(Cartoon by Greg Kearney)
(Cartoon by Greg Kearney)
Correction: Please note in the column below I reported that the National Popular vote bill had passed committee,. However, four members were absent. When they returned they all voted no — so the final vote was 7-6. Erin Herbig was one of two of the absent Dems to vote against it.

Retirement hasn’t been easy for our former governor. Once on top of the world, Gov. Paul LePage had the full authority of the state behind him. He could ignore laws he didn’t like, have his critics fired, take junkets around the world to exotic countries and make regular excursions to D.C., where he’d stay in the luxurious Trump International Hotel, dine on extravagant feasts on the taxpayer’s dime and hobnob with Washington’s elite. There were once rumors that he was angling for a job with the Trump administration, but if he was, it didn’t pan out despite his constant sucking up to the president — even going so far as to recommend Trump for a Nobel Prize.

For several months, LePage led his loyal followers on with the hint that he just might run against Sen. Angus King. But he knew that his rightful place was being the boss and he’d be miserable as a backbencher in the Senate. Towards the end of his tenure, LePage said he was considering taking a teaching job at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, but apparently nothing came of that lead either.

So now the ex-governor sits at his home in Daytona Beach, Florida, fuming as he watches the new chief executive (a woman, no less!) dismantle his legacy. He tries desperately to remain relevant by appearing on friendly right-wing talk radio stations back in Maine and vows to return to run against Gov. Janet Mills in 2022.

To pass the time, he surfs social media and connects with his newly unemployed former underlings. In one LinkedIn post, the ex-governor gives a word of encouragement to his former Department of Labor spokesperson Laura Hudson, who was replaced by the Mills administration in January.

“If I can be of assistance let me know,” wrote LePage. “I am in the same boat — boring at home all day.”

Yes, the ex-governor — who constantly berated jobless Mainers as lazy, shiftless layabouts who needed to “get off the couch and get a job” — is now among the ranks of the unemployed. But as he has often pointed out, there are always opportunities out there if you actually want to work. “A summer landscaping job would teach him the value of a dollar,” Maine Beacon reporter Dan Neumann suggested on Twitter.

So given his current lot in life, Private Citizen LePage was probably quite pleased that he was still able to make national headlines, even if it was for adding to his archive of racist comments. In an interview with WVOM radio last week, LePage directed his rage at the “National Popular Vote” legislation, which a committee voted 7-6 to reject earlier this week, that aims to bypass the Electoral College by having Maine join an interstate compact of states pledging to deliver their electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the popular vote. Unlike conservative columnist Matt Gagnon, who recently used coded language to argue that the byzantine electoral system prevents a “tyranny of the majority,” LePage said the quiet part out loud: the Electoral College is necessary to keep white people in power.

“What would happen if they do what they say they’re gonna do, white people will not have anything to say,” he said. “It’s only going to be the minorities who would elect. It would be California, Texas, Florida.”

WVOM host Ric Tyler said that one of the arguments for passing National Popular Vote is that “minorities felt that they are not getting heard, but this would give them a majority.” Given that LePage’s rhetoric isn’t much different from what’s said in the darkest, dirtiest cesspools of online white supremacist forums, it makes one wonder where WVOM draws the line in booking its far-right guests — David Duke? Disgraced former Jackman Town Manager Tom Kawczynski? As the online magazine The Root points out, the ex-governor is worried that white people, who make up more than 61 percent of the nation’s population and have accounted for all but one of the country’s presidents, are “gonna’ be forgotten people.”

Twice already this century the Electoral College has handed the presidency to candidates who lost the popular vote.

As many political observers have noted, the Electoral College is very much a part of the nation’s racist legacy. Back when the founding fathers met for the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia 231 years ago, they decided to designate slaves as three-fifths of a white person when calculating the population of slaveholding states in order to give them more representation in government. Thus, slave masters could use the system to greatly increase their political power to defend the disgraceful institution of slavery. James Madison, a Southern slave holder, put it this way during the Constitutional Convention in 1787:

“The right of suffrage was much more diffusive [i.e., extensive] in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes.”

