Politics & Other Mistakes: Imaginary legislating

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According to Democratic state Sen. Susan Deschambault of Biddeford, all that’s needed to make everything in Maine perfect is to convince the Legislature to pass a bill stating that anything we don’t like doesn’t exist.

Deschambault got this noble initiative started during recent debate over a bill that would have banned solitary confinement in Maine’s prison system. Legislative committees heard hours of testimony this session about how solitary had been employed in abusive ways. But corrections department officials denied the practice was used in the state, although they did concede that they occasionally forced prisoners to endure something very similar, which they cleverly called by different names.

Al DiamonTo get around that dodge, the legislation was amended to define what constituted solitary. It would have placed language in the law books stating that keeping a prisoner isolated in a cell for 22 or more hours a day, no matter what bureaucratic fictionalization was employed, was still solitary confinement.

This bill passed the House in March without much difficulty. But when it got to the Senate, Deschambault intervened. As the powerful co-chair of the Criminal Justice Committee (and by coincidence, a former employee of the Department of Corrections), she submitted an alternative bill that simply removed all mention of solitary confinement from state statutes. Because:

“It’s not happening,” she stated during the debate, according to the Bangor Daily News.

The Senate, apparently eager to rid Maine of any hint it engaged in an abusive approach to rehabilitating wrongdoers, unanimously agreed to accept Deschambault’s altered version of reality. Since that was at odds with the House’s action, any effort at reform died as the legislative session dribbled to a close.

Sure, that disappointed supporters of prison reform like Portland Democratic state Rep. Grayson Lookner (“frankly flabbergasted”) or Jan Collins of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition (“surprising, disappointing and unexpected”), but they’re missing the big picture.

If, as Deschambault seems to believe, any unpleasantness can be obliterated by the mere passage of a bill declaring it doesn’t exist, there are plenty of other nasty subjects that can be wiped from society’s agenda by legislating them out of existence.

Homelessness? Be it resolved there ain’t any.

Climate change? Plenty of Republicans would be eager to embrace Democrat Deschambault’s approach in having it officially rendered a subject we’ll never discuss again.

Tribal sovereignty? Let’s return to the days when Native Americans (and all those other annoying ethnic groups) were invisible.

Sarcastic political commentary? No longer happening in our state.

Resigning to run

If you don’t like the way state government is doing things, you could always announce your candidacy for office and try to change the system.

Unless you’re a state employee.

Maine law prohibits anyone who works for the state from running for the Legislature. It’s not an entirely unreasonable limitation on those workers’ rights, since they’d have an inherent conflict of interest dealing with any legislation that impacts their jobs. And since the state budget impacts every government job, there’s really no way for them to avoid an ethical morass.

This brings us to the case of the impressively named Storme St. Valle. St. Valle worked as a nurse at the state-run Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, but he also dabbled in politics as the chairman of the Augusta Democratic City Committee. That was fine, right up until he decided to run for the state Senate. At that point, the law said he had to quit his job.

St. Valle has only a slight chance of getting elected since he’s challenging incumbent Republican Sen. Matthew Pouliot, who starts the campaign as a solid favorite. But the law doesn’t care about his odds of success. As long as he’s a candidate, he can’t work at Riverview.

A bill that would have allowed candidates like St. Valle to take a leave of absence from their state positions to pursue such quixotic quests went nowhere this legislative session. So, the state has another difficult-to-fill nursing vacancy. And St. Valle gets a lesson in why the system is so hard to change.

Resign yourself to settling for complaining to me by emailing [email protected].