AUGUSTA, Maine — After a long, often fiery debate and two roll-call votes, the Maine House on Tuesday advanced a bill designed to ensure that military recruiters can wear their uniforms while visiting public high schools and charter schools.
The House vote on LD 1503, An Act to Ensure Student Access to Post-Secondary Options, gives Republican Gov. Paul LePage a victory on one of two military-related bills he touted Monday in a prepared statement. House Republican Leader Kenneth Fredette of Newport submitted both bills on LePage’s behalf.
“Maine students should have the same opportunity to talk to recruiters from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines or Coast Guard as they do those from Colby, Bates and Bowdoin,” LePage and his wife, Ann, said in the statement.
The No Child Left Behind Act mandates that schools receiving federal funding allow visits by military recruiters. In his statement, LePage said that some schools have prevented military recruiters from wearing their uniforms for those visits, although the governor and lawmakers speaking in support of the bill did not identify those schools.
The Legislature’s Education Committee, with Democrats in the majority, sent the bill to the full Legislature with a divided “ought not to pass” recommendation. When floor debate in the House opened on that “ought not to pass” recommendation, Republicans broke out their full rhetorical arsenal. Many of those who spoke passionately in support of LD 1503 cited their past military service or that of loved ones. Others recalled the experiences of Vietnam War veterans who arrived home from combat to be met by protests and scorn.
“I found it repulsive that there was opposition to these bills,” said Rep. Peter Doak, R-Columbia Falls, who served in Vietnam. “We bury these guys in their uniforms but they’re not allowed to wear them to schools?”
“We are at war right now; men and women are dying,” said Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, who served in the most recent Iraq conflict as a Marine. “I find it disgusting that some schools are making service members take off their uniforms before coming to talk to students.”
Democrats who opposed the bill said it wasn’t needed, especially given the nationally high percentage of Mainers who enlist in the armed forces after high school. Many said no one had identified the problem at schools in their districts.
“This bill is a solution in search of a problem that doesn’t appear to exist,” said Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, the House chairman of the Education Committee. “We want our military to succeed and we also want to leave decisions to educators and parents in keeping with our time-honored tradition of home rule.”
After detailing his and his brother’s service in the National Guard, Rep. Joe Brooks, an independent from Winterport, also cited home rule as his chief reason for opposing the bill. Brooks said local school boards should be able to set the rules about attire for recruiters and other school visitors.
Rep. Sharri MacDonald, R-Old Orchard, didn’t buy that argument. “I’ve heard a lot about home rule,” she said. “It’s a misnomer because the Legislature takes away home rule with every bill we pass.”
Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade, a military veteran, said he had heard of incidents where recruiters were asked not to appear at schools in uniform, but even if that weren’t the case, he asked what the problem would be “enacting a bill that would prevent it from happening in the future.”
Democrats also argued that the bill represents an unfunded mandate for local schools, which under Maine’s Constitution would require final passage by two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate or a commitment to use state funds for at least 90 percent of any additional cost related to enactment. The fiscal note attached to the bill describes the local cost as “insignificant statewide.”
After an hour of flamboyant debate that touched on patriotism, the Legislature’s role and proper ways to support the military, the House voted 98-44 against the “ought not to pass” recommendation. Minutes later, the House voted 115-28 to send the bill to the Senate with an “ought to pass as amended” recommendation. Further votes in both chambers are required before it would go to LePage for his signature.
The House also debated a second bill that Fredette submitted on behalf of LePage, LD 1502, which would require school boards to allow recruiters to give a military skills aptitude test at all Maine public high schools and charter schools. The House voted 74-68 against that bill.
“Yet again Democrats continue to deny our students opportunities and options. The [Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery] test has great value in helping students consider their future potential in life and does not solely focus on military careers,” LePage said in a prepared statement Tuesday. “It provides students and advisers a critical aptitude testing tool that helps students better understand themselves, regardless of the professions they choose.”