Al Diamon

Al Diamon

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A Numbers Game

To avoid lawyers, move to Piscataquis County. According to the state Board Of Bar Overseers (BOBO), there are only eight attorneys in that huge chunk of territory, a mere .004 percent of the population.

The counties that are next closest to being lawyer-free zones are Oxford and Somerset (both .007 percent) and Franklin (.009 percent — although I share a house with one of them). The counties where you’re most likely to encounter attorneys are, no surprise, Cumberland (.07 percent); around the state capital in Kennebec County (.04 percent); and Penobscot, Androscoggin, Hancock, Knox, Sagadahoc and Lincoln counties (all .02 percent).

According to BOBO (in no way am I employing this acronym in a disparaging manner; if I were, I’d use the group’s official name — the Board Of Overseers Of the Bar — you can see the abbreviation possibilities available to anyone with a juvenile sense of humor), 51 percent of the state’s resident counselors-at-law practice in Cumberland County, including 57 percent of all lawyers under 35 years old. Most attorneys in rural parts of the state are antiques, and as they die off, they’re not being replaced by young whippersnappers intent on becoming poor but honest country lawyers. In fact, nearly 80 percent of the state’s attorneys practice in the four largest counties, leaving the other 12 to pick through the geriatric remains.

Right about now, you’re probably expecting me to make some Important Point. Sorry to disappoint, but I’m on vacation and had to prepare a column in advance that wouldn’t be outdated by whatever foolishness occurs in Augusta. So here are more random numbers, designed less to enlighten and more to fool my editor into believing I’m working [Ed: Good one, Al. – NS].

The big news in circulation figures for Maine daily newspapers released by the Alliance for Audited Media was not that readership is down, but that it’s down in the only demographic that has, until now, given publishers some hope they’d survive the loss of print customers. Nearly every paper saw significant — in some cases, massive — losses of digital subscribers.

In recent years, paid online readership has grown by small but steady increments, partially offsetting the scary decline in dead-tree-edition purchasers. That trend came to an abrupt halt in 2017’s first quarter. At the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, over 4,000 digital subscribers vanished, a drop of nearly 30 percent over the same period the previous year. Combined with a print decline of almost 2,000 copies per day, that left the Portland papers with a combined hard-copy and digital circulation of 39,631 on weekdays (down 13 percent from last year) and 55,224 on Sundays (off 11 percent).

The figures were equally depressing at other papers owned by the same company. In the first part of 2016, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta claimed over 5,000 digital subscribers. In 2017, both the daily and Sunday numbers were down to barely more than 1,900, a 63-percent disappearing act. At the Morning Sentinel in Waterville, 31 percent of online subscribers evaporated, over 2,000 of them. The KJ saw combined circulation decline about 30 percent, while the Sentinel dropped 18 percent.

The Lewiston Sun Journal appears to vastly overstate its digital base, considering every print subscriber to also be an online one, which means they count twice. Even with that inflated calculation, the digital totals were down about 3.75 percent, while print collapsed by nearly 8 percent during the week and over 9 percent on Sunday.

The nearest thing to a bright spot is the Bangor Daily News, where 42 new online readers arrived during the week and 30 on weekends, barely making a dent in the loss of about 2,000 print customers. Overall, the BDN was off over 6 percent.

Finally, here are some numbers concerning the state economy.

From the May 11 Portland Press Herald: “Maine’s economy grew sluggishly in the final three months of 2016, expanding just 0.7 percent, making Maine the slowest growing state in New England and 43rd nationally.”

From the May 12 Bangor Daily News: “Maine’s gross domestic output, adjusted for inflation, grew about 1.4 percent last year against a national average of 1.5 percent, putting the state 21st nationally for the full year.”

Maybe that explains why nobody reads newspapers. Too confusing.


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Kingdom of gettin’ it wrong

Would Mary Mayhew make a good governor?

Hell, no.

Republican Mayhew, who recently resigned after six years as commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services so she could announce her gubernatorial ambitions, has an interesting resume. She’s been an active Democrat, directing a 1990 congressional campaign, working for Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and serving as a congressional aide. She’s also lobbied for the Maine Hospital Association, which strongly supports Medicaid expansion, the exact opposite of Mayhew’s current platform. Now, she’s positioning herself as heir apparent to GOP Gov. Paul LePage.

That’s not what makes her a crappy choice for governor. Mayhew’s unfitness has less to do with issues (although her stands sometimes seem to be driven by political expediency rather than conviction) and more to do with her stunning talent for incompetent management.

