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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VLA Committee January 15

By Stephanie Philbrick

Committee confirmation of William Lee on the Ethics Commission. Mr. Lee has a very impressive legal resume and, as he spoke extemporaneously, it became clear that he is also a college professor. At times, his presentation before the committee sounded more like a class lecture than an introduction. The mood of the Committee was light, though, and Sen. Cyrway cracked himself up by asking how the VLA was doing on ethics issues. In a more serious way, Rep. Golden asked what Maine was doing right. Mr. Lee, not quite answering the question, cited Maine’s rural nature, integrity, trust and professionalism as characteristics that make our state great. It would have been nice to hear about the processes and regulations that work well, perhaps with his opinions on citizens’ initiatives, Clean Elections, access to voting and citizen involvement opportunities. Those questions didn’t come up, and so we don’t really know how he would have answered. Instead we got a bit of cheerleading and quite a bit about why the American system is so much better than those in Cuba and the former U.S.S.R. In the end, the Committee unanimously voted to recommend Mr. Lee for confirmation. He was unanimously confirmed by the full Senate on January 19th.

LD 742 RESOLUTION, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine to Require That 5 Percent of Signatures on a Direct Initiative of Legislation Come from Each County

Carried over from last session, LD 742 is a vestige (hopefully the last) of the controversial bear baiting referendum. Extensively reworked, the amended bill was somewhat confusing, and it took some discussion for everyone to be clear on just what was being discussed. Despite the title, with amendments the result is this:

petitions for citizen initiatives must submit signatures from each congressional district representing 10% of the turnout that voted in the previous gubernatorial election in that congressional district (Maine has two).

Senator Cyrway felt very strongly that this was a better system, saying, “It’s good. We’ve worked on it because in other states one section of the state can control the entire election just because the population concentration is in one area. This allows different regions to weigh in despite population.” There was some discussion about constitutionality, but it was noted that a similar process was tested in the Nevada courts and deemed okay because of the one-man one-vote theory.

Midway through the discussion, Rep. Longstaff said that he was unwilling to vote yes because he doesn’t support dividing Maine into two for election purposes and because, in any given election, a local issue can sway the turnout and affect the entire state. Immediately, a party caucus was called and the work session was halted. Democrats left while Republicans milled about the room. It’s not clear why a caucus was called because the discussion continued pretty much as before with Sen. Cyrway reiterating why the bill was good and Rep. Turner agreeing, “Will level the playing field. Gives small communities a voice on petitions.”

Result: divided report.

 

Report from the Statehouse: VLA Public Hearing May 4

By Helen Hanlon

L.D. 1189 (An Act To make Certain Local Primaries Non Partisan)

Thankfully, our bill was first up in the VLA Committee hearings today. Very fortunate for me because there were tons of folks there for the second bill LD 1343 (An Act to Increase Access to Post-Secondary Education For Maine National Guard members), and I was able to get out post-haste.

L.D. 1189 was presented by Rep. Kumeiga (representing Stonington, Cranberry and other Isles). There was discussion as to why this bill was before VLA because other similar measures were heard before SLG this year. No one had an answer, but Rep. Turner who serves on both committees felt this bill should have been combined with others before SLG.

Senator Collins questioned why this bill was being presented now? Is it related to the Governor’s race, he asked. No, Rep. Kumeiga replied, it arose from a constituent’s questions.

Senator Cyrway asked how to decide what positions (ie: sheriff) were or were not partisan. Rep. Schneck, though, seemed positive that this measure could reduce the negative effects of a three-way race.

No testimony was presented either for or against.

Melissa Packard of the Election Section of the Secretary of State’s office testified NFNO but seemed generally supportive if some minor changes were made. She suggested that aspects of the Bill could be confusing to the voter and that the title was misleading.

The League also testified NFNO. Of note here is the great job Polly Ward and Ann Luther did in writing the League testimony. Even though (thankfully!) no one asked me a question, I could tell the Committee was reading along with the testimony and seemed to grasp the issues raised. Secondly, the testimony offered RCV as an alternative, and this presented a good opportunity for other folks in the room (staffers, general public) to hear more about the merits of RCV. Rep Kumiega thanked the League for testifying.

