Intentionally Unreasonable: Not unsophisticated, just not smart

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From the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, here are the two lead definitions of the word “unsophisticated”: not having or showing a lot of experience and knowledge about the world and about culture, art, literature, etc., and, not highly developed or complex.

And here is a recent headline from The Portland Press Herald: “Shrewd financiers exploit unsophisticated Maine legislators on taxpayers’ dime.”

It should be noted that the newspaper story didn’t contain a single mention of culture, art or literature. Instead, it documented a financial debacle sanctioned and certified by the Maine Legislature that will end up costing taxpayers approximately $16 million over the next few years.

Were (are?) our state legislators really “unsophisticated,” or was the paper just being kind by using a dainty label instead of something more direct and/or objectively accurate, such as “grossly negligent,” “woefully inexperienced,” or “just not smart enough to understand the New Markets Tax Credit Program”?

Almost every political leader (too long of a list to include here) involved in this mess has used the same excuse for the massive and costly blunder that allowed a bunch of rich guys to plunder $16 million from Maine taxpayers: “Gee, the math and big numbers and legal stuff was too tough to understand, so we all just accepted what was presented to us.”

The apparent winners? Cate Street Capital, a couple of slick financial groups from Louisiana, some banks, a few investment firms, a bunch of politically connected rich guys who hide behind the smoke and mirrors of good deeds, and an entire country club full of Maine’s top lawyers.

The clear losers? Everyone who lives in Maine or loves to visit Maine will feel the impact and financial burden from this mess for many years.

But this isn’t about the evil barbarians of Cate Street Capital, or the sad, but predictable fate of Great Northern Paper, or the hundreds of hard-working people who lost their jobs, or the devastating impact to East Millinocket.

Instead, this is a warning for everyone in Maine to heed the screeching call of this loud canary in our legislative coal mine, warning us that we are failing by electing our representatives based upon partisan politics instead of core competencies.

Our Legislature controls Maine’s annual operating budget of $3 billion and has authority and direct impact over many more billions of dollars through its lawmaking authority and oversight. Yet, I can’t name a single elected official in Augusta I would put in charge of a multi-million dollar enterprise, never mind one worth several billions of dollars.

Just about a year ago my wife and I attended the Maine Democratic Party Convention in Bangor, where about a thousand of the most rabid party faithful gathered to demonize Gov. Paul LePage and blindly support whatever came blaring out of the speakers – literally and figuratively. In between the big acts (Michaud, Bellows, Jackson, etc.) were breakout sessions for new candidates and for incumbents running for office.

As a candidate myself at the time, I went to a session hosted by Senate President Justin Alfond and House Majority Leader Rep. Mark Eves, which was attended by about 30 or so Democratic candidates and another 20 political party wonks.

At one point, another candidate (since elected) asked a question that I’ll paraphrase: “I’m no good at math, budgets and stuff, so can someone (within the Democratic Party) help me fill out all forms (finance-related) that people are asking me to fill out?” She was enthusiastically directed to another room to receive the help that she requested.

Today, she is one of Maine’s “lawmakers.” I assume that the same political dysfunction that got her elected crosses party lines.

To be sure, the vast majority of the hundreds of elected officials whom I’ve met at the local, county and state levels are men and women dedicated to their communities, with a genuine love of Maine and the spirit of public service. They should all be applauded for their selfless commitment of time and energy.

But government service at every level needs to be more than a “love of town, county, state or nation” contest. We need elected officials who understand “math, budgets and stuff,” legal construct, basic economics, education, environment, health care and much more. Too many of our elected officials meet the emotive standard of being “nice,” while failing in dramatic fashion any skill-based analysis.

The $16 million wasted on Great Northern Paper could be considered an investment in civics if it motivates each of us to recognize the importance of electing our representatives based on core competencies, and if we as voters take some responsibility for our own important role in the process.

We don’t need sophisticated lawmakers, just a few smart and experienced ones.

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Steve Woods is from away, but fully here now, living in Yarmouth, working in Falmouth, traveling the world, and trying his best. His column appears every other week. He can also be heard each Saturday at 11 a.m. on WLOB-AM 1310.