Intentionally Unreasonable: The recipe for Maine's political apocalypse? Blueberry nut bread

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I’m convinced that hardly anyone really cares about big “P” Politics (government functionality, constitutional integrity, etc.) in Maine – mostly just the little “p” version rooted in partisan pettiness.

As individuals, we are all generally hardwired to care and act upon issues that touch us directly or connect with our own personal areas of empathetic concern: human rights, health care, education, animal treatment, climate change, energy, taxes and a host of others that vary greatly by demographic and location.

But how many truly care enough about the actual constitutional machinery (local governments, county, federal, etc.) and the operators of the machines (elected officials at every level of government, government staff, etc.) to engage in a meaningful way?

While you might be vaguely aware that your local property tax bill increased this year, can you name a majority of your local town or city councilors. Do you know your municipality’s annual budget? Can you name a county commissioner?

While our great state suffers, before averted eyes and depleted wallets, into an abyss of fiscal mismanagement, population brain-drain and economic digression, our elected officials, many whom are woefully under-skilled to handle complex governance issues, fill the vacuum of their inadequacies with pompous proclamations and promises that often stir a blip of emotion during each election cycle – only to disappear after Election Day like the fog of your breath on a frozen February morning.

How can Maine voters measure the actions or success of each elected official? How can you even check to see if your legislator missed or avoided key votes, or check their overall attendance record? You can’t; at least not without a lot of time and work.

After our 35 state senators and 151 representatives are sworn in, their core function (lawmaking) is cloaked in a dark cloud of mystery.

During the most recent legislative session the Legislature had nearly 900 roll-call votes. But while you can follow each individual piece of legislation by bill number, the Legislature does not have either the technology or political will to provide a simple cross-reference voting report for each elected member.

So if you are interested in seeing how your state legislator voted – of if he or she even attended specific roll calls – you must sift through hundreds of bills and record each vote, one by one, to come to any kind of summary.

It’s a crazy system, especially in the digital era.

So over the past month I asked why. I contacted state officials, wrote Freedom of Access Act requests, and talked to state house employees, and the answers were all the same: That’s just the way it is.

A cynic like me may suggest our government officials have no motivation to provide this vital information, because this type of transparency makes each elected official more accountable, especially at re-election time.

It would be interesting to know if your legislator voted 100 percent with his or her party leadership, or if they voted for the best interests of their constituents even when that meant voting against their party. But there is no way to discern that unless you’re willing and able to dedicate the time and effort to manually review hundreds of documents.

In the relative meaningless platform of sport, anyone can find out the batting average of any Red Sox player, against any other team, day or night, with bases loaded, in less than a minute of online research. But you and I can’t find the attendance records of our elected legislators, their compiled voting records during the last session, and other critical lawmaking information without hours or days of laborious research.

The good news is that our state officials do provide some detail on their – really, our – legislative website.

There is a lovely, downloadable, 38-page PowerPoint presentation of high-resolution color photos of our state senators posing to be sworn in. And each elected official provides a list of the legislation they sponsored.

It’s in these sections that many of our elected officials practice the dark art of “sentimental” legislation.

In this specialized sport of political craftiness, state Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, won the gold medal during the most recent session with her sponsorship of 50 different “sentiment” bills: She congratulated the Cape Elizabeth High School boys basketball team for its Class B State Championship, a local trombonist, a local author – more than 100 people, seemingly all in her voting district.

The lawmaker from my home district, Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, took the silver medal for her 34 pieces of legislation dedicated to heaping official legislative praise on dozens of her constituents. (Breen, you’re aware, bested me in last year’s primary election, a fact that made me want to write less about her in this context, not more.)

To be clear, many pieces of “sentiment” legislation are wholly appropriate in regard to recognizing meaningful achievements and to mark significant contributions of public service or sacrifice. But most are unabashed mechanisms to exploit this particular legislative function, for raw political currency. (A currency that the rest of us pay for in the time and effort required for each bill.)

And with all of the urgent legislative issues Maine faces, was it really necessary for Breen to research, produce, engage Senate staff and have the entire Senate review and vote on SS 339, which recognized one of her constituents for winning a bread-making contest “hosted by the Kansas Wheat Commission” for “her Wild Maine Healthy Blueberry Nut Bread”?