In other words, if Southern states weren’t given credit for their slaves, who couldn’t vote, the South wouldn’t be able to elect a president. These days, our electoral system suppresses the voting power of people of color because they tend to live in more densely populated areas, which is why President Donald Trump was able to win the presidential election despite losing the popular vote. But Rep. Craig Hickman (D-Winthrop), who is one of two African-Americans in Maine’s Legislature, made clear that he didn’t vote for the bill because of Trump.

“I support this bill because we need to find a way to minimize the impact of an anti-democratic institution that was absolutely responsible for exerting the power of slave states over free states for at least two decades in this country,” said Hickman right before the committee’s vote on Monday. “And if ever I have an opportunity to vote to eliminate the impact of such an institution I will take it. And this is one of those times.”

So LePage isn’t wrong that abolishing the Electoral College would give people of color more power. He’s wrong because he wants to preserve a system that allows a minority of voters to choose the president.

Meanwhile, although the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee narrowly rejected the National Popular Vote bill, it still might have a chance of passing when the full Legislature voted on it, although Gov. Janet Mills hasn’t stated whether she will support it. Currently, 12 states, with 172 electoral votes, have signed on to the compact, which needs a total of 270 electoral votes before it would take effect.

While it’s unlikely that the compact will garner enough support in the near future, given that Republicans still control at least one legislative chamber and/or the governor’s office in 36 states, it will be a whole lot easier to pass than a federal Constitutional Amendment, which needs a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress and then to be ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states. But it’s high time to abolish the anti-democratic Electoral College.

Public Hearings: Civil Forfeiture, Clergy Sex, Vaccines, Climate Change & Decriminalizing Sex Work

On Monday, March 11, the Criminal Justice Committee will take up a bill to make it public when law enforcement seizes property — like cash, cars and real estate — that it alleges was involved in a crime. LD 677, sponsored by Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham (R-Winter Harbor), would require the state to set up a tracking and reporting system for when a law enforcement agency seizes, holds or disposes of property as a result of civil forfeiture. The proposal would then make that information available to the public on a website.

While civil forfeiture laws were designed as a tool to take down large criminal enterprises, civil liberties groups have charged that they are being abused by law enforcement agencies for profit. The Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, gives Maine a B+ for its civil forfeiture laws and notes that the state receives a higher grade due to its lack of an incentive to police for profit. However, IJ doesn’t give Maine an ‘A’ because it argues that Maine has a low standard of proof to justify civil asset forfeitures.

The same day, Sen. Susan Deschambault (D-York Cty.) will present LD 913, which would make it unlawful for a member of the clergy who is in a position of trust or authority over another person to cause the other person to submit to or participate in a sexual act, sexual contact or sexual touching by “exploiting the person’s emotional dependency.”

Climate Change Bills

On March 13, the Environment and Natural Resources Committee will hear a few bills aimed at combating climate change. LD 797, sponsored by Rep. Ralph Tucker (D-Brunswick), would provide that by January 1, 2050, the state must reduce net annual greenhouse gas emissions to at least 80 percent below the 1990 levels. It would also direct the Department of Environmental Protection to establish interim net annual emissions levels and to monitor and report on annual greenhouse gas emissions.

Assault on a Pregnant Person

The Criminal Justice Committee will take up a bill increasing penalties for those who assault pregnant people. LD 18, sponsored by Rep. Lois Reckit (D-So. Portland), would create a new crime for assault on a pregnant person. The bill would also make a violation of a protection-from-abuse order a Class C crime, punishable by up to five years’ incarceration and a $5,000 fine, if the perpetrator has two or more prior convictions for violating a protection-from-abuse order.

Eliminating Vaccine Exemptions for Schoolchildren

With the recent outbreaks of measles and pertussis, parents and public health workers will be advocating for a bill (LD 798) in the Education Committee on March 13 that would eliminate exemptions from immunization requirements based on religious or philosophical beliefs for public school students. The measure would also apply to employees of nursery schools and health care facilities.

While state law requires students to be vaccinated, Maine is one of 18 states that allows parents to opt out of immunizing their children for philosophical reasons, according to the National Council on State Legislatures. Health experts warn that a very high percentage of the population needs to be vaccinated in order to protect people who have not developed certain immunities from contracting serious preventable illnesses. Currently, Oregon is considering getting rid of its vaccine exemptions in the wake of a recent measles outbreak.

