Al Diamon

Al Diamon

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Where do you stand? — The problem facing Maine Democrats

What if Maine Democrats had a plan?

Or even a clue?

With a realistic platform that appealed to ordinary voters, the donkey party would have an excellent chance in next year’s elections of … uh … losing control of the Legislature. And the race for governor. And U.S. Senate. And the 2nd Congressional District.

The reason is simple: The Democratic Party in Maine doesn’t dare stand for anything practical. A pragmatic electorate recognizes that deficiency and votes for Republicans and independents who display some slight grasp of the problems the public faces.

To be fair to the Dems (just for the sheer novelty), the party did try last year to develop something that approximated a vision of a blueprint of a framework for a prototype of a plan. It was called “A Better State of Maine,” and it involved selling the one we have now and buying a newer model with all the bells and whistles, as well as a lifetime warranty.

I could have that wrong. After perusing the document and examining the comments made by Democratic leaders at public forums they held to promote it, it doesn’t actually call for doing anything that drastic. In fact, it doesn’t call for doing anything at all.

For instance, then-House Speaker Mark Eves, now a candidate for governor, explained the section on economic development this way: “We have heard over and over again about the need for a skilled, trained workforce that is aligned with the needs that we have.”

Seriously? That’s it?

Of course not. Current House Speaker Sara Gideon added this clarifying comment: “We need solutions that help young families build their lives in Maine and that revitalize our economy.”

And what would those solutions be?

Crickets.

There’s more of this drivel, such as an energy policy (it needs to be cheaper and more sustainable), infrastructure (we probably ought to keep it from crumbling away) and high-speed internet access (someday, somehow). There are fewer specifics in this document than cheeseburgers at a vegan festival.

That’s because Democratic leaders fear that if they put in writing what they really intend to do — expand government, increase taxes — the public would run them out of the state.

Some individual Democrats have specific ideas for addressing issues. Trouble is, lots of those ideas are somewhere between unrealistic and unworkable. Recently, three legislative candidates in southern Maine told me they support a single-payer health care plan. Asked how they’ll pay for that, they all agreed they’d raise taxes on the wealthy. The three-percent surcharge on higher incomes that was approved in referendum last year would have generated about $250 million a year. The cheapest estimate for universal coverage in the state is about $3 billion. So that surcharge would have to be increased by a factor of 12, making it a 36 percent tax hike on the wealthy.

All of whom would be leaving the state long before that money grab could take effect.

Looking at voter registrations, it might be reasonable to assume that after next year’s elections, Democrats would control of both chambers of the Legislature. Those numbers indicate Dems should have a 15-seat majority in the House and a three or four seat margin in the Senate. But registrations are a poor predictor of outcomes. The only safe Democratic districts are concentrated around Portland, Bangor, parts of the mid-coast and a few other scattered areas. In rural parts of the state, there may be plenty of registered Democrats, but they’re increasingly likely to vote for Republicans.

As a result of this indifference to party affiliation, Democrats could lose control of the Maine House by as many as five seats. The GOP will likely enjoy a four-seat majority in the Senate. When voters are asked why they made those decisions, they’ll say they just couldn’t figure out where the Dems stood on issues that mattered to them, and while they didn’t agree with Republicans on everything, they at least knew their positions.

The only hope Democrats have is that once the GOP is in firm control, they’ll do what they always do when they hold majorities:

Screw up.

At which point, the Dems will return to power without ever having to take a stand on anything.


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Let 'Em Talk

I’ve been told I’m a racist, neo-Nazi scumbag.

Considering the source, I’m cool with that.

I didn’t vote for Donald Trump. I think the Confederate flag is a symbol of treason and bigotry. If I found a statue of Robert E. Lee lurking in my front yard, I’d promptly take a sledgehammer to it.

But in today’s hyper-tense political atmosphere, that’s not sufficient. To be deemed acceptable by the liberal guardians of social interaction, it’s less about what I believe and more about whether I’m willing to suppress what other people believe.

I’m not.

I support free speech. Unfortunately, that term has been co-opted by the alt-right, and is now considered synonymous with hateful verbiage. White supremacists and similar slime are using the rights granted by the Constitution’s First Amendment to express opinions that I find repulsive.

I support that.

