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It’s December. Snow will soon be falling, wreaths are appearing on doors and eggnog is arriving in stores.
And the sweet smell of reform is in the air.
Two days prior to Thanksgiving, Gov. Janet Mills’ intimate, 40-plus person “Economy Recovery Committee” released their final report. I know first hand many of the members are honest Mainers who love their state. They offered Maine their advice.
The day after the holiday, state Sen. Rick Bennett took to the pages of the Bangor Daily News to outline various “innovations” in the way the state Legislature operates. Because this is Maine, several of the ideas were previously tendered by former state senator — and current gubernatorial brother — Peter Mills.
Many of the suggestions in all three policy areas have been bandied about for decades. Like changing the Maine flag, they gain traction amongst a small-but-passionate audience. And promptly go nowhere.
However, 2020 has thrown us a lot of curveballs and upended countless long-standing traditions. So maybe this is the year some real change can take hold.
Start with the “Economic Recovery Committee.” One of their clearest recommendations is … borrow money.
The logic is clear. In a pseudo-Keynesian strategy, they suggest investing money to help jumpstart the economy and improve infrastructure, which will hopefully beget further economic growth. And, if we had a focused, long-term public financing strategy that ebbed and flowed as appropriate within normal economic cycles, they might have something.
But Maine’s borrowing program has been anything but a focused pursuit of a long-term objective. Instead, it has been a whack-a-mole approach used to score political points, as well as a band-aid covering up Augusta’s inability to develop a sensible, sustainable transportation funding strategy.
In many ways, the Legislature is to blame for this. Not because of legislators necessarily, but rather an outdated structure that works against efficient government. That was the gist of Bennett’s suggestions, attempting to reform the bureaucratic processes while expanding the amount of substantive work completed by elected representatives.
It is all good advice. However, part of the problem with the Legislature is the sheer time commitment it requires. In a normal year, the “long session” opens in December and closes in June or July. While they are not necessarily working every day, it is hard for those with other commitments — “normal” jobs, kids in school — to serve. These limitations beget a smaller pool of people who can step forward to run for office.
One solution to this problem is making the job a full-time gig, with yearly salaries, even more benefits, larger staff. Then we can have more full-time politicians. The alternative is amping Bennett’s suggestions up further, and redesigning the workload to reduce the amount of time spent in Augusta every week.
If the Legislature convened in early December, focused quickly on the biennial budget and any true, real emergency legislation, they could then adjourn and work at a more manageable pace over the year — in committees — to focus, refine, and craft good policy. These changes then present opportunities for more experience and broader perspectives to step forth in state service.
In fact, many of Mills’ Economic Recovery Committee members might make good legislators. But they’ve got day jobs.
Finally, as part of our legislative reform, “constitutional officers” should be appointed by the governor. Can you imagine if the GOP-controlled Senate got to pick President-elect Joe Biden’s attorney general? That’s an awful idea.
None of these proposals are new. But COVID and 2020 have forced everyone to try new things. Maybe, just maybe, this is the year that reform will really take hold.
If it does, Maine will be better for it.
Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.