 

Report from the Statehouse: VLA Work Session April 24

Showing Initiative

By Helen Hanlon

The place seemed deserted on a Friday – I even found a place to park!

First up on the docket:

LD1290 (An Act To Repeal the Maine Clean Election Act and Direct the Savings To Be Used for the State’s Contribution toward the Costs of Education Funding)

Things started off with Senator Brakey of Auburn introducing his bill. He explained that it wasn’t really his intent to “REPEAL” the Clean Election Act, but rather to give Maine Citizens a choice: to keep, expand or repeal the Act. He admitted that the bill was misleadingly titled and needed clarification. The goal, he said, was to allow Mainers to use their tax dollars for education vs. more political signs and victory parties. He claimed that the Maine Clean Election Act had not reached its goal of transparency and had failed to clean up negative campaigning. And, though he didn’t present details, he said it actually increased campaign costs.

The Committee members grilled Senator Brakey about the intent of this bill and about his statements that MCEA was a failure. Many (10 out of 12) on this Committee had used MCEA funds for their campaigns, and so most seemed to be against (or at least perplexed by) this bill. The lone hold-out was Rep. Dillingham of Oxford who seemed to agree with Brakey. She is one of the few traditional candidates on the Committee.

Rep. Luchini noted that the MCEA was initiated by the voters and suggested that any repeal efforts should also involve signature gathering to place it on the ballot. The Committee Chair, expressed his profound appreciation for the MCEA saying,

“Never in a million years could I ever have imagined sitting in this chair without the MCEA, I am humbled.” – Sen. Cyrway

Additionally, Rep. Schneck and Sen. Patrick both voiced strong support for keeping the MCEA, with Senator Patrick adding, “If money is speech, then speech isn’t free.”

Senator Brakey answered Committee questions for nearly 40 minutes. There was a lot of confusion about the education funding piece of this bill. Was it a way of diverting voters from the real issue (repealing MCEA)?  Was this a competing measure? Why 2015? Why not 2016? Brakey agreed to consider amending the education piece upon the recommendation of Rep. Longstaff.

(Note: Contrary to the title of this bill, there is no dedicated Educational Fund and monies are almost never segregated in this way. It would most likely go into the General Fund to be allocated just like any other State funds)

Senator Brakey couldn’t stay for more discussion due to commitments on the Senate floor. It’s unfortunate but Legislators are busy this time of year with responsibilities for several bills and committees.

No one spoke in support of LD1290.

Ed Youngblood spoke for nearly an hour about the importance of MCEA and efforts to improve the Legislation through the 2015 initiative. He fielded many insightful questions from the Committee who obviously had immense respect for him. They expressed how much they missed his experience and presence in the Legislature.

Allison Smith, founder of the Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, spoke forcefully about this as a citizen’s initiative, emphasizing to Brakey, “We have thousands who signed petitions, no one is here speaking with you.”

MCCE spokesperson Robert Howe put the icing on the cake, when he reminded the Committee members that this wasn’t a “competing measure” but a calculated plan to undermine the initiative by depriving it of a majority. “Go out and collect your own signatures if you want this repealed,” he said.

It was a spirited hearing, for sure. My read on the Committee members is this:

  • Dillingham supports Brakey & this bill.
  • Longstaff supports an amendment eliminating the Education piece and then may support the bill.
  • Harrington, Cyrway, Schneck, Patrick, Luchini, oppose LD1290.
  • Kinney, Turner, Soucier, Golden played it closer to the vest and their opinion is unclear.
  • Bear, absent.

Other bills

LD1335 (Act to Amend Election Laws)

Addressing a variety of issues; an agency bill from Deputy Sec. Of State Julie Flynn.
LD1138 (An Act regarding Municipal Reporting of Statewide Elections)

Action: ONTP (Unanimous) – with timeline components to be folded into LD1335

LD742 (Resolution proposing an Amendment to the Constitution requiring a 5% of signatures on a Direct Initiative of Legislature Coming From each County).