In fact, I think it’s essential for the future of representative democracy that these gormless meatbags be allowed to say whatever they like. Because once Americans start censoring political speech, it’s only a matter of time before somebody in government (and you know who runs the government) decides that what I have to say is so wrongheaded that it must be prohibited.

In this belief, I’ve found myself allied with the American Civil Liberties Union, a group that’s defended the rights of fascists and Ku Klux Klan members to march and give speeches, not because the ACLU agrees with those clots of bacteria, but because even human garbage has the same legal protections as the rest of us.

Unfortunately, of late, the ACLU seems to be backing away from its absolute support for unfettered speech, saying it would no longer defend groups that bring weapons to their rallies. Gun rights supporters take note.

That’s not good enough for the more extreme elements of the left. In a recent radio interview with Maine Public, one former contributor to the ACLU said the organization’s support of free speech was “appalling” and “terrifying.”

Let’s be clear. Speech is not a crime. Violence is a crime, and the Constitution doesn’t protect it. Whether it’s Trump supporters roughing up protesters at campaign rallies or antifa goons cracking right-wingers’ heads at one of their hate fests, such behaviors are attempts to suppress free speech. Both are steps on the road to totalitarianism. It makes little difference to me whether the dictators turn out to be leftists or rightists, since I’m bound to annoy either one.

The current liberal effort to squelch the speech of walking cancer tumors with swastika armbands smacks of McCarthyism. In the 1950s, Republican U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin labeled everyone with the slightest leftward leaning as a communist. His efforts cost people their reputations, their jobs and even their liberty for no greater transgression than espousing a political philosophy that a certain ill-shaved, rumple-suited, self-appointed arbiter of American values found objectionable.

Don’t be that guy.

And don’t be his modern-day counterpart, clothed in black (since the other side had already claimed brown shirts), identity concealed by a scarf (since the other side already had dibs on sheets), intent not on persuasion, but intimidation (at last, something both sides have embraced). Be respectful enough of our Bill of Rights to believe the answer to halting the spread of hateful speech is sensible arguments against it.

There are a lot of things in this world I don’t like and would be happy to see vanish: Adam Sandler, baseball stadiums with artificial turf, flavored vodka, Brussels sprouts, software updates that screw up my iPad, man buns, Starship’s song “We Built This City (On Rock and Roll)” and — yeah — Nazis. But I long ago realized I’m unlikely to get my way on any of them. And I long ago rejected trying to enforce my views by legal mandate, since that would conflict with my libertarian ideals, not to mention political reality.

Instead, I’ll switch off the radio, the TV, the oven and the iPad, and instead, with some reservations, write a check to the ACLU to show my support for what’s left of the group’s fortitude in holding its collective nose and doing the right thing.

You might consider doing the same.


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Incompetence Will Follow

Ethan Strimling is dead meat.

That’s what political insiders are saying about Portland’s mayor in the wake of his public feuding with the city manager and the city council. They claim that if Strimling is harboring ambitions of achieving higher office — and there’s not the slightest doubt he is — his intemperate blundering through disputes over his staff, his salary and, most of all, his power has rendered such an objective unattainable.

A prominent Democrat told a reporter, “[H]e’s unfortunately, it seems, always in battle mode.”

Another Dem described the mayor as “strong-headed and stubborn,” going on to say, “I think he’s convinced he’s right and everyone else is wrong.”

A third semi-sympathetic observer was quoted as saying, “I think he means well, but he doesn’t play well in the sandbox.”

In an interview with a national publication, an influential independent said, “There’s a crude bullying to his approach to dealing with others.”

And a Republican-leaning newspaper columnist dismissed the mayor as “derisive, bombastic, embarrassing,” adding that “his unwillingness to conduct himself civilly is a terrible waste” of his political influence.

Oh, wait.

None of those people was talking about Strimling. They were commenting on GOP Gov. Paul LePage’s stint as mayor of Waterville.

Mixing up descriptions of LePage’s and Strimling’s experiences in municipal government is easier to do than you might think. Even though the two stand at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum — the governor to the far right and the Portland mayor to the extreme left – they share a definite style and approach.

Mayor LePage vetoed loads of measures approved by the City Council, even if they passed unanimously. He was routinely overridden. Strimling threatened to veto the city budget because it eliminated funding for his assistant, but backed off because he had almost no support among councilors.

Republican LePage faced a council dominated by Democrats, and was often forced to give ground. Democrat Strimling has to deal with a council where Dems prevail, and even so, he rarely gets his way.