To be fair, DHHS was a disaster long before she arrived. Previous administrations created an enormous bureaucracy that burned taxpayer dollars without doing much to help people in need. So give Mayhew a pass on her first three years in charge.

But by 2015, an adept commissioner should have cleaned out the deadwood and realigned priorities. Mayhew claimed she did, introducing the first DHHS budget in years without a massive shortfall. She credited that to reduced Medicaid spending, but that wasn’t the whole story. She also axed 11 percent of the workforce at the Center for Disease Control, cut $20 million from anti-smoking programs, slashed Drugs for the Elderly, General Assistance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and food stamps.

Some of those cuts made no sense. For instance, half the disease-control positions were federally funded, so the reductions didn’t save the state anything.

Later that year, DHHS missed a deadline to appeal the loss of Medicaid payments for patients at Riverview Psychiatric Hospital, decertified by the feds in 2013 for numerous serious violations. Mayhew brushed that off as “technicalities.”

Washington then cited DHHS for failing to recover $4.4 million in Medicaid overpayments to nursing homes. Meanwhile, Mayhew told a legislative committee investigating the lack of progress in bringing Riverview into compliance that the fault was the Legislature’s for failing to appropriate enough money.

To begin 2016, the feds threatened DHHS with $29 million in penalties for substandard welfare programs. Mayhew blamed – who else – the Legislature for not anteing up more cash. The Lewiston Sun Journal revealed that Mayhew’s minions had failed to implement required new standards for lead poisoning. The Portland Press Herald discovered the department hadn’t done squat to start up drug-treatment programs approved a year before. The Bangor Daily News reported that DHHS had cut public-health nursing positions by 50 percent and abruptly ended a federally funded program to provide services to teens with mental illness, leaving $3 million on the table. Also from the BDN: The department had transferred $7.8 million in federal grants to ineligible programs. Mayhew denied that, but eventually reversed the money shifts, although not before improper spending reached $13.4 million.

Mayhew was quoted by the Bangor paper as saying the problems at Riverview were “less than sensational,” but in August, she and LePage announced plans to build a $5-million facility next door to house patients found incompetent to stand trial. But they wouldn’t say where the money was coming from.

The Press Herald found Maine’s child-poverty rate was increasing, but DHHS was refusing to spend $155 million in TANF funds. Mayhew was unconcerned. “There were higher poverty rates for children when all this money was simply going out in the form of a cash benefit to used in strip clubs, to be used in gambling facilities, to be used to bail someone out of jail,” she said.

The Maine Sunday Telegram discovered the wait list for adults with intellectual disabilities had grown from 111 in 2008 to 1,200. Mayhew called that comparison “uniformed, misleading and beyond biased.”

Now it’s 2017. Mayhew has already forfeited $1.4 million in federal money by insisting on photo IDs on eligibility cards for nutrition programs. And just this month, the feds announced the state would have to return $51 million in improper Medicaid payments to operate Riverview, money DHHS was repeatedly warned not to spend.

There’s more. But it won’t fit.

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Gods and Monsters

Politics is such a contentious topic right now, it appears nobody can agree on anything. Let’s turn down the temperature a bit by discussing something less controversial:

Religion.

Or, more precisely, the lack thereof.

The 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees us the freedom to worship any deity we choose. Yahweh. Jesus. Allah. Buddha. The Great Spirit. The sun. A volcano. Mr. Wednesday on “American Gods.” The government is prohibited from meddling in spiritual decisions.

We could even decide not to accept the existence of any of those entities (please note that failing to acknowledge the existence of the sun or volcanoes can result in adverse health consequences including skin cancer and death by molten lava).

We could embrace atheism. This isn’t a popular option. Surveys indicate atheists constitute just over 3 percent of the U.S. population, although that figure may be depressed by respondents’ reluctance to admit they don’t believe in the supernatural. After all, other polls have shown atheists to be more disliked by Americans than any other religious group except, by the narrowest of margins, Muslims.

Muslims really need to up their public-relations game.

Most survey respondents would refuse to hire an atheist, do business with one, marry such a person or read a weekly column written by a god-denying journalist (stop here if you fit that profile, lest the following paragraphs shake the foundations of your faith).

All of this brings us to Thomas Waddell of Litchfield, the president of the Maine chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Waddell regularly agitates in favor of atheism, although he does so in ways that are less anti-religious and more pro-tolerant of competing belief systems. In a column he wrote for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel earlier this year, he said, “[B]arriers to religious coexistence are primarily a problem created by various religions trying to interject their beliefs into our nation’s secular laws. Doing so not only hampers coexistence but violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of the freedom of religion, the freedom from religion and the separation of church and state.”