Action: Tabled (Unanimous)
LD1127 (An Act regarding The Authority of the Secretary of State and the Attorney General To Conduct Investigations of Vote Recounts)

Action: ONTP (Unanimous)

Rather than passing a new law, the Committee chose to appoint Deputy Secretary of State, Julie Flynn, to work on new rules and regulations, and keep Committee informed.
LD1084 (Resolution Proposing An Amendment To The Constitution of Maine To Exclude Wildlife Issues From Citizens Initiatives)

Action: Tabled (Unanimous)

 

Report from the Statehouse: SLG & VLA Committees April 15

Busy day at the Big House with Bear, Beer and Ballot Initiatives

By Helen Hanlon and Polly Ward

 

Public Hearing, SLG Committee

LD 957  RESOLUTION, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine To Provide for the Popular Election of the Attorney General, Secretary of State and Treasurer of State

This measure has repeatedly been before the Legislature since the nineteenth century. This time, presented by Senator Cushing who said this was “an effort to bring Maine in line with most States,” rather than remaining a part of an aberrant few

Rep. Evangelos (Unenrolled, Friendship) started off with an aggressive list of questions:

  • Was this submitted by Gov. LePage?  Sen. Cushing answered: No.
  • Times require we change, you say. Why? Our system seems to be working ok…. what’s wrong with it? Sen. Cushing replied that our current method is not transparent enough.
  • Does this bill comes from a public disagreement between the Governor and the A.G.? Sen. Cushing said, “of course not – I love them both…”

Rep Evangelos went on to suggest that in passing this measure Maine might have to change its motto to “I follow.” His questions seemed to provide momentum for other Committee members to jump on the bandwagon to seemingly oppose LD 957. Comments were made that big money would pour into the State since this bill without the A.G. to oversee critical elections processes as they currently do and thereby bankrupting the Clean Election Fund.

Representative Justin Chenette of Saco, a co-sponsor, spoke passionately in support of the bill. He addressed the concerns raised by members of the Committee about the influence of outside money, indicating that this was a matter of campaign finance reform and not something that should keep the changes in the bill from going forward.  There was discussion about making the terms of the constitutional officers congruent with the Governor’s term.  This prompted a question about the influence of the Governor on the Attorney General if they were voted in together.  There was a question about whether these positions should be covered under the Clean Election Act. Concerns were expressed about the impact of this change on the Clean Election funds and the possibility that more funds than currently available might be needed.

Just one citizen offered testimony in support of the bill.

Polly Ward offered testified for the LWVME NFNA.
LD 972 An Act To Provide for the Nonpartisan Election of County Officials.

This bill proposes to change election procedures so that county officials would appear on the ballot without a party designation beside their names. The testimony was a mixed bag with without consensus even among county officials: some county officials testified for the bill and others against. A member of the Committee suggested that “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
VLA Committee – Public Hearings

The morning session served up potatoes, craft distilleries and topped it all off with a few shots of vodka (it’s amazing what you can learn at these hearings: I never knew you could make vodka from corn or that Maine farmers harvest almost 2 million pounds of cull potatoes each year to ferment). The finale was a bill allowing underage veterans (not for war but for drinking) to hang out at VFW/VSO facilities — BUT these clubs had no idea this bill was being proposed and were none too pleased about it. (Ooops! Tsk, tsk, Rep. Nadeau – it’s good idea to poll your constituents before proposing a bill)

As fascinating as all that was, our interests were on other bills…

LD 1228 : An Act To Amend the Ballot Initiative Process To Ensure Support in Maine’s Congressional Districts

(Dixie revisited except with a bear theme). At issue here is the current ability of those collecting signatures for a referendum focus on more populated areas filled with people totally clueless about an issue (say bear hunting, for example) that will influence the livelihood of more rural parts of the State. Is this fair? Proportionality and limiting referendum to specific areas of the State impacted by this issue were discussed. Of interest here is the action in states with citizen initiatives to move toward requiring that signatures collected on an initiative reflect the population of a particular part of a state believed to be affected by the issue.