Both men won office with the support of a cadre of fanatical followers. LePage was the darling of the Tea Party when he first ran for governor, and he owned the alt-right vote when he sought his second term. Strimling’s base is a group of “progressive” activists with strong fundraising skills and a penchant for extreme attacks on his opponents.

They’d both be right at home in the government of Syria.

LePage’s time in elected office will come to a close after next year’s election (his talk about running for the U.S. Senate against independent Angus King is hogwash). Strimling’s term runs until 2019, so there’s still time for him to repair some of the damage he’s done to himself before again facing the voters. But with City Manager Jon Jennings’s contract set to expire next year, there’s little chance the mayor will allow his conflict with the manager over who runs the day-to-day operations of the city to fade.

But keep in mind that being a mayoral clod didn’t stop LePage from winning the Blaine House. He ran for governor on claims he turned Waterville’s finances around by lowering taxes (mostly not as a result of anything he did) and improving the city’s credit score (again, not due to any of his actions). Strimling could try something similar. Under his administration (using the word very loosely), Portland has prospered (if you’re wealthy) and increased its role as the economic engine that drives the rest of Maine.

Of course, the rest of Maine deeply resents Portland for that, so Strimling’s campaign slogan (He Gave Your Town The Jobs His City Didn’t Want) could stand a little tweaking.

The point is that Strimling might not be as dead politically as his critics would have you believe. In spite of wasting his influence by appearing to demand more pay, taxpayer-funded campaign staff, and control of municipal government that the city charter clearly says belongs to the council and manager, he could still recover from all his self-inflicted wounds to emerge as a viable candidate for re-election, Congress or governor.

Or, perhaps, mayor of Waterville.

Voters there have plenty of experience with guys just like him.


Being insensitive in your comments to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. doesn’t necessarily disqualify you for elected office.

 

If you don’t start drinkin’, I’m gonna leave

The other day, I did something I wouldn’t normally do. I bought a bottle of booze in Maine.

Please don’t think less of me. I had no choice.

I usually purchase my liquor in New Hampshire, where it’s almost always cheaper. My order arrives here via an underground railroad operated by a nefarious associate, who gets paid off in cocktails. Such transactions are illegal, immoral and bad for my liver, but I don’t care. The savings are worth it.

Unfortunately, my connection wasn’t due for several days, and I was out of bourbon. In desperation, I went to an agency liquor store and picked up a fifth of cheap hooch that, due to this state’s convoluted alcohol-control policies, cost me four bucks more than the Granite State price. This disparity is unlikely to correct itself in the foreseeable future because of one big problem:

The people who regulate Maine’s liquor industry are blithering idiots.

Rather than trying to match New Hampshire’s prices, the bureaucrats who oversee this state’s spirits business set the cost of a bottle based on a complex formula that appears to have been developed by somebody who was absent from economics class the day the professor explained competition. You could be excused for thinking Maine’s prices relate to the alignment of the stars or an examination of animal entrails, but it’s actually nowhere near that logical.

According to an excellent article by Lewiston Sun Journal reporter Steve (No, I’m Not Related To Susan) Collins, the liquor overlords have determined that recently approved price increases will be based on a formula that relies on random foolishness.

Consider a nip bottle of cheap vodka, for example. This item costs the state 52 cents at wholesale. The standard markup is 89 percent because, well, just because. That brings the price to about 99 cents. Then, for no apparent reason, there’s a three-cent tax on top of that. Now the price is $1.02. “But,” according to Collins, “the pricing policy requires rounding up the bottom line to the next established price point. That brings it to $1.29 as a retail price.”

That would yield a profit of 74 cents, but the State Board of Nonsensical Proclamations of Weirdness has decreed that every bottle sold earn at least 75 cents. In a rational world, that would mean the nip would sell for $1.30, but as you may be starting to suspect, the liquor business bears no relationship to the rational world.

According to Collins, the little bottle can’t be sold in Maine for $1.30 because that’s not “an allowable price point.” Allowable by whom? The Intergalactic Commission on Price Points, maybe. But regardless of what entity sets these freakish rules, the next such point is $1.49, so that’s what the nip is priced at. Oh, and there’ll soon be a five-cent deposit on the bottle, too.

It makes sense – if you don’t pay close attention. Or if, as state officials are hoping, you’ve been drinking.