Waddell has taken his crusade for human self-reliance to the Maine Legislature. In February, he gave a secular invocation, in place of the usual opening prayer, to begin a session of the House of Representatives. On May 30, he was scheduled to offer similar sentiments in the Senate. But Senate President Mike Thibodeau cancelled that appearance for reasons that remain in dispute.

According to Waddell, Thibodeau demanded to review his remarks in advance, a condition not imposed on others delivering opening prayers, including Muslims. Waddell told the Kennebec Journal, “[Thibodeau] personally is not comfortable with having someone who is not clergy get up there in front of the Senate and not reference God or Jesus in their invocation, and that’s the bottom line.”

The Senate president took issue with that, telling Waddell in a letter that he had been “confrontational” and “verbally aggressive” in dealings with his staff.

At this writing, the question of whether Waddell will be allowed to speak remains in limbo.

Much like the state budget.

While the Constitution grants Thibodeau considerable leeway in deciding who can blather on at the start of a Senate session, it clearly prohibits him from rejecting an applicant based on religious affiliation or lack thereof. Our fundamental law says he can either allow all belief systems to participate or none.

Thibodeau might want to seek the counsel of Bangor City Councilor Sean Faircloth, a former Democratic state representative, who’s spent a fair amount of his political career weaving across the tortured landscape between government and religion. Faircloth once wrote a newspaper op-ed in which he claimed religious beliefs were an essential part of governing. “Our best leaders lived life and led others based upon their spiritual views,” he said back in 1992. But in 2009, he began a stint as executive director of the Secular Coalition For America, a national group that described itself as “nontheistic,” dedicating himself to stopping “the persistent intrusion of religion into government policy.”

If that seems contradictory – and it should – it’s probably because reconciling the roles of religion and government is damn near impossible.

Can we all say amen to that.

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Dope and money

You may find it hard to believe, but the Legislature has a sense of humor. It’s pretty feeble, but any sign of comedic instincts at the State House has to be encouraging.

As proof of this tentative tendency toward funniness, I offer the official name of the task force the state House and Senate created to deal with how legal pot will be regulated. It’s called the Joint Select Committee on Marijuana Legalization Implementation.

I admit it would make for a better punchline if they’d named it the Joint Select Committee on How Joints Will Be Selected. (And it would be even more hilarious if some enterprising weed dealer honors the committee by branding a particular strain “Joint Select.”) But any joking around is better than none.

It is in all seriousness, however, that I offer this august body a little advice. Based on what’s happened in other states with legal ganja, there’s a major mistake Maine should do its best to avoid.

The biggest error Colorado, Washington and Oregon made was assuming that taxes from the sale of reefer would produce financial windfalls for state coffers. In reality, the impact was negligible. In Oregon, for instance, recreational cannabis sales were initially subject to a 25 percent tax, plus, in some cases, a 3 percent local option tax. The revenue these heavy levies generated was far below expectations. The reason: Potheads continued to buy their dope on the black market where it was cheaper.

There have been news reports claiming illegal marijuana sales declined more than 90 percent in states after legalization. But that’s a bit misleading. What actually happened is that medical pot, which isn’t subject to taxation, was diverted to the recreational market, where it was sold for less than the going rate for the legal stuff.

Rather than repeat this futile pattern, Maine should follow a more sensible path, one that will keep most sales above board and yet produce better long-term financial returns.

The idea is simple. Even better, it’s been tested in the real world and found to work. And best of all, it contains elements that will appeal to not only dope smokers, but also to conservatives who wouldn’t know which bodily orifice to stick which end of a joint.

It’s called “really low taxes – for now.”

According to an article in The Atlantic magazine last year, the idea originated with a guy named Rear Admiral Luther E. Gregory back in the 1930s. Gregory was in charge of restoring legal liquor sales in Washington state at the end of Prohibition. He realized there was no incentive for criminals to stop selling bootleg booze, particularly since high taxes on legal liquor made it less attractive to consumers. So Gregory set the tax rate at the lowest level in the nation and offered the black marketers amnesty and legitimate liquor licenses. He also instituted harsh penalties on anyone selling illegally. Within three years, bootlegging had all but vanished.

With the competition eliminated, Gregory then raised taxes to nearly the highest in the country. Buyers and sellers weren’t happy about that, but they had few options other than to accept it, because the black market no longer existed. Liquor sales held fairly steady, while state revenues were greatly enhanced.