The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine (SAM) president actually thanked the Humane Society for pointing this out and spurring action because of all their alleged shenanigans. (Somehow his sincerity seemed questionable to me….)

There seemed to be support for LD 1228 among members of the VLA and Sec. or State (NFNA).

VLA Committee – Work Session

To give you the flavor of the afternoon: One Committee member said the VLA should be renamed the “ONTP Committee.”

 

LD 990: An Act To Limit Agency Expenditures To Influence Elections

Action: ONTP (unanimous). Discussion that this may lead to court challenges; the line between agency responsibility and guidance to the public is a fine one and very difficult to determine.

LD 742: RESOLUTION, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine To Require That 5 Percent of Signatures on a Direct Initiative of Legislation Come from Each County.

Action: Tabled until 4/24. Discussion highlighted potential problems: constitutional issues, equal protection clause, violation of 14th Amendment (Utah case cited).

This bill was coupled with

LD 1228 An Act To Amend the Ballot Initiative Process To Ensure Support in Maine’s Congressional Districts

Action: ONTP (unanimous).
LD 1084 RESOLUTION, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine To Exclude Wildlife Issues from Citizen Initiatives

And

LD 754 RESOLUTION, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine To Ensure That Laws Governing Hunting and Fishing Are Not Subject to the Citizen Petition Process

These are similar bills restricting referendum applicable to hunting and wildlife issues. Currently there are no restrictions on citizen initiative topics. Other bills (LDs 703, 753) are similar, as well, and currently before  other committees. They will likely be combined into one bill to move forward.

Action: LD 1084 – Tabled and LD 754 – ONTP.

 

 

 

Report from the Statehouse: VLA Work Session April 10, Elections

by Ann Luther

Last day before the 60% deadline. The Committee continues to work efficiently and in a bipartisan fashion. They did four liquor bills first, then turned to the election bills of interest to us.

  • LD 858 An Act To Better Inform the Public of Election Results.
    Action: OTP-Amended to stipulate “where feasible.”
  • LD 744 An Act To Permit Unenrolled Voters To Cast Ballots in Primary Elections. No specific objections, vague concerns about cost. No visible support. Read the League’s testimony on this and other bills this session here.
    Action: Ought Not To Pass (Unanimous)
  • LD 720 An Act To Establish an Open Primary System in the State. Pending citizen action on ranked choice voting cited. No visible support.
    Action: ONTP (Unanimous) Read the League’s testimony on this and other bills this session here.
  • LD 770 An Act To Permit Maine Residents To Register To Vote Online. No visible support. Read the League’s testimony on this and other bills this session here.
    Action: ONTP (Unanimous)
  • LD 677 An Act To Amend the Election Laws Concerning Candidates and Nominees. This bill had to do with banning the practice in both parties of running “paper candidates” and then replacing them at the last minute. There was some support in the committee for this, but in the end, it fell to the deadline and the practical considerations of changing it.
    Action : ONTP (Unanimous)

At the end of the afternoon, they had made their 60% deadline! Congratulations all around.

But then, just before they adjourned, Rep. Monaghan moved reconsideration of LD 174. This had to do with banning leadership PACs for both privately and publicly funded candidates, instead of just for publicly funded candidates. You will recall from Wednesday’s blog post that some committee members were supportive of this approach, believing it to be more fair to candidates on both sides, and had intended on Wednesday to sign onto a minority report. But the vote on LD 174 (banning leadership PACs only for Clean Elections candidates) was taken before they realized what they had to do procedurally to get a minority report. So the question was revisited at the end of the session on Friday. After a little parliamentary snafu, the committee voted unanimously to allow reconsideration. Rep Luchini made his same motion to amend, banning only Clean Elections candidates from having leadership PACs. Rep. Chenette was invited to the table to make his pitch for a both-sides ban. Then Sen. Collins promptly called for a “caucus,” the secretive practice whereby committee members huddle by political party behind closed doors to say off-mike what they don’t want to say on the record and choreograph their public votes along party lines. So they caucused. When they came, they took a vote and, lo and behold, it was unanimous OTP as Amended. No minority report.