Strangely enough, the most recent version of this perverted pricing policy was only developed after Maine officials became concerned about the lack of growth in profits. The state was selling more booze, but consumers, in search of bargains, were migrating to less profitable brands.

To counteract that trend, a rational liquor purveyor might have cut markups on more expensive items. A less rational entity would raise prices, thereby driving customers to the competition in New Hampshire. To no one’s surprise, Maine officials decided to do the latter. An admittedly questionable analysis by a booze lobbying group found the recently proposed changes would reduce gross sales by $23 million per year, while costing consumers an extra $21 million. If one had an economics degree, one might conclude that this was a fine example of a lose-lose proposition.

Maine is locked into contracts that will keep it in the liquor business for several more years, but now’s the time to prepare to transition to a system in which the marketplace sets prices, and the state collects its share in taxes without further inept meddling.

To do otherwise just encourages people like me to continue subsidizing New Hampshire.

 

With all the money I saved on booze, I can afford to reply to your emails sent to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

Life’ll kill ya

I have an excellent health-care plan.

As long as I don’t get sick.

Like most Mainers, I find medical appointments to be an expensive luxury I can afford only if I don’t make them. To that end, I do my best to avoid my doctor, because interactions with the health-care community produce all sorts of unpleasant consequences: diets, exercise regimens, prescription medications with weird side effects, suggestions that I zip my lip and listen to expert advice for a change. And bills.

I prefer a laissez faire approach. If something hurts, I just ignore it until it goes away.

Which is pretty much the Republican plan for replacing Obamacare.

Strangely enough, that’s also the Democrats’ plan for upgrading it. If we leave everything the way it is, the disagreeable parts will work themselves out

And they say bipartisanship is dead.

Unfortunately, GOP U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, having provided one of the crucial votes to defeat her party’s repeated efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, now wants to make all sorts of improvements to that law. She insists these tweaks will allow almost everyone to receive quality medical services.

Even those of us who’d prefer never to have another prostate exam as long as we live.

Collins, independent U.S. Sen. Angus King and Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree all believe we can fix the health-care system the same way we repaired the education system: by throwing money at it. If this worked, I’d have gotten such quality schooling in economics that I’d now be capable of understanding why it costs so damn much to go to the doctor. But it didn’t, and I don’t.

In my confusion, I’m in much the same boat as Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin. In 2015, Poliquin surprised his party by voting against repealing Obamacare. He later explained that decision by saying he wouldn’t ax the existing law until “we have a plan in place, a glide path, to a new fiscally responsible and sustainable solution.” He then announced he’d be hiding in his office until somebody came up with that solution.

Poliquin emerged briefly earlier this year to vote in favor of the House version of reform, which we’re not supposed to call Trumpcare. When that measure got a negative reaction from the public, millions of whom would lose their coverage under it, the 2nd District congressman again locked himself in his office and hasn’t been heard from since.

So, something good came out of all this.

Meanwhile, Collins has been hard at work crafting a viable alternative that has been embraced by both Republicans and Democrats and is being widely hailed as the obvious path out of this conundrum.

Just kidding.

Mostly, Maine’s senior senator has been spending her time appearing on TV news shows, where she says stirring stuff like, “I’m troubled by the uncertainty that has been created by the administration” and “I don’t think it is a good approach to replacing legislation.” What she hasn’t been doing is promoting the plan she developed several months ago with Louisiana U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy that would have kinda, sorta shifted around bits and pieces of the ACA in ways that would have caused some people to lose coverage, but not nearly as many as in most GOP plans, while also retaining enough parts of the original law to make it unacceptable to conservatives. To date, support for her plan has been limited to herself, Cassidy and a kid on Facebook with four likes.

Amidst all this turmoil, it appears all parties are overlooking the real problem. Which is:

Everybody wants quality health care, but everybody also wants somebody else to foot the bill.

Why nobody has drafted a bill mandating this is beyond me. All that’s required is to build a new medical system, and get the Canadians to pay for it.

Or we could try an approach a doctor once proposed to me. Weary of my repeatedly ignoring his advice about diet and exercise, he wrote a prescription for some medication with an unpronounceable name. “Take one of these pills every morning,” he said. “And call me in 10 years.”

By then, he’d retired.

And the pills turned out to be placebos.


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LePage Won't Do It

Paul LePage is jerking you around.