Would the same thing work for marijuana?

Vermont has seriously considered this approach, even though a consultant’s report raised a couple of concerns. One is that low taxes might encourage more drug use. That’s doubtful, because nearly everyone who enjoys recreational marijuana was already doing so before legalization. They’re unlikely to increase their intake just because it’s legit. The other issue is that a highly profitable cannabis industry would be powerful enough to fund a major lobbying campaign against tax hikes. If so, the second part of Gregory’s plan – the part that raises most of the money – might be difficult to implement. But what if it is? The worst we’d end up with is cheap pot, which would attract tourists from places like New Hampshire. Maine might finally get back some of the millions we lose to the Granite State’s low-price liquor outlets.

This approach merits careful consideration by that committee that could have been named the High Commission on Getting High.

 

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All the small things

I’d like to think Paul LePage is a rational person.

I’d also like to think every shot of booze I drink counts as a helping of vegetables.

Sadly, evidence indicates neither of these is true.

Nevertheless, LePage, Maine’s carnival freak show of a governor, continues to say stuff that doesn’t make sense. And I continue to drink. Coincidentally, the latest examples of both those activities have intersected at the convenience store counter where they sell nip bottles.

Nips are those little 50-milliliter plastic containers of liquor, of which Mainers bought nearly 8.5 million last fiscal year and managed to dispose of most of them by littering the state’s roads. More than 40 percent of those improperly discarded nips were originally filled with Fireball, a cinnamon-flavored pesticide favored by people who want to get drunk but don’t like the taste of alcohol. Fireball is bottled in Lewiston at a plant owned by Louisiana-based Sazerac.

The Legislature decided to do something about this problem of illegal disposal. After laborious negotiations, it drafted a bill that brought nips under Maine’s bottle redemption law by placing a five-cent deposit on each undersized container. The idea is that the lowlifes who toss them from their vehicles will instead save and redeem them for more booze.

Republicans supported this plan. Democrats backed it. The Sazerac people were on board, too. Even the lowlifes voiced no objections. The measure seemed certain to pass. Except for one last-minute problem:

LePage.

The GOP governor released a statement after the bill had won overwhelming initial approval in both the state House and Senate claiming it was being financed by a “kind of secretive backroom deal that burdens the taxpayer” to the tune of a million bucks a year. As with so many of LePage’s proclamations, that one isn’t exactly true. While the proposed law carries administrative costs of a little over $1 million, that amount would be covered by surplus funds already collected from companies that sell alcohol. No taxpayer money needed.

Heedless of his lack of a sensible reason for opposing the bill, LePage went even further. If the measure passed, he promised to veto it. If, as seems likely, his veto is overridden, he’ll move to ban the sale of nips in the state. If it turns out he has no authority to do that (and it turns out he doesn’t), he’ll do something else equally spiteful. Wait and see.

A day later, after somebody gently indicated to LePage that his argument might be more compelling if he had a real reason for opposing the bill, he went on the radio and announced, “The issue is drinking and driving.”

In a rare intersection of the governor and reality, LePage is correct. Nip bottles do contribute to drunk driving. If people weren’t shooting them down while they were in cars, the empties wouldn’t end up messing up roadsides. But that’s always been true. Why is LePage suddenly so concerned? And if his concern is legitimate, why is he only threatening to ban nips if the deposit bill becomes law? If they’re so bad, why not outlaw them regardless?

LePage’s epiphany that small bottles of booze are major contributors to operating-under-the-influence cases has the air of being something hastily manufactured to cover up the guv’s real reason for opposing the bill. Which is that he strongly dislikes the measure’s sponsor, state Sen. Tom Saviello of Wilton. Saviello is a Republican, but not the sort that LePage prefers, namely mindless clones of House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, programmed to uphold LePage’s position even when there’s no rational basis for it. Saviello has bucked the governor on numerous occasions, most notably by trying to craft a compromise on Medicaid expansion.

This battle over tiny bottles isn’t the most important conflict to arise this legislative session, but it is indicative of LePage’s preferred method of governing, involving hefty doses of pettiness and stupidity. If you think that’s excessive, keep in mind that LePage’s threat to outlaw nips just to spite Saviello would eliminate 15 percent of all liquor sales and cost the state $3 million per year in liquor taxes.

I’m going to need a much bigger drink than just one of those little things.


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Let the games begin

The field for the 2018 U.S. Senate race in Maine is set. Independent incumbent, Angus King will take on Republican state Sen. Eric Brakey and a Democrat whose name will be no more memorable after the election than it is right now.

