Budget Passed - Thoughts about process & outcomes
Column: Freshman Legislator Gives Overview
A year ago this month, Saco elected me to the Maine House as its youngest member with the hope of reforming Augusta and to fight for the interests of our community. While Washington can’t seem to get its act together, there are smaller victories here in Maine that are important to point out from this past legislative session.
Immediately following swearing in, I helped to form the bipartisan youth caucus comprised of Democrats and Republicans younger than 30. Through collaboration and civility we were able to come together on important issues. We made education reform a top priority. Through our efforts we passed two important bills relating to education that have since become law.
The first being is a bill to ensure students have a basic knowledge of financial literacy to be embedded within the current curriculum in order to graduate high school. Having a basic knowledge of how to balance a checkbook, draft a household budget, and general money-related topics is vital for students going out into the real world and hopefully avoid financial problems by having a basic level of understanding.
The second, and probably my most proudest accomplishment this session, was my bill to put community service on the list of traditional academic measurements for graduation which currently includes examinations, quizzes, performances and student portfolios. In layman’s terms, it allows educators to grade community service as a means of obtaining a high school diploma. This became law after unanimously passing in the House and Senate and was even signed by the governor. Teachers will now be able to create multiple pathways of learning opportunities by bringing their current curriculum alive through hands-on experiences.
In all, this session I was pleased to sponsor 11 bills and cosponsor 53 other bills. Of the 11 sponsored bills, three were unanimously approved in the House and Senate, two of those became law, and one is being held for funding until January.
A bill of mine that received probably the most attention, including appearing on WCSH 6 with Pat Callaghan to clarify details, was a bill to help improve the safety of our highways. This new law has transferred the jurisdiction of increasing or decreasing speed limits on the entire length of the interstate from the political body to the transportation department. This ensures that speed changes are left to the people who specialize in engineering science rather than political science.
After hearing from many people, including a family severely plagued by Huntington’s disease in Saco, a bill was needed to address the concern for additional resources and expanded services for home-based and community-based care. This was passed unanimously in the House and the Senate and actually has been a priority for the LePage administration. The governor and his officials at DHHS support this initiative because of its ability to save money within the MaineCare system in the long run by limiting the strain on already full nursing home facilities and encouraging a more cost-efficient way of administering services. While passed, this bill awaits for funding from appropriations next year. If its left unfunded, it will simply not go into effect. (See story, page 1.)
There are also a few co-sponsored bills worth mentioning. During the debate over the recent Thornton Academy contract locally, some of you may have heard the phrase: insured value factor. This is crucial for town academies across the state that don’t receive any public funding for infrastructure projects. The bill put forward by Sen. Linda Valentino and I that was passed will increase the insured value factor payments incrementally starting next year. This will significantly help Thornton Academy afford capital construction projects in order to continue the high level of academic and extracurricular vigor that my alma mater is known for. Another was a bill to help clean up some of the laws regarding tuition waivers for children of veterans. This will hopefully make it easier for children of veterans to obtain their college degree.
If you remember back to your high school years, you might recall that freshmen were on the lower end of the social totem pole with the senior class at the top. This is similar to the atmosphere in Augusta, with freshmen generally expected to just get in line and not make a big splash. Part of being the youngest legislator coming in at 21, I felt an even greater need to break the mold and fight for the issues and bills our community sent me there to do regardless of the politics up there. While there are still many more issues to solve, bills to introduce, and fights to be had on the House floor, I am confident that this is a good first step to rethinking priorities, reforming policy, and renewing the commitment of putting the public service back into politics. For those of you in my House district, look out for my legislative newsletter in coming weeks.
Column: Pushing for Reform
This past legislative session there were many bills I put forth that didn’t make the cut. These are reforms I wholeheartedly believed in and will continue to push for moving forward if given the opportunity.
