Gov. Paul LePage addresses the chamber during the 2017 State of the State address at the State House in Augusta, Feb. 7, 2017.

Why Maine lawmakers spend so much time on bills that have no chance

For the sake of stability, the failure of bad ideas and the formation of consensus, democracy is supposed to be hard.

Published March 26, 2017, at 7:20 a.m.     |    

Why Maine lawmakers spend so much time on bills that have no chance

Posted March 26, 2017, at 7:20 a.m.
Last modified March 26, 2017, at 6:05 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — More than 1,800 bills are under consideration by the Legislature this year, but if history is any indication, fewer than half of them have any chance of ever becoming law.

In the past 10 legislative sessions, which date back 20 years, the highest percentage of bills that have made it into the law was 48 percent in the 119th Legislature, which convened in 1999 and 2000.

Most years, the total was much lower: 36 percent in the 126th and 127th legislatures, and less than 25 percent in the 117th, 118th, 120th and 122nd legislatures.

According to a 2016 analysis by FiscalNote, several states have bill passage rates above 60 percent. Colorado, for example, typically sees about 600 bills go through the legislative process but usually passes well more than half of them. Others, such as New York, where more than 12,000 bills were introduced last year, have far less success. Empire State legislators enacted only about 10 percent of submitted bills last year. It was worse in Connecticut. A meager 38 of 2,316 bills passed there last year, which equates to less than 2 percent.

In Maine, most bills are disposed of in the first year of every two-year legislative session. For the 128th Legislature, that’s this year. Midway through the session, the committee process is approaching full bore. Last week alone, several dozen bills were killed at the committee level with unanimous ought-not-to-pass recommendations. In another month the frenzy will transfer to the House and Senate, and by June, the Legislature will meet four or five days per week, sometimes well past dark, to deal with all the bills.

So, why do lawmakers introduce so many pieces of legislation they know are doomed to fail?

The process

Maine has basically no limits on the number of bills each lawmaker can propose. Between Election Day and the deadline for bills to be submitted — which is usually in December or January — lawmakers may submit as many bill proposals as they want. In the second year of the legislative session, legislative leaders must approve all new bill requests. This year, Republican Sen. Tom Saviello of Wilton and Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, are tied so far with 43 bill submissions each.

Every Maine bill has its day in the sun. How states handle bill requests varies widely, but in many states, there are mechanisms for legislative leaders or committees to kill bill concepts before they are even written. In some states, such as Massachusetts, the leaders of the House and Senate must agree to bring a bill to floor debate.

That’s not the case in Maine, where virtually every single bill is drafted by the Legislature’s Revisor of Statutes. Every bill requires votes in the House and Senate to send them to a committee. Once there, they all have a public hearing, work session and eventually a vote. Any bill that has at least one committee vote in favor goes back to the House and Senate for further consideration.

“That’s extremely unusual,” said former Democratic Speaker of the House Mike Saxl, now a consultant who has worked on legislation in roughly 40 states. “Most states allow committees to kill or table bills inside their committees. I have never heard of another state where a 12-1 ‘ought not to pass’ bill comes to the floor for a vote.”

Former Republican Senate President Rick Bennett said the Legislature’s joint rules should be overhauled. Among the needed changes is a later deadline for bills so legislative committees could convene first, debate the issues, then write bills.

“That would empower the rank and file to create consensus as the bill is being written rather than in some sort of kludgy amendment process,” he said. “The Legislature is its own worst enemy in terms of how it allocates its time and energy.”

The people

Legislators old and new want to make their marks. Maine law limits the number of consecutive terms a lawmaker can serve in either the House or Senate at four. Over time, that increases the churn of lawmakers who enter and exit legislative service, which in turn increases instances of repeated attempts of concepts that have failed in past years. Examples range from efforts to allow hunting on Sundays to implementing single-payer health care — perennial favorites that perennially fail.

Legislators benefit by doing favors for the people who vote for them. Many bills originate from constituent requests. Anyone who can convince his or her lawmaker to submit a bill can potentially see the concept become law. That results in a high number of bills with extremely narrow focuses, such as proposals this year to allow unlicensed hedgehogs as pets or past efforts by rural Maine residents to secede from their town.

The politics

Sometimes persistence pays off. One reason for bringing back the same concepts year after year is that drawing attention to even a losing issue raises its profile and chances of eventual success. Gay rights and same-sex marriage are examples of issues over which there were years of debate before they became law. Maine banned marriage for same-sex couples in 1997 but established domestic partnerships in 2004. The Legislature legalized same-sex marriage in 2009 but the law was repealed by citizen referendum later that year. In 2012, another referendum allowed the same-sex marriage law that is on the books today.

The political parties propose bills every session they know are nonstarters. In recent years, the relatively close number of Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate has meant that for emergency legislation or to overturn a veto, neither party has had the two-thirds majority to push through whatever they want without winning over some of the opposing party. Still, a lot of bills are submitted and resubmitted just to force lawmakers from one party or the other into voting on a given issue — which can later become powerful campaign fodder. Recent examples of that have included numerous attempts by Democrats to expand Maine’s Medicaid program and proposals by Republicans for gun control and deep tax cuts.

The pros and cons

The volume of bills makes for a lot of busywork and distracts from the most important issues. Former Republican lawmaker Peter Mills of Cornville has long been a critic of Maine’s legislative process.

“For the first three months, little is accomplished but the routine reference of bills, an exercise to test whether majority committee chairs can read in public,” he wrote in a 2009 screed he recently gave to the Bangor Daily News. “With the advent of term limits, the Maine Legislature is in greater danger than ever of becoming a passive, reactive and impotent body.”

Bennett said the legislative process is set when the joint rules are voted in, typically on the first day lawmakers meet. Major changes to the process would require the election of legislative leaders with singular focus on the process.

“Nobody gives it much thought,” said Bennett. “The people who are elected are there because they are concerned about certain issues. … The legislative process in itself is not as interesting and not a motivator.”

Having few limits on bill submissions creates a lot of work, but it’s good for democracy. Power to the people is preserved when laymen have sway in the process.

“There’s very little separation between Maine citizens and their Legislature,” said Saxl, who backed efforts during his legislative service to reduce the number of bills in Maine — to no avail. “I really love and admire that. It’s extraordinary how an ordinary person in Maine can make an impact on the process if they have a passion.”

While it’s fun to read about the strange, cute and petty ideas Maine legislators try to get into law, and while it keeps the Maine Legislature busy for at least 10 months out of every two years, the fact is that a small percentage of what they talk about each session becomes law. Let’s not forget that that’s what the nation’s founders intended. For the sake of stability, the failure of bad ideas and the formation of consensus, democracy is supposed to be hard.

The Oakhurst lawsuit gives grammarians everywhere reason to rejoice

The Maine case strikes a blow for the importance of clarity against the Oxford comma’s opponents.

Published March 24, 2017, at 6 a.m.     |    

The Oakhurst lawsuit gives grammarians everywhere reason to rejoice

Posted March 24, 2017, at 6 a.m.
Last modified March 26, 2017, at 8:03 a.m.

Portland-based company Oakhurst Dairy will potentially owe $10 million to 75 milk-truck drivers in Maine because of a missing comma in a legal clause.

Last week, Judge David J. Barron in the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an appeal in a class-action lawsuit, opening his opinion with “ For want of a comma, we have this case.”

Three dairy-truck drivers sued Oakhurst Dairy in 2014 for four years of unpaid overtime wages. The case hinged on the missing comma after “packing for shipment” in the following clause of Maine state law, which lists exemptions from overtime:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

(1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish products; and

(3) Perishable foods.

The missing comma, in this case, would have separated “packing for shipment” and “distribution” into distinct activities, both exempt from overtime. Without the comma, the drivers argued, the law refers only to the act of packing, for the purpose of either shipping or distributing.

There are other grammatical issues with this clause (neatly unpacked in more detail by Mary Norris in The New Yorker) but David Webbert, a lawyer for the drivers, told The New York Times “ That comma would have sunk our ship.”

The contentious comma

This contentious comma is the serial comma, often called the “Oxford comma” and in some circles the “Harvard comma.” It comes before the final “and” or “or” in a series (a list of three or more items). For example, “Stone fruits include apricots, plums, and nectarines.”

Although some think it’s clunky, the Maine case strikes a blow for the importance of clarity. Consider this particularly spectacular example, supposedly from a TV listing in The Times:

“By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.”

There are two lists in this example that omit the serial comma, although only the second really demands it to eliminate ambiguity. (It’s worth noting that, even with an additional comma that would prevent Nelson Mandela from being a dildo collector, the sentence is so poorly phrased he could conceivably still be an 800-year-old demigod.)

The Maine Legislature’s drafting guidelines actually recommend against using the serial comma, advising that any confusing sentence be entirely rewritten. But the appellate judge is obviously a fan, saying “We would be remiss not to note the clarifying virtues of serial commas that other jurisdictions recognize.”

He elaborates by stating that both chambers of Congress warn against omitting the serial comma “to prevent any misreading that the last item is part of the preceding one” and says that only seven of the American states — including Maine — “either do not require or expressly prohibit the use of the serial comma.”

I’m with the judge and the other 43 states. I am a lifetime devotee of the serial comma, believing that it ensures clarity and aesthetic consistency. For reasons that I have never been able to fathom, its mention inevitably evokes fierce controversy. More than 1,000 people commented on The Guardian website within 24 hours of the comma story being published last week.

You’re with me, or against me, or ambivalent

People either strongly advocate its use at all times (as I do); weakly (in my opinion) allow its use only if its absence could cause ambiguity; or dismiss it altogether by recommending that the sentence be rewritten so that ambiguity is not an issue.

Those who make exceptions to the “no-serial-comma rule” when a sentence would be confusing include the Australian government in its Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers. This doesn’t even mention the term “serial comma,” stating “sometimes a comma is placed between the last two items to ensure clarity.”

The New Yorker uses the serial comma, according to its own style guide. The New York Times follows The Associated Press Stylebook, which gives a somewhat ambiguous (or possibly contradictory) example:

“In a series use commas to separate items but no comma before a conjunction e.g. ‘We bought eggs, milk and cheese at the store.’”

What’s happened to the comma that we have been told to use between the “milk” and “cheese” items?

Most key academic style guides recommend the serial comma. Robert Ritter, author of The Oxford Guide to Style, enthusiastically endorses it. It has been part of Oxford University Press style for more than a century. The quintessential English author Beatrix Potter used it. I have a china mug telling me that “Once upon a time there were four little rabbits: Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter.”

On the other hand, educational guidelines have a more confused approach. The U.K. National Curriculum horrifyingly warns that “the mark will not be awarded if a serial comma is used in a list of simple items. For example, this would be unacceptable: We bought apples, cheese, and milk.”

What happens in the Australian educational context?

New South Wales provides teachers with advice about the serial comma and other punctuation marks that is appallingly written and includes an egregious punctuation error: “Its used … [sic]”

“Use an ‘Oxford comma’ or it can be referred to as the ‘serial comma,’ to clarify list items that are more than one.”

The Queensland Curriculum Authority disappointingly advises that “No comma is needed before the ‘and’ that precedes the final item in the list.”

Readers’ comprehension of our writing is paramount. The serial comma aids clarity and it should be taught in all Australian schools.

The Maine case was not only marred by missing commas, but generally shoddy language use. The law had been revised since it was first drafted, but it had not been clarified. Where were the grammarians when this law was being drafted?

It’s very possible that, whether Oakhurst Dairy fights on, the serial comma will join the ranks of eponymous punctuation marks like the greengrocers’ apostrophe as the “milk-truck drivers’ comma.”

Roslyn Petelin is an associate professor in writing at the University of Queensland in Australia. This piece was originally published on TheConversation.com.

The Conversation

Mark Charette of Fort Kent, delivers home heating oil to a Fort Kent resident, Thursday, Dec. 1, during the season's first big snow event.

Bangor would be hardest-hit by Trump cuts to heating aid

Bangor, Lewiston and Skowhegan would get hit hardest by cuts to federal heating assistance in President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget.

Published March 23, 2017, at 3:02 p.m.     |    

Bangor would be hardest-hit by Trump cuts to heating aid

Posted March 23, 2017, at 3:02 p.m.
Last modified March 23, 2017, at 3:59 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Bangor, Lewiston and Skowhegan would get hit hardest by cuts to federal heating assistance in President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget.

Homes in those three communities were the top recipients of aid last year through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps people pay for heating fuel.

The federal money also supports state weatherization programs. Maine’s plan is targeted to help populations most susceptible to hypothermia, primarily elderly residents and young children, with about 60 percent of the funds helping people pay heating costs.

Trump’s budget proposal says the program “is unable to demonstrate strong performance outcomes,” putting it on the chopping block next to a raft of programs his administration identified as underperforming.

The budget still has to make its way through Congress, where support for the program has cut across partisan lines. Gov. Paul LePage and members of Maine’s congressional delegation lined up in opposition to LIHEAP cuts made in 2011, during Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration.

That move cut LIHEAP funding almost in half, where it’s remained in recent years. The proposal to slash the program entirely stands to affect thousands of low-income Maine households who still benefit from the program come winter.

One person living alone must make $17,820 a year or less to qualify. It’s $36,450 to qualify for a family of four, with higher thresholds for households with someone particularly vulnerable to hypothermia, according to eligibility guidelines from MaineHousing.

Statewide, the program provided about $22 million to help 40,221 households pay heating costs last year. That works out to average aid of $546 for each home.

Data from the Maine State Housing Authority show where the bulk of that heating assistance went last year, when Bangor overtook Lewiston for the highest share of the state aid. Penobscot County received about 14 percent of the total aid.

While those communities received the largest distributions in heating assistance from the program, other farther-flung towns would face deeper cuts per household if the program’s funding disappeared.

In Lincoln County, for instance, the average benefit was $689 per household last year. Nine other counties had higher average benefits than Penobscot.

