Attempt to honor school choice triggers State House spat

Good morning from Augusta, where surprise! The seeds of discontent have already been planted in the Maine politics trenches.

Joint resolutions in the Maine Legislature — which are sentiments adopted by both the House and Senate — don’t typically garner much attention outside the State House. They’re about as insider baseball as anything in Augusta. However, there’s a minor flap brewing about two that have been rejected in the past several days.

Republican Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn proposed introducing a joint resolution honoring National School Choice Week, which this year is Jan. 22-28. Brakey’s resolution, which he proposed Jan. 4, was rejected by Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport.

“The first day of the Legislature is here and already, our message of personal freedom is under attack,” Brakey posted on his Facebook page. “We just received word that Speaker of the House Sara Gideon has blocked our resolution to recognize National School Choice Week from even coming forward for a vote.”

That prompted a letter to Gideon by Republican Rep. Larry Lockman of Amherst.

“This is unacceptable,” wrote Lockman. “At a minimum, you owe Sen. Brakey and members of the House a full explanation for blocking consideration of a resolution that does nothing more than celebrate freedom to choose in education, including traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, private school, online academies and home schooling.”

It should be noted that Lockman appears to relish the role of House GOP attack dog against Democratic leaders. He spent weeks during last year’s session hounding then-House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe about a procedural maneuver that blocked consideration of another politically charged piece of legislation and raised questions about Democratic Rep. George Hogan’s residence on swearing-in day for this Legislature.

Mary Erin Casale, who is Gideon’s spokeswoman, said this morning that joint resolutions are introduced at the discretion of legislative leaders and usually, don’t address issues as politically divisive as school choice.

“It’s up to the presiding officers what they sign off on,” she said. “It’s common that one side supports something and one side doesn’t support something.”

Gideon isn’t alone in picking and choosing which joint resolutions to support. Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson of Allagash had a similar experience this week with Senate President Mike Thibodeau when Jackson tried to introduce a resolution having to do with, among other things, restoring the Glass-Steagall Act, which is a set of banking regulations implemented during the Great Depression and repealed in 1999. Like school choice, it’s another issue that sharply divides Republicans and Democrats. Jim Cyr, who is Thibodeau’s spokesman, agreed with Casale when it comes to joint resolutions.

“I think the idea is that they have some kind of bipartisan buy-in and a chance for passage,” said Cyr. “With Sen. Jackson’s bill, that wasn’t the case.”

Why does it matter? It probably doesn’t. Neither of these resolutions carry much weight when it comes to what difference they could make in the world. However, they do illustrate an ongoing political battle in which neither major political party will budge an inch if it means even the tiniest win for the other side. — Christopher Cousins

Poliquin says he’ll vote to start ACA repeal, but what’s next?

The U.S. House of Representatives is set to follow the Senate on Friday to begin the process of repealing the Affordable Care Act and Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican from Maine’s 2nd District, told on WVOM on Friday that he’ll vote for it.

He has long advocated for a replacement plan before repeal and there is no formal plan to replace it yet, but he said this process will be “done in steps” with a repeal bill hitting soon-to-be President Donald Trump’s desk in months.

But by then, he said fixes to the law will have been voted on that repeal taxes and regulation, but preserves requirements for insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions and “nobody is going to be thrown under the bus.”

But two other Maine congressional delegation members are continuing to wage last-ditch efforts to stave off repeal. Sen. Angus King and Rep. Chellie Pingree are hitting the road to work to preserve the health care law. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, voted with the rest of her party in the Senate to start the repeal process.

Pingree, a Democrat from Maine’s 1st District will host a private roundtable discussion with Mainers who have benefited from the Affordable Care Act on Sunday at Portland City Hall to be followed by a public event outside the building at 1 p.m. King will host a discussion with health care providers and experts today in Bridgton regarding the impact that repeal of the Affordable Care Act would have on rural hospitals. You can watch that event by clicking here. 

King spoke fervently on the Senate floor this week highlighting his experience with cancer as young man, saying his insurance saved his life and that a move to repeal could cause “chaos” in the insurance market. — Michael Shepherd and Christopher Cousins

Maine native calls it a career

Kevin Concannon, a Portland native and long-time human services administrator who spent a career working on health policy issues, is retiring. Concannon, a former commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, has more recently been President Barack Obama’s USDA Under Secretary of Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services. In that role, which he’s held since 2009, Concannon has overseen food and nutrition social service programs that serve one-quarter of Americans.

“He is truly a remarkable public servant and he has made a real difference in the lives of millions and millions of people in this country,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, during a speech in the U.S. House on Wednesday. “I call on my colleagues to learn from Kevin Concannon, to be inspired by his example and to do all we can to end hunger now.”

Not everyone will be sad to see Concannon go. Current DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew clashed bitterly with Concannon during a hearing in Washington in June 2016. At issue was the LePage administration’s efforts to fight fraud in the federal food stamps program. Concannon and the Obama administration have resisted various initiatives by the LePage administration, such as putting photo identifications on EBT cards. — Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

  • Need a new boycott target?: The Federal Election Commission sent a 256-page letter this week to the treasurer of Donald Trump for President, the president-elect’s campaign operation, detailing possible violations of campaign finance reporting laws.The alleged violations seem pretty standard, but given the uproar over Linda Bean’s donations to a pro-Trump political action committee, this long list provides some context. You have to love that Valentine’s Day is the “response due” date.
  • Heating fuel prices on upswing: The average price for a gallon of No. 2 heating oil has risen to $2.27 a gallon, which is up five cents over the past two weeks, according to the Governor’s Energy Office. The per-gallon price was south of $2 in June 2016 and started an upward trend that is expected to continue because of a decision by by oil-producing countries to curtail the production of crude oil. The prices of kerosene and propane are also creeping upward. Rising energy prices is a trend that will continue, according this informative article by the BDN’s Darren Fishell. — Christopher Cousins and Robert Long

Reading list

The Maine Lottery Commission’s prizes suck

I’m not talking about the money. Who among us doesn’t want a pile of cash? The problem is, our chances of reaping riches from a lottery ticket are something close to the chances that my wife is going to wake up someday and decide she doesn’t want a cup of coffee.

I didn’t know this because I don’t buy lottery tickets, but you can turn in losing tickets for your chance to win consolation prizes, the most recent of which were Dyson vacuum cleaners for players in Lisbon, Waldoboro and Indian Township.

What happened to buying American? Dyson is a British company but then again, an Ohio-bred Kirby is expensive, even for the lottery commission. Here’s your soundtrack. I know, I know: It sucks.  — Christopher Cousins


Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.