 

I know, that’s not news. Maine’s Republican governor and vitriol-spewing mutant zucchini spends an inordinate amount of time jerking people around. Just because it’s your turn shouldn’t make you feel special.

 

Actually, LePage isn’t even singling you out for this particular jerking. You’re just collateral damage. The real jerks in this case are independent U.S. Sen. Angus King and GOP state Sen. Eric Brakey, his party’s only announced candidate to run against King in 2018. LePage hates King, possibly because he’s rich, was well liked as governor and has a much better mustache than LePage could ever hope to grow. As for Brakey, he’s sometimes a little too independent for the governor’s taste, which is to say he has a functioning nervous system above the neck.

 

During a radio appearance in July, LePage said national Republican officials had recently asked him to reconsider his decision last May not to run against King, who caucuses with the Democrats. The guv didn’t seem enthusiastic about the idea, saying he “wouldn’t make a very good legislator” (true that) and that he thought committee work “would be boring” (also true). But then he added that he was concerned that Brakey’s campaign had yet to gain traction, so he might be forced by circumstances beyond his control to enter the race, if only to give the GOP a credible standard-bearer.

 

LePage is lying.

 

I know this because a source close to the governor says so. This source, whose name I can’t reveal except to say it’s Paul LePage himself, made this statement during another radio rant in July: “I just love to sit in my office and makeup ways so [newspapers will] write these stupid stories. They are just so stupid, it’s awful. I tell you, the sooner the print press goes away, the better society will be.”

 

The governor then meandered off to Washington, D.C., where, according to “stupid” reporters at the Maine Sunday Telegram, he spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars staying in luxury hotels, eating in fancy restaurants and holding private meetings with undisclosed parties about matters he refuses to share with the people who paid the bill.

 

Please see above statement about him jerking you around.

 

But back to the Senate race. LePage might have a shot at winning King’s seat if the stars aligned just right. He’s consistently shown the ability to attract votes from around 40 percent of the electorate, regardless of how much lying and jerking around he does. If the Democrats offered up their usual ineffectual nominoid, they might capture as much as 20 percent of the vote (unless they again choose 2012 practice squad player Cynthia Dill, in which case it’ll be something south of 15 percent). That would leave King and the governor in a virtual tie, with the victor being decided by who could tell the biggest fib.

Still close, but the edge goes to LePage.

 

Keep in mind that this is all academic, because LePage has no plans to run for the Senate. When his second term ends in January 2019, he’ll slide into a lucrative retirement giving speeches to right-wing think tanks or possibly advising President Trump on how to improve his media relations. That’s what he’s told close friends he plans to do. That’s what his wife wants him to do. That’s what makes the most sense for a guy who’ll be pushing 70 by then and might be on the verge of realizing he’s been a political failure (although, probably not).

 

Of course, LePage is going to play the will-he-or-won’t-he card for as long as he can because he knows it keeps King awake at night and the news media in a frenzy. The guv doesn’t seem to care that propagating the possibility he’ll run will seriously interfere with Brakey’s ability to raise money. But LePage has never been concerned about the future of the Republican Party, and as he prepares to exit the Blaine House, he’s far more focused on settling scores than with aiding the career of somebody who probably voted with him in excess of 90 percent of the time.

 

When it comes to jerking people around, it takes a real jerk.


Don’t jerk me around when emailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

A Dirty Rotten Past?

Let’s say you wanted to liven up your next party by featuring a Donald Trump impersonator. Your budget doesn’t allow for hiring the likes of Alec Baldwin. Johnny Depp would drink all your booze and punch out your guests. Donald Jr. might do, but he probably has a scheduling conflict due to an appointment with some Russians.

 

Despair not. There’s a locally grown alternative who works cheap and can nail the Trump agenda.

 

Here’s our faux Trump expressing opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement: “I’m sick and tired of a government that cares more about Canadian farmers than Maine potato growers.”

 

We’ll build a wall and Canada will pay for it.

 

This person has also expressed concerns about the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This person is on record as opposing “political correctness.” This person favored cutting the capital gains tax. This person appears to be skeptical of globalism: “Too often we have seen congressmen and women who are … more concerned with parochialism than with nationalism.” This person isn’t interested in finding middle ground, ostensibly because that’s bad for the little guy: “Too often compromise saves ‘the haves’ and ignores ‘the have nots.’” And this person is no fan of strict environmental rules. “One of my main objectives as [an elected official] will be to unclutter some of this regulatory gridlock,” the ersatz Trump has said.

