dem side, Bernie’s coalition of proto-socialists and people who just hate Hillary wasn’t quite able to muster as many supporters as Bangor’s official population.

In other words, about 68,000 pawns of the two parties’ extremes took part in the caucuses, while more than 900,000 other registered voters (minus the 14 or so hapless souls who’ve shown up at Green Independent Party caucuses so far) found more productive and/or enjoyable ways to spend their weekends.

As an indicator of public opinion, that amounts to little more than a pile of Bajo Nuevo Bank’s finest guano.

The limited turnout at caucuses – and as a result, the outsize influence of fanatics and kooks – has led some reformers to call for reinstating presidential primaries, something the state tried for two campaign cycles at the close of the 20th century. But the Dem turnout in the 1996 primary was barely 27,000, so there’s no guarantee of greater participation.

In 2000, over 160,000 voters cast ballots, helping George W. Bush edge John McCain on the Republican side, while Al Gore topped Bill Bradley for the Democrats. We know how well that worked out.

If you need further evidence that a primary wouldn’t significantly improve the process, consider the price tag. Political parties pay for caucuses. Taxpayers pay for primaries. The Secretary of State’s Office estimates that would require an extra $75,000, but that figure doesn’t include municipal costs. When they’re added in, the total comes to more than $1 million.

And that’s not all. Special interests would pick up the tab for all those TV commercials, which make financial sense in a primary, but don’t for a low-turnout caucus. As a labor leader put it during debate at the 1990 Democratic state convention over instituting a primary, “Maine Democratic politics should not be controlled by the boob tube.”

Of course, if you drop the word “tube,” you’d have the current situation.

If Maine had held primaries instead of caucuses this year, the results might have been a little different. Not better, mind you, just different. Donald Trump – who finished second, about 13 percentage points behind Cruz in the GOP caucusing – would likely have rallied his legions of know-nothings to surpass Cruz’s small cadre of pious whackjobs. As for the Democrats, Clinton’s endorsements from the party’s hierarchy, plus a solid get-out-the-vote effort might have reduced her margin of loss by 10 points or so.

A reasonable argument could be made that neither of these slight alterations is worth a million bucks.

Speaking of reasonable arguments, they prevailed in 2003, when the Legislature repealed the primary law, and again in 2012, when legislators refused to reinstitute it, citing the fact that nobody else paid attention to how Maine voted, anyway. “We could require that everybody show up at the polls stark naked,” one lawmaker lamented in a quote I’m totally making up, but absolutely think would be a great idea, “and we’d still only get 10 seconds on the national news.”

But if we also made the candidates strip down, we’d find out if The Donald is lying about his endowments. That should earn us some viral video.

Nevertheless, anyone who tells you there’s a correlation between primaries and improved election results is feeding you a load of guano.

If your primary concern isn’t primaries, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Watching the dark

Several years ago, my wife and I and some friends had brunch with a Muslim man and his wife. I had questions for this guy, but he and his spouse had just had a baby, and that’s all they wanted to talk about. Diaper rash and 2 a.m. feedings dominated not only the conversation, but also colored my stereotypical view of Muslims.

Followers of Islam make boring brunch companions.

They can, however, be entertaining in other contexts. Did I mention that the Muslim in question was renowned British guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson? On stage, far removed from muffins, omelets and the topic of child development, Thompson is witty and engaging. The same may be true for other followers of his faith. Some day, I’ll have to find out.

In the meantime, there’s Pious Ali, a devout Muslim and member of the Portland School Committee. Ali announced in February that he’s running for an at-large seat on the Portland City Council in the November election. Which would be about as interesting as teething tantrums if it weren’t for somebody else’s stereotype of Muslims.

For some time, I’ve been receiving emails from “Kafir,” which is a word Muslims use to signify a nonbeliever in their religion. These messages are mostly racist claptrap about the threat to America posed by followers of Mohammed. There’s nothing that couldn’t be improved by judicious use of the delete key.

But Ali’s Council candidacy kicked Kafir into a new gear. He sent an email to all the current councilors claiming mosques in Maine have been found (by a bogus anti-terrorism expert, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center) to be “in the ‘High’ category for sedition and dangerous activities.” He demanded Council action.

“Advocates of multi-culturalism, tolerance and political correctness, beware of what you try to impose on the rest of us,” he wrote. “You at least owe it to the citizens of Portland to vet Pious Ali and question where his loyalties lie.”

It was signed “Charles Martel,” who claims to be the leader of the Portland chapter of ACT! for America. In an email, “Martel” admitted he borrowed his pseudonym from a Frankish king of the eighth century who repelled a Muslim invasion. Asked why he concealed his identity, he wrote, “Many of us in this ‘business’ don’t use our real names because it is dangerous.”