In 2004, Maine voters mandated that the state’s share of education funding be at 55 percent – pretty sure hovering around the current 46 percent isn’t what we all had in mind. Investing in education should be a priority for the Legislature. Even before the start of the session, I was told from numerous officials that we weren’t going to push for 55 percent. In fact, it wouldn’t be a possible priority for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless I charged on with my own proposal that would have ensured that the state meets its educational funding obligations. While it didn’t even make it to the House floor, I am hopeful that with a new governor, education funding will be more of a priority.
As a budding small business owner myself, focusing on supporting our small business community and improving the economy was another focus of this past session. I proposed expanding a successful tax credit to help businesses create new full time jobs. The tax credit I wanted to expand is called the Employment Tax Increment Financing. For an investment of $5.4 million over the past few years, the state already helped foster about 5,138 jobs in the private sector. Under the current incentive, a business must create five new full time jobs in order to qualify. My bill would have expanded this job-creating tax incentive to include those smaller businesses, like many around us locally, that create one or more new full time jobs. Instead of supporting my proposal, the taxation committee continues to support tax breaks that aren’t as effective, have a higher risk and waste taxpayer dollars.
Speaking of wasting taxpayer dollars, in order to pay for essential programs and services, I have a belief that we must first have the money available to pay for them. As a result, I proposed millions of dollars in reforms and cuts in wasteful spending. Those cuts included a bill that would have saved the state an estimated $11 million a year by streamlining state government. With Linda Valentino in the Senate and I in the House, we both pushed this initiative forward not just to save the state money, but also to make the entire system run more efficiently. Because of a last-minute political maneuver by our leadership, our bill wasn’t debated or properly voted on. Another proposal I had would have saved the state more than $300,000 each session by cutting excess legislative pay. When the bill was facing almost immediate defeat, I amended the bill in hopes of agreeing to a compromise. The amended bill would have just meant that legislators would be required to publically track the money they get for constituent services via the ethics commission very similarly to what is done with tracking campaign expenditures. This compromise was also shot down quickly.
In total, between sponsored and co-sponsored legislation, I came up with about $25 million in savings to our state. This was on top of the millions of savings I found within my own committee’s budget. This may seem like a drop in the bucket with the overall state budget being more than $6 billion, but imagine if every legislator did the same thing. Imagine every legislator coming up with savings in order to re-invest in education, small business incentives, or lower taxes. Of course that would mean legislators would have to actually read the budget prior to voting on it. What an interesting concept.
Reforming how Augusta operates isn’t just about trying to save money. Part of it is opening up the process to more transparency and accountability. This might be the journalist in me talking, but it is vitally important to have a government run in the sunshine. As a member of the state and local government committee, I supported initiatives to increase our broadcasting, both audio and video, of our legislative proceedings. In particular, online archiving of sessions of committee work and in both chambers. This way, no matter what your schedule is, you can see how your government is operating rather than trying to catch it live or seeing the recap in the media. Sadly, this too was shot down.
This last piece of reform is probably the one that got the closest to passing, though still a long way from actually becoming law. I brought Democrats, Republicans and advocates, including the Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, to the table on a grand compromise for comprehensive campaign finance and PAC reform. The measure would have limited special interest influence in Augusta and the flow of money in campaigns. The compromise included capping PAC contributions to mirror traditionally financed candidates and would have closed the loophole in the Clean Elections system that allows Clean Elections candidates to run leadership PACS collecting money from special interests while running their personal campaigns with taxpayer money. Both sides had to give up a little in order to make this work. With the leadership on both the Republican and Democratic sides firmly against this, a mere 56 votes out of 151 was all I could muster, though that was the highest vote count for similar past measures in recent memory. The system is currently rigged against the average Mainer and instead public policy decisions often are made with the influence of the lobbyist, organization or corporation with the largest checkbook. My predecessor spent many years fighting this fight and I will continue to push this forward because it must be done in order to really start solving the long term problems facing this state.
While these common sense reforms didn’t become law, I believe having the debate and raising awareness for them can sometimes lay a foundation for successful passage in the not too distant future. Too much is at stake to stop now.