GOP Gov. Paul LePage had said on several occasions that he might challenge King, but in early May, his top political adviser announced LePage would take a pass. His official reason was that he has too much work to finish in Augusta before his term runs out in January 2019. His unofficial reason is that even LePage recognizes his meager talent for governance is ill-suited to the legislative branch since he’s congenitally incapable of being courteous, respectful or abiding by the Geneva Conventions.

With all other potential Republican contenders focused on succeeding LePage in the Blaine House, that leaves the Senate nomination to Brakey, a libertarian-leaning conservative from Auburn. In two terms in the Legislature, Brakey has earned a reputation for hard work, innovation, collaboration and being slightly nuts (he continues to be vigilant against even vague hints of the United Nations’ Agenda 21). Best known as a gun-rights advocate, he’s also fought to make it tougher to get welfare, make it easier to get marijuana and make it legal to drive without wearing a seatbelt. He’s summed up his political philosophy thusly: “Government must get out of the way.”

With Brakey as their nominee, Republicans will have to abandon one of their most beloved attacks on King, that he wasn’t born in Maine. King moved here from Virginia as a young man. But Brakey relocated from Ohio. Another knock on King is the false claim he made big money in the wind industry at taxpayers’ expense. While he earned a small profit off wind, King became a millionaire by selling his energy efficiency company to Central Maine Power. On the other hand, Brakey’s family runs a consulting business with a reputation for aiding corporations in avoiding mandatory energy conservation standards.

As for the (reasonably valid) claim that King’s voting record shows he’s nothing but a closet Democrat, much the same attack can be launched against Brakey’s GOP credentials. He led a libertarian revolt against the mainstream party at the 2012 state convention. He’s regularly supported increased spending at the Department of Health and Human Services. And there’s that legal pot thing.

The 28-year-old Brakey will also have to overcome his lack of experience. Aside from his (almost) three years of legislative work, he’s done a bit of acting and not much else. That won’t stack up favorably with King, who just turned 73 and has been a lawyer, successful businessman, two-term governor, TV talking head, author and senator.

But enough about those two. Let’s examine the fallow field of possible Dem candidates. Some party leaders aren’t worried about that because they believe putting forth a strong Democratic contender would split the moderate-liberal vote and hand victory to Brakey. Others are convinced the term “strong Democratic contender” is an oxymoron.

Portland attorney Tom Connolly, who once ran a quixotic gubernatorial campaign against King, is busy putting his kids through college. Cynthia Dill, the Dems’ nominee when King ran in 2012, has spent her time since then repeatedly demonstrating in her newspaper column that she’s learned absolutely nothing from her disastrous third-place finish. Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling is occupied with self-destructing. Perennial candidate Barry Hobbins just got chosen by LePage to be the new public advocate in utility rate cases and may finally have recognized that’s the highest government office he’s ever going to hold. Shenna Bellows has already lost a hopeless U.S. Senate race to Susan Collins in 2014, won a state Senate seat in 2016 and has shown no inclination to repeat her earlier mistake. Windham state Sen. Bill Diamond sure wishes somebody would include his name on a list of possible candidates for something, but no one ever does.

Finally, there’s Pruneface, the old Dick Tracy villain. Aside from being fictional and horribly deformed (hey, I have absolutely no problem voting for nonexistent people with physical disabilities), he’s also an elitist and a Nazi terrorist.

That doesn’t necessarily make him the worst possible choice.

 

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Send in the clowns

Nothing says civility like a heavily armed National Guard unit.

If you’re concerned that social conventions in the United States might be breaking down, fear no more. Paul LePage, Maine’s Republican governor and reptilian invasive species, announced during a recent radio interview that he’s considered employing the military to deal with “an internal domestic problem.”

I had one of those. But a couple boxes of d-Con took care of it.

To be fair to the governor (I’m not smirking, I swear), it’s unclear from his remarks whether he actually intends to employ troops to suppress dissent. He could just be incoherent.

“I think we’re developing an internal domestic problem that, I’m told, that I think that the military, I’m deploying them,” he said. “I’m asking the National Guard to help us with. And that is the anger in our country.”

I’m going with incoherent.

Except then there was this somewhat more comprehensible opinion on the political rhetoric LePage encountered on recent visits to Washington, D.C.:

“I just think that if that’s where our country is headed, our government is going to fail.”

Will that be different from the way things are now?

LePage said he wasn’t advocating using the Guard to stop all disagreements, only those with which he disagrees: “They just won’t give you the normal respect that the office deserves.”