For some island communities, the data show a handful of LIHEAP recipients who used more than $1,000 in aid to pay for heating last year.

Among that group with the highest average benefits, the coastal communities of Machiasport and Nobleboro had the most households in the program.

 

Gov. Paul LePage advises Brooklyn Tarbox, 10, of Gorham how to hammer a tap into the maple tree on the Blaine House lawn in Augusta last week.

How LePage found a Land for Maine’s Future project he can support

Bucking his pattern of opposing taxpayer-funded conservation projects, Gov. Paul LePage is backing a proposal that could clinch a $5.7 million easement on property that includes a major maple forest in Somerset County.

Published March 21, 2017, at 1 a.m.     |    

How LePage found a Land for Maine’s Future project he can support

Posted March 21, 2017, at 1 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Bucking his pattern of opposing taxpayer-funded conservation projects, Gov. Paul LePage is backing a proposal that could clinch a $5.7 million easement on property that includes a major maple forest in Somerset County.

The Big Six Forest is widely seen as worth protecting, and LePage’s early support is perfunctory, yet notable in part because of the governor’s past criticism of the Land for Maine’s Future program and past insinuations of corruption. Big Six’s owner is a LePage donor.

It could also spark a wider policy debate: While LePage’s office couched support for the project as consistent with his jobs-minded approach, a land trust official said it shows how the governor has favored rural conservation over more accessible projects near population centers.

The 23,600-acre property contains the head of the St. John River along the Quebec border and may have America’s biggest sugarbush with 340,000 taps that in 2013 yielded 24 percent of Maine’s maple sugar production and 3.4 percent of the national output, according to documents filed with the state in 2014.

It’s owned by Paul Fortin, a Madison businessman who would get roughly $5.7 million for a conservation easement if The Trust for Public Land can finish a slightly larger fundraising effort, according to JT Horn, a project manager for the conservation group.

The effort also won $3.5 million in 2014 as the last project that LePage allowed to be submitted to the federal Forest Legacy program. That money can make up no more than 75 percent of total project funds, so Land for Maine’s Future often must close gaps as it has done for some past projects.

Horn said Big Six plans to ask for funding under Land for Maine’s Future, whose board is now considering whether to authorize up to $4.25 million in bond money left from statewide elections in 2010 and 2012 to projects later this year. Fortin said they’re considering other funding methods, too, such as carbon credits.

The proposed easement would preserve the sugarbush, mandate sound forestry and forever open the property to recreational activities, including hunting, fishing and snowmobiling.

“The maple industry and really securing that future for the maple industry in Maine is the headline” for Horn’s group, he said, “and the recreational values are a nice add-on.”

‘It’s the right thing to do for the state’

Fortin’s past support for LePage’s political causes has raised eyebrows. He gave $20,000 to the governor’s political action committee last year and made $6,000 in personal and business contributions to LePage’s 2014 re-election campaign.

But the story of this property is more complicated: LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said in an email that it “remained consistent in his support for projects that promote working waterfronts and forests, which create good-paying jobs for Mainers.”

Fortin said he often donates to conservative and community causes and that it wasn’t about currying favor.

A state task force on the maple industry said in 2011 that preserving Big Six was a priority. Afterward, Fortin said LePage administration officials heard he might log the land amid high pulp prices in 2012.

He didn’t disclose a figure but said he forfeited such a windfall that “you might be ashamed of me as a businessman” for not cutting the trees. That started the easement push.

“Bottom line: It’s the right thing to do for the state,” Fortin said. “It would have been a shame to cut them.”

There are other pressures: Big Six borders the Chaudiere-Appalaches region of Quebec that’s noted for hunting, and Fortin has said he often gets unsolicited offers for camp lots.

In 2014, a real estate agent in Quebec City — less than 80 miles away — told the state that because such lots in Quebec are in short supply, Big Six lots would sell “at an astonishing rate” to Canadians. The parcel is easier to access from Quebec than most of Maine because of a border crossing 2 miles away at Sainte-Aurelie.

History of conflict

LePage has had a difficult relationship with Land for Maine’s Future: He spent much of 2015 withholding $11.5 million in voter-approved bonds and has blamed land trusts for inflating property taxes by making land tax-exempt.

Money has flowed to certain projects since then — including the Cold Stream Forest in Somerset County. However, other projects didn’t get money.

LePage appointees on the board slashed funding for Howard Hill, a project to preserve the forest backdrop to the Maine State House in Augusta after a dispute over an appraisal. One member resigned in protest.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, who fought LePage on bond issuance, is the law partner of Sumner Lipman, who owned Howard Hill. The governor made comments in 2015 that many interpreted as wrongly insinuating that Katz would benefit from that deal, according to the Portland Press Herald.

Alan Stearns, executive director of the Royal River Conservation Trust, who had a project held up in the dispute, said the Big Six project is worthy, but the “pipeline for state funding” has become “smaller and more volatile” under LePage.

“I wish there were as much support for southern Maine open space and recreation projects as there are for remote forestland,” he said.

If the Land for Maine’s Future board chooses to issue money later this year, applicants would have to meet the board’s criteria to get awards. The board is now developing criteria — or the “workbook” — that would guide them in scoring those projects.

Once bids come in, LePage has no official influence on project selection. But he has appointed five board members and the three other spots are held by his department commissioners — Walter Whitcomb of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry; Chandler Woodcock of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife; and Patrick Keliher of Marine Resources.

John Bott, a spokesman for Whitcomb’s department, said in emails that it backs the project in a normal “sponsorship role” in which staff “work with applicants to ensure that all relevant criteria are met and all required component pieces are included” in an application.

Whitcomb declined an interview request through Bott, who said commissioners don’t typically advocate for projects because they’re on the board. Bott also said “discussion of this and other potential applications is premature until all the projects and applicants are known.”

But Horn has a theory on why LePage likes the project: It “ties back to a forest products industry, to jobs, to people that are reliant on the North Woods for their business.”

“We might have a broader view of conservation, but if we have a project that fits with the governor’s priorities, we’re happy to take whatever political support we can get,” he said.

 

Gov. Paul LePage answers questions from broadcast media following a maple tree tapping ceremony on the Blaine House lawn in mid-March.

Why LePage is spending more time talking to national conservative media

“[Gov. Paul LePage is] good about keeping the guessing game going. That’s a good approach no matter what you’re planning next. Keep them guessing.”

Published March 19, 2017, at 7:26 a.m.     |    

Why LePage is spending more time talking to national conservative media

Posted March 19, 2017, at 7:26 a.m.
Last modified March 19, 2017, at 7:53 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage spent weeks away from Augusta in February and March, piling up public appearances in Washington, D.C., national conservative media exposure and rumors about whether he’ll finish his second term as Maine’s governor.

While he was publicly focused on trying to influence debate about congressional Republicans’ plans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, LePage’s foray into national politics — and the timing, 20 months before a major election — bears the hallmarks of a politician who is quietly testing the waters for his next venture.

Speculation has abounded for years about whether LePage will leave the Blaine House early. Although his staff has called that chatter “juicy rumors and false innuendo,” the governor has often fueled speculation with mixed messages about his plans.

He said during his first term that he was considering a run for Congress, and he has stated multiple times that he might try to unseat independent U.S. Sen. Angus King in the 2018. Embroiled in controversy amid calls for his resignation over his harsh comments to a Democratic lawmaker in August 2016, LePage said he was “looking at all of the options.”

He has also, at times, sounded like he isn’t going anywhere until after term limits push him out of the Blaine House in January 2019. Earlier this month, he dismissed rumors about whether he’s after a job in the Trump administration as “wishful thinking on the parts of my adversaries.” He also said as recently as November 2016 that “I was elected governor of the state of Maine, and I intend to see it through.”

Dennis Bailey, a campaign strategist who has worked for mostly Democrats and was communications director for King when he was governor, said LePage has the look of a guy with handlers trying to polish his image.

“He’s good about keeping the guessing game going,” Bailey said. “That’s a good approach no matter what you’re planning next. Keep them guessing.”

What does he want?

Opportunities are ripe, and LePage has paid his dues. The switch of presidential power from Democrat to Republican means there are hundreds of positions to fill with conservatives such as LePage. LePage was an early and aggressive Trump endorser at a time when most Republicans were shunning the would-be president, and he was there to prime the crowds during some of Trump’s Maine campaign stops. That sort of support during a bruising campaign has yielded rewards as long as there have been elections.

As one of the first elected Republicans to endorse Trump, LePage has political capital. He’s using it to try to steer Trump, whose political ideology has shifted often, to advance policies that reflect the governor’s bedrock conservative principles. By granting interviews to Breitbart, Laura Ingraham, Fox News and other conservative outlets, LePage has cast his voice beyond Maine to rally a core constituency — the roughly 40 percent of voters who identify as conservative — to pressure Trump to make government reflect their values.

Payback from Trump might not come in the form of a federal job or ambassadorship, which LePage has said appeals to him, but in policies or decisions that allow LePage to cement his legacy in Maine or nationally as a conservative reformer.

There is a populist uprising on which to capitalize. LePage’s two elections and Trump’s anti-government campaign to the presidency indicate that the key purple segment of the electorate that’s not hard right or hard left is gravitating toward outsider candidates who promise to tear down establishment institutions and push the political envelope. LePage is just that kind of candidate — though the fact that Trump and Republicans can no longer claim the “outsider” title puts them in the crosshairs.

With history showing that a midterm congressional election swing toward Democrats in 2018 is a real possibility, conservatives such as LePage have a sense of urgency to promoting their agenda. Frustrated by the slow, deliberative pace of the legislative process — even when it is shepherded by Republicans — they’ve assigned themselves to be the voices of regular people frustrated by government inaction.

For now, LePage’s solidly conservative accomplishments in Maine — reducing welfare rolls, paying off debt — and storybook life story make him a key player in that effort, attracting attention well beyond Maine, according to Tarren Bragdon, a conservative activist who led LePage’s transition team in 2010 and has worked with him on policy for years.

“People are very impressed and moved by the governor’s own life story and by his track record in Maine. They’re interested in hearing what he has to say,” said Bragdon, who added that the governor’s recent visits to Washington were about policy, not posturing. “Gov. LePage has a lot of weight in the federal debate. Not just because he’s using his bully pulpit but because he can point to his accomplishments.”

LePage’s people say all of this hubbub is about LePage’s pursuit of policy goals. In this case, his goals include pushing congressional Republicans’ plan for replacing Obamacare more conservative by ending incentives for Medicaid expansion, among other items. Bragdon and Brent Littlefield, LePage’s political strategist, say it’s as simple as that.

“[LePage’s visits to Washington] are just policy based,” Littlefield said. “Whenever you have a change in the administration, there’s going to be more opportunities for policy changes.”

But LePage will soon be a lame duck governor. In some ways, the governor’s biennial budget proposal, which is pending in the Legislature, is his last, biggest chance to further his agenda. He is free to introduce bills to the Legislature at any time, but last year’s return of a Democratic majority to the House of Representatives cemented the fact that the opposing party can block any bill it doesn’t like. Those maneuvers have frustrated LePage to extremes in the past; he has voiced disgust in lawmakers for opposing him on everything from education and energy reforms to fighting the drug addiction crisis.

The debate over the state budget will be over by the end of June — barring an impasse that would shut down state government — which could present some choices for LePage. After a budget passes, he said last week, “I can start looking, and then my wife and I will start talking about what we want to do when we grow up.”

Political calculus

Political strategists are taking notice of LePage’s recent exposure on conservative media. In the past few weeks, LePage has appeared in prime slots on Fox and Friends, Your World Cavuto and Breitbart News, among others, and influential radio hosts Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck have discussed Maine’s governor in glowing terms.

Vic Berardelli, a retired conservative political consultant from Newburgh, said exposure like that is not easy to secure and is usually orchestrated.

“National exposure in conservative media is often the first step of attracting political donors from around the country,” Berardelli said. “It’s well orchestrated. … It looks like he’s being groomed, that somebody is coaching him.”

Democrats who have underestimated LePage for years continue to look for vulnerabilities. The party regained control of the Legislature in 2012 with a campaign built on attacks against LePage, but a similar effort failed in 2014, when he won re-election and Republicans seized control of the Maine Senate.

His “guessing game” continues to keep Democrats occupied, with focus now on whether he will seek another elective office or a high-level job in the Trump administration.

“A confirmation hearing would be almost unwinnable for him,” said Matt McTighe, a Democratic activist and strategist who led Democrat Mike Michaud’s unsuccessful campaign against LePage in 2014. “It’s just so hard to imagine that there’s any job out there that he could get confirmation for.”

McTighe said Democrats are monitoring the possibility that LePage is planning a run against King or possibly Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st Congressional District.

“Right now would be the right time to be coming down to Washington and kissing the rings of donors if you’re looking at a 2018 election,” McTighe said. “But only LePage knows what LePage’s motives and intentions are.”

LePage is doing what he does best but on a bigger stage. Retail politics at the local level propelled LePage to two terms in the Blaine House. He connects with people personally at meetings of business groups, conservative gatherings and job-site visits, cementing support among voters frustrated by bureaucracy while not wasting time trying to convince those with whom he disagrees. Despite serving as Maine’s chief executive since 2011, he still manages to assign blame for that frustration to his political foes, mostly Democrats and legislators in general. In doing so, he has kept Democrats largely on the defensive.

In the past two months, he’s taken that strategy to the national level.

With an ideologically fractured national electorate, LePage’s more prominent profile in the conservative media universe bears watching as a barometer of the conservative movement’s and Trump’s abilities to hold onto their images as populist reformers.

The Point Climate change

Curbing climate change has a dollar value. This is how we measure it.

While burning fossil fuels produces benefits, it also generates widespread costs to society — including damages from climate change.

