Disenfranchising Un-enrolleds

Thirty seven percent of registered voters in Maine are un-enrolled in a political party. Although they are often called “independent” voters, that name creates some confusion with the party that uses the word “independent” as part of its name: the Green Independent party. Unlike voters enrolled in a political party, the un-enrolleds cannot vote in a primary election (unless they choose to enroll in a party beforehand). Every registered voter, enrolled or un-enrolled, may vote in the general election (as did three quarters of area registered voters last time).

Typically, primaries were used to pick a party’s challenger to an opposing incumbent, or a party’s contestant for an open seat, and the election cycle outcome was determined by the general election. More recently (at least at the national level) primaries have been used to challenge incumbents, and because of the “safe district” gerrymandering of the parties, the general election results are more predictable and less susceptible to upset victories. Consequently, primary elections carry more weight as general elections carry less.

Some believe that the current Congressional gridlock is caused, in part, by the lesser number of moderate legislators due to the effect of primaries choosing candidates further from the middle. Congressional districts have been gerrymandered by both parties to create “safer districts” for decades. The same forces are at work at the state level where the recently completed redistricting in Maine has created “safer districts” for both major parties.

While both major parties espouse the principle of “one person – one vote”, an expression denoting a fundamental fairness concept that each of us have an equal role in determining electoral outcomes, their self-interests are served by the creation of “safe districts” to increase their influence. It is ironic that the mutually beneficial gerrymandering of districts to make them “safer” has the effect of reducing the weight of the votes of the largest block of voters, the un-enrolled voters, thus making their role less than equal in determining the outcome.

Naturally, the un-enrolled legislators in Maine had little say in the redistricting process and so it is not surprising that they were not favored in the changes agreed to by the two major parties. Of the four, two were put into districts with another incumbent and one with a district that changed ninety percent of his constituents.

What, if anything, can we do to prevent the Maine Legislature from heading in the same direction as the grid-locked national Congress?

One mechanism, vehemently opposed by the parties, would be to allow un-enrolled voters to participate in primary elections. A bill (LD 1422) presented in the session just completed would have established an open primary system. It did not receive a single vote in Committee and was thereby killed.

Are there any other mechanisms? Please let me know as I am eager to find a way to retain an equal weight for our un-enrolled voters.

Contact me by phone or email: 326-0899 chapmanHD37@gmail.com


Education Policy

It is hard to imagine a more important governmental function than ensuring that our children are educated. Because education is so meaningful to so many people, every legislative session considers many statewide education policy changes. In short, the challenge is to provide the best education at reasonable cost.

Two major education policy changes coming from the Republican controlled 125th Legislature were initiating a Charter Schools program (LD1553) and adopting a Standards Based Education model (LD1422).

When Democrats took control of the 126th Legislature, it was immediately obvious that there would be no major partisan policy changes since, on the one hand a Republican proposal that did not have Democratic support would not pass either the House or Senate, and on the other hand a Democratic proposal that did not have Republican support would be vetoed by the Governor. Any changes would have to be bi-partisan and acceptable to the Governor.

A major policy change from the 126th Legislature (LD1412) initiates an expedited two-year Associates Degree program available to high school students who start the three year program in their Junior year along with Career and Technical Education programming such that they receive an Associates Degree one year after their nominal high school graduation date. Although this legislation was signed into law by the Governor in June after unanimous votes in the Senate and the Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs, and an overwhelmingly favorable 138 to 3 vote in the House, it ran into trouble in the Appropriations Committee during the last month of the session.

Last winter, the Governor had included two million dollars for this program in his proposed biennial budget. The bi-partisan program development began a couple years earlier. But as the Appropriations Committee negotiated the biennial budget, the Democratic leadership decided that any educational program favored by the Governor was taking monies away from the general purpose aid (GPA) to education and proceeded to slash all of the funds for all of the special educational projects, including the LD1412 program. To save the program required a quick assemblage of supporters to put immediate pressure on the Appropriations Committee Democrats to partially restore the funding.