Last year, nearly five percent of Maine kindergarteners did not get their required vaccinations because their parents opted out on philosophical or religious grounds, according to Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention. The Portland Press Herald noted that Maine’s opt-out rate is likely among the highest in the nation, as the current voluntary opt-out rate has climbed from 4.8 percent in 2016-17, when it was more than double the national average. Among public schools, Lincolnville Central School had one of the highest philosophical or religious opt-out rates in the state at 22.7%. Ashwood Waldorf School in Rockport has a 60% vaccine opt-out rate among kindergarteners. Other high opt-out rate schools in the midcoast include Palermo Consolidated (23.1%), Morse Memorial in Brooks (23.1%), Prescott Memorial in Washington (18.2%), Union Elementary School (16.7%) and Appleton Village School (14.3%).

Decriminalizing Sex Work

The Criminal Justice Committee could vote on a pair of bills that would decriminalize sex work on March 13. On Wednesday the committee held a public hearing on LD 326, which would repeal the law against consenting adults from engaging in prostitution and would allow individuals convicted of engaging in prostitution to petition courts to expunge their records. The committee will likely also vote on LD 548, sponsored by Sen. Bill Diamond (D-Cumberland Cty.), which would prohibit minors from being charged with the crime of engaging in prostitution.

Currently, there is a movement afoot to decriminalize sex work, with groups like Decrim NY pushing to decriminalize prostitution in New York state. Advocates say that sex workers should be allowed the same labor protections as any other profession. By making it illegal, they argue, it forces the trade underground where workers are more vulnerable to violence, sexually transmitted diseases and sex trafficking. Recently, the movement has been galvanized in opposition to recent bipartisan federal laws —  Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) — that shut down online prostitution forums in an attempt to curb sex trafficking. However, sex workers say that the web forums allowed them to check to make sure clients were safe to engage with and now they’re being pushed onto the streets and into the hands of pimps.

Insurance Coverage for Medical Marijuana

On March 14, the Health Coverage, Insurance and Financial Services Committee will hear a bill (LD 942), sponsored by Rep. Benjamin Collings (D-Portland), that would require health insurance companies to cover medical marijuana. Under the proposal, insurance carriers would be required to directly reimburse patients for the costs of the medical marijuana recommendation from a physician and for the herb itself. The proposal will likely run into opposition from insurance company lobbyists who will point out that marijuana is still illegal under federal law.

Bill to Clarify CMP Bills

After a firestorm of controversy over allegations against Central Maine Power for overbilling customers, the company announced in December that it would begin providing an explanation to customers of why portions of their bills may be higher in 2019 as Standard Offer supply rates for residential customers rose 14 percent in January. That announcement rubbed Rep. Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham), a longtime CMP critic, the wrong way and he has sponsored a bill (LD 1003) that would require utilities to obtain approval by the Public Utilities Commission before providing information explaining electricity rate components to a customer. The bill would require the PUC to ensure that information provided to a customer “accurately reflects the overall rate structure and cost components for the supply and delivery of electricity” and would require the PUC to receive input from the Public Advocate and other interested parties before approving or disapproving any written information provided by a utility to a customer.

“CMP seems to believe they can use customer bills (paid for by customers) to represent matters determined by the PUC, and to do so without PUC review,” wrote Berry in an email. “In other words, IOUs  appear to be able to use customer-funded bill envelopes to mail their own PR without PUC review for accuracy. This is not OK.” 

Bill to Shed Light on CMP’s Transmission Project

Opponents of CMP’s controversial $950 million New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC) transmission project, which would run a 146-mile high-voltage transmission line through western Maine to bring Quebec hydro power to Massachusetts, have questioned whether the project would lower carbon emissions. Analyses by the energy consultant Energyzt Advisors, which were commissioned by a rival natural gas generator and the Natural Resources Council of Maine, have indicated that Quebec Hydro could simply divert hydro power it now sells to other markets in Ontario and New York to Massachusetts, forcing the other two regions to rely on dirtier fuels to replace the hydro electricity.

On March 15, Sen. Brownie Carson (D-Cumberland Cty.) will present a bill (LD 640) to the Environment and Natural Resources Committee that would require the Department of Environmental Protection to review all “relevant, verifiable evidence on the total net effect on greenhouse gas emissions” of the NECEC project and would prohibit the department from issuing a permit to CMP without taking into account the results of the review.