Published March 17, 2017, at 5:55 a.m.     |    

Curbing climate change has a dollar value. This is how we measure it.

Posted March 17, 2017, at 5:55 a.m.

President Donald Trump is expected to issue an executive order soon to reverse Obama-era rules to cut carbon pollution, including a moratorium on leasing public lands for coal mining and a plan to reduce carbon emissions from power plants.

Trump and his appointees argue that these steps will bring coal miners’ jobs back (although coal industry job losses reflect competition from cheap natural gas, not regulations that have yet to take effect). But they ignore the fact that mitigating climate change will produce large economic gains.

While burning fossil fuels produces benefits, such as powering the electric grid and fueling cars, it also generates widespread costs to society — including damages from climate change that affect people around the world now and in the future. Public policies that reduce carbon pollution deliver benefits by avoiding these damages.

Since the Reagan administration, federal agencies have been required to enact only regulations whose potential benefits to society justify or outweigh their potential costs. To quantify benefits from acting to curb climate change, the U.S. government developed a formal measure in 2009 of the value of reducing carbon pollution, which is referred to as the social cost of carbon, or SCC. Currently, federal agencies use an SCC figure of about $40 per ton in today’s dollars.

Now the Trump administration and critics in Congress may reduce this figure or even stop using it. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s recent comment that carbon dioxide is not “a primary contributor” to climate change suggests that Pruitt may challenge the agency’s 2009 finding that carbon emissions are pollutants and threaten human health.

As an economist for the White House, I was a member of the working group that developed the first government-wide SCC estimate. We can always improve our processes for estimating and using the SCC, but getting rid of it would be a mistake. A well-functioning democracy needs transparency about the economic benefits of investments driven by public policy — as well as the benefits we give up when we walk away from making these investments.

The value of avoiding hurricanes, wildfires

Scientists widely agree that carbon dioxide emissions, primarily from burning fossil fuels, pose significant risks to Earth’s climate. Intuitively, it makes sense that reducing carbon emissions benefits society by reducing risks of flooding, wildfires, storms and other impacts associated with severe climate change.

We can estimate the benefits of many goods and services, from pop music to recreation, from the prices people pay for them in markets. But valuing environmental benefits is not so simple. Americans can’t go to the store and buy a stable climate.

Carbon pollution drives global warming that causes many different impacts on the natural and built environment and human health. Because carbon emissions have such broad and diverse impacts, scholars have developed models to characterize the economic benefits (or costs) of reducing them.

Current U.S. government practice draws from three peer-reviewed integrated assessment models. An integrated assessment model represents a chain of events, starting with economic activities that involve fossil fuel combustion. This generates carbon emissions, which contribute to climate change.

And climate change causes outcomes that can be measured in monetary terms. For example, rising carbon pollution will increase the likelihood of lower agricultural yields, threaten public health through heat stress and damage infrastructure through floods and intense storms.

Thousands of scenarios

The social cost of carbon represents the damages of 1 ton of carbon dioxide emitted into the air. To estimate it, economists run models that forecast varying levels of carbon dioxide emissions. They can then model and compare two forecasts — one with slightly higher emissions than the other. The difference in total climate change damages represents the social cost of carbon.

Carbon pollution can remain in the atmosphere for up to 200 years, so these models are run over a century or more in order to account for long-term damages that carbon emissions impose on society.

SCC estimates are based on chains of events that include many uncertainties — for example, how many tons of carbon will be emitted in a given year, the amount of warming that will result, and how severely this warming will exacerbate risks like floods and heat waves. Since we cannot predict any single scenario with certainty, the U.S. government has modeled hundreds of thousands of different scenarios to produce its SCC estimates.

Some model scenarios, based on admittedly extreme assumptions, produce negative SCC estimates; that is, they find that carbon pollution is good for the planet. But the vast majority of scenarios show that carbon pollution is bad for the planet, and that on average, every ton of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere imposes damages equal to about $40 in today’s dollars.

Balancing costs, benefits of regulations

The federal government began calculating a social cost of carbon after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in 2007 that the U.S. Department of Transportation had to account for climate benefits from its regulations to improve automobile fuel economy. Environmental groups and a dozen states challenged the regulations, in part because the Bush administration had valued the benefits of cutting carbon dioxide emissions at zero.

In response, the Obama administration created a working group in 2009 with officials from 12 agencies to develop the federal government’s first official SCC estimate. Our initial figure of $25 for 2010 was updated in 2013, 2015 and 2016, reflecting updates in the underlying models.

Agencies have used these estimates in benefit-cost analyses for scores of federal regulations, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, the Department of Transportation’s medium and heavy-duty vehicle fuel economy standards and the U.S. Department of Energy’s minimum efficiency standard for refrigerators and freezers. Some of these studies were required only by executive order, but others were required by law. Unless the authorizing statutes are amended, the Trump administration will have to produce analyses accounting for carbon pollution reduction benefits if it wants to issue new regulations that can withstand legal challenges.

The Trump administration could continue to use SCC estimates in regulatory evaluations, but water them down. For example, some scholars have called for focusing only on domestic benefits — as opposed to total global benefits — of reducing carbon pollution in the United States. Emitting a ton of carbon imposes damages in the U.S. and around the world, just as a ton emitted in Beijing imposes damages on the U.S. and other countries around the world. Considering only the domestic impacts of carbon pollution could lower the SCC by three-quarters.

But if the U.S. ignores the benefits of reducing carbon pollution that other countries enjoy, then those other countries may follow suit and consider only how cutting emissions will benefit them internally. This approach ignores the strategic value that serves as the primary motivation for countries to work together to combat climate change. The world would achieve much greater emissions reductions and greater net economic benefits if countries implement policies based on the global social cost of carbon instead of a domestic-only SCC.

As climate change science and economics continue to evolve, our tools for estimating benefits from reducing carbon pollution will need to evolve and improve. In January the National Academies of Sciences published a report that lays out an extensive research agenda for improving the estimation and use of the social cost of carbon.

The federal government has used used benefit-cost analysis to calculate society’s bottom line from regulations for decades. So far, the Trump administration appears to be focused solely on costs — an approach that maximizes the corporate bottom line, but leaves the public out of the equation.

Joseph Aldy is an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University. This piece was originally published on TheConversation.com.

The Conversation

 

The part of Maine that backed Trump is least likely to benefit from GOP health plan

Areas of Maine that backed President Donald Trump in last year’s election stand to lose the most federal aid to buy health insurance under the House Republicans’ plan.

Published March 15, 2017, at 3:33 p.m.     |    

The part of Maine that backed Trump is least likely to benefit from GOP health plan

Posted March 15, 2017, at 3:33 p.m.
Last modified March 15, 2017, at 5:33 p.m.

Areas of Maine that backed President Donald Trump in last year’s election stand to lose the most federal aid to buy health insurance under the House Republicans’ plan to repeal Obamacare, an analysis of Maine voter and tax credit data shows.

In much of Maine’s 2nd Congressional District — which awarded Trump one of the state’s four electoral votes in a historic split — low-income residents would fare worse under the plan. Particularly hard hit would be older Mainers in those northern counties, even those earning middle-class wages.

By contrast, in Maine’s generally younger 1st District, which went heavily for Democrat Hillary Clinton, residents at nearly all income levels would receive more assistance from the government under the Republican plan.

Take a 60-year-old in Piscataquis County, for example, which voted for Trump by the largest margin, who earns $30,000 a year. That individual would see federal aid drop nearly 60 percent, from $9,730 under Obamacare to $4,000 under the GOP proposal. Older residents there would have to earn more than $50,000 to see a net benefit from the Republican plan.

Compare that to a 27-year-old in Cumberland County, which went hardest for Clinton, who earns $30,000 a year. That person’s tax credit would rise from $1,470 to $2,000, a jump of 36 percent.

On average, tax credits would fall by $2,549, or 46 percent, in Maine, according a report by the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The disparities even out across Maine the more that residents earn, which could make the Republican proposal attractive to a key constituency: Trump voters who aren’t poor but still struggle to afford health insurance. They get nothing under Obamacare, but at least some relief from the feds under so-called RyanCare.

Our analysis combined a report from the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation, which projected tax credits in 2020 under Obamacare and the Republican alternative, with county-level election data.

Our findings track with similar analyses at the national level that found Trump voters would be among the biggest losers under the Republican plan.

It also lines up with what we know about the demographics of Trump voters, who are largely white, older, and living in areas with fewer immigrants. That describes Maine in general, but especially the more northern areas.

As the impacts of the Republican bill emerge, it’s been slow to win enthusiasm even among conservatives.

U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, who serves the 2nd District, previously issued a statement expressing support for popular elements of the Affordable Care Act that are included in the House GOP plan, but he is aggressively not taking a stance on the proposal, based on Tuesday emails from his staff.

U.S. Sen Susan Collins has expressed concern about the bill, while U.S. Sen. Angus King and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree oppose it.

Rewarding longevity

Both Obamacare and the new Republican proposal, called the American Health Care Act, provide consumers with tax credits to buy a health plan. The credits help people who buy their own health insurance, rather than get coverage through work or government programs such as Medicaid and Medicare.

But each calculates the assistance amounts differently.

Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act, bases tax credits primarily on income, with poorer people getting more and wealthier Americans getting a smaller amount. It also takes into account age and the local cost of health insurance. The vast majority of the 77,000 Maine consumers with ACA plans, 85 percent, rely on these tax credits to afford their monthly premiums.

The Republican plan bases tax credits on how old you are, not how much you make. Everyone who makes less than $75,000 a year, or $150,000 for couples filing taxes jointly, would get the same amount of federal assistance according to the following age brackets:

— $2,000 for people under 30

— $2,500 for those between 30 and 40

— $3,000 for those between 40 and 50

— $3,500 for those between 50 and 60

— $4,000 for those over 60

People above that income level would see their credits phased out.

Penalizing infirmity

Even though older Americans get the most generous tax credit under the House Republican plan, here’s why they fare much better under Obamacare (at least as far as the federal leg up goes) in northern Maine. While age generally rises as you travel from south to north, household income generally drops, so older Mainers are typically poorer as well.

Obamacare’s accounting for income benefits them more, on the whole, than Ryancare’s accounting for age.

The GOP plan also includes another provision that experts predict will offset any tax credit advantage that older, richer Americans might get.

Older people are generally sicker and therefore cost insurers more money to cover. But the ACA allows insurers to charge older enrollees no more than three times as much as a younger person.

Under the Republican proposal, insurers would be permitted to charge them five times more.

In a relatively old state such as Maine, that could mean much higher premiums for many residents, though lower monthly costs for younger ones.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated this week that insurance premiums would rise 15 percent to 20 percent in both 2018 and 2019 under the Republicans’ plan, because fewer healthy people would enroll following the repeal of Obamacare’s penalty for skipping insurance. But it expects those increases to be offset after 2020 by $100 billion the bill would award to states and by deregulation of the insurance market.

Sour and sweet spots

It goes without saying that you don’t have to be poor to struggle to afford health insurance. Under Obamacare, a fair number of people in that situation get no help from the federal government to pay their premiums. The tax credits dry up entirely if you earn more than 400 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $47,520 for an individual. It doesn’t matter how old you are.

(You also get nothing if you earn less than the poverty level, leaving tens of thousands of people with no insurance in states like Maine that didn’t expand Medicaid.)

As others have pointed out, if you’re someone who earns just a little too much to qualify for an Obamacare subsidy, the Republican plan could prove appealing. You go from getting nothing to at least something, even if you’re older and facing higher premiums that will eat up most or all of your tax credit.

Once your income goes north of $50,000 a year, the Ryan plan is universally better as far as the tax credits go. Every Mainer earning between that amount and $100,000 a year would fare better under the Republicans’ plan, regardless of age, the Kaiser data show.

That also happens to be the income group that was more likely to vote for Trump, according to national statistics.

BDN Maine reporter Darren Fishell contributed to this analysis and provided data visualizations.

Michael Thibodeau (from left), Sara Gideon and Gov. Paul LePage.

Here’s where the fight will get real on LePage’s budget

Here are some of the big pressure points and where legislative leaders are lining up before any grand bargain.

Published March 12, 2017, at 7:23 a.m.     |    

Here’s where the fight will get real on LePage’s budget

Posted March 12, 2017, at 7:23 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The parades of special interests through State House committee rooms to speak out about Gov. Paul LePage’s two-year budget proposal are over, with the onus shifting to a divided Legislature to hammer out a deal.

The last scheduled public hearing before the Legislature’s budget-writing committee on the Republican governor’s $6.8 billion proposal occurred Friday. Other committees will consider items in their subject areas before reporting back to the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.

It’s certain to lead to massive changes to LePage’s aggressive budget plan, which would shift Maine to a flat income tax by 2020 while neutering a voter-approved increase on high earners, overhaul the state’s K-12 education system and cut $140 million over baseline figures from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, among myriad changes big and small.

Here are some of the big pressure points and where legislative leaders are lining up before any grand bargain.

Republicans may be seeking a new tax tied to increasing education funding. LePage might even accept it. But Democrats could be an obstacle.

Maine voters created a new income surtax to benefit public schools by passing Question 2 on last year’s ballot, which placed a 3 percent surcharge on income over $200,000 to increase school funding by an estimated $157 million per year in an aim to get the state to fund education at or near 55 percent — a threshold set by voters in 2004 that Maine has never met.

LePage and Republicans already are intent on repealing or softening the impact of the new tax. But Democrats are holding to it for now, with House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, saying funding schools at less than 55 percent is a “dealbreaker” for Democrats.

“I’m really not in a position, quite honestly, where I’m approaching our budget negotiations ready to change that or give it away,” she said.

Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said support is building for implementing a sales tax on goods Mainers buy online and routing the proceeds to public schools.