Everyone, including me, headed out with well-wishes for a good weekend.

Report from the Statehouse: VLA Work Session April 8, PAC Reform and More

By Helen Hanlon

Today, a time crunch was in effect to clear up the magnitude of bills we have been following and discussing. The committee had a 60% deadline by Friday, April 10. They worked in a very bipartisan way to move quickly through a lot of bills. Some were combined/ amended and many were dispatched. Here goes:

  • LD 850 An Act to Establish Special Elections to Fill U.S. Senate Vacancies.
    Action: Ought Not To Pass (Unanimous) Cost, feasibility cited as reasons.
  • LD 790 An Act to Make Political Advertising Accountable and Transparent (Another bear-related bill).
    Action: ONTP (Unanimous) Constitutional issues of free speech raised by Attorney General, and enforcement by whom cited as rationale.

Regarding the campaign finance bills that follow, the Legal Analyst lead a discussion about competing measures relating to the Clean Elections Initiative that will appear on the ballot this fall and when new legislation in the same area of law would appear on the ballot as an alternative or competing measure. The committee seemed wary of wading into that territory.

  • LD 719 An Act to Provide Fair Access to Maine Clean Election Funds. Discussed as one of those “competing measures,” but there may not have been much appetite for the policy anyway.
    Action: ONTP (Unanimous)
  • LD 175 An Act to Limit Clean Election Funds to First Time Candidates. An issue was discussed regarding the need to clarify “running for first time.” Some committee members thought Clean Elections should be available to candidates even after their first race. And also another one of those competing measures.
    Action : ONTP (Unanimous)

The next five bills all relate to PAC reform, prohibiting some or all candidates from participating narrowly or broadly in fundraising for committees other that their own campaign. The committee chairs suggested killing all these bills and going forward with one bill, either using one of these as a vehicle or generating a new committee bill. After a short break to research what would be entailed in drafting a committee bill, they decided to pick the lowest numbered of these five as the vehicle, LD 174, and to kill all the rest.

  • LD 204 An Act to Prohibit Certain Activities By Maine Clean Election Candidates.
    Action: ONTP (Unanimous)
  • LD 619 An Act to Limit the Participation of Candidates and Legislators in Political Action Committees and Nonprofit Entities Conducting Political Activities. Concern about limiting freedom of association with language too broad. But there was some support in the committee for limiting leadership PACs for both publicly and privately financed candidates. Members holding that view were encouraged to offer a minority report on the surviving bill, LD 174.
    Action: ONTP (Unanimous)
  • LD 532 An Act to Prohibit Maine Clean Election Candidates from Accepting Special Interest Money through a Political Party or a Political Action Committee.
    Action: ONTP (Unanimous)
  • LD 334 An Act To Improve The Clean Election Act.
    Action: ONTP (Unanimous)
  • LD 174 An Act to Restrict the Raising of Money by Maine Clean Election Act Candidates. This will be the sole surviving bill on PAC reform this session. Rep. Luchini offered an amendment to strike the bill and substitute language that would ban a Clean Elections candidate from establishing a PAC for which that candidate is an officer, primary decision-maker, or fundraiser.
    Action: OTP-Amended (Unanimous, though it appeared that some committee members did not realize voting ONTP was their chance to offer a minority report in favor of something like LD 619)

Then, they went on to the last two bills of the day.

  • LD 617 An Act To Change Municipal Campaign Contribution Limits. Will roll back contribution limits to pre-2011 levels. Amend to include county limits and push back the effective date (to Jan. 1, 2016) until after municipal elections already underway for this fall. I’m not sure that was the sponsor’s intention, but oh, well.
    Action: Ought to Pass as Amended. (Unanimous)
  • LD 904 An Act to Increase Fairness in Campaign Financing. The Executive Director on Govt. Ethics and Election Practices provided 4 recommendations for changes to this provision of law addressing campaign contributions in primary, general, and special elections for unenrolled candidates. The Ethics Commission could not decide on one approach. Neither could the committee.
    Action: Tabled.