As for ACT! for America, it’s a national group that claims to advocate against radical Islam, although its founder, Brigitte Gabriel, has stated that not even the most moderate members of that religion should be allowed to hold elected office in this country.

“If a Muslim who has — who is — a practicing Muslim who believes the word of the Koran to be the word of Allah, who abides by Islam, who goes to mosque and prays every Friday, who prays five times a day — this practicing Muslim, who believes in the teachings of the Koran, cannot be a loyal citizen to the United States of America,” Gabriel said in a 2007 speech.

Kafir/Martel is equally off the wall. “I hope Pious is sincere and wants to assimilate but I have my doubts,” he emailed. “He's also an Obama supporter and the Ayatollah-in-Chief is either a Muslim or an apologist for Islam. Just look at the Muslim Brotherhood folks who have infiltrated our government at the highest levels.”

Ali, who works as a youth and community engagement specialist in Portland’s high schools, said he’s been receiving emails from Kafir for years and has been unable to dissuade him from his “vast conspiracy mode of thinking.”

Ali won a seat on the school committee in 2013, reportedly the first Muslim elected to office in Maine. Despite Kafir’s warnings, Ali never attempted to impose Sharia law on the city’s schools, instead concerning himself with mundane points of education policy. His platform for his Council candidacy makes no mention of jihad, instead focusing on rebuilding aging schools, solving the housing shortage and “develop[ing] a more engaging process between city officials and residents.”

If I had to have brunch with either Ali or Kafir, I’d pick Ali. I might be bored, but at least I’d be able to keep my food down.

 

No need for Richard Thompson’s “Tear Stained Letter.” Just email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

What a waste

Let’s try to set aside all this anger, profanity, racism, sexism, misinformation and political posturing. In other words, let’s not discuss Paul LePage, governor, self-appointed education commissioner and giant bedbug infestation.

Instead, let’s turn our attention to a matter of significance to every Maine taxpayer, namely how much money state government is wasting in trying to do whatever it is state government is supposed to be doing. Surely, on this topic, we can find common ground, whether we’re conservative, liberal or one of those creeps who panders to every possible special interest (looking at you, Hillary). Because all of us agree there’s pork aplenty in Augusta.

Trouble is, we don’t agree on the definition of pork.

If I hadn’t already banned all mention of LePage, I’d bring up his irrational contempt for the Land For Maine’s Future program, which conserves vital resources, such as wilderness, family farms and working waterfronts. The governor-who-must-not-be-named insists LMF is riddled with corruption, but an investigation by his own henchmen determined it was competently run and effective. I assume LePage is currently hiring new henchmen.

Then there’s last November’s successful referendum increasing the amount of public funding for gubernatorial and legislative candidates. This measure is to be paid for by eliminating $6 million in “low-performing, unaccountable” tax breaks for businesses. Which should be easy, since those programs cost over $300 million a year and produce little in the way of quantifiable public benefit. In 2006, a report from the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability concluded, “Current reporting on economic development programs is inadequate for providing transparency and accountability; for comparing the performance and costs of individual programs; and for understanding the state’s portfolio of [programs] as a whole.”

Since then, nothing has changed, and it’s unlikely this year will see a disruption in the status quo.

While conservatives defend those tax breaks as necessary to keep every company in the state from fleeing to New Hampshire, left-wingers are equally adamant in supporting another type of handout. Numerous studies have shown that taxpayer-funded research and development grants to universities and private enterprises produce about one job for every $100,000 spent. It would probably be more cost effective to buy lottery tickets.

The Maine Heritage Policy Center, a right-wing think tank, recently published its latest edition of the “Maine Piglet Book,” which purports to be a comprehensive listing of government waste, but mostly devolves into a rant against liberals, welfare, state employees, welfare and liberals. The book contains lots of numbers but makes little effort to provide context, such as when it informs us, “Augusta spent what the average Mainer makes in a year in less than two minutes.”

What a fun two minutes that must have been.

It’s also selective in placing blame. “As a result of progressives’ push for more government spending and waste,” the book says, “Maine’s next biannual budget will spend roughly $300 million more than our last budget.” It neglects to mention that LePage’s original spending plan included more than $250 million in new expenditures, or that Republicans overwhelmingly supported the budget.