The process of a) knowing the status of committee negotiations, b) identifying the influential program supporters and their lobbyists, c) identifying the key people with influence on the committee, and d) identifying a means to effect prompt communication between them is all hidden from both the public and most legislators. The length of time between knowing that the funds were slashed, to having them partially restored was approximately thirty hours. In this case, the hidden processes were used to further the interests of legislation that had almost unanimous support within the entire Legislature and the Governor’s office.

Other education policy issues that did not have bi-partisan support in this most recent legislative session included public funding of religious schools, school grading, and the share of education costs borne by the state versus locally, especially the funding of teacher retirement benefits.

Contact me by phone or email: 326-0899 chapmanHD37@gmail.com


Emotions Hold Sway

The ending hours of the session bring out the worst of the legislative process.

First, we had an unusual number of Governor vetoes which was discouraging to the sponsors, the committees of jurisdiction, and most of the legislators. Democrats were unhappy to see worthwhile legislation stopped. Republicans had the additional difficulty of either changing their votes to support their Governor, or reasserting their votes in defiance of their Governor. Of the eighty two vetoes, only five were overridden. Twenty two that were sustained had received unanimous votes in their committees, and many were unanimous in the House and Senate as well.

Second, due to scheduling problems, a large number of bills requiring a two-thirds vote were held to the final day. Normally they would have been acted upon a week and a half earlier, but fewer than two thirds of the legislators were in attendance in the evening of the second day following a scheduled one-day session. It is customary for these bills to be voted on without roll-calls and without contention. However, on the last day, it appeared that pent-up anger was expressed by voting down many of the last batch of bills. This resulted in broken trust (from prior agreements) and outright anger at betrayal.

Third, the legislature devolved into a tit-for-tat mode: having watched a Democrat-sponsored highly favored cancer study bill be defeated, the Democrats, on the next vote five minutes later, retaliated by voting down a Republican-sponsored bill to allow voters in Livermore Falls, Androscoggin County, and Franklin County to vote on the town changing counties. This bill had received a unanimous vote in committee and, until the final day, had no partisanship associated with it.

Fourth, the Speaker of the House declined to allow a member from taking up a tabled bill claiming that to do so was out of order (which was true). The member asked to be informed when it would be in order, the Speaker agreed to tell him. Only at the end, after it was impossible to take up the bill, did the Speaker explain that it never would have been in order for the member to take the bill off the table, it had to be accomplished by the floor leader who had no intention of doing so.

Fifth, last moment decisions were made regarding the outcome of some bills: the GMO labeling bill was not enacted and will not get to the Governor’s desk until January, and will not become law until April (assuming he signs it).

Sixth, the Governor wrote to dozens of legislators to complain (in a derogatory fashion) about one bill (a feel-good do-nothing bill regarding military recruiters) that had not passed. Such indignation stands in stark contrast to the 2700 veterans who will lose their healthcare coverage in January because of one of the Governor’s vetoes.

The moment of leaving the statehouse in the early morning hours with the session over could not have come too soon.

Contact me by phone or email: 326-0899 chapmanHD37@gmail.com


Governing vs Campaigning

Politicians are notorious for their election campaigning in part because their messages tend toward negativity, and partly because our current plurality winner system causes us to vote for the least worst. Additionally, while campaigning, each opponent tries to make the other look bad in the public’s eye.

Governing is the process of producing policy results that achieve widespread acceptance. Consequently, it is necessary to collaborate with others with whom we both agree and disagree to access the inherent collective wisdom among people with differing views. While governing, opponents try to make each other look good in the public’s eye in order to forge the cooperation needed to achieve the results.

Because campaigning and governing are so different, it often takes some time for newly elected officials to transition from one to the other. Some never do.