“In order to find the necessary votes to pass this budget, we’ve got to honor the spirit of what that referendum was, which is that the people want additional resources for education,” he said Friday. “The controversial part isn’t the additional funding for education. There are folks on both sides of the aisle that recognize an income tax rate double what the state of Massachusetts has is just untenable.”

House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, half agreed with Thibodeau and suggested that education doesn’t need an increase in funding past the $19 million increase proposed by LePage — it needs reform.

“For House Republicans, the focus is going to be holding the line on spending,” Fredette said, referring to education as well as the rest of the state budget. “The answer can’t be, ‘Let’s find another $150 million, and let’s throw it at education.’ Then you have another budget increase of $300 million in spending. That’s going to be a real challenge.”

The governor is a tax hawk, but he has long supported an online sales tax, which is supported by small retailers as a way to level the playing field between brick-and-mortar stores and massive online outfits such as Amazon, which collects sales taxes in 38 states but not Maine.

Such purchases already are subject to Maine’s use tax, but that’s easily avoided because reporting out-of-state purchases is effectively voluntary. It’s also unclear whether Maine could do it. LePage signed a law aiming to collect these taxes in 2013, but Amazon cut ties with affiliates here to avoid it, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said funding education at 55 percent would deliver property tax relief to Mainers, while the online sales tax may be “pie in the sky” and “something we’re not looking at at all.”

LePage’s welfare reform proposals are sure to trigger a political impasse.

This will be a continuation of a debate that has gone on for at least four years. Citing a need for smaller government, LePage’s administration has proposed eliminating Medicaid eligibility for non-disabled parents with income over 40 percent of the federal poverty level and lower lifetime caps on cash benefits for families.

But those changes would remove an estimated 18,000 Mainers from Medicaid and remove 1,500 children from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program on the heels of other cuts to those programs under LePage’s tenure.

Democrats have drawn a bright line on that, with Jackson saying he’s “floored by this type of mentality that we have to basically screw poor people so the wealthiest in our state can get more of their income taxes back.”

“The 90-pound gorilla in all of this is the health and human services budget,” Thibodeau said. “There will be a lot of give and take to find the sweet spot that garners two-thirds support, but I’m sure we can get there.”

Fredette said House Republicans agree with LePage that anyone they define as able-bodied should not receive welfare without significant hurdles in terms of work requirements and asset tests.

“The reason we’re not in a budget crisis today is because the governor and Republicans have been able to reform DHHS and really stop the bleeding over there,” Fredette said.

If the Legislature rejects too many of LePage’s welfare initiatives, it could cause the governor to veto the entire budget, as the issue has been one of his signature agenda items since he took office.

In addition to re-applying for some initiatives that have failed in the past, such as putting photos on cash benefits cards, LePage has inserted himself into the congressional debate about repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act.

Education and social services — and their billion-dollar price tags — will cause debate, but so will smaller-dollar issues that have been problems for years.

Among those issues is state funding for county jails, which has posed jurisdictional and financial problems for several years. At the core of the disagreement is whether the state, which has little or no oversight over county jails, should fund them at all.

“Everyone knows that the county jail system needs to be fixed,” Fredette said. “We can’t keep writing blank checks.”

Gideon said “we don’t have that solution defined at this point,” saying jails will require a “deep dive” by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee to be discussed in the context of the budget.

Another area that could cause friction is funding for indigent legal services, which serves low-income Mainers. At the core of this debate is whether the state should continue to pay private practice attorneys an hourly rate or whether the state should develop a stable of public defenders. LePage favors the latter — and proposed doing so in 2015 — but so far the Legislature has not followed suit.

Come May and June, it could be deja vu all over again but with one difference — LePage is heading out of office.

It’s perhaps LePage’s last best chance at a legacy, and that seems to be on his mind. He has floated a 2018 run against independent U.S. Sen. Angus King over the past two years and his visits to Washington spurred rumors of a potential role in the Trump administration.

When asked about a Senate run on Thursday by WGAN, LePage said he hasn’t decided. But after a budget passes, he said, “I can start looking and then my wife and I will start talking about what we want to do when we grow up.”

“If they do not take the high taxes and the high energy costs in this state and take it seriously and realize that it’s killing our forest industry because of high need of energy, then there’s no reason why I want to spend the rest of my life in the state of Maine,” LePage said of the Legislature.

There is a lot of time for debate between now and then, but the issues that could hold up passage of the budget — and presumably raise the prospect of a government shutdown if an impasse lasts into late June — look today to center on tax reform, social service cuts and overall spending rates.

The last two state budgets were passed over a governor’s veto. Again, it could be a political fight with LePage and House Republicans on one side and Democrats and Senate Republicans on the other.

Whatever spending plan comes out of the debate will need two-thirds buy-in from both chambers, which is why some say this could be the most difficult budget battle in years, despite a state balance sheet that is decidedly in the black.

 

Ethan Evans works remotely from CoVort co-working space in Bangor on Friday for the Boston-based software development firm Appworks, supplementing a military career with the Maine National Guard and allowing him to buck a trend of the state losing its youngest workers in droves.

For younger workers, leaving Maine means higher incomes

From 2011 to 2015, Maine lost more than 1,800 workers younger than 26 and had a net loss of about 667 workers under the age of 65, according to IRS statistics.

Published March 12, 2017, at 7:23 a.m.     |    

For younger workers, leaving Maine means higher incomes

Posted March 12, 2017, at 7:23 a.m.
Last modified March 12, 2017, at 8:41 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Ethan Evans figured he would have to leave Maine for work before he got an offer he “couldn’t refuse.”

Evans works remotely from Bangor for Boston-based software development firm Appworks, supplementing his military career with the Maine National Guard and allowing him to buck a trend of the state losing its youngest workers in droves.

“I can go to Boston and get my fill of the city life, and then I can come home and sit in the woods,” said Evans, who noted a majority of his friends have left, mostly for Boston or Portland.

If it weren’t for the job offer from Appworks that lets him stay close to family, he said he’d probably be gone, too.

“It’s better for some people to go make double the money in Massachusetts and then come back later to settle here,” Evans said.

Evans’ story is an exception to the exodus of the state’s youngest workers. From 2011 to 2015, Maine lost more than 1,800 workers younger than 26 and had a net loss of about 667 workers under the age of 65, according to IRS statistics.

The figures highlight part of a population challenge that has held the attention of policymakers for decades, predicting the oldest state in the nation would continue to get older and the population would dwindle without attracting workers from other states and abroad.

One group, called Work in Place, started last year to promote location-independent working arrangements like Evans’ as another economic development strategy for the state.

As for attracting new workers in their prime, between 26 and 55, the data reveal where that may be a challenge based on earnings.

For example, income barely grew for filers between 35 and 44 who came to the state between 2012 and 2014. It picked up in 2015, when people 26 to 34 who moved into Maine saw income grow more slowly than people who moved out of state.

But despite the departure of the state’s youngest workers, a separate set of migration data show that Maine has had net gains in population from 22 states between 2011 and 2015, with the largest gains from other states in the Northeast.

Maine lost people to warmer climates and larger states, including Texas, California and, most of all, Florida.

Both data sets show how broad groups are moving and how overall income has changed but have limitations as measures of total migration or movement of wealth.

For one, the data only cover income tax filers. Within that, they may drop some filings where the same filer can’t be tracked from one year to the next. That can differ from other measures of migration, particularly with foreign migration.

The IRS data show a net loss of about 300 people to foreign countries from 2011 to 2015. Census figures estimate the state gained more than 7,000 residents from foreign migration during that time while losing about 4,100 to other states.

What’s clear from the data is that whether moving or not incomes of the highest earners have been growing at the fastest rates. In the $200,000 or more income bracket, collective income for filers who moved and those who didn’t in 2015 rose by at least 20 percent.

That’s compared with growth ranging from 1 percent to 9 percent across groups of filers making from $10,000 to $200,000 per year.

BDN visuals editor Micky Bedell contributed to this report.

A worker stretches a string at the D’Addario & Co. plant in Farmingdale, New York, the world’s largest maker of strings for musical instruments.

Trump’s plans for industrial rebirth are a dead end

Writing angry tweets at companies that open factories in Mexico won’t create good jobs for American workers. But expanding universities and allowing greater urban density just might do the trick.

Published March 10, 2017, at 7:29 a.m.     |    

Trump’s plans for industrial rebirth are a dead end

Posted March 10, 2017, at 7:29 a.m.

President Donald Trump’s economic adviser, Peter Navarro, has vowed to restore U.S. manufacturing supremacy. This is no surprise — Trump’s election campaign emphasized the promise of a return to the industrial economy of the mid-20th century, before countries such as China supplanted the United States as the workshop of the world.

But this push is unlikely to succeed. Changes in the U.S. industrial mix, and in technology itself, mean there’s no going back to the economy of yesteryear. To understand why this is true, everyone should read “The New Geography of Jobs,” by University of California at Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti. It’s probably the most important popular economics book of the decade.

Moretti demonstrates that there really are two Americas — one that’s healthy, rich and growing, and a second that’s increasingly being left behind. The two nations-within-a-nation are divided not so much by region or race or religion, but by the kinds of industries they support. Those cities and towns that are home to innovative industries — information technology, pharmaceuticals, advanced manufacturing and the like — are wealthier, healthier and safer, while the places without these industries are steadily declining.

“The New Geography of Jobs” catalogs these changes relentlessly. Moretti has done his homework — he can rattle off the names of places like Visalia, California, and Bridgeton, New Jersey, that have failed to catch the train of the innovation economy. In graph after graph, he shows that the cities with better social indicators in the 1980s — longer life expectancy, lower divorce rates and higher voter turnout — have steadily increased their advantage since then. And these are also the cities with the highest number of college graduates — the innovation hubs. The places that are being left behind are the ones that lack top-end human capital.

Why this divergence? The reason, Moretti explains, is what economists call local multipliers. Every American with a high-paying innovation job — every software engineer, every manager at a drug company — shops locally. They pay doctors to fix their knees. They pay yoga teachers and personal trainers and dieticians. They hire roofers and landscapers and electricians and plumbers. They shop at local stores and eat at local restaurants. Every dollar that the innovation industries pull in from outside gets spent around town, and then spent again.

Most of the jobs in the country, Moretti shows, come from these local services. This was even true in the era of manufacturing, when less than a third of American jobs came from factories.

Local multipliers are the key to providing Americans with good jobs.

Manufacturing creates local multipliers, too. But the kind of industries the U.S. used to specialize in — textiles, steel and cars — provide much smaller multipliers than the innovative industries toward which the country has now shifted. The U.S. didn’t lose out to China — it simply shifted into more productive industries. If the country were to return to the kind of low-multiplier manufacturing that it left behind in the 1980s, it would be a lot poorer as a result.

In 1955, William F. Buckley of the National Review wrote that conservatism’s job was to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop.” But if Trump and his team try to make economic history stop, the results won’t be pretty. Economic history is a story of progress and enrichment, but also a story of businesses and regions making the difficult changes they need to survive and thrive. Trying to turn the U.S. back into a nation of smokestacks and metal benders just won’t help anyone.

So if returning to mass manufacturing isn’t the solution, what is? When you can’t go back, you have to push forward. The U.S. has to make the innovation economy work even better.

One solution Moretti suggests is to help more people move to the innovation hubs. As things stand, many of the best-performing cities limit their populations with development restrictions. Creating more density in cities such as Austin, Texas, San Francisco and San Diego would benefit service workers and low-income people, who Moretti shows do better in these cities even after accounting for local living costs. It would also allow low-income people to move out of the depressed, stagnant towns. That would reduce rent costs in those declining areas, as well as making local job competition less intense.

Another idea is to focus on government investment in human capital. That means expanding universities, upgrading their research capabilities and developing links between universities and local businesses. This won’t turn every town in the U.S. into Silicon Valley, but it will help many local economies, and will allow the U.S. to keep its edge in high-value innovation industries. This policy requires recruiting high-paying foreign students, since their higher tuition would be necessary to subsidize more cheap spots for native-born Americans.

Trump’s economic team needs to read Moretti’s book. Writing angry tweets at companies that open factories in Mexico won’t create good jobs for American workers. But expanding universities and allowing greater urban density just might do the trick. If Trump and his people can’t do this, the Democrats should make it a pillar of their economic strategy. There is no way back for the U.S. economy — only forward, further into the innovation age.

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University in New York, and he blogs at Noahpinion.

 

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, speaks about the American Health Care Act, the Republican replacement to Obamacare, at the Republican National Committee in Washington, March 8, 2017.

The Republican plan to replace Obamacare makes no sense

OpEd: It only took seven years, but Republicans have finally decided how they want to replace Obamacare — with a much, much less generous version of it that almost seems designed to push individual insurance markets into death spirals. I guess that’s freedom?

Published March 10, 2017, at 7:27 a.m.     |    

The Republican plan to replace Obamacare makes no sense

Posted March 10, 2017, at 7:27 a.m.

It only took seven years, but Republicans have finally decided how they want to replace Obamacare — with a much, much less generous version of it that almost seems designed to push individual insurance markets into death spirals.

I guess that’s freedom?

Before we get to that, though, let’s recap what it is that Obamacare actually does. At the most general level, it just taxes the rich to subsidize health insurance for the poor and sick. It does that in two ways. First, it expands Medicaid for households making up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level — $48,240 for an individual or $98,400 for a family of four — for states that choose to do so. Second, it tries to make individual insurance markets work for people regardless of their age or health. How? Well, the best way to think about it is as a three-legged stool. It starts by saying insurers aren’t allowed to discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions or charge older people more than three times as much as younger ones. Then it makes people pay a penalty if they don’t buy a plan to try to prevent them from driving up premiums by waiting until they’re sick to get covered. Finally, it gives subsidies to the people who need them to be able to afford a plan. The important point here is that it helps people more the more premiums go up and helps low-income people the most.

