The Catch-all Committee

Posted Dec. 16, 2010, at 11:25 p.m.

Under the guises of better focusing legislative work on job creation, new State House leaders may have actually weakened the Legislature’s ability to address business and economic development concerns. There was a better way.

Before the new Legislature was even sworn in, Senate President Kevin Raye proposed to eliminate the Labor Committee saying its issues could be better handled by the Business, Research and Economic Development Committee. He pointed to the fact that few states have a separate Labor Committee.

He didn’t mention that not many states have business-focused committees that are likely to be stretched as thin as the combined committee. On Wednesday, the Legislature’s Rules Committee agreed to form a Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee. The Rules Committee did support shifting some responsibilities — such as the Labor Committee’s oversight of the Maine State Retirement System to the appropriations panel — but its purview remains too large.

Democrats called the merged committee a compromise that ensured the voice of Maine’s working people would not be lost. Republicans said the new committee would be better able to focus on jobs. Earlier in the week, they suggested the new panel be called the Jobs Committee, a complete oversimplification of its responsibility.

Both could be wrong.

The full Legislature is slated to vote on the change Friday. With Republican majorities in both houses, there are enough votes to move forward.

Before voting, lawmakers should more thoroughly consider the ramifications of the change.

The Labor Committee should not be maintained simply because Maine has had it for more than a century. But, before lawmakers agree to form a committee that will oversee everything from workers’ compensation insurance to incentives to attract business to funding state universities and scientific institutions to increase their research and development efforts, they should think about whether this is too much work.

The General Assembly in North Carolina, a state looked to as a model of R&D growth, has a Commerce, Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee. But, it also has a Pensions and Retirement Committee and a Science and Technology Committee.

The Oregon House has a Business and Labor Committee as well as a Sustainability and Economic Development Committee.

The Georgia General Assembly goes even further into specializing its committee. It has separate committees for economic development and tourism, industrial relations, regulated industries, retirement, science and technology, and a Special Committee on Small Business Development and Job Creation.

Maine shouldn’t go this far, but it should make lawmakers wonder if specialization is preferable to a catch-all committee that may not be able to focus on what the state really needs for job creation.

Another way to do this is to ensure that only legislation tightly focused on business development, R&D and labor concerns is heard by the committee. With so much on its plate, the committee can’t be distracted by irrelevant bills or those with little support.

Republican leaders are right to streamline the Legislature. But, it must be done in a way that doesn’t drown the important work of economic development under the weight of numerous other concerns.

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