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Advocates, faith leaders call on Collins to get behind clean Dream Act

10 hours 15 min ago

While Senator Susan Collins was attending an event at the Portland Art Museum Thursday evening, across the street dozens of faith leaders and concerned citizens gathered in Congress Square to call on the lawmaker and the rest of the Maine Congressional delegation to stand up for the nation’s immigrants and pass legislation to protect Dreamers.

“Without passage of the Dream Act or another piece of clean legislation that provides a pathway to permanent residency, these young people will no longer be able to work and study legally, will lose their jobs, and will be subject to deportation,” Julia Brown, an advocacy and outreach attorney with the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, told the crowd.

“Passage of a clean Dream Act will mean at least a hundred young people in Maine, and hundreds of thousands across the United States, will no longer live in fear,” Brown continued. “The Dream Act provides permanent relief—accordingly, employers and educators will be able to invest in and commit to Dreamers’ futures. These young Dreamers will continue to work, go to school, start businesses, and make their homes here in the great state of Maine.”

Congress is currently facing a deadline of March 5 before Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)

expires, leaving roughly 700,000 young people who have grown up in the United States at risk of deportation. In order to fully protect these individuals and give them a true path to citizenship, advocates are calling on Congress to pass the Dream Act.

A compromise agreement put forth by Collins, Senator Angus King and other members of the so-called “Common Sense Coalition” failed to pass through the Senate last week. But advocates say that legislation that includes ramped-up immigration enforcement and border wall funding in exchange for the security of some immigrants is not a viable solution.

“This is a Vigil for Dreamers, but let’s be clear: We’re not only here for Dreamers,” said Rev. Allen Ewing-Merrill of Moral Movement Maine, which organized the vigil Thursday.

“We’re here for their parents. We’re here for those who’ve lost Temporary Protected Status. We’re here for refugees who have been under attack. We’re here for asylum seekers. We are here to say no to xenophobia in every form—no to xenophobic aggression and oppression—no to racism and nationalism. And,” he continued, “we are here to say that no New Americans should be used as bargaining chips for a border wall or targeted deportation or increased defense spending or anything else.”

Photos: Moral Movement Maine/ Facebook

To tackle opioid crisis, Maine’s next governor must move beyond criminalization

Sat, 02/24/2018 - 05:30

Lots of task forces, not enough results

One of the strongest people I know is a woman in Lewiston, Sherry Monteith, who lost her 30-year-old sister Sarah Cookson to an opioid overdose in December 2016. Tragically, her sister’s story has become far too familiar: Sarah was first exposed to opioids from a prescription given after surgery over a decade ago, and couldn’t get access to affordable treatment because she fell in the MaineCare coverage gap. As hard as grieving for a loved one already is, Sherry decided she couldn’t remain silent and has spoken out publicly about the ways our state failed her sister, and has now dedicated her life to ensuring that others have better options than Sarah.

Sherry has joined a growing chorus of people in Maine—Democrats, Republicans, health care providers, law enforcement officials—who recognize that we simply aren’t doing enough to deal with substance use disorder in general, and the opioid epidemic in particular. Two weeks ago, I wrote about how this has already become a top issue in the governor’s race, with people on all sides agreeing that we needed to take greater action. The question remains: What is the best way forward?

While we might assume that the two bipartisan task forces convened by the state to deal with the crisis might have brought us closer to a solution, as the Press Herald forcefully noted, “As Maine’s opioid crisis worsens, 128th Legislature largely does nothing.” And this week, Attorney General Janet Mills released data from 2017 demonstrating the crisis has worsened yet again, with 418 Mainers perishing from overdoses last year. It seems clear that, despite everyone’s statements of interest in addressing this epidemic, we have not built the political will to take sufficient action to match the scale of this problem. I think one of the more heartbreaking details of Sherry’s sister’s story may help us understand why this is the case.

The month before her final, fatal overdose, Sarah overdosed at her family’s home. Anyone who has loved someone who struggled with addiction can understand the complexity of the moment. In the immediate aftermath, there was Sarah’s family worried about her well-being, there were paramedics offering to take her from the home and enroll her in treatment, and there was some hope that this might be the moment of intervention when Sarah could start her road to recovery. But there were also four state troopers who suddenly arrived at the house, and Sarah could not be convinced that she would be leaving the house solely for treatment–not jail. Ashamed and scared of incarceration, she refused help and cut off communication with her family, telling them that she would solve her problems on her own. In a month, she died.

On the surface, all the systems at play in this moment appeared to engage with Sarah in the way they are supposed to. There’s a lot of talk about taking a “comprehensive” approach to the opioid epidemic, involving, for example, health care providers as well as law enforcement. But even when law enforcement officers have the best intentions, our culture’s obsession with stigmatizing and criminalizing people struggling with addiction creates so much fear that Sarah refused treatment. While taking a “comprehensive” approach to the crisis sounds good on paper, it often muddles the central question, one which the next governor of Maine will be forced to reckon with: Should addiction be treated as a criminal justice or public health issue?