It’s no surprise, then, that Republicans have acted like this is the gravest threat to the republic since the 16th Amendment. (That’s the one that made the income tax legal.) After all, the GOP has made reversing redistribution its raison d’etre the past 40 years, and in the past 40 years there hasn’t been a bigger piece of redistribution than Obamacare. Still, they’ve run into a problem when they’ve tried to come up with a plan of their own. There isn’t a conservative alternative to Obamacare because Obamacare is the conservative alternative. It’s pretty close to what conservatives proposed in 1993 and what Mitt Romney did in Massachusetts. If you buy into the idea of universal coverage — or at least not yanking it away from too many people — then you either need the government to do it directly or use the same kind of three-legged stool Obamacare has. So it’s even less of a surprise that the Republican replacement plan is more or less a stingier version of Obamacare that cuts taxes on the rich, cuts Medicaid and cuts subsidies for lower earners while introducing them for some higher ones.

Here’s the basic outline. The Republican proposal would repeal almost all the Obamacare taxes next year, a $600 billion tax cut largely benefiting the top 1 percent, without having a plan to, well, replace them. The House GOP is “still discussing details” about that. As for Medicaid, it would continue Obamacare’s expansion for three more years, before cutting the program by capping its per-person costs instead of making the open-ended financial commitment that it does now. Not only that, but it would also reduce Medicaid benefits for anyone who had been newly covered by Obamacare, but hadn’t been covered by it the whole time. In other words, anyone whose income went up enough to lose Medicaid in any one year would lose a big chunk of it if they needed it any other year.

When it comes to individual markets, it looks like the Republicans want to set up the same sort of three-legged stool that Obamacare has, but it’s more like 1½. Yes, the Republican plan would give people subsidies to defray the cost of coverage, but those subsidies would vary mostly by age, not income, and not at all by geographical location. That means that poorer people in high-cost areas such as, say, rural ones, probably would get priced out of the insurance market. At the same time, though, upper-middle-class households who don’t get subsidies under Obamacare would under this plan. It’s a reverse Robin Hood. But more than that, the biggest difference is that these Republican subsidies wouldn’t grow at the same pace as premiums, like Obamacare’s do, but only slightly faster than inflation. That’s a slow-motion cut, since premiums tend to rise much more than overall prices. Which is to say that as more and more time passes, these subsidies would buy less and less coverage.

That, of course, is assuming there are even functioning individual insurance markets. There might not be. That’s because the rest of the Republican plan sure looks like it would destabilize them. On the one hand, it would keep Obamacare’s ban on insurers charging more for people with pre-existing conditions, but it would only do so as long as you maintained continuous coverage — which is defined as at most a two-month gap. But on the other, it wouldn’t do anything to try to get healthy people in the market and keep premiums down. If anything, the opposite. How’s that? The answer is that the Republicans would let insurers hit people with a 30 percent surcharge if they let their coverage lapse longer than two months. Perhaps you see the problem. Obamacare penalized people if they didn’t buy health insurance, while the Republican plan would penalize them if they do — which they then wouldn’t until they absolutely needed to. Or, more succinctly, when they’re sick. There’s a pretty good chance this would turn into what’s called a death spiral: Premiums rise because there aren’t enough healthy people in the insurance pool, which makes even more healthy people drop out, and premiums rise even more, until eventually all you’re left with are sick people who will try to pay whatever they can for coverage.

If this sounds like a plan that’s designed to please no one and infuriate everyone, that’s because it is. House conservatives don’t like that it enshrines what they think is a “new entitlement” in tax-credit subsidies; Republican governors won’t like the way it cuts Medicaid; and Senate Republicans are leery of anything that could make anywhere from 6 to 10 million people lose their health insurance, as S&P estimates this could. Indeed, conservative groups such as FreedomWorks, Heritage Action and Americans for Prosperity are already rallying against it.

The only question is whether it will take seven years for Republicans to replace their Obamacare replacement.

Matt O’Brien is a reporter for The Washington Post’s Wonkblog covering economic affairs. He was previously a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

 

A security message is seen on a Whatsapp screen in this illustration photo. The app is one way to protect conversations users want to keep private.

How to avoid getting hacked in today’s digital world

We now chat by text message and email, on Facebook and on Instagram. These conversations all leave electronic trails.

Published March 08, 2017, at 1:15 p.m.     |    

How to avoid getting hacked in today’s digital world

Posted March 08, 2017, at 1:15 p.m.

A decade ago, I wrote about the death of ephemeral conversation. As computers were becoming ubiquitous, some unintended changes happened, too: Before computers, what we said disappeared once we’d said it. Neither face-to-face conversations nor telephone conversations were routinely recorded. A permanent communication was something different and special; we called it correspondence.

The internet changed this. We now chat by text message and email, on Facebook and on Instagram. These conversations — with friends, lovers, colleagues, fellow employees — all leave electronic trails. And while we know this intellectually, we haven’t truly internalized it. We still think of conversation as ephemeral, forgetting that we’re being recorded and what we say has the permanence of correspondence.

That our data is used by large companies for psychological manipulation — we call this advertising — is well known. So is its use by governments for law enforcement and, depending on the country, social control. What made the news over the past year were demonstrations of how vulnerable all of this data is to hackers and the effects of having it hacked, copied and then published online. We call this doxing.

Doxing isn’t new, but it has become more common. It’s been perpetrated against corporations, law firms, individuals, the NSA and — just this week — the CIA. It’s largely harassment and not whistleblowing, and it’s not going to change anytime soon. The data in your computer and in the cloud are, and will continue to be, vulnerable to hacking and publishing online. Depending on your prominence and the details of this data, you may need some new strategies to secure your private life.

There are two basic ways hackers can get at your email and private documents. One way is to guess your password. That’s how hackers got their hands on personal photos of celebrities from iCloud in 2014.

How to protect yourself from this attack is pretty obvious. First: Don’t choose a guessable password. This is more than not using “password1″ or “qwerty”; most easily memorizable passwords are guessable. My advice is to generate passwords you have to remember by using either the XKCD scheme or the Schneier scheme and to use large random passwords stored in a password manager for everything else.

Second, turn on two-factor authentication where you can, like Google’s 2-Step Verification. This adds another step besides just entering a password, such as having to type in a one-time code that’s sent to your mobile phone. And third, don’t reuse the same password on any sites you actually care about.

You’re not done, though. Hackers have accessed accounts by exploiting the “secret question” feature and resetting the password. That was how Sarah Palin’s email account was hacked in 2008. The problem with secret questions is that they’re not very secret and not very random. My advice is to refuse to use those features. Type randomness into your keyboard, or choose a really random answer and store it in your password manager.

Finally, you also have to stay alert to phishing attacks, where a hacker sends you an enticing email with a link that sends you to a Web page that looks almost like the expected page but which actually isn’t. This sort of thing can bypass two-factor authentication, and it is almost certainly what tricked John Podesta and Colin Powell.

The other way hackers can get at your personal stuff is by breaking into the computers on which the information is stored. This is how the Russians got into the Democratic National Committee’s network and how a lone hacker got into the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. Sometimes individuals are targeted, as when China hacked Google in 2010 to access the email accounts of human rights activists. Sometimes the whole network is the target, and individuals are inadvertent victims, as when thousands of Sony employees had their emails published by North Korea in 2014.

Protecting yourself is difficult because it often doesn’t matter what you do. If your email is stored with a service provider in the cloud, what matters is the security of that network and that provider. Most users have no control over that part of the system. The only way to truly protect yourself is to not keep your data in the cloud where someone could get to it.

This is hard. We like the fact that all of our email is stored on a server somewhere and that we can instantly search it. But that convenience comes with risk. Consider deleting old email, or at least downloading it and storing it offline on a portable hard drive. In fact, storing data offline is one of the best things you can do to protect it from being hacked and exposed. If it’s on your computer, what matters is the security of your operating system and network, not the security of your service provider.

Consider this for files on your own computer. The more things you can move offline, the safer you’ll be.

Email, no matter how you store it, is vulnerable. If you’re worried about your conversations becoming public, think about an encrypted chat program instead, such as Signal, WhatsApp or Off-the-Record Messaging. Consider using communications systems that don’t save everything by default.

None of this is perfect, of course. Portable hard drives are vulnerable when you connect them to your computer. There are ways to jump air gaps and access data on computers not connected to the internet. Communications and data files you delete might still exist in backup systems somewhere — either yours or those of the various cloud providers you’re using. And always remember that there’s always another copy of any of your conversations stored with the person you’re conversing with. Even with these caveats, though, these measures will make a big difference.

When secrecy is truly paramount, go back to communications systems that are still ephemeral: Pick up the telephone and talk. Meet face to face. We don’t yet live in a world where everything is recorded and everything is saved, although that era is coming. Enjoy the last vestiges of ephemeral conversation while you still can.

Bruce Schneier is a security technologist and a lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. His latest book is “Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World.”

 

Older Mainers on Obamacare likely to see big changes from GOP health plan

According to one early estimate by the Kaiser Family Foundation, older, poorer residents would generally receive less federal assistance under the GOP plan.

Published March 07, 2017, at 6:01 p.m.     |    

Older Mainers on Obamacare likely to see big changes from GOP health plan

Posted March 07, 2017, at 6:01 p.m.

House Republicans on Tuesday released their long-awaited plan to replace the Affordable Care Act. Many questions about its implementation remain — chiefly how much it would cost and how many people it would cover — but the legislation does include some specifics about federal funds to help individuals buy health insurance.

Both the ACA and the new Republican proposal, called the American Health Care Act, provide consumers with tax credits to buy a health plan. But each calculates the assistance amounts differently.

According to one early estimate by the Kaiser Family Foundation, that means older, poorer residents would generally receive less assistance from the federal government under the GOP plan than under the ACA. Conversely, younger and wealthier people would get more under the GOP proposal.

Before we delve into how this would work, here’s a quick refresher on who’s directly affected. We’re talking about people who buy their own health insurance, rather than get coverage through work or government programs such as Medicaid and Medicare. Known as the “individual market,” this includes the self-employed, early retirees and low-wage workers.

In Maine, that group made up of about 77,000 people who planned to buy a policy through the ACA marketplace in 2017, plus another roughly 10,000 who shopped outside the marketplace. (That’s a lot of people, but by comparison, 10 times more Mainers get their insurance through work.)

The Republican plan bases tax credits on how old you are, not how much you make.

Under the ACA, about 85 percent of Mainers who signed up for coverage are eligible for tax credits to help them afford their monthly premiums. On average, the credits lower their premiums by $347 a month. It’s fair to say that many of those people couldn’t have afforded coverage without the financial leg up.

The ACA primarily takes into account a family or individual’s income in determining the size of their tax credit, though it also reflects their age and the local cost of health insurance. It’s based on a sliding scale, so people earning less get more, while the richer get a lower credit.

Those with incomes ranging from 100 percent to 400 percent of the federal poverty level ($11,880 to $47,520 for a single individual in 2017) are eligible. If you’re outside that range, you get nothing under the ACA, no matter your age.

The new GOP proposal, however, is based almost entirely on age. Everyone who makes less than $75,000 a year, or $150,000 for couples filing taxes jointly, would get the same amount of federal assistance:

— $2,000 for people under 30

— $2,500 for those between 30 and 40

— $3,000 for those between 40 and 50

— $3,500 for those between 50 and 60

— $4,000 for those over 60

People above that income level would see their credits phased out.

At first glance, this looks like older Mainers would benefit the most. But the GOP plan includes another provision that some experts say would far offset the tax credit advantage.

Republicans want to allow insurers to charge older Americans more.

Older people are generally sicker and therefore cost insurers more money to cover. But the ACA allows insurers to charge older enrollees no more than three times as much as a younger person.

Under the Republican proposal, insurers would be permitted to charge them five times more.

In a relatively old state such as Maine, that could mean much higher premiums for many residents, though lower monthly costs for younger ones.

Without the ACA’s credits that factor in income, older Mainers who are also poorer would lose out even more.

A 60-year-old Maine resident who makes $30,000 a year would invariably get less of a federal tax credit under the GOP plan compared to the ACA, according to the Kaiser estimate. In Penobscot County, for instance, their credit would drop from $9,730 to $4,000 under the Republican proposal.

The Kaiser comparison is based on 2020 figures, when the tax credits would kick in under their plan.

That 60-year-old would have to earn at least $75,000 a year to be better off under the GOP proposal.

Compare that to a 40-year-old making $50,000, about the median household income in Maine. That person would get much more assistance under the GOP plan, Kaiser found. At that income level, the cost of health insurance is still often a burden, so the Republicans’ plan might prove attractive.

Gov. Paul LePage addresses the chamber during the 2017 State of the State address at the State House in Augusta in early February.

LePage glosses over facts with claims about Medicaid expansion

Gov. Paul LePage did not mention that only about 15,000 Mainers would not be covered under the enhanced rates, compared to what proponents say would be more than 77,000 who would receive health care coverage under Medicaid expansion.

Published March 07, 2017, at 1:07 p.m.     |    

LePage glosses over facts with claims about Medicaid expansion

Posted March 07, 2017, at 1:07 p.m.
Last modified March 07, 2017, at 3:44 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage glossed over the truth about Medicaid expansion in Maine during a Tuesday morning radio interview on WVOM, according to professionals in the field.

LePage said Mainers are being misled by Medicaid expansion proponents about the provisions of the Affordable Care Act and that Maine does not qualify for the enhanced levels of federal funding available under the health care law. Under the ACA, states that expanded Medicaid in 2014 were to receive three years of 100 percent federal funding, before the federal funding rate dropped gradually to 90 percent by 2020.

In response to a question about the 90 percent match rate, LePage said, “This is a fallacy.”

“Maine did not qualify for the expansion because we expanded 15 years ago,” said LePage. “Maine did not qualify. … I don’t know why the Maine People’s Alliance continues to say we were offered an expansion. We were not. We were refused the expansion.”

LePage’s office did not respond to questions Tuesday morning seeking clarification.