 

Who is this talented Trumpoid? Republican Gov. Paul LePage? Fanatic state Rep. Lawrence Lockman? Senate majority leader and possible gubernatorial candidate Garrett Mason?

 

No, no and no.

 

The politician who out-Trumps everyone in the GOP is none other than Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills, herself an announced candidate for governor. Mills made most of those comments during her run for Congress in the state’s 2nd District back in 1994. That was an era when moderate to conservative Democrats still wielded some clout in the party, and Mills, then the district attorney for Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties, attempted to appeal to that constituency by using the slogan “Tough Works.”

 

As it turned out, it didn’t work all that well. She finished third in the primary with just 17 percent of the vote, well behind eventual congressman and governor John Baldacci. That loss could be attributed to a certain inconsistency in her ideology. For every conservative stand she took, there was a countervailing liberal position. She was pro-choice on abortion, sometimes supported gun control, opposed a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution and favored universal health care.

 

Another problem Mills had was her tendency to get annoyed at reporters (does that remind you of anyone whose name rhymes with “hump”?), and she was sometimes perceived as dismissive of her six primary opponents and even the occasional assertive voter.

 

To be fair (just this once, I promise), all that was nearly a quarter century ago, and Mills has mellowed a bit since then. She’s developed thicker skin and handles criticism better than before, at least in public. She’s also assembled a sizable portfolio of instances in which she opposed many of LePage’s legal blunderings, earning her the undying enmity of the governor and some measure of respect from her party’s left wing.

 

Which is not to say liberal Democrats are rushing to embrace her current candidacy. Her opposition to a generic drug bill that she believes conflicts with federal law has earned her the wrath of state Sen. Troy Jackson, the Dems’ floor leader and an influential voice with the party’s sizable Bernie Sanders caucus. She’s caught flak from the Penobscot Indian Nation and its supporters for opposing tribal fishing and water rights on the Penobscot River. During last fall’s referendum campaign, she alienated advocates for legal marijuana by pointing out a flaw in the bill that might have allowed children to buy pot.

 

That’s not to say Mills can’t win the Democratic nomination. So far, the lefties haven’t found a strong candidate they can rally around (note to lefties: using the words “Mark Eves” and “strong candidate” in the same sentence is tantamount to inviting cries of “oxymoron”). At this point, Mills would have to be considered the frontrunner.

 

At least until somebody spoils the party by dredging up all those Trump comparisons from 1994.



Sources for any of the above quotations are available by emailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Triumphs and tragedies

It’s important to have goals in life. Mine are:

Sleep late.

Drink beer.

Repeat.

My success in fulfilling these lofty ambitions is somewhat mitigated by the fact that I’m an irresponsible slug. Presumably, the Maine Legislature doesn’t fall in the same category. Surely, our representatives and senators are people of strong character, constantly striving to meet the high standards the public expects of its leaders.

Except maybe president.

And governor.

Unlike some chief executives, legislators aren’t a bunch of egotistical incompetents flailing randomly at imaginary evils in an effort to avoid dealing with complex problems. Those chosen to represent us in Augusta recognize the need for realistic assessments, strategic negotiations and pragmatic solutions. When they set goals, they come as close to achieving them as is humanly possible.

Except when they don’t.

For example, there’s the recently semi-concluded first session of the 128th Legislature, which managed these shining accomplishments:

The state shutdown caused by its failure to pass a budget was fairly short.

And it made it legal to keep hedgehogs as pets without a permit.

Not bad … if you’re comparing them to the latest Will Ferrell movie. But somewhat less impressive if your standard is the goals set by legislative leaders before this session began.

“We’re not going to get caught up in the drama,” House Republican leader Ken Fredette told the Bangor Daily News last December. “We’re just going to do our job.”

Fredette’s caucus seemed to believe its job was entirely composed of repealing the 3-percent surcharge on high-income taxpayers approved by voters in referendum last November and being as obstructionist as possible. At that, the GOP House members went two for two. But as with a certain sleep-until-noon, booze-until-oblivion columnist, achieving such modest objectives is hardly worthy of any celebration more elaborate than cracking open a Natty Light.