The center does make some valid points, noting that the $25 million spent on Clean Elections since 2000 has resulted in a Legislature that’s slightly less diverse but no less dominated by longtime pols. The book also highlights the presence of $43 million in “miscellaneous” spending. But rather than delving into where that money goes, it prefers to offer generalities (“Not only are many agencies redundant or unnecessary …”), trivialities (the state spends $51,000 a year on bottled water) and absurdities (because wealthy people have a lower rate of tobacco use than poor people, “revitalizing Maine’s economy by cutting taxes could substantially reduce smoking”).

There’s lots of space devoted to welfare extravagances (asylum seekers soak up $2 million a year in benefits out of $50 million spent – and that doesn’t even count the cost of what LePage calls the “ziki flies” they bring with them) and abuses (court-ordered restitution for welfare fraud averages about $250,000 per year – enough for a five-year supply of bottled water). For some reason, there’s no mention of questionable tax breaks for businesses.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Waste, it would appear, is in the ideology.

 

Email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. No excess verbiage.

Ramblin’ gamblin’ man

Free Shawn Scott.
I mean that metaphorically, of course, since Scott, a Las Vegas gambling developer, isn’t currently incarcerated. My call for his liberation has less to do with shackles and chains and more to do with him being constrained by legalities in his effort to build a casino in York County.
I admit that as a poster child for a leniency campaign, Scott leaves much to be desired. According to published reports, his past is littered with lawsuit – more than three dozen in an eight-year period – as well as associating with a criminal type and being less than forthcoming in providing required financial information to the Maine Harness Racing Commission during an earlier, extremely lucrative foray into Maine.
In 2003, Scott engineered the passage of a referendum allowing a racino next to Bangor’s harness racing track, of which he was the majority owner. He risked nearly $3 million on purchasing his interest in the track, and state and municipal referenda legalizing the gaming operation. But his investment paid off. In 2004, he sold both facilities to Penn National, a major operator of casinos, for approximately $51 million. 
Now, Scott is attempting a similarscheme in southern Maine. Using financing from his sister, a Miami developer, he’s pushing another referendum to allow him – and, according to its convoluted wording, only him – to plop a gambling facility right in the midst of the most heavily populated and wealthiest part of the state.
There are, however, a few annoying legal entanglements impeding his progress. First, there’s the 61,123 signatures of registered Maine voters needed to trigger the referendum. The outfit Scott hired to collect those names appears to have quality control problems, since nearly half the signers in several of the state’s largest municipalities turned out to be unregistered, duplicates or potentially fictional. By the time you read this, the Secretary of State’s Office may have already rejected the whole mess for failing to meet the law’s requirements. That means there won’t be a referendum, which means Scott can’t build a casino he can then sell to some big operator for big bucks.
As counterintuitive as it seems, that just ain’t right. 
For murky reasons, Maine treats casinos differently from other types of businesses. If Scott wanted to open a pharmacy, convenience store, dog kennel or even a Walmart, he wouldn’t need a referendum to make it legal. He’d have to deal with zoning, licensing, environmental impact and similar red tape. Given the rampant NIMBYism in much of the state, he might have to contend with protesters and reluctant local pols. But entrepreneurs overcome these obstacles every day to start breweries, hair salons and laundries. Surely, a slick operator like Scott wouldn’t be deterred by an indifferent bureaucracy or scruffy picketers.
No matter. Under state law, casinos, other than the two we have now, are essentially illegal. The justification for this prohibition is twofold:
1. Additional gaming emporiums would compete with the existing ones, making them less profitable.
2. Gambling is evil. On that first point, the obvious counterargument is: Who cares? There’s nothing in the Constitution requiring state government to protect the profit margins of the giant conglomerates that own our casinos. If a new facility with a prime location caused one of the less conveniently situated operations to go bankrupt, that shouldn’t be of concern to our lawmakers. It’s essentially the same situation as when Hannaford opens a new supermarket, forcing the family-owned grocer out of business.
As for the second reason, evil already abounds in local commerce. Maine currently allows the sale of cancer-causing tobacco products. You can legally buy pesticides that are fatal to honey bees. There are no laws against dealing in alcohol, firearms, pornography or Macklemore CDs, all of which are considered by some segments of the population to be affronts to humanity. But casinos are singled out for being so detrimental to society that we’d sooner allow Donald Trump in the White House than permit another one to be built in Maine.
That’s ridiculous. The solution is to free Shawn Scott. But be sure to free the rest of us, too. Because if anybody can get a gambling permit, I know exactly who won’t be interested in applying.
 
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The ballad of the Hulk

In the comic-book world of Maine politics, the conservative think tank called the Maine Heritage Policy Center has often played the role of Dr. Bruce Banner, the tortured soul whose body harbors a gamma-ray-created monster called the Incredible Hulk.

Portrayed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

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