LePage is correct that Maine wouldn’t receive the enhanced federal funds for a percentage of Maine’s uninsured adults. However, the state would receive those funds for a much larger population that’s eligible for Medicaid under the ACA expansion, according to a 2015 study commissioned by the Maine Health Access Foundation.

Because Maine covered parents who earned up to 138 percent of the poverty level as of December 2009, the state would not receive enhanced funding under the ACA to return those people to the Medicaid program. Currently, the federal government pays for about 64 percent of Medicaid costs and the state pays the rest.

This is what LePage was talking about on the radio Tuesday morning, though he glossed over the fact that the category of people who would not be covered under the enhanced rates includes only about 15,000 out of what proponents say would be more than 77,000 who would receive health care coverage under Medicaid expansion.

LePage, who has made the same argument based on partial information before, did not mention that approximately 56,000 newly eligible childless adults — the majority of those who would receive coverage through the expansion — would be covered under the enhanced rates.

This population, however, is the source of LePage’s ideological disagreement with the expansion.

The Republican governor has said he does not want taxpayers footing the bill for health care for what he calls “able-bodied adults,” regardless of how deep in poverty they’re living. He said many of them, partially thanks to Maine’s higher minimum wage, now qualify to purchase subsidized health insurance on exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act.

In 2013 and 2014, through initiatives spearheaded by LePage, Maine stopped its practice of providing Medicaid — or MaineCare, as it is known here — to parents who earn up to 200 percent of the federal poverty rate and some childless adults who earn up to 100 percent of the federal poverty rate.

“There is nothing wrong with asking people who are able-bodied to have skin in the game,” said LePage. “The exchanges are wonderful. They ought to have co-pays and ought to have consequences when they miss appointments or they go to the emergency room. … We can’t allow people to use the most expensive vehicles for health care when there are alternatives.”

In January, the LePage administration notified President Donald Trump’s administration that it will seek changes to the state’s Medicaid program by requesting federal permission to charge premiums and co-insurance, institute an asset test that would cut off coverage for people with $5,000 in assets, and end coverage of services incurred during the 90 days prior to a person’s Medicaid eligibility.

Emily Brostek, executive director of Maine Consumers for Affordable Health Care, said LePage, as he has in the past, is trying to gloss over the facts about federal matching rates.

“What he’s talking about there is a very small portion of the people who would be eligible for health coverage under expansion,” she said. “He’s being misleading because he’s talking about a very specific slice of the population. … The Centers for Medicaid Services has been very clear that everyone else would be eligible for the enhanced matching rate.”

Whether to expand Medicaid in Maine is a fight that has been raging for much of LePage’s time in office — he and Republican allies have turned back numerous attempts at Medicaid expansion — and it will continue to generate conflict this year leading up to a citizen-initiated referendum in November.

Virtually everything about the ACA is in question right now because of a move in Congress to repeal it and replace it with another plan. LePage said Tuesday he does not like the plan floated by House Republicans on Monday and will travel to Washington, D.C., later this week to lobby against it.

Meanwhile, Mainers will likely confront the issue this fall at the ballot box. A citizen initiative to ask Maine voters to decide the question was certified as qualified for the ballot last month by the Secretary of State’s office.

In a promotional video, Stored Solar said it hopes to “[make] use of the whole tree, tapping into the greater value of diversified biomass products.” It plans to sell its waste heat and use charred wood byproduct to fuel biomass electricity generators.

Could biofuel save Maine’s timber industry?

Competition with oil poses one of the toughest challenges for the commercial success of any biofuel operation. Finding markets for byproducts could be key.

Published March 06, 2017, at 6:56 a.m.     |    

Could biofuel save Maine’s timber industry?

Posted March 06, 2017, at 6:56 a.m.
Last modified March 06, 2017, at 12:39 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — The plan to rebuild a wood-fueled economy centered in East Millinocket has major financial and technological hurdles to clear before it has any chance of helping revitalize communities devastated by the paper industry’s decline.

Industry experts interviewed last week about EMEP LLC’s East Millinocket plan expressed a mix of excitement about the technology and skepticism about the economics of the plan that has, at its heart, a unique and commercially untested process.

“The economics are tough because the capital investment — at least for these first-of-a-kind plants — is very high,” Clay Wheeler, a professor with the University of Maine’s chemical and biological engineering department who researches biofuels, said.

Wheeler said the economics for all efforts to turn wood into liquid fuel are difficult for one clear reason.

“We’re taking one of the finest materials that nature has engineered — that has uses as building materials and paper and other things using nanocellulose fibers — and we’re converting it to something that we actually don’t value very much, which is transportation fuels,” Wheeler said.

Michael Bilodeau, a faculty member with UMaine’s Forest Bioproducts Research Institute, said ethanol production from older wood pulp mills dates back as far as 1905, with interest ebbing and flowing based on the availability of fossil fuels.

“It tends to happen when there’s a shortage of fuel, whether economic or political, that it’s justified to use wood for fuel production,” Bilodeau said. Oil prices have crept up but remain relatively low.

Eric Kingsley, a forest products expert and consultant with Innovative Natural Resource Solutions, said he sees commercial biofuel production as a matter of when, not if.

“It’s clearly doable, and it’s the sort of thing that at some point will scale,” Kingsley said. “The question is, are we at that point?”

Competition with oil poses one of the toughest challenges for the commercial success of any biofuel operation. Finding markets for byproducts could be key.

That’s part of Stored Solar LLC’s plan. The East Millinocket biorefinery is a “centerpiece.”

In a promotional video for its plan to build bioenergy parks around some of the state’s defunct biomass generators, Stored Solar said it hopes to “[make] use of the whole tree, tapping into the greater value of diversified biomass products.” It plans to sell its waste heat and use charred wood byproduct to fuel biomass electricity generators.

Bill Strauss, chief economist for the Biomass Thermal Energy Council and Maine Pellet Fuels Association, said liquid biofuels “definitely can work at the lab scale, but the critical questions are how much does it cost, how reliable is it and what are some of the byproducts.”

Increasingly, he said, pulp mills in Europe are turning to making higher-value chemicals rather than biofuel. Strauss said making a business of selling waste heat requires the right customer.

“The problem is that you need a heat customer that is 24/7, 365 days a year to make it work,” Strauss said.

Stored Solar also has a role in the Maine Born Global Challenge, an effort led by the Synthesis Venture Partners Fund to bring other companies and technologies into its bioenergy operations. The challenge was scheduled to announce its partners last week during a conference in Washington, D.C., according to the Portland Press Herald.

Kimberly Samaha, CEO of Synthesis and wife of a partner in the East Millinocket project and biomass generators in West Enfield and Jonesboro, did not respond to a request Thursday for comment on the challenge participants.

Economics aside, Wheeler said he’d be excited for any new technology to take root in Maine, providing new research opportunities to students and new employment opportunities for graduates trained for the chemical industry.

State of the art

EMEP wants to use a technology in development by Shell Oil subsidiary CRI Catalyst Co. to generate fuel and certain useful byproducts, according to a portion of its application for a U.S. Department of Energy loan guarantee.

The technology — get ready for it — is called integrated hydropyrolysis and hydroconversion, or IH2.

EMEP’s project proposes an IH2 plant of unprecedented scale. In an October presentation to the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative, a demonstration project is scheduled to begin operations in Bangalore, India, in April, making about 528 gallons per day.

The project outlined by EMEP calls for 174 times that amount, or 92,000 gallons per day.

Specific details for EMEP’s East Millinocket plan surfaced last week because of a lawsuit the company filed in an effort to buy the shuttered mill and on-site biomass boiler for $1.75 million.

In court documents, EMEP leader Bill Harrington wrote the company’s “initiative to acquire, upgrade and operate biomass plants throughout the state of Maine” would cost about $240 million.

While the lawsuit unveiled more details about the company’s big plan than previously disclosed, it’s also the reason Harrington and other leaders of the project have declined to comment more on the plan.

It leaves the question of cost up to past studies, which suggest that $240 million for a biorefinery and multiple biomass plants around the state would be a steal.

A 2010 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimated a first-of-its-kind plant — with double the capacity proposed for East Millinocket — would cost about $911 million alone. Even after refining the engineering, manufacturing and other aspects of the business, a 2013 economic analysis of IH2 technology by researchers at NREL and the Gas Technology Institute (where the technology was developed) put the cost of such a plant at $263 million.

EMEP said it hopes to fund about 30 percent of the project with private investment and about 70 percent of the project with a loan backstopped by the U.S. Department of Energy. And it plans to leverage the biomass plants it reopened in West Enfield and Jonesboro with the help of $6.7 million in taxpayer funds, over two years.

Kingsley, the consultant, said government help is often necessary to develop new technologies and that leveraging existing resources such as the two biomass plants are common in developing larger projects.

“I would say that skepticism is appropriate, but the other side of the coin is that any developer of any project anywhere — and I’ve been involved in hundreds — they take whatever modest advantages they have,” Kingsley said. “What they’re doing is project development 101.”

The process

Compared with other processes for getting liquid fuels from wood waste, Wheeler said IH2 is unique and more sophisticated than the standard way of making bio-oil.

The IH2 process builds on other biofuel methods that involve quickly heating biomass, in the absence of air, to create a vapor. The vapor gets condensed into bio-oil. The oil has to go through further refinement.

In a recent paper, Wheeler found the first step of the IH2 process left a higher-quality fuel than other methods of quickly heating biomass to extract oil. The paper, which set out a way to compare different biofuel processes in a graph, did not address questions of cost.

In general, the various biofuel production methods rearrange atoms in wood waste, removing oxygen from the mix to get liquid mixtures of hydrogen and carbon, as in gasoline or diesel fuel.

By comparison, fossil fuels have very little oxygen to start, Wheeler said, making it easier to extract from them energy-rich and combustible hydrocarbons. And that’s the competition.

For biofuel production, the problem boils down to removing the oxygen from the mix as efficiently as possible. It also requires adding hydrogen back into the mix. There, Wheeler said, the IH2 process has an advantage.

The system isolates enough hydrogen to feed back into the first step of the process. It doesn’t need to import natural gas. For a site like East Millinocket, which does not have access to a gas pipeline, that’s a particular virtue.

Beyond the laboratory, the analysis can get a little more complex.

Wheeler said he hopes his department at the university can continue to help kick the tires on different bio-based project proposals to come.

“We have made ourselves available to help do due diligence on some of these projects,” Wheeler said. “There’s a number of other technologies that people are considering trying to locate here in the state.”

 

Members of Maine's Native American tribes rallied outside the State House on Tuesday, May 26, 2015, after tribal representatives in the House of Representatives resigned from their seats over conflicts with state government and Gov. Paul LePage.

How relations between Maine and its Native American tribes have gotten so bad

In recent years, there have been fights over casino revenue and the tribes always lose.

Published March 05, 2017, at 7:21 a.m.     |    

How relations between Maine and its Native American tribes have gotten so bad

Posted March 05, 2017, at 7:21 a.m.
Last modified March 07, 2017, at 1 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Given colonial-era history between Maine’s Native Americans and European settlers, it would be reckless to say that relations between the tribes and the state are at an all-time low but there’s no question that problems of historic proportions exist.

In May 2015, two of Maine’s four tribes withdrew their representatives from the Legislature after a years of clashes, culminating with Gov. Paul LePage’s cancellation of his own four-year-old executive order in April 2015 that said the tribes would be consulted on state decisions that affect them.

On that sunny May morning, the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribal’ representatives made brief speeches and walked out of the House to join hundreds of tribal members gathered outside. The two tribes severed their relationship with the legislative branch in what unquestionably was a stunning development after almost two centuries of sending envoys to Augusta.

“We have gotten on our knees for the last time,” Kirk Francis, chief of the Penobscot Nation, said on that historic day. “From here on out, we are a self-governing organization focused on a self-determining path.”

The clashes have continued since then in court, at the State House and on Thursday afternoon in the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, where the tribal chiefs and dozens of their people filled two overflow rooms for the presentation of another report that the tribes say proves their reservations are sovereign nations within U.S. borders. The exchange grew heated when Rep. Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn, asked about state funding for the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, which was presenting the report.

“If MITSC gets $30,000 from the state of Maine, I’m sure all of these tribes sitting here and all these people sitting here will take it out of their pockets and give it to them themselves,” said William Nicholas, co-chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township, pausing as the rooms erupted in applause. “I feel a little bit offended that we’re being asked about money today when there’s a whole book in front of you that outlines the problems we’re facing with the state. … It brings us to a point where questions like that make us feel like we’re about this big,” he said, holding two fingers inches apart.

What has gone so wrong?

Fights about sovereignty for Maine’s tribes date back decades. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a $150 million suit against the state of Maine on behalf of the Passamaquoddy Tribe in the early 1970s, a claim that quickly ballooned to billions of dollars when the Penobscot Nation filed a similar complaint. Years of negotiations led to settling the matter — or so it thought — in 1980 with passage of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act.

The tribes argue that an eleventh-hour amendment inserted into the act without their knowledge — “Section 1735(a)” — foiled their sovereignty and left their hands tied on issues ranging from hunting and fishing rights to fighting drugs and crime to declaring natural disasters on their own reservations. The tribes’ position is that some courts have interpreted this section incorrectly.

Since 1980, tribal leaders have argued that Section 1735(a) legally institutionalizes second-class status for Maine’s tribes, depriving them of equal footing in negotiations and creating bureaucratic loopholes that prejudice state and federal courts and agencies against them.

In recent years, there have been fights over casino revenue and the tribes always lose. Perhaps the most public of those clashes has been the years-long conflict over whether to allow the tribes to operate casinos. In their efforts to emulate tribes in other states that opened casinos, some of whom reaped huge windfalls from doing so, Maine’s tribes have been shut out after voters rejected tribal-backed casino referendum campaigns in 2003 and 2007. Legislative forays dating back at least to 1992 have sputtered, including bills that failed by slim margins in 2014 and 2015.