Within hours of his interview becoming public, the governor’s press office issued its usual series of denials, reversals, clarifications and other sludge indicating that everything LePage said was to be disregarded.

Otherwise, you might get a visit from the Guard.

A few days after LePage’s latest outburst, the Maine Sunday Telegram ran an in-depth article claiming the governor “appears to be polishing his rougher edges.” The paper attributed LePage’s “more statesman-like” demeanor to either a desire to land a job in the Trump administration (do they need a prison warden at Guantanamo?) or his promise to seek “spiritual guidance” after an incident last year in which he left a voicemail message for a Democratic legislator containing language worthy of a Trump conversation with Billy Bush. Since then, according to the Telegram, the kinder, gentler LePage has been on his best behavior.

Well, except for …

Saying in the same radio interview that the GOP state senator who sponsored a bill to move Maine to the Atlantic Time Zone must be “insane.” “The person who proposed that, we ought to call for a therapy session,” LePage said. “This is crazy.”

In a different radio interview, he referred to all the state’s constitutional officers for the past half-century as “aging ideologues.” He made no exception for former state treasurer and current Republican Congressman Bruce Poliquin. Which seems reasonable.

He sued Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills, ostensibly because she refused to represent him in several lawsuits he’s filed that have cost the state almost $400,000 for outside lawyers, but also possibly because Mills may run for governor, and a court case might stir up some dirt.

Another radio interview, another pleasantry: On May 9, LePage said House Speaker Sara Gideon’s welfare-reform bill was designed to keep people on public assistance “so that they can guarantee their votes” for Democrats.

During a town meeting in Fort Kent last month, LePage claimed the new higher tax on rich people to pay for schools that was approved in a referendum in November applied to the entire income of anyone earning more than $200,000 per year. When an audience member correctly pointed out that the surcharge only affected amounts over $200,000, LePage insisted otherwise. “It’s the full $200,000,” he said. “It’s 10 percent for the full amount, sir.” Polite touch, that “sir.”

In Washington to lobby against the Katahdin Woods and Water National Monument, LePage testified before a congressional committee that the 87,000 acres east of Baxter State Park was a “mosquito area” and claimed incorrectly that hunting and snowmobiling were banned within its confines. He called the monument designation a “federal land grab,” even though the property was gifted to the feds by the previous owner. One observer characterized his testimony as that of “a cranky dingus.”

Fortunately, the governor has the right to say whatever he chooses, free from interference from reality.

Or the National Guard.


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Fading Out

WARNING: DO NOT READ THIS COLUMN WHILE DRIVING, OPERATING HEAVY MACHINERY, STANDING ON A CLIFF OR SLURPING HOT SOUP. DUE TO THE THREAT OF BOREDOM-INDUCED CATATONIA, YOU MAY BE AT RISK OF SERIOUS INJURY, DEATH OR EVEN PUBLIC HUMILIATION. I AM NOT KIDDING.

Well, I might be kidding a little. But it’s nearly impossible to explain the technicalities of the state budget process in an entertaining fashion. Even an experienced journalist such as myself requires protective headgear and frequent injections of powerful stimulants to survive the experience intact.

ALSO, CAPITAL LETTERS HELP. LOTS OF CAPITAL LETTERS.

The budget is different from most bills the Legislature considers because it requires a two-thirds vote of the state House and Senate to pass. There are two reasons for this higher standard.

First, the spending bill for the next two years is usually completed sometime in June, just days before it’s due to go into effect on July 1. Normal legislation passed by simple majorities becomes law 90 days after the Legislature adjourns, usually sometime in September. If the budget were approved in that fashion, state government would have to close down for three months. While there might be some positive results from that — we could all take the summer off — the negative consequences outweigh them: state parks closed during tourist season, no licensing for new breweries, poor people starving in the streets. So the budget is approved as an emergency measure by a two-thirbs vote, and takes effeck immediabobly ... consciousness fading … need capidal ledders … CAPITAL LETTERS … QUICK,  THROW IN SOME EXCLAMATION POINTS!!! WHEW! THAT WAS CLOSE!

Now, where were we? Oh yes, the second reason the budget requires a super-majority to pass is because of the Paul LePage problem. Maine’s Republican governor and magna cum laude graduate of the Russian Academy of Unpredictable Governance has vetoed every budget passed during his tenure in the Blaine House, even though many of them contained much of what he originally proposed in his own spending plan. To overcome LePage’s automatic antagonism to any variance from his personal dogma, the Legislature is forced to muster a two-thirds vote.