Assistant House Democratic leader Jared Golden had a somewhat more ambitious agenda. “I think we’ve heard pretty clearly from the voters on the minimum wage and funding for education,” Golden is quoted as saying in the Bangor paper. “We are definitely not overturning any of them.”

The Legislature repealed the tax on big earners that was supposed to channel over $300 million to schools. And it amended the minimum-wage hike to strip out tipped workers.

Golden’s goals were to not do things. Which he managed not to do because he did do them, thereby not accomplishing something by accomplishing something.

It’s not as if legislative leaders ignored the many serious problems facing the state. Late last year, newly elected Speaker of the House Sara Gideon, a Democrat, offered the Portland Press Herald a comprehensive list of them. Among Gideon’s goals, “more work to fight back against this devastating opioid epidemic.” As the Maine Sunday Telegram recently noted, “After pledging to make the opioid crisis a priority, lawmakers again failed, even in passing simple laws that many other states have had in place for some time.”

Also on Gideon’s list: “improved health care, child care and elder care” (nope, nope and nope), “more energy independence” (uh uh), “more work to create the basic structure of modern broadband” (still not connected) and crafting policies that encourage new workers to move here (does a shutdown count?).

Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau was hoping to do something about lowering the student debt burden (shorter students?). His proposal may have been forged into a comprehensive plan of action, but no one seems to remember that happening.

And let’s not forget ranked choice voting, a partially unconstitutional measure approved by voters last November. Amend it? Repeal It? Make it legal? No, this august body decided to take the least rational course by doing nothing.

This was a Legislature that lacked foresight – any idiot could have predicted a shutdown was likely (and a lot of them did) – courage – few legislators were brave enough to defy core constituencies until the shutdown actually happened – and most of all, leadership – real leaders would have devised an acceptable budget long before the situation reached the crisis stage.

Whenever I start to feel bad about my pathetic lack of ambition, I have only to look to the State House for assurance there’s somebody much worse.

 

If your goal is to send me an email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., you probably need better goals.

Dreaming of a Magical LePage

Let’s consider the unimaginable. Let’s pretend Republican Gov. Paul LePage is a rational human being with some semblance of political skill.

Also, fairies are real, Tim Tebow is a decent baseball player and the paper industry will be returning to East Millinocket next month with even more high-paying jobs.

Alas, none of that is true, particularly with regard to LePage, who regularly torpedoes his own agenda by acting like a petulant child. Ironically, these outbursts are far more effective at killing his proposals than are the dithering Democrats.

Take taxes for example. The governor has long advocated eliminating the state income tax and balancing the budget with spending cuts and an expanded sales tax. That’s not a ridiculous idea. Such a plan would shift a significant portion of the tax bite onto tourists. It would encourage retirees to remain in Maine. And while such a tax realignment would place a burden on the poor, there are plenty of ways that could be mitigated. With a little negotiating, there’s no reason at least some of LePage’s vision couldn’t be realized.

Except for LePage himself, who’s never been willing to settle for partial victory. He’d rather endure a total loss than be perceived as settling for less than he demanded. “If you want to play chicken,” he said in a radio interview just prior to the state-shutdown deadline, “let’s play chicken.”

He actually vetoed two budgets that contained income-tax cuts, because they weren’t as large as he wanted. If not for his hardline stance, it’s likely the tax bill in Maine would be smaller than it is.

Education reform? With a little give and take, an imaginary LePage could have adroitly persuaded a dozen or so House Democrats to give a statewide teacher contract a tentative try, thereby fulfilling a major campaign promise.

Mining regulation? A fantasy governor might have fully engaged in the two-year-long debate, subtly edging the rules in a direction more favorable to industry. LePage merely sulked, and the enviros took control.

Drug abuse? The best the guv has been able to do is successfully veto an occasional bill designed to combat the opioid epidemic. A magic chief executive would have perceived how easy it would be to increase law-enforcement spending if he also agreed to at least some expanded treatment options.

Welfare? Only a troll would use asylum seekers as punching bags. Only an ogre would vilify immigrants with dark skins. Only a boogeyman refuses to acknowledge that the problem with public assistance is not the vast majority of the people who receive it, but rather the system that provides it so ineptly. Sir Paul the Virtuous and Intelligent would rally bipartisan troops to slay that dragon and replace it with aid for the truly needy.

