AUGUSTA, Maine — Two major national groups holding conferences in the next few weeks will have far fewer lawmakers from Maine attending than in the past and the state’s top legislative leaders say the groups need to recognize that they have to do things more efficiently.
“We are not sending anyone from the Senate to the NCSL [National Conference of State Legislatures] and only one senator, the majority leader [Sen. Phil Bartlett, D-Gorham] is going to the CSG [Council of State Governments] meeting in Vermont,” said Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Vassalboro. “I discussed this with other senators, and we just cannot afford to do what we did in the past.”
She said the state is facing serious economic problems, and while both conferences are useful to lawmakers in learning how other states are handling problems, Maine cannot afford to send the large contingents as it has in the past.
The National Conference of State Legislatures is meeting July 20-24 in Philadelphia. The Council of State Governments’ eastern regional meeting is Aug. 2-5 in Burlington, Vt.
House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, agrees with Mitchell, but has approved 11 House members to attend, all Democrats. She said she approved attendance because most of the costs are being picked up by the NCSL. She also may approve “a few” Republicans.
“We have some that are paying all or part of the cost of the conference or they are getting a scholarship that covers most — and sometimes all — of the cost of attending,” she said. “We are spending way less this year.”
Records provided by Pingree show that in 2007, the House sent 12 lawmakers, including Pingree, and four staff members to the NCSL conference at a cost to taxpayers of $19,168.95. This year the 11 members and one staff person approved so far are expected to cost less than $2,000.
Mitchell spokesman David Loughran said 24 senators and Senate staff attended the 2007 meetings. He said the total expenses for the NCSL meeting were $26,006.82 and $7,562.12 for the CSG meeting.
“We need to find ways to have our members get access to this information, but we need to do it without all these travel costs,” Mitchell said. “We’ve got to do things differently.”
Pingree said there has been some use of Web conferencing and telephone conference calls and she believes there will have to be more as state legislatures across the country face serious economic problems.
“There was quite a debate in [legislative] council about the cost of membership in these organizations and I am sure other states are having the same debate,” Pingree said.
She is the chairwoman of the council that is made up of the 10 elected leaders of the Legislature. The group cut the Legislature’s overall travel budget by 50 percent, she said.
This year, Maine is paying $122,079 for dues to the NCSL and $89,236 for membership in the CSG. Dues to both organizations will increase next year. Pingree said she and other legislative leaders are upset the national groups have not cut their budgets as most states have.
“Clearly the crisis that so many states are facing, like Maine, makes it impossible for many legislators to attend,” said Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry, the GOP Senate floor leader. “I do believe the information that you get as a legislator is important at these meetings, but they need to come up with other ways to share that information.”
Maine is hosting next year’s meeting of the Council of State Governments in Portland, making attendance at this year’s a necessity, Mitchell said.
Co-chairing the meeting in Maine next year are Bartlett and Rep. Nancy Smith, D-Monmouth. Both are attending the Vermont session along with two other representatives. Pingree said the House is only paying for part of their expenses, with CSG or the individuals paying the rest of the cost.
Rep. Josh Tardy, R-Newport, said a few Republican members may attend the sessions.
But Tardy, the GOP House floor leader, said the national groups will need to trim their budgets in the future and likely will find out at the summer meetings that many states are in the same position as Maine and can’t afford to do things the same way as in the past.