Overcoming these obstacles requires compromise, but that commodity is already in short supply at the State House, where both sides have done their best to assume negotiating positions so extreme as to preclude any movement toward middle ground. This tactic is actually interesting, but like many interesting things — traffic accidents, pornography, Donald Trump — it isn’t very productive.

For instance, legislative Republicans have announced they won’t vote for any budget that contains the 3-percent tax hike on rich people to pay for schools that was approved in a referendum last fall. “We need a budget that won’t bankrupt Maine’s economy,” GOP Senate President Michael Thibodeau told reporters. That measure, backed by the Maine Education Association and other liberal groups, has the full support of Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson has said repealing the increase is the equivalent of giving “a tax break to the wealthiest in the state of Maine.” All the elements are in place for that most mind-numbing consequence of political gamesmanship: the stalemate.

And we’re back to boring.

Further complicating this debate are the intra-party disagreements on this issue. Ooooh, that phrase, “intra-party disagreements.” Growing woozy … must shleep …

SEX! VIOLENCE! FAILED NORTH KOREAN MISSILE LAUNCH!

I’m awake! I’m alert! I promise I’m going to make this as brief as possible.

Senate Republicans are generally amenable to coming up with a substitute for the 3-percent tax. They’ve talked about increasing school spending by some unspecified amount using surplus funds and other magic money. The House GOP says education is already adequately funded, and no additional appropriation is needed.

Democratic leaders have made noises as if they’d accept some changes to the tax measure, such as increasing the level where the surcharge kicks in from $200,000 in annual income to $250,000 or reducing the size of the tax hike from 3 to 2 percent. However, the party’s left wing insists the law must remain intact, exactly as voters approved it.

There may be an intriguing proposal in there somewhere, but my mind’s gotten too foggy to find it. Forehead softening … drooping into eyes …

BOTOX! BOTOX!


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Whiskey-bent and Hell-bound

The most important issue in Maine’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign is:

Can Paul LePage pardon a dog?

Also, who is this Susan Collins person, and why has she never bothered to introduce herself to LePage?

But back to the pooch. Gov. LePage claims he can pardon dogs the courts have ordered euthanized after they’ve been found to be dangerous. Next year’s potential gubernatorial prospects are deeply divided on this issue. When asked, conservatives rolled their eyes, while liberals kept saying “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” apparently a reference to the Tina Fey movie  (I watched it, but there was nothing about pardons. Or dogs. Puzzling.)

As for Collins – the state’s senior senator and, like LePage, a Republican – she’s finally admitted she’s considering a run for governor. This prompted LePage to wax philosophic:

“I don’t know if I will endorse her,” he said during a radio interview, “because I don’t know her well enough to know whether or not she can do the job as CEO. It’s very very different to be a legislator and to be a CEO. I will tell you I don’t think I would make a very good legislator, and many legislators that I know would not make a very good governor. So I don’t know her well enough to pass judgment.”

Allow me to enlighten the governor. While it’s true that Collins is currently a legislator, she’s also served as director of the U.S. Senate’s Oversight of Government Management Subcommittee, commissioner of Maine’s Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, New England director of the Small Business Administration and deputy state treasurer of Massachusetts.

I realize that pales compared to LePage’s pre-gubernatorial background as the CEO of a surplus and salvage company and an ineffective stint as mayor of Waterville (motto: You Know, The Decaying Settlement North Of Augusta Where Colby College Is).

One other note on the governor’s remarks: That line “I don’t think I would make a very good legislator” has already been archived by devious political operatives for use in the event LePage follows through on his threat to run against independent U.S. Sen. Angus King next year.

But enough of this gubernatorial foolishness. Because there’s other gubernatorial foolishness that’s even better.

Terry Hayes is running for governor.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

I’m sure there are a couple dozen people who know Hayes is the state treasurer, a post filled by the Legislature every two years in an effort to make an obscure politician even more so. Hayes used to be a Democratic state representative, who once served as assistant majority leader. But she clashed with labor unions, which resulted in her being soundly defeated in a bid to become speaker of the House. She then declared herself an independent, ran for treasurer and won with the support of Republicans.

As governor, Hayes told the Bangor Daily News she’d be “collaborative” because “we can’t afford to alienate people.” Except labor unions.

Hayes’ campaign hinges on the state supreme court finding ranked-choice voting constitutional. She plans to position herself as everybody’s second choice, and emerge as the winner in the 14th round. But if Collins gets in the race, the winner may be declared about 13 rounds earlier than that.