In all these cases, it’s important to remember that Lord LePage the Tempestuous and Intemperate isn’t necessarily wrong in his proposals for solving problems. School costs do need to be brought under control. Environmental regulations do need to allow job creators to function. Drug dealers do need to be arrested and imprisoned. And public assistance does need to focus on helping low-income people break the cycle of poverty.

It’s not what the governor stands for that’s wrong. It’s his refusal to stand down from unnecessary confrontation.

If LePage had any grasp of how the political process works, he’d have laid the groundwork for his platform by consulting with both friends and foes before crafting solutions. This would’ve allowed him to determine if there were areas where all parties agreed or if there were items on which some compromise might be possible. Then, rather than driving his sword into a stone and swearing to never give ground, he could offer up measures that had a reasonable chance of passage, although possibly in amended form.

He’d get some of what he wanted, instead of almost none. And it would be easier on his sword.

But LePage believes in absolute monarchy, a system of government that has worked out only slightly better for him then it did for Macbeth.

Or as Shakespeare put it, “Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious / Loyal and neutral, in a moment? No man.”

That character is fictional. If only LePage were, too.


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Fortune-telling Fools

Predicting the future isn’t easy. If it was, all those expert prognosticators wouldn’t have been so wrong about flying cars, food pills, the Chicago Cubs’ chances to repeat as World Series champions and Hillary Clinton’s electability. Not to mention the weekend weather.

Even so, it’s not all that difficult to prepare for what promises to be an uncertain tomorrow. Don’t invest in anything with the words cold fusion, “lose weight without dieting” or J.C. Penney in the title. Do own a good flashlight, and don’t forget extra batteries. Always remember that an additional six-pack of beer never goes to waste.

In short, be ready for everything to go badly. If it doesn’t, the worst you’ll face is still having your money, a dependable source of illumination and some unopened brewskis.

If the Maine Legislature adopted this attitude when it came to budgeting, the state would be far better off. Because the financial outlook for the next two years appears unsettled at best.

As you read this, I’m still on vacation, so I don’t know what happened with the budget standoff in Augusta. There could have been some kind of compromise. Or we could be in the midst of a state shutdown. It doesn’t matter. Well, it matters to some people, but it doesn’t really affect the point this column is about to make, which has been carefully crafted to be valid regardless of whatever is occurring, thereby giving my editor the impression I’m paying attention to current events rather than drinking beer and shining my new flashlight in the faces of unsuspecting passersby.

When legislators put together a new budget, they rely on experts to tell them how much revenue will be available over the next biennium. These experts are economists, so they develop their models by using complex formulas that produce results that aren’t readily discernable from wild guesses. It’s no giant surprise their estimates are often wrong. Nevertheless, the budget drafters accept them because that way they can always use the poindexters as fall guys if everything goes south.

This time around, the economists have predicted state revenues will grow a little in the first budget year and a little more in the second. So, legislators have been operating as if they have extra money to play with. Too bad neither they nor the economic experts are paying attention to the real world. If they were, they might have noticed this item in a Washington D.C. newsletter, The Hill:

“Two out of every three states in America took in less tax revenue than expected this year, the worst performance since the depths of the recession, and twenty states expect to address budget shortfalls in the coming year.”

Most of this red ink can be attributed to sales taxes, which are coming up well short of projections. That’s a big concern, because, as the article notes, “sales taxes are traditionally the most stable revenue sources for states.”

Is this something that Maine, being a state and depending on a sales tax, should be concerned about?

Oddly enough, it is. Maine’s sales tax is one of the narrowest in the nation, relying heavily on purchases of vehicles and home improvement products. At the earliest sign of an economic downturn, these are the first purchases most people put off. As a result, this state is particularly vulnerable to any weakness in the national economy. (We could alleviate some of this problem if we expanded the sales tax to include entertainment and services, but when Democrats passed a law doing just that, Republicans rallied the voters to repeal it, and when GOP Gov. Paul LePage proposed something similar, both his fellow Republicans and opposition Democrats rejected the idea without debate. Why? Possibly because they’re idiots.)

At the moment, Maine has a budget surplus and nearly $125 million in its Rainy Day Fund, so there doesn’t seem to be reason for concern. But to provide a little perspective, it costs about $19 million a day to keep the government operating, so all that extra cash would cover the nut for less than a week.

After that, we’d have to sell the Blaine House to buy a decent flashlight and a few beers. Or we could invest in J.C. Penney stock.


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