Exacerbating those losses, the first casino in Maine, Hollywood Slots in Bangor, devastated the revenue stream to the Penobscot Nation’s bingo hall on Indian Island, according to tribal leaders. Groups and locals who used to travel to the bingo hall instead started going to the nearby casino, cutting a major revenue stream to the tribe to a trickle.

There have been new legal clashes. The Penobscot Nation sued the state in 2012 over hunting and fishing rights along the Penobscot River. The tribe essentially lost the case in 2015 when a federal judge ruled that the Penobscots can claim guaranteed sustenance fishing rights, but no exclusive rights to the waters around Indian Island and other islands that are part of the reservation.

An April 2016 appeal of that ruling by the tribes is pending in the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal in Boston. The Penobscot Nation is also fighting for higher water quality standards that some municipalities have argued could cost them millions of dollars. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sided with the tribe with new water quality standards issued late last year, but a lawsuit brought by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection in 2014 remains pending in U.S. District Court in Bangor.

The Passamaquoddy Tribe has been waging a separate years-long battle against the state over tribal access to the lucrative Down East elver fishery. Tribal members have argued that the state’s enforcement of regulations that state officials said were designed to preserve the fishery effectively blocked the tribes from capitalizing on soaring global prices.

In 2013, tribal members poured into the State House to express their concerns, again arguing that development and regulation encouraged by the state undercut their traditional way of life.

“I don’t see how hydroelectric dams can chew up thousands and thousands of egg-bearing eels, and the Passamaquoddy can’t take some to feed their family,” said Fred Moore III, then Fishery Committee coordinator for the Passamaquoddy Tribe.

It hasn’t gone well for the tribes at the State House. In 2015, LePage rescinded his prior executive order, reversing the creation of special communication channels between the state and the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Nation, the Houlton Band of Maliseets and the Aroostook Band of Micmacs. The tribes saw it as retribution for the fight over water quality.

There have been a slew of bills aimed at granting the tribes special powers on a range of issues, including one in 2015 that would have allowed for the creation of tribal courts to prosecute non-Indian offenders when they commit certain domestic violence and sexual assault crimes. The bill died when the 127th Legislature adjourned without acting on it.

The Penobscots will not return to the Legislature anytime soon. Chief Francis said his tribe has decided recently to create ambassadors to federal and state governments, who will be named soon. He said the push at the federal level will be to convince Congress that Maine isn’t abiding by the settlement act. In Maine, it’s social issues that will be the focus.

“This is not a gaming issue anymore,” he said. “We’re talking about fishing. We’re talking about the ability to protect domestic violence victims. We’re talking about dealing with cancer rates that are three or four times higher than the general population. Heart conditions at five times higher. Diabetes in over 20 percent of our community. … This is about the core basic rights of the tribe that are under attack.”

Tribal sovereignty, even if it happened tomorrow, would be just the beginning of a fundamental change in how tribal leaders and virtually every level of government interact. With rights around property, gaming and natural resources at stake, the financial impacts on both the public and private sectors would be considerable. While the conflict on the surface appears to be about civil rights and a legal or political compromise, underlying financial factors likely worth millions of dollars can’t be ignored.

A World War II poster titled, &quotAppreciate America Stop the Fifth Column."

America has not always been as welcoming to refugees as we think

While America often has welcomed immigrants to its shores, there have been moments in our past when our doors have slammed shut on those most in need.

Published March 03, 2017, at 6:29 a.m.     |    

America has not always been as welcoming to refugees as we think

Posted March 03, 2017, at 6:29 a.m.

President Donald Trump’s executive order to sharply restrict immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries has been decried by many as reckless, punitive and even unconstitutional. Nearly half the electorate, however, applaud the president for suspending immigration even if it means turning back refugees, many of whom are innocent victims of the political violence besetting the Middle East.

None of this is unprecedented.

American presidents have periodically curtailed the entry of individuals or groups in the name of national security. Such measures invariably have proven controversial, often unleashing a fiery public debate about the relative merits of protecting the homeland at the cost of undermining our values.

As a historian who has studied how central European Jewish refugees were denied entry to the United States during World War II, I know that while America often has welcomed immigrants to its shores, there have been moments in our past when our doors have slammed shut on those most in need.

Nor has there been a shortage of animus to those already in the country. Father Charles Coughlin, whose Sunday afternoon radio program boasted a nationwide audience of 30 to 40 million during the 1930s, spewed invective about how the Kristallnacht was justified by historic wrongs committed by Jews against Christians. Isolationists, America Firsters and pacifists condemned American Jews for warmongering.

Nazis in America?

One such moment when the distrust of refugees reached a fever pitch occurred during the spring of 1940, when a succession of lightning-quick German victories in western Europe led Franklin Roosevelt to raise the specter of Nazi infiltration into the Americas. The swift capitulation of western Europe was attributed to Nazi agents, disguised as journalists, diplomats, tourists and refugees, in the months prior to the German invasion.

In his fireside chat of May 26, 1940, FDR implored the public to be vigilant of a Fifth Column threat: internal traitors, who would undermine the nation’s ability to defend itself. Here Roosevelt was alluding to more than 250,000 German- and Italian-Americans, some of whom were thought to be more sympathetic to their homelands than their adopted country.

Even though historians have offered correctives about the nature and extent of the Fifth Column’s role in the Nazi victories, the perception at the time among the Allied military establishment, the press and the public on both sides of the Atlantic was that such furtive activities were vital to the Reich’s war effort. Rumors and erroneous reports, some surreptitiously placed by British intelligence that sought to sway American public opinion of the need to enter the war, raised alarm about Nazi sabotage on the home front.

FDR warned Congress of Germans leapfrogging from North African bases to Brazil and then sending troops up the isthmus through Central America to Mexico. Isolationist sentiment fed xenophobia against imagined threats from radicals and foreigners. An obedient American public took the threat seriously. In just one day in May 1940, the FBI received more than 2,900 reports of suspected sabotage.

German advances persuaded Roosevelt and his advisers of the need to ensure greater control over aliens. By June 1940, Congress had passed the Smith Act, which required aliens to register and be fingerprinted and gave the government the power to deport current or past members of fascist and communist organizations. After Pearl Harbor, more than 11,000 German-Americans and 120,000 Japanese-Americans were rounded up and placed in internment camps for the duration of the war.

A curious logic

Roosevelt defended the need to watch refugees. He invoked an alleged Nazi threat to shoot family members of German Jewish refugees unless the latter consented to work for the Reich as spies. If enemies were believed to be living among the general population, it is perhaps understandable that refugees became such handy scapegoats.

Each time a refugee in the U.S. was rumored to be a spy, whether corroborated or not, it lent credence to the restrictionist argument that excluding refugees was a matter of national security. Targets of discrimination in their homelands and in the United States, these stateless exiles experienced a kind of double jeopardy, victimized by a curious logic that gained greater resonance as it merged with Fifth Column paranoia.

In 1940, a State Department memorandum was sent to consular agents in Europe urging them to reject or suspend any application for a visa “ about which there was any doubt.” From mid-1940 to mid-1941, only 4,000 refugees entered the United States, down from 40,000 in the previous 12 months.

The department then went further, refusing to grant visas to individuals who had relatives residing in German-occupied territory. The problem, of course, was that by mid-1940 much of central and western Europe already was under Nazi control. Many were trapped, unable to get out.

The new regulations had the desired effect. Only 21,000 refugees were admitted from Axis-controlled nations for the war’s duration, a paltry 10 percent of the mandated quotas. If the new restrictive policies had not gone into effect and the quotas had been met, an additional 190,000 persons might have made it to safety to the United States.

Some within the State Department spoke out on behalf of the refugees, but to no avail. Robert Pell, the assistant chief of the Division of European Affairs, who manned the refugee desk, penned a feisty internal memo urging aggressive action to spirit refugees out of Europe. From that point on, he was branded as an advocate for the exiles, and his position within the department became increasingly untenable. After Pell was reassigned, his successor, Charles Wagg, met a similar fate. His position at the refugee desk was “redefined,” and he was subsequently let go in the winter of 1941.

At first glance, the parallels between then and now are striking. Just as in 1940, we live in a moment when many are distrustful of foreigners and feeling economically insecure. In 1938, the unemployment rate was a staggering 19 percent and 10 million Americans still were unemployed. In contrast, the current unemployment rate has dipped to 4.8 percent, but that has not diminished the very real sense of economic dislocation that exists in our heartland.

In both cases, it was within the State Department that opposition surfaced. This time more than a thousand foreign service officers have expressed their disagreement in an internal dissent cable. During the Trump administration, however, dissent has not been confined to the Foreign Service. The acting attorney general was summarily fired for refusing to comply with the executive order.

But we should be wary of facile comparisons. As brutal as Islamic State is, I’d argue it has never posed the existential threat to our way of life that Nazism did. Even though many wanted America to stay out of World War II, the country was not as polarized then as it is now. FDR, a popular two-term president about to win a historic third term later that fall, had earned the trust of many Americans. Public opposition to Trump’s executive order is much greater than it ever was to FDR’s restrictions. In fact, despite the looming humanitarian crisis in Europe in 1940, there was little sentiment to relax the quota restrictions and take in the refugees. Anti-Semitism, especially within the State Department, should not be discounted as well as a contributing factor.

War and economic uncertainty engender fear and stoke xenophobia. Roosevelt played upon those fears to help prepare the public for America’s entry in World War II.

In contrast, Trump has served as an echo chamber for the anxieties of his political base during the campaign and I’d contend now acts irresponsibly to fulfill his promises. The diplomatic consequences of this executive order are difficult to foresee. Sadly, history has provided ample evidence of the human costs.

Allen Wells is a historian and the director of Latin American studies program at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. This piece was originally published on TheConversation.com.

”The

President Donald Trump congratulates Jeff Sessions after he was sworn in as U.S. attorney general during a ceremony in the Oval Office, Feb. 9, 2017.

Your cheat sheet to 4 potential investigations of Russia, President Trump

What kinds of investigations would take place instead? Here’s your cheat sheet to four major investigations that could delve into Trump’s relationship — or lack thereof — with Russia.

Published March 02, 2017, at 10:12 a.m.     |    

Your cheat sheet to 4 potential investigations of Russia, President Trump

Posted March 02, 2017, at 10:12 a.m.
Last modified March 02, 2017, at 9:31 p.m.

So, we know the U.S. intelligence community believes that Russia meddled in the presidential election to boost Donald Trump. We also know the FBI is investigating possible connections between Russia and some of Trump’s campaign allies.

What many Democrats — and even some Republicans — aren’t sure about is whether that investigation will live up to ethical standards. The man in charge of it, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is one of Trump’s closest political allies, and a blockbuster report from The Washington Post asserts Sessions had two conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the United States in 2016, conversations he did not disclose during his confirmation hearings for the job.

“I have not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign,” Sessions told NBC News in response to the report, adding: “I have said whenever it’s appropriate, I will recuse myself. There’s no doubt about that.”

Some top Republicans are encouraging him to do just that, like Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, chair of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “AG Sessions should clarify his testimony and recuse himself,” Chaffetz tweeted Thursday morning.

But what happens if Sessions steps aside? What kinds of investigations would take place instead? Here’s your cheat sheet to four major investigations that could delve into Trump’s relationship — or lack thereof — with Russia. We included pros and cons of each type of investigation, with our baseline being a fair and accurate one.

1) Various investigations by congressional committees.

The House and Senate intelligence committees, which deal with some of the nation’s most well-kept secrets, are already planning to investigate Russia’s attempt to influence the U.S. presidential election.

After Michael T. Flynn resigned earlier this month as national security adviser over his own conversations with Russia’s ambassador about sanctions, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-California, said he’d consider expanding the panel’s investigation to Trump’s aides talking to Russia. He later added that he’s more focused on how reports of those conversations got leaked than he is on the conversations themselves.

GOP leaders of the House and Senate judiciary committees also have expressed a willingness to look into the circumstances surrounding Flynn’s conversations. GOP leaders haven’t immediately commented on this Sessions news, though Democrats certainly have:

Potential pros of this kind of investigation: It can begin right away.

Potential cons: It could be viewed by the public as partisan, since Republicans control both chambers of Congress and hold a majority in every committee that’s investigating Russia.

Likelihood of this kind of investigation happening: It’s very likely that Russia and Trump will be investigated in Congress in some form, although Republicans are divided about how seriously to take the allegations that Trump’s associates had contact with Russia.

2) A special congressional committee.

Under this scenario, a group of about a dozen lawmakers would be assigned to only investigate — well, whatever it was set up to investigate.

Potential pros: This kind of investigation is usually more thorough because unlike other committees in Congress, it has only one issue to focus on. It also can be perceived as less partisan than the regular committee process, especially if Congress agrees to put an even number of Republicans and Democrats on it.

Potential cons: Most Republicans, including leaders, don’t seem to have any desire to set up a high-profile, time-consuming committee to investigate the issue. Even some of Trump’s toughest GOP critics, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, have said it’s too soon to open a special congressional probe into who Trump’s aides talked to and when. (Though McCain has expressed support for a separate special committee to look into how Russia tried to influence the presidential election.)

Another con: This type of investigation could take years to get started and even longer to complete. And they are not immune to partisanship. Democrats and Republicans investigating the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, couldn’t even come to the same conclusion as to what actually happened when they released their final report in June.

Likelihood of it happening: Slim but not impossible. To get this committee started, a majority of lawmakers in one or both chambers must approve it, and there just doesn’t seem to be that kind of support.

3) The Justice Department expands its investigation.

The FBI, which sits under the Justice Department, is already investigating allegations of Russia hacking the U.S. election, including any financial ties between the Russian government and associates of Trump. It could expand that investigation however it feels necessary.