Then there’s Democratic candidate Adam Cote, a musician with the band Wretched. I really dug their 2014 album “Cannibal,” but his shirtless, death-metal yammering might turn off tradition-minded, 2nd District voters, who prefer Megadeth or Slayer.

Oh wait. That guy spells his last name Cody. The Cote who’s running for governor is a lawyer, a decorated Army veteran and a loser in the 2008 1st District congressional primary. Since then, he’s been invisible. Sort of like Wretched.

Cote is a moderate, who’s positioning himself as an outsider. “I have not spent much time in Augusta,” he told the Bangor Daily. After this election, that’s unlikely to change.

Finally, there’s GOP Congressman Bruce Poliquin, who’s been widely rumored to be interested in the governorship. But sources tell me Poliquin has changed his mind after he realized that if he were elected, he couldn’t continue to avoid reporters by sleeping in his congressional office and refusing to be interviewed. Instead, he plans to run for re-election.

The man knows how to Foxtrot around.

 

No need for euphemisms in emails to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

I don’t recall

Here’s a great idea for those of you interested in making things worse:

Let’s allow voters to recall any elected official in Maine that they don’t like, including the governor.

Democratic state Sen. Justin Chenette of Saco has introduced a bill to do exactly that. Never mind that it’s probably unconstitutional (more on that later). The big problem is it’s a recipe for political chaos.

If you think the state is currently divided — Democrats versus Republicans, urban versus rural, north versus south — just imagine the atmosphere in the wake of a successful attempt to recall a sitting governor. The deposed executive’s supporters in the Legislature would engage in all manner of obstruction against his or her successor. With gridlock gripping the State House, special interests would exert their devious influences behind the scenes. Reasoned debate would be replaced with name calling, smear campaigns and fake news. The economy would stagnate. Infrastructure would deteriorate. The education system would flounder. Tax money would be squandered.

Actually, that’s pretty much the way things are now.

Nevertheless, this dream of recalling duly elected officials is — you’ll excuse the expression — deplorable. The state Constitution already has a dandy provision dealing with governors who commit crimes. It’s called impeachment. That document also contains a clause that allows the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to declare sitting governors incompetent or impaired and remove them from office. And then there’s that election thingy. Governors who botch their duties can be defeated at the polls. Even before they come up for re-election, their legislative allies have to face the voters every two years. Surely all that provides ample safeguards against executive authority run amuck.

Not according to Chenette. He’s quoted in the Lewiston Sun Journal as saying we need to “give power to the people by providing the public an extra tool of government accountability,” because those constitutional provisions can’t be trusted to do the job. Chenette seems unaware that the people he wants to give additional powers to are the very ones who elected this doofus in the first place.

But let’s get back to that constitutional issue. In 1992, the Legislature considered a recall bill and quickly determined that such a measure ran contrary to our fundamental law. Only a constitutional amendment could authorize recall. But such an amendment requires a two-thirds vote of both the state House and Senate and approval by a majority of the voters. Chenette’s bill doesn’t call for any of that, instead opting for passage by simple legislative majorities and the signature of the current governor (as unlikely as that seems). It’s doubtful that would meet constitutional standards.

Another little problem with this proposal is the grounds for removing a governor. They include “incompetence in the performance of duties” (goodbye John Reed, James Longley, John McKernan, John Baldacci and Paul LePage), “obstruction of voter-approved initiatives (so long Angus King, Baldacci and LePage) and “neglect of duties” (you’re out of here McKernan and LePage). These rules are so over-broad and vague that it’s doubtful any Maine governor — including such prominent figures as our first chief executive, William King; Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain; or a national figure like Ed Muskie — could have escaped their reach.

To initiate recall of an elected official, Chenette’s bill requires the collection of signatures of disgruntled voters equal to 15 percent of those who cast ballots in the election that put this miscreant in office in the first place. Compared to most other states with recall provisions (Rhode Island is the only one in New England and look how swell things are there), that’s on the low side, with most setting the threshold at 25 percent. The failed 1992 effort to institute recall in Maine required at least 35 percent. Chenette’s 15-percent figure would encourage recall petitioners to hit the streets every time a governor did anything the least bit controversial. Election season would never end.

Actually, that’s pretty much the way things are now.

 

Correction: In my column two weeks ago, I misidentified the sponsor of a sleazy legislative fundraiser as the Maine Republican Party. The actual sponsor was the Maine Senate Republican Majority PAC, which is almost — but not quite — the same thing. Sorry about that.

 

I can’t recall if I mentioned that you can email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

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