Last term, the Legislature was under Republican control; this term it is under Democratic control. A quick look at some of the contentious matters during each term demonstrates the failures of both party’s leadership to embrace the governing mode of behavior. And even when the two parties collaborate, it remains necessary for the Governor (who has veto power) to be involved in a governing mode as well.

Not only is the constant harping about the faults of political opponents very tiresome, it simply fails to achieve the desired results.

Although the legislative session is “over” until next January, there are some tasks that will be worked on in the meantime. It is possible, though unlikely, that the legislature will meet again in late July to consider any last minute Governor vetoes. So far, of the 52 vetoes that have been reconsidered by the Legislature (as of the beginning of this week), 49 have been sustained and three have been overridden (including the biennial state budget). Another batch is scheduled for reconsideration on July 9.

Some committee work continues over the summer and fall. For instance, the Marine Resources Committee will be considering changes to the regulations of the elver fishery in response to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission decisions expected later this year.

A bond package will be developed to deal especially with transportation issues. Similarly to the strategy of Medicaid expansion being tied to hospital debt payments and the liquor contract, it appears that tying natural resource bonds to the transportation bonds will be a partisan contentious matter. Both of these issues illustrates the campaigning-governing dichotomy: is it better to embarrass the Republicans by forcing a vote that either achieves the desires of the Democrats or makes the Republicans look silly, or is it better to join in a bi-partisan manner to negotiate an acceptable outcome and make the Republicans look good in the process? One might think that a strategy that failed once might be modified before repeating, but legislative activity is not necessarily rational.

Is it possible to encourage elected officials to transition from campaign mode to governing mode more expeditiously?

Contact me by phone or email: 326-0899 chapmanHD37@gmail.com


Genetically Modified Organisms

The legislative topic for which I received the most citizen input this session concerned labeling genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food. The matter was a top priority for a prominent statewide non-profit, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) which hired a law firm to lobby on behalf of its more than 6,000 members.

In spite of overwhelming (>90%) public opinion favoring a law to require labeling GMO ingredients, the problem for law-makers is the legality of forcing speech on the part of food corporations relative to their First Amendment rights. Maine’s Attorney General was understandably against the measure since it would fall upon her office to decide whether or not to defend such a law in the event of an expected court challenge. To choose not to defend such a law would run counter to public opinion; to defend it, puts the state in jeopardy of losing (substantial) opposing attorney fees in the event of a negative court judgment.

The strategy was to have the labeling law go into effect only after five New England states passed similar legislation so that there would be less financial risk in defending a court challenge. A last minute amendment requires that the five states be contiguous which would require New Hampshire to be one of them.

A parallel effort regarding the labeling of GMOs in fish passed the House but was not supported by the Democratic leadership and died in the Senate. The original strategy for the fish bill was to invoke the protection of the wild salmon. Near the end of the session, the bill was amended to avoid a required label and thereby avoid the risk of a court challenge. The method was to prohibit the labeling of a genetically engineered fish from being labeled with the same name as the non-genetically engineered counterpart.

The MOFGA supported bill, LD 718, received a 141 to 4 vote in the House and a 35 to 0 vote in the Senate. Normally there would be only one hurdle left: the Governor’s signature, but there is one other hurdle that is the downfall of many dozens of worthwhile bills: the Appropriations Table. The non-partisan Office of Fiscal and Program Review (OFPR) assigns fiscal notes to legislation so that laws that are passed are also funded. This part of the legislative process is the least transparent to the public (and to many legislators) as the (questionable) amounts determined for the fiscal notes can be a deciding factor in whether or not the associated bills become law.

Even as the Appropriations Committee worked late into the night, the Attorney General was trying to scuttle the bill by asserting a large fiscal impact from expected litigation. Although the bill was taken from the Table, it is still in the Senate. If it is not enacted on the one final day of the legislative session (July 9), or carried over to the next session (next year), it will die.

Contact me by phone or email: 326-0899 chapmanHD37@gmail.com