Civil Discourse in Legislative Hearings

By Irene Lang

Those attending the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee public hearing on LD 121, An Act To Require Photographic Identification to Vote, were witness to an event that is rarely seen in the State House and that raises important questions about the state of discourse in our state and in our country.

As the most recent entry in a long line of contentious efforts to change voting rules in the state, LD 121 would require voters to show a photo ID at the polls unless a municipal clerk could vouch for the person’s identity, and would require the Secretary of State’s office to provide non-driver identification cards to anyone who wants one, free of charge.

The Committee Chairs, anticipating a passionate debate, established ground rules for the hearing that permitted testifiers to discuss the ramifications of the bill, but prohibited them from ascribing motivations to any of the sponsors or supporters. As the hearing progressed, one of the citizens testifying used the word “racist” and mentioned Governor LePage’s name during her testimony, at which point the Chairman cautioned her to stay on topic. As the woman attempted to make her points about racial disparity in the consequences of photo ID, a verbal battle ensued. The Chair muted the speaker’s mic  as the woman insisted that she be allowed to continue, while the Chair – still on mic – insisted that she was out of order.

The Chair’s heightened sense of concern to control any passionate or offensive outburst actually led to an over-reaction, turning what could have been a teachable moment into an angst-producing counter-example. The gaveling down of this speaker, and the heated off-mic exchange, were far more “uncivil” than what likely would have emerged in the speaker’s comments. When the woman claimed her constitutional right to discuss racism, the packed overflow room erupted into applause. More than one observer could be heard saying, “Nevertheless, she persisted.”  The situation was eventually rescued, and she was eventually allowed to complete her testimony, including a discussion of the racial impact of the bill.

However, in the Chairs’ effort to quell what he feared would be an attack on the character of the bill’s sponsors or supporters, he instead tried to suppress discussion of concerns about some very serious issues. Many of those testifying in opposition to LD 121, including the League, described it as a mechanism of voter suppression, disproportionately affecting minority constituents. Clearly, it would be inappropriate to call the sponsor or supporters of a bill racist, and we would expect the Chair to caution against such accusations. But to say that a bill has the potential for racial suppression – or even to say that it is potentially racist – is not to say that its sponsor had that intent or is, himself, a racist.

At the same time, when similar bills have been litigated in other states, they have been struck down if it could be demonstrated that the supporters had partisan or voter suppression motivations. Motivation and intent are relevant.

Civil discourse must allow for free and full discussion of a bill’s impact, including strong opinions and potentially negative consequences. Regardless of the sensitivity or volatility of the topic, it is essential to allow these concerns to be voiced. Racism, in particular, is a destructive force in our world that must be confronted openly and honestly. Using the term “racist” to describe someone who espouses racist views is no less accurate for being offensive, and any offense is clearly insignificant when measured against the destructive impact of laws that result in racist outcomes. To deny the existence of racism or to turn a blind eye to racist behavior – or legislation – is to become complicit in its perpetuation.

While this type of exchange has been rare in the State House, it may become less so in our currently contentious political climate. Civil discourse takes practice. As our citizenry becomes more divided and views become more passionately held, it will be increasingly difficult to find the fine line between strong views and offensive ones. And, as voters become more vocal in their objections to government actions, they will have to find a way to say what they mean without crossing that line. If the relationship between voters and legislators becomes increasingly strained and defensive, it is incumbent upon the legislature to ensure that the rights of constituents to be heard are upheld and to make room for strong opinions on difficult subjects to be delivered in a respectful way.

 

 

 

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Report from the Statehouse: Tax Committee April 23

Nothing’s for Certain Except Taxes and Those Who Hate Them

By Helen Hanlon

The Joint Standing Committee on Taxation was a new venue for me and a new cast of characters. Despite what would seem to be a rather dull topic, the proceedings were highly entertaining – and informative. The Chair is my State Senator, Earle McCormick, who appeared to be very efficient and professional. The Co-Chair is the aptly named Rep. Adam Goode (a very engaging young man, pleasant in every way and the clerk made a point of saying what a total delight he is).

I thought this would be a hotly contested issue with a packed room. Not so – there was no one there, and only two people (including myself) testified. Taxation may not be a glamorous committee but it was still a very interesting day getting to know these Legislators and this Committee.

The Public Hearing started late because of a very late Senate Session. There was some grumbling among the members about a late session the night before and what fools they are to be embroiled in this legislative business (I didn’t say a word…). However, I was intrigued by Rep. Bickford of Auburn, who bears an uncanny resemblance (IMO) to our Governor, Paul LePage (though scaled-down in size and perhaps temperament).

That’s the background scene at the Tax Committee, now onto the bills…

LD409 (An Act to Lower the Individual Income tax Incrementally to Zero)

Introduced by Rep. O’Connor of Berwick, who explained that she’s never seen a tax she liked and is on a one-woman mission to undermine them. Apparently she has already introduced a few other tax-related, as well. She readily admitted that this LD409 was a dead as a doornail but she presented it anyway.

No one testified in favor of LD409.