Again, to be clear, these were not simply thoughtful letters with an official golden seal sent from elected officials to local residents. These were official pieces of state legislation that required time and effort to draft, research, organize, set within agendas, etc., and then be voted on by the Senate.

Between Millett and Breen, they list 92 individual items on their state Senate Web portal under the category of “Legislation Introduced” during the last Legislative session. And of those, 84 bills were dedicated to thanking, congratulating, best wishing, and honoring a long list of their constituents – who presumably will all be grateful at future elections.

My biggest disappointment in writing this column occurred when I asked John Barden, director of the Maine State Law and Legislative Reference Library (the keeper of Legislative records) if any other member of the public had ever requested this type of information.

“No,” he said. “And I’ve been here since 2008.”

When too many of us don’t care to ask the important questions, and demand a meaningful level of accountability from our elected officials, that is when the political apocalypse becomes the catalyst for the decay of our democracy. We can’t remain blind to our own culpable role in this process while expecting meaningful positive change.

With so many critical challenges here in Maine, we must demand that our government leaders show a greater commitment and competency in regard to policy work, more legislative thoughtfulness, and a little less focus, time and self-interest baked into legislation celebrating blueberry nut bread.

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.

  • Kevin McCarthy

    Excellent column. Sadly it also illustrates how the press has fallen asleep at the switch.

    • SteveWoodsME

      Kevin – Thank you for your positive comment. And, I agree with your point about the “press” (media.) But, most media operations are now hyper-responsive and commerically dependent upon supply & demand financial realities – meaning that if the public demands more coverage of the Kardashians or the Zumba spectacle in Kennebunk, than the media will supply and pander to that audience & content – which they did/do. But, if more people “demand” (and commercially support) greater detailed coverage on meaningful legislative issues or complex economic policy issues – than we’ll see more of that critically needed coverage. I still believe that it needs to start with “We The People..” for there to be real change – here in Maine and beyond.

      • Kevin McCarthy

        Thanks, Steve. I get that there are business and economic realities that are part of all media operations. It seems to me there is a chicken/egg question that is particularly vexing for the print media.I think it’s an abdication of the media’s responsibility for it to justify no coverage because there’s no demand. The press can create its own demand (which clearly is a double-edged sword). The PPH has made some worthy steps in the last few years to begin to address some of the information deficiencies, but it really needs to continue that process.

  • jay fulton

    I wonder how we can consider an “abyss of fiscal mismanagement, population brain-drain and economic digression” without mentioning the name of Governor Lepage? Maine is blessed with a large percentage of non-partisan, unenrolled, independent voters. With their participation and the proprosed Ranked Choice Voting, civic participation, I hope, will be on the upswing among us

    • SteveWoodsME

      Jay – I’ve certainly dedicated lots of bytes, bits & ink over many years decrying the many (political) crimes and misdemeanors of Paul LePage and his tone-deaf band of merry partisan pranksters – but those truths and criticisms won’t solve Maine’s challenges going forward. For that we need a more engaged and informed citizenry from everyone, regardless of party or ideology.

      Prior to the November, 2014 election, voters from all over Maine put up lawn signs, wrote passionate letters of support for their favorite legislative candidates and then on Nov. 4th, 603,428 Maine citizens voted.

      But, since then, how many Mainers have taken the time and effort to review their legislator’s voting record? Attendance record? Do those results/details even matter to many voters – or have we reduced the core element of our democratic process to that of a “popularity contest” where most (all?) of the time/energy is spent on seeing our favorite candidate “win” without enough care or concern for the vital role and responsibilities of governmental impact after they’re elected?

      Many other states publish detailed voting information that is readily available online. But like most things that require change to the status quo, there must be some push or catalyst – a.k.a. “demand” – and here in Maine, there is clearly little demand from the media, from voters, or from our elected legislative leaders to make this critical information available. Before we impulsively blame everything on the “politicians,” shouldn’t we all accept some portion of blame, too?

      I, as one lone voter, would like to ask any of our 35 state senators or 151 representatives to sponsor a bill during the next legislative session to address this issue of transparency.

      It’s 2015, think of the list of billions of things you can now find and access online – should detailed voting/attendance records from our elected officials here in Maine now be part of that list?