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What’s in a name? The Maine Legislature's growing stack of placeholder bills offers little detail

House representatives look up to see how their colleagues voted on a heating assistance package, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
House representatives look up to see how their colleagues voted on a heating assistance package, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine.

A few weeks ago here in the Pulse, we raised concerns about a trend among state lawmakers that could impact transparency and public participation in the legislative process.

At the time, 28% of the bills that had emerged from the printer were “concept drafts” — essentially placeholder bills that are often little more than a title and a vague description of what the sponsor hopes to achieve. Two examples: “An Act to Reform Education” or “An Act to Reduce Electricity Rates.”

The concern is that, oftentimes, these concept drafts aren’t fleshed out with specific language until the day of the public hearing, or sometimes later.

“Without the language, it’s pretty hard to know what your position is going to be,” said Dana Connors, the outgoing president of the Maine State Chamber Commerce.

A month later, this trend has slowed — but only somewhat. The number of concept drafts still far outpaces anything from the past decade.

As of Thursday morning, at least 209 of the 989 printed bills (out of more than 2,000 expected) were concept drafts. That’s more than 21% compared with roughly 10% in the last legislative session. And last session’s total was more than double the number in each of the previous five legislative sessions, according to an analysis by Maine Public Radio.

This isn’t a partisan issue — Democrats, Republicans and independents have all introduced concept drafts this session.

And there are certainly times when placeholder bills make sense. For instance, Senate President Troy Jackson and House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (both Democrats) formed a special housing committee this year to examine Maine’s affordable housing crisis. And they are lead sponsors of a concept draft that could eventually contain major, proposed policy changes that emerge from those deliberations.

But business and interest groups involved in policymaking discussions at the State House remain concerned about the trend of vague, would-be laws. The issue is apparently also on the radar of other groups with an interest in transparency.

Golden: Send Ukraine F-16 fighters

Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden is continuing to pressure the Biden administration to send F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine to help repel the yearlong invasion by Russia.

Golden this week signed a bipartisan letter calling on the president to authorize the transfer of F-16s, describing the jets as potentially vital to Ukraine’s efforts to control its airspace as the war intensifies.

“In contrast to the current, ground-based air defense platforms currently used by Ukrainian forces, fighter aircraft’s ability to quickly traverse a large battlespace with a significant weapons payload could prove decisive for control of Ukrainian airspace this year,” co-signers of the letter wrote.

So far, the Biden administration has been reluctant to transfer F-16s. A Pentagon official told the House Armed Services Committee, of which Golden is a member, that Ukrainian pilots would need 18 months to learn to fly and maintain F-16s. Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defense, also questioned whether such a transfer was the best use of American aid to Ukraine.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. has sent $34 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since Russian incursions into the country first began in 2014 with the illegal annexing of Crimea. Of that sum, $31.7 billion has been sent since Russia’s full-scale invasion a year ago.

The ‘evah’ green asset

Deployment of the Maine accent for messaging purposes can be tricky business, but Central Maine Power is hoping Jim Wright of Cornville can pull it off. Again.

Wright became a local celebrity of sorts in the ’90s amid CMP’s campaign to convince people that touching power lines is “nevah, evah” a good idea. Now Wright is the central character in political ads warning voters about the perils of a high-profile takeover of CMP and Versant that voters will be asked to approve in November.

The ad is by Maine Affordable Energy Coalition, a political organization financed by CMP and its parent company, Avangrid. The group has amassed nearly $11 million in funding since it was created to fight the takeover bid, which began as a legislative initiative but was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills in 2021.

Wright uses CMP’s well-worn rhetoric about the Pine Tree Power Co., which would replace CMP and Versant and operate as a nonprofit controlled by an elected board. CMP’s claims about the cost of the takeover and future rate impacts are fiercely disputed by Our Power, the political group that put the referendum on the ballot.

However, the takeover group is currently finding itself outgunned in ad wars that are expected to intensify in the coming months. Our Power was just short of $300,000 in contributions at the end of 2022, according to campaign finance filings.

Golden votes against ‘woke capitalism’

Golden was the only Democrat in the House to join Republicans this week in passing a resolution repealing a Biden administration policy that allows investment managers to consider environmental and social goals when making retirement plan decisions.

The resolution is part of a larger conservative push against what’s known as ESG, or environmental, social and governance, a decades-old investment practice in which a corporation’s work on issues like climate change or diversity efforts are considered as financial factors.

More recently, ESG has been part of the conservative culture crusade against “wokeism,” which has prompted Republican politicians to attack corporations for allowing what they view as liberal values to further infiltrate American society, hence the nickname “woke capitalism.”

The conservative rebellion against ESG has powerful allies, including the Marble Freedom Trust, which is led by Leonard Leo. Leo also leads the Federalist Society, the group largely credited with helping install conservative judges on the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts.

Golden wasn’t the only Democrat in Congress who voted with the GOP. Democratic U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, and Jon Tester, of Montana, also voted to repeal the rule. They argued that the rule prioritizes investments in ESG over the best returns for retirees’ money.

A spokesperson for Golden echoed that rationale in a written statement.

“Jared thinks that working class Mainers’ hard earned retirement funds should be invested to maximize positive returns, period,” the spokesperson said.

Talbot Ross goes to White House

House Speaker Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, joined four other Black state House speakers at the White House this week to commemorate Black History Month.

Talbot Ross is Maine’s first Black speaker of the House, presiding over 151 members during what is now her fourth term. Speakers Chris Welch (Illinois), Adrienne Jones (Maryland), Joe Tate (Michigan) and Carl Heastie (New York) also participated in the event.

Talbot Ross described the ceremony on Twitter as “an inspiring evening of celebrating Black History Month.” She also posted photos of herself alongside President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Bowdoin grad, meanwhile, wants to live in the White House

Nikki Haley received a huge amount of press in mid-February when the former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador announced her plans to challenge former President Donald Trump for the Republican nomination.

But a Bowdoin College alum made a similar announcement earlier in the month.

Steve Laffey graduated from Bowdoin in 1984, received an MBA from Harvard and worked as an executive in the financial sector. The Republican eventually served as mayor of Cranston, R.I. (population 83,000) from 2003 to 2007. He ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in Rhode Island in 2006 and then for a Colorado congressional seat in 2014.

But now Laffey says he’s running for president because, as he states on his campaign website, “the nation he loves has gone to hell in a hand basket.”

He’s a longshot, to be sure. And he’s got plenty of company. According to the Federal Election Commission, more than 300 people have filed initial paperwork to run for president.

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week by State House correspondent Kevin Miller and chief political correspondent Steve Mistler, and produced by digital editor Andrew Catalina. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.