Opinion

Raising the governor’s pay, creating a spaceport are not emergencies

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As I write this column, Maine’s Legislative Council — which consists of 10 lawmakers, six Democrats and four Republicans — is beginning to work through the process of considering the roughly 400 bill requests submitted by lawmakers for the second session of the Legislature.

The second session is supposed to work very differently than the first. Whereas in the first, lawmakers are free to work on any issue they so desire, and spend much of their time debating the new biennial budget proposal, the second session is supposed to be quite limited.

In fact, there is specific language placing those limitations in Article IV, Part Third, Section 1 of the Maine Constitution. That language states, “the business of the second regular session of the Legislature shall be limited to budgetary matters; legislation in the Governor’s call; legislation of an emergency nature admitted by the legislature; legislation referred to committees for study and report by the Legislature in the first regular session; and legislation presented to the Legislature by written petition of the electors under the provisions of Article IV, Part Third, Section 18.”

In other words, the second session only exists to deal with a supplemental budget, if one is necessary, bills from the governor, holdover bills from the first session, petition legislation and “emergency legislation,” which can be proposed by lawmakers.

OK, but what is an emergency, you might ask? Sometimes in government you have vague, reasonably undefined terms, which allow lawmakers to kind of do whatever they want.

Luckily for us, though, emergency legislation actually does have a definition, and it comes from — once again — the Maine Constitution.

Article IV, Part Third, Section 16 states, “An emergency bill shall include only such measures as are immediately necessary for the preservation of the public peace, health or safety.”

The key words here are “immediately necessary” and “preservation of the public peace.” Those two phrases make very clear that proposed legislation should seek to address a very significant problem, and that the problem needs to be dealt with in very short order.

So what are some of the proposals that your lawmakers consider both immediate in need, and so vital that they are for the preservation of the public peace?

Let’s take a look at a few of the bill titles.

An Act To Increase the Salary of Legislators and the Governor. An Act To Create the Maine SpacePort Complex. An Act To Ban Commercial Horse Pulling. An Act To Promote Outdoor Recreational Opportunities for Maine Students. An Act To Require a Person To Carry Liability Insurance on a Snowmobile. An Act To Revive Film Production in the State by Providing Financial Incentives That Encourage Visual Media Production.

Not a good start. I don’t think it is that much of an emergency that public officials want more money or that we don’t have a spaceport. And while laudable, I’m not sure how getting kids outside more or making more movies in Maine qualifies either. And is there some kind of epidemic of insurance-less snowmobile mayhem plaguing the state that I didn’t know about?

The list goes on, and on, and on.

The dirty little secret here is that members of the Legislature — in both parties — have flouted the stated constitutional purpose of the second session for a very, very long time. In a sort of “you scratch my back, I scratch yours,” each party looks the other way and agrees to move dozens of bills forward that have no business being considered, simply so their own side can do the same, and they can all legislate however they want.

And indeed, many of these bills are actually decent enough ideas. Some are even good ideas. But emergencies?

No, they aren’t. And lawmakers know they aren’t. But they’ll consider many of them anyway. Just like they always do.

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

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