Testimony Against:

  • LWVME – The League has long been in favor of income tax and was instrumental in implementing the tax in the 1960’s. Our testimony included some historical context, including a quote from a League member from Auburn (Ahem, Rep. Bickford!) who said, the income tax places “the burden where it belongs on those most able to pay.”[i]    NOTE: You can find all our testimony here. 
  • A citizen testified against the bill and encouraged the Committee to look at corporate taxes.
  • Senator Chris Johnson came by later and apologized for not being available to also oppose LD409. (So not really testimony – more drive-by opinion)

For some strange reason I decided to stay for other Bills (none of them on the League’s hit parade this year). A few more folks trickled in. Here’s the synopsis:

Bills about supporting the film industry, and then, LD1287 (An Act to Ensure Tax Expenditures Create High Quality Jobs) brought out the Chamber and small business cadre, along with the Dept. of Labor.

This last bill was of interest because of the recent Portland Press Herald report on Cate Street Capital’s multi-million tax credits related to Maine paper mills. Rep. Bickford noted he’d been on the Committee when this issue first arose but, he said, Maine Legislators aren’t sophisticated lawyers and did the best they could, never expecting such shenanigans. Some members reported hearing from constituents who were appalled at the waste of tax dollars.

I may be wrong, but no one seemed particularly outraged, nor inclined to fix this.

Senator Chris Johnson reported how he’d drafted this Bill months prior to the PPH report. His concern grew out of his own family’s experience with getting the raw end of the deal with employers who take the tax credits and who aren’t accountable to provide good quality jobs. Not, as he put it, jobs we must subsidize. At this point, Rep. Bickford made an outrageous comment about “employees who just aren’t good enough.” There were moments of dead silence in the room before the proceedings resumed.

I was really impressed with a young man (everyone is young to me) from the Maine Center for Economic Policy who testified about the over $30 million routinely given with neither transparency nor accountability (according to the 2014 Comprehensive Evaluation of Maine’s Economic Incentive Programs Report).

And then came the Chamber, Business Associations, etc.

It was after 4pm when I left and I hadn’t planned to stay as long as I did. I learned a lot, though – and was happy to know that Maine people still has a few champions out there…

 

[i] Bangor Daily News, February 19, 1976

 

 

Report from the Statehouse, VLA Public Hearing March 9

LD 509 (An Act To Facilitate the Timely Return of Requested Absentee Ballots)

By Helen Hanlon

The public hearing opened around 10:00 am on Monday. The morning was filled with the “Emergency Keno” proposal to halt the addition of 300 Keno outlets without having a Public Hearing. The session then segued into craft beer issues, “growler” refills, and wine/spirit tastings. Finally, at 2:30pm, came the bill I had been waiting for: LD 509 — the Absentee Postage Bill — was presented with an impassioned delivery from Rep. Schneck about this “simple” measure of using business-rate return mail envelopes to assist citizens returning absentee ballots.

Two questions from the Committee members centered on cost. That’s it. No other discussion or interchange among members, so it was difficult to assess whether they were for it or against it.

Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn testified Neither-for-nor-Against]. She stated that she meets with postal authorities prior to elections regarding postage rates and displayed a template used to determine postage. She explained that business reply envelopes can’t be used because postal regulations require a permit holder for that service, and the mailing must go to and from a single point. Pre-stamping envelopes with no control on the local level would likely lead to waste. If the Secretary of State’s office provided the anticipated number of postage-paid envelopes for absentee ballots, some sort of audit would be required. Calculating approximately 70,000 absentee ballots, she estimates the cost at about $33,400 per general election with locals needing to pick up their own tab for special elections, etc.

In all, there were seven pieces of testimony, including a Neither-for-nor Against statement from LWVME’s Ann Luther. Written testimony was submitted by local officials objecting to the option allowing the state to collect reimbursement of postage from the towns. You can read all the testimony here.

 

Interesting note: In the 2014 General Election, (not including military and overseas ballots which are already required to be postage free) 137,790 total absentee ballots were issued; 132,700 were returned; 5,170 or 3.7% were not returned. In 2012, 175,196 absentee ballots were issued; 169,881 were returned; 5,376 or 3.1% were not returned.

Long day! Now, I’m going to have a glass of whine….

 

Stand up & say NO: photo ID requirement for voters

By Ann Luther

We attended the public hearing (Wednesday Feb 25) in the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee (VLA) of the Maine State Legislature for this year’s iteration of a Photo ID requirement to vote.

We testified against LD 197. Read it here.

These laws have consequences. It could lower voter participation by 2% – 3%:  many, many times more eligible voters will be dissuaded from voting by a photo ID requirement than the number of ineligible voters who will be prevented from casting votes. And the elderly, the poor, and the disabled will be among those most affected.

We aren’t the only ones standing against voter ID laws in Maine! We were joined in our opposition by the office of the Secretary of State, ACLU of Maine, Maine Women’s Lobby, Equality Maine, NAACP, Maine Municipal AssociationDisability Rights Center, Preble Street, Homeless Voices for Justice, MaineTransNet, and the Maine chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. It was very powerful to hear so many people speak up for their right to vote.

Voting is the most fundamental expression of citizenship in our democracy. The expansion of the franchise to include all Americans regardless of race, ethnicity or gender, and the breaking down of barriers to citizens’ voter participation — from literacy tests to poll taxes — has been one of the great successes in the evolution of American democracy.

Photo ID would turn back the clock and erect unnecessary barriers to voter participation.