Two steps forward, one step back

In 2015, thanks to Governor Paul LePage’s inability to count to ten, Maine made a remarkable advance. LD 113, “An Act to Reduce the Penalties for Certain Drug Offenses,” passed the legislature and became law along with several other bills when Gov. LePage lost track of the calendar and forgot to veto it. Under this law, if a person caught possessing drugs like opioids had no prior conviction, they could only be charged with a misdemeanor. Previously in Maine, these kinds of low-level possession charges could be considered felonies. Far from a left-wing bill, it received support from hard-right Republicans like Sen. Eric Brakey (currently running for senate against Angus King), and moderate Republicans, like Sen. Roger Katz. While I find the moral arguments in support of the bill far stronger, Sen. Brakey noted in his testimony that Maine spent nearly $60 million on drug offenses alone in 2010, with 78 percent of drug arrests for possession, not trafficking or manufacturing. Sadly, only three Democrats—Sen. Stanley Gerzofsky, Rep. Catherine Naedau, and Rep. Charlotte Warren—voted the strongest version of the bill out of committee. Democratic Representatives Lori Fowle, Justin Chenette, James Davitt, and Michel Lajoie, and all Republicans on the committee voted to either weaken the bill, or not pass it at all. However, thanks to the heroic efforts of the ACLU of Maine, it passed both the House and Senate, allowing the state to take what seemed to be a major step—maybe even two steps!—forward towards de-stigmatizing addiction.

Unfortunately, another bill with conflicting language also passed in the confusion of the Governor’s failure of arithmetic. To clear up the discrepancy, Attorney General Mills introduced another bill, LD 1554, the following year. Her solution, however, was essentially to re-felonize possession.

It’s worth noting that Attorney General Mills has done an incredible amount to advocate for positive solutions to the opioid epidemic, most notably her work to ensure police departments can access naloxone, the life-saving drug that can instantly resuscitate people suffering an overdose. This alone has saved the lives of 327 people who were revived by 70 different police departments. Also, Mills’ ten point plan released this January for tackling the opioid epidemic contains good ideas around drug courts, monitoring prescription, and following the Vermont “hub and spoke” treatment model that seems to be one of the few approaches achieving any success across the country.

Yet Mills, a Democrat currently running for governor, led the charge in rolling back the advances of LD 113. How can one of the greatest champions for naloxone in Maine, who unhesitatingly stands up to Gov. LePage’s nonsense, still want to re-felonize low-level drug possession?

I encourage everyone to hear Mills explain her case , as she graciously agreed to do on the Beacon podcast this week. Essentially, she argues that scaring people with big jail sentences helps force people into treatment. As she said in her testimony, “The consequences that caught their attention were not $400 fines; what often hit people over the head and got them into rehab was the threat of prison, plain and simple.”

In other words, this idea of a “comprehensive” approach considers the role of law enforcement as essentially scaring people into treatment. And just as people on both sides of the aisle probably agree with that statement, there’s also bipartisan opposition to it. When I caught up with Sen. Katz to hear his take, he told me, “Whether it’s prescription painkillers, or people facing trauma from the military, many end up in very difficult places trying to control their behavior. To make those people into felons, particularly on the first offense, just doesn’t make sense to me. A felony conviction has so many impacts on their life, it’s like the scarlet letter. If we want to encourage people to be rehabilitated, the felony conviction can actually make that impossible.”

As many others have noted, the impacts of a felony on a person’s life are numerous, from being unable to find employment or housing to a veteran losing their healthcare. As Ross Hicks, a veteran and person in recovery, said, “Had I been arrested and charged with a felony, I would not have been able to join the Navy, where I served honorably for eight and a half years. I would not have been among the first responders in Pago Pago after they were hit by a tsunami in 2009. I would not have had access to the benefits of that service, which allowed me to attend the University of Southern Maine and graduate Cum Laude with a Bachelor’s degree in three years. Not having that education would have made finding this job that much harder.”

Ultimately, then-Rep. Mark Dion (now a senator, running for governor as well), worked with Mills to craft a compromise bill that kept very small amounts of drug possession as a misdemeanor, but larger amounts remained a felony. Perhaps this is a good example of the kind of legislative cooperation that seems missing from so much of politics today. But I can’t escape the feeling that the end result of the saga was yet another equivocation that sowed the seeds of Sarah’s fears of getting arrested.

It seems we haven’t made up our minds about what exactly we think about addiction. At an arbitrary level, 200 mg, substance use transforms from a public health to a criminal issue. And yet, by and large, there is little difference between the people struggling to find their way to recovery. No matter what quantity I had in hand, if four state troopers showed up at my door during an overdose, I think I would still be scared, ashamed, and wanting to withdraw—all at exactly the moment I most needed to be brave, reach out, and admit I needed help.

What’s next?

Republican gubernatorial candidates like Sens. Michael Thibodeau and Garrett Mason have already parted ways with the governor on naloxone. Hopefully, once LePage has vacated the Blaine House, we can establish a clear bipartisan consensus on basic life-saving treatment. But the myriad task force recommendations, all gathering dust on the shelf, seem to have already failed for lack of resources. It’s hard not to think about the $60 million Maine spends on locking people up, mostly for possession offenses, as resources that could be far better used towards treatment. We are willing to spend over $100 dollars a day keeping people in prison, yet struggle to provide the basic harm reduction services necessary for keeping people alive on the outside. In fact, the legislature passed zero bills last year focused on treatment or harm reduction.

