AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers who are also military veterans were angered Tuesday when a host of their colleagues switched votes on a bill that would have required public schools to give recruiters in uniform access to school grounds.
According to the Maine Department of Education, a handful of schools in Maine have disallowed military recruiters wearing uniforms while visiting students, but those opposed to the legislation said no evidence of recruiters in uniform being barred exists.
Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s administration introduced the bill.
The measure received 97 votes but needed 101 to be enacted as a mandate. The state Senate later passed the bill 33-0. A third vote on the measure late Tuesday gained only 96 votes with 45 opposed, effectively killing the bill.
Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, also a former member of the Lewiston School Committee, said she voted against the bill because it was unnecessary and there wasn’t a problem with uniformed recruiters gaining access to Maine schools.
“It felt like an unnecessary law to me,” Rotundo said. “We already allow for military recruiters in our schools.”
But Rotundo voted for the bill on June 4, joining 114 other House members who supported it. She changed her vote Tuesday to vote against it, according to legislative voting records.
Rep. Nathan Libby, D-Lewiston, voted against the bill as well but had done so consistently. Libby said there was no evidence that recruiters were being kept out of schools despite concerns from some recruiters in Maine.
“I am more inclined to believe our local superintendents than a military recruiter,” Libby said.
The issue first came to the attention of lawmakers from Maine Department of Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, who told legislators he had been contacted by a recruiter who said there were a handful of schools that disallowed uniformed reporters.
That recruiter also noted other issues with the schools that made it difficult for recruiters to gain access to students considering post-secondary school options.
Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, a Marine Corps veteran, said he was shocked by the vote switching Tuesday.
Wilson shared some of the contents of a message emailed to Bowen on Tuesday night during a third debate on the bill but most who voted against the measure were not swayed.
“I think it’s a slap in the face to the military in general,” Wilson said. “It’s wrong to say to a military recruiter, ‘Thank you for your service but leave your uniform at the door when you come into one of our schools.’”
LePage also weighed in on the House vote in a prepared statement issued late Tuesday.
“It is a disgrace they have denied our American heroes in uniform the opportunity to speak with Maine students,” LePage said. “Their claim in blocking my bill was that there was no proof of a problem, despite the Maine National Guard’s recruiters repeatedly saying there are issues.”
Like Wilson, LePage called the vote a “slap in the face to Maine’s long and proud history of service to this country.”
Lawmakers who changed their votes on the issue include: Reps. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth; Jennifer DeChant, D-Bath; James Dill, D-Old Town; Jeffrey Evangelos, I-Friendship; Lori Fowle, D-Vassalboro; Adam Goode, D-Bangor; Gay Grant, D-Gardiner; Erik Jorgensen, D-Portland; Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston; Walter Kumiega, D-Deer Isle; Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay; Ann-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford; Andrew McLean, D-Gorham; Matthew Moonen, D-Portland; Catherine Nadeau, D-Winslow; Mary Nelson, D-Falmouth; Helen Rankin, D-Hiram; Linda Sanborn, D-Gorham and Ryan Tipping-Spitz, D-Orono.
In a third vote on the measure Tuesday night, Kumiega voted in support of the bill.
Democrats who voted against the bill, including Tipping-Spitz, said the military and military service was being used to gain a political advantage when there was little evidence the measure was needed in Maine.
Rep. Joshua Plante, D-Berwick, said some of the information being presented by Republicans was just false. He said Noble High School was one of the schools that was identified as not letting uniformed recruiters in but when he checked with the superintendent he was told there was no such policy there.
“It is untrue,” Plante said. “This is unbelievable, this is a lie. I’m not going to accept a lie and I don’t appreciate that my school has been labeled as one that does this when it is not true — just to push a political agenda.”
Rep. Jarrod Crockett, R-Bethel, an Army veteran, said he wouldn’t be surprised if there was a citizens initiative started in Maine that would require schools to give uniformed recruiters access.
“I think it is in the best interest of the student,” Crockett said. “You’re giving kids who have no direction a possible direction.”
He said many of the veterans in the Legislature would likely not be there, were it not for a recruiter or another military member that inspired them at some point in their lives.
BDN senior writer Christopher Cousins contributed to this report.