Potential pros: It’s lawyers, not Congress, (read: lawyers-turned-politicians) doing the investigating.

Potential cons: It’s largely being done behind closed doors, so it’s not really clear what, specifically, the FBI is investigating.

Also, the person ultimately in charge — Sessions — is a close ally of Trump’s. He was one of the first sitting members of Congress to endorse the president. That’s why Rep. Darrell Issa of California, a top Republican, recently said it may not be appropriate for Sessions to be in charge of the FBI’s investigation of Russia.

“You’re right that you cannot have somebody — a friend of mine, Jeff Sessions — who was on the campaign and who is an appointee,” Issa said on a Friday show of HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher.” You’re going to need to use the special prosecutor’s statute and office.”

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina appeared to second that in a CNN town hall Wednesday:

“There may be nothing there. But if there’s something there that the FBI believes is criminal in nature, then for sure you need a special prosecutor,” Graham said. “If that day ever comes, I’ll be the first one to say it needs to be somebody other than Jeff.”

Which brings us to the final kind of investigation being considered.

4) A special prosecutor.

A special prosecutor is someone — usually outside the confines of government — picked by the government to investigate potential wrongdoing.

The most famous special prosecutor in recent history is Kenneth Starr, a lawyer who was chosen to investigate President Bill Clinton’s real estate investments and eventually wound up uncovering the president’s affair with a White House intern.

Potential pros: It’s the most independent kind of investigation the government can have because the government is not doing the investigating.

Potential cons: It can turn into a political spectacle in its own right — or uncover unexpected things. Starr’s broadened inquiry eventually led to Clinton’s impeachment by the House. And when Archibald Cox tried to force President Richard Nixon to turn over tape recordings of his White House conversations, Nixon fired the attorney general who appointed Cox.

Another con: Sessions could be the person to appoint the special prosecutor, which would for some critics lead us right back to the conflict-of-interest question haunting the existing investigations.

Likelihood of this happening: Slim, but not impossible. Even the White House isn’t ruling out a special prosecutor to look into Russian meddling in the election, although a spokeswoman said Sunday that it’s premature to say whether that’s necessary. Sessions told NBC News he’d consider it: “I have said whenever it’s appropriate, I will recuse myself. There’s no doubt about that.”

An aerial view of the former Great Northern Paper Co. LLC site, captured by a drone in late February.

Developers eye East Millinocket as heart of $240M biomass venture

The company hoping to buy the shuttered East Millinocket paper mill has big plans for generating electricity and fuel from Maine wood waste.

Published March 01, 2017, at 2:45 p.m.     |    

Developers eye East Millinocket as heart of $240M biomass venture

Posted March 01, 2017, at 2:45 p.m.
Last modified March 02, 2017, at 1:59 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — The company hoping to buy the shuttered East Millinocket paper mill has big plans for generating electricity and fuel from Maine wood waste — $240 million in plans, to be exact.

The first step in that biomass effort — purchasing two biomass plants in West Enfield and Jonesboro — hinged on government subsidies. Documents filed on Tuesday with a lawsuit seeking to halt demolition at the mill indicate that EMEP LLC’s next step in East Millinocket would too, in the form of a federal loan guarantee for biomass-to-fuel technology that’s not yet run at the commercial scale they envision.

The company says that leg up from the government would eventually allow it to produce a high-value product that could turn biomass power plants now reliant on Maine taxpayer dollars into sustainable businesses.

While completion of that plan remains years away, representatives for EMEP left court on Tuesday reiterating what they said in their lawsuit filed earlier that morning: they’re ready to offer $1.75 million for the East Millinocket property.

The big picture

The owner of Stored Solar, which operates two biomass plants in Maine, has partnered with Scott Gardner, who runs the trucking, logging and wood chip company W.T. Gardner and Sons, on the East Millinocket project. At the former paper mill site, they aim to turn biomass into liquid fuels that could be blended to make biodiesel, gasoline and jet fuel.

The company said the technology, which comes from a Houston company, would allow it to use the byproduct of the fuel-making process to power biomass boilers. Those boilers, in turn, will heat the facility and dry incoming wood waste to prepare it for processing.

It also plans to sell renewable electricity credits to Massachusetts and to sell waste heat to other on-site businesses. Those could include a greenhouse and a chopstick manufacturing facility, according to its application for a loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The company describes a combined system that would increase the efficiency of producing biomass, generate new revenue from byproducts such as waste heat and add a new high-value product to the mix.

The company told a Portland judge that the East Millinocket biorefinery would be the centerpiece of their $240 million effort to buy, upgrade and operate up to five more biomass plants in Maine, adding to the two biomass plants Stored Solar purchased last year, in Jonesboro and West Enfield. The company got its first payment — $241,000 from a taxpayer fund — for running those plants in January.

To get the biorefinery up and running, the company hopes to combine 30 percent equity investment with a loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy to support the other 70 percent of the cost.

The company says the East Millinocket plant would employ 102 people full time.

The players

EMEP has two owners, SAG Realty LLC and Capergy US. William Harrington and Fahim Samaha are behind Capergy and Scott Gardner owns SAG Realty, making up EMEP’s three principals, according to court records.

Samaha is president of Capergy US, which holds a majority stake in EMEP. Through subsidiary Stored Solar LLC, the company also last year purchased Covanta’s shuttered biomass plants in West Enfield and Jonesboro, and restarted them in January.

Gardner helps oversee the timber and trucking company that his father started, which owns timberland in Maine’s North Woods. Thomas Gardner, Scott’s brother and the company’s president, testified in support of the state’s biomass bailout, saying that the industry “is an absolutely critical element of our business.”

In its lawsuit, EMEP also identifies Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development as a partner, though the specific nature of that partnership remained unclear Thursday.

Doug Ray, a spokesman, said DECD is working with a number of entities, including EMEP, and “is supportive of any effort to revitalize the forest products industry in Maine.”

“Whatever state incentives and programs are utilized to attract new private investment and help businesses succeed, we view as a partnership,” Ray wrote in an email.

In the company’s federal loan guarantee application, EMEP notes that “the biomass suppliers are equity participants which assures a long-term alignment of interest,” adding that it expects that the fund to support the project will include various Maine businesses with connection to the biomass industry.

Samaha’s wife, Kimberly Samaha, is the CEO of Synthesis Venture Fund Partners, which late last year launched an effort called the Maine Born Global Challenge to help identify bio-based technologies that it could pair with its facilities.

Reached by telephone Wednesday and citing advice from EMEP attorneys, Harrington declined to comment in more detail on the project.

The timeline

In an application for financing submitted to the U.S. Department of Energy, Stored Solar states that it hopes to begin commercial delivery of biofuel by 2020. But that hinged on acquiring the East Millinocket property earlier and having engineering plans together by this month.

The delay prompted the lawsuit filed Wednesday against the current owner, North American Recovery Management, to limit demolition at the mill site and eventually work toward finishing a purchase and sale agreement with EMEP.

The timeline estimates the project will take three-and-a-half years from the purchase of the land for the biorefinery to begin producing and delivering fuels.

EMEP claims that it spent about $6 million to date on its biorefinery project and it has visited the site multiple times. But its biggest visible leap toward its plan so far came with the purchase of the Jonesboro and West Enfield biomass plants.

The company has cited that investment both as a sign of experience in the industry and as a reason their plans in East Millinocket must come together.

In announcing the Maine Born Global Challenge late last year, Synthesis noted that “sponsor owners already have revenue-producing energy plants in place” in Maine. The company restarted the plants that month.

In the lawsuit filed Wednesday, the company raises concerns that delays in the purchase from North American Recovery Management could derail its application for a loan guarantee with the U.S. Department of Energy, though it leaves the door open to other types of financing.

“Without DOE or similar financing, we cannot build the biorefinery which will put the entire Maine Biomass Plan in jeopardy,” Harrington wrote in court testimony.

Meanwhile, North American Recovery Management told EMEP that they would open their ears to all offers on the property starting Wednesday.

 

President Donald Trump delivers his first address to a joint session of Congress from the floor of the House of Representatives in Washington, Feb. 28, 2017.

The experts grade Trump’s first address to Congress

Three scholars grade Trump’s first address to Congress. How did he do on Obamacare? What would his “merit-based” immigration proposal mean? And can he play nice with others?

Published March 01, 2017, at 6:56 a.m.     |    

The experts grade Trump’s first address to Congress

Posted March 01, 2017, at 6:56 a.m.

Editor’s note: President Donald Trump gave his first address to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 28. The speech featured policy ideas that appealed to Republicans, and others that sounded more Democratic. We asked scholars to react to the substance of the speech and evaluate its tone for hints of bipartisanship.

The Conversation

Is there any hope for bipartisanship under Trump?

Jordan Tama, American University, School of International Service

In his first address to Congress, Donald Trump called for Republicans and Democrats to find common ground. He also espoused some positions that may find more support among Democratic lawmakers than among lawmakers in his own party, such as increasing government spending on infrastructure and boosting paid family leave.

What then are the prospects of bipartisan legislative accomplishments under Trump? Recent decades have seen a sharp uptick in partisan polarization and drop in congressional productivity. Could Trump break this cycle?

Probably not, for three reasons.

First, Trump has not shown that he is inclined to sustain the positive tone needed to build agreement with Democrats. Trump has repeatedly antagonized Democratic politicians through hostile and insulting rhetoric. Unless Trump abandons the petty and vindictive side of his personality — which seems unlikely — few Democrats will be interested in meeting him halfway.

Second, Trump’s authoritarian governing style, nativism and frequent lying have generated such intense opposition to him among liberals that most Democratic politicians would alienate their core supporters if they cooperated with him. Witness the thousands of New Yorkers who rallied outside the home of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s home to urge Schumer to take a hard line against Trump.

Third, on issues where Trump deviates from conservative orthodoxy, he might not receive enough backing from Republicans to get his agenda through Congress.

A remaining question is whether we are likely to see any significant congressional bipartisanship when it comes to opposing key elements of Trump’s agenda. Already, leading congressional Republicans have criticized Trump for praising Russian President Vladimir Putin and calling for a massive cut in funding for the State Department. In the weeks ahead, it will bear watching not only whether Congress joins forces with Trump, but also whether it stands up to him.

An admission that government must be involved in health care?

J.B. Silvers, Case Western Reserve University

On health care, Trump’s speech revealed four implicit beliefs — in maximal choice, limited assistance, the role of government, and access to health insurance.

First, he suggests a goal of maximal flexibility and choice by individuals, insurers and states regarding benefits offered, plan design and scope of coverage. The assumption is that competition will solve most of our problems, even though many of the provider and insurer sectors have consolidated to prevent this.

Second, he suggested that help to individuals to exercise these choices should come via the tax system and direct transactions with companies, rather than through the formal exchange markets of the Affordable Care Act. The help is to come in the form of tax credits varying only by age, not income. The implication is that the tax system is more efficient than the marketplace exchanges. More important, giving tax credits based on age rather than income recognizes likely differences in insurance premiums, but it ignores variation in affordability based on income within each age group.

Third, the clear goal throughout the address was to reduce the role of government in health care as much as possible in order for the power of competition and purchasing power to work. This is to occur by allowing the sale of health insurance across state lines (which implies less state-by-state regulation of benefits and premiums), eliminating mandates on purchase and coverage, and cutting two regulations for every new one issued.

The implication is that individuals have the ability and finances (through their tax credits and health savings accounts) to make optimal choices without the government helping out or framing their decisions in spite of what we know from behavioral economics.

Finally, Trump wants to provide access to coverage to everyone, including those with pre-existing conditions but only if they choose to join a high-risk pool. The reliance on high-risk pools — that would be supported financially by state or federal budgets — to cover those who definitely would not be offered coverage otherwise is an admission that private insurance in a competitive free-for-all will not meet his social goals without government backing.

His desire to somehow “ensure that … we have a stable transition for Americans currently enrolled in the health care exchanges” to the free markets he envisions also is an admission of the fragility of reliance on insurance companies alone to stay the course when risks escalate.

Trump suggests ‘merit-based’ immigration policy

Greg Wright, University of California at Merced

Trump called for a “merit-based system” for immigration, which would represent a major change in U.S. immigration policy.

This could, for example, boost innovation. But, at the same time, it would require significant adjustments by U.S. companies, while raising the costs of services in many parts of the United States. Importantly, it is unlikely that this policy would “save countless dollars, raise workers’ wages and help working families,” as Trump claimed.

In short, a merit-based immigration system, like that in place in Canada and Australia, assigns applicants points based on their status in each of several categories, typically emphasizing an immigrant’s language fluency, educational attainment, age and whether employment has been secured prior to arrival. As a result, the system tends to select young immigrants ready to perform skilled work.

The benefits of a merit-based immigration system derive from welcoming a steady stream of the best and brightest from around the world, something the U.S. has done for most of its history through the H-1B visa and other programs.

It should be noted that recent immigration has already been tilted toward those with skills, so such a system wouldn’t necessarily provide companies with more able workers.

In fact, the primary effect of the introduction of a merit-based system would be to severely restrict low-skilled immigration, hurting companies in the agricultural or manufacturing sectors that are more reliant on such workers. One of the most consistent findings within the immigration literature is that companies are quick to replace low-skill workers with capital by replacing them with machines when conditions change. The wages of a few remaining workers would rise but most would likely lose out.

At the same time, costs such as dining out, landscaping, housework and elderly care would become more expensive as low-skill immigrant service providers become more scarce.

While a merit-based system would impose some coherence on U.S. immigration policy, which today is quite piecemeal and inefficient, it would severely restrict low-skill immigration. This is unlikely to increase Americans’ economic prospects, and in fact, would probably reduce them.

Jordan Tama is an assistant professor of international relations in the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C. Greg Wright is an economist at the University of California at Merced. J.B. Silvers is a professor of health finance at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. This piece was originally published on TheConversation.com.