The Maine bill mill: Annexing New Hampshire toll booth, taxing legislators

Ethan: Now is the time of year that all legislators get to put their great campaign ideas to work. Anyone can submit any bill for the next six weeks.

Phil: Yes, this is the only time legislators can introduce bills to their heart’s content. When it’s all done, several thousand bills to run your life will be printed.

Ethan: “Run your life?!” It never ends. Let me ask you, was the bill you sponsored to bring the train to Brunswick “running someone’s life?” No. It was helping commerce, improving the environment and enhancing our quality of life. That’s what all these bills will seek to do.

Phil: It did indeed improve our quality of life up here north of Portland! By the way, wouldn’t you have thought I’d have received an invitation to the inaugural run after all the work I did to get that train rolling? But no! Anyway, why don’t you explain to folks the process you and I remember as “cloture.”

Ethan: You mean the mania of the first six weeks of session when you are supposed to submit bills for every issue you promised your constituents you would work on? Back when you and I were there, we only had two weeks, and you didn’t even know what committee you’d be on. Now, they give everyone until Jan. 18. After that date, you better know someone if you want your bill even considered.

Phil: That’s an understatement. After “cloture” only the governor or legislative leadership has the power to allow new bills into the arena. Even in the second year of the legislative session only “emergency” bills are allowed. This explains why every session the media reports on all the asinine legislation introduced. Did you introduce any of those?

Ethan: Moi? Asinine legislation? Never! Although, I did submit a bill to annex the New Hampshire toll booth after that state’s Legislature kept trying to steal our shipyard.

Phil: That’s one way of getting their attention — and a lot of revenue! Once submitted, all these bills will have a public hearing, work sessions and eventually a vote in the House and Senate.

Ethan: Well, not all. Remember, someone can still withdraw a bill. Sometimes what sounds like a great idea at first doesn’t sound so good when it’s drafted. Plus, many new legislators submit way more bills than they can handle (unless they are former Sen. Peter Mills who always seemed to make every public hearing for the record-setting number of bills he submitted). Or maybe you just wanted to make a point, kind of like my shipyard bill. You ever have one of those?

Phil: I was naïve enough to sponsor a bill removing legislators from the Maine State Retirement System and requiring them to pay for their own health insurance.

Ethan: I’ll bet you made some friends among your colleagues with that one. Any you are proud of?

Phil: Sure. As Frank Sinatra says, I had “too few to mention.” Many come to mind like the so-called Dead Beat Dad’s bill, another that created the New England Passenger Rail Authority, one for the Maine International Trade Center that combined three separate bureaucracies into one and another requiring the Department of Transportation to turn roads over to towns that were in good condition.

Ethan: I have a few as well. Maine’s current minimum wage is above the federal level due to my bill. I also passed legislation to make sure kids in jail had an advocate. And I sponsored one to provide targeted tax relief to small businesses, although it didn’t pass.

Phil: So now that the new legislators are just starting to lay out their agenda, do you have a top three you’d like to see passed?

Ethan: Just three? Minimum wage workers haven’t received a raise since 2009, so that needs to be increased again. The homestead exemption should be doubled (at least) in order to provide much needed property-tax relief (and paid for through broadening the sales tax). And we must, must, must pass a bond for research and development so we can get this economy rolling. Yours?

Phil: First, pass legislation that lowers electric rates. Two, incentivize educators to cut our dropout rate in half by 2015. Third, pass a blueprint of Maine’s economic vision — organic food, forestry and technology — for the next decade, then appropriate money to promote it throughout the U.S. and internationally.

Ethan: Any final words of advice to the newly sworn in rookies as they prepare to submit their bills?

Phil: Absolutely. It’s easier to say no to your colleague who wants you to co-sponsor a bill than it is to defend yourself when the opposition party beats you up in the next election.

Ethan: And from me, I would simply pass on what I heard my colleague Ben Dudley once say from the floor of the House. To paraphrase: “Someone once told me, ‘Stay true to your constituents. There is not one person in this body who you represent, but there are thousands back home whom you do. They are why you are here, not the person sitting next to you, nor the person across the aisle. Be friendly, work together, but remember that your vote belongs to them, and only them.’”