Bottom line, until we are ready to de-stigmatize addiction, we will not only lack the political will to end the opioid epidemic, but our “comprehensive” interventions will also likely fail. When I feeling optimistic, it seems like all the major players—even and especially Republicans—are evolving and ready to recognize the shortcomings of trying to scare people into treatment. When I am feeling more pessimistic, it seems we will remain unable to tackle the root causes of mass incarceration because—like all issues that primarily affect Americans of color—our political system has literally been designed to marginalize issues of racial justice.

With the current crisis, a system designed to devalue lives of color has now been turned against white people struggling with opioid addiction, and it’s unclear that we have the wisdom to legislate past these enduring prejudices. I hope this election can chart a different course. As Kenney Miller from Maine Health Equity Alliance, says about criminalization, “It doesn’t work. We’ve seen vast amounts of research showing that pressuring people into treatment isn’t effective. It just pushes people into the shadows where they are using less safely and not accessing treatment.” Let’s hold everyone running for governor—from both parties—accountable to having a real plan, not just for treatment, but for de-stigmatizing addiction, including through redefining the role of law enforcement in this epidemic. That kind of “comprehensive” approach makes a lot more sense to me. May all of us be as brave as Sherry, and as untiring in our efforts.

In September 2017, family members of Mainers who have died from overdoses or other causes related to the state’s opioid epidemic laid roses on the steps of City Hall in Lewiston.

Can I still shop at Hannaford?

Fri, 02/23/2018 - 16:39

The answer is yes, for now. This week on the Beacon podcast, Taryn Hallweaver with Corey Roebuck live from the Hannaford distribution center picket line to explain why they were on strike, what happens next and how you can show solidarity.

Also, Ben Chin interviews Maine Attorney General Janet Mills on the opioid epidemic and her policy positions on treatment and incarceration.

Plus: a rant about the Maine Republican Party’s ridiculous defense of their fake news operation, a call for more grassroots candidates and an update on American Olympic curling.

You can ask a question or leave a comment for a future show at (207) 619-3182.

Subscribe to the podcast feed right here using your favorite podcasting app or subscribe using iTunes.

Photo: Polly Pelletier, a Maine State Nurses Association member, speaks at the Hannaford picket line, courtesy Maine AFL-CIO

It’s official: Homecare referendum has enough signatures to make Maine’s ballot

Fri, 02/23/2018 - 11:08

Maine’s Secretary of State announced today that the grassroots effort to ensure seniors and Mainers with disabilities can get the care they need to stay in their own homes has collected enough valid signatures to place a citizen-initiated referendum on the ballot this November.

64,842 of the submitted signatures have been found to be valid. That’s more than the 61,123 (or 10 percent of voters in the last gubernatorial election) required for a Citizen Initiative to go to a statewide vote. Homecare supporters submitted more than 67,000 signatures last month.

“We all know the challenge we face. In our rapidly-aging state, too many seniors are being forced from their homes and too many people with disabilities can’t get the care they need,” said Miri Lyons of Boothbay Harbor, a former homecare worker and a family caregiver for a child with a disability. “I’m so proud that Mainers are going to be able to vote to solve this problem. This referendum represents a guarantee that if you need help staying in your home, you can get it.”

Within ten days, the Secretary of State will refer the initiative to the legislature, where they can choose to pass the measure into law or send it out to Maine voters.

If passed, the ballot measure would guarantee home care is available for any Maine senior or person with a disability who needs assistance with an activity of daily living, regardless of their family situation or income level. The law also includes measures to assist family caregivers and make licensed homecare a more attractive career, including guaranteeing higher wages for homecare workers.

“You might think that veterans would already be covered for homecare, but for too many vets that’s not the case,” said Skip Worcester, a U.S. Army veteran from Hermon who helped collect signatures for the initiative. “Veterans who need long-term help are frequently sent to facilities, often far away from their families. That’s just wrong. The least we can do is make sure those who fought for our country can live with freedom and independence in their own homes.”

Additional care guaranteed by the measure is paid for by partially closing a payroll and unearned income tax loophole on income in excess of $128,400 a year. Currently, individuals making in excess of that amount don’t pay into Social Security for income above that threshold.

Hundreds of volunteers have gathered signatures for the measure across the state at polling places, post offices, coffee shops and parking lots over the last several months, often braving freezing temperatures to connect with registered voters and build support for the campaign.

Local officials, business owners say Trump’s infrastructure plan leaves rural Maine behind

Fri, 02/23/2018 - 06:00

Municipal leaders and small business owners in Maine fear that state government, local towns, and middle and low-income taxpayers will end up shouldering the bulk of the financial burden of President Donald Trump’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, which was unveiled in detail on Monday.

At a roundtable discussion in Bangor on Thursday, municipal officials and small business owners discussed their concerns with the proposal, particularly the fact that it requires state and local governments to match all federal spending by at least a four-to-one ratio.

“The president’s bill appears to take the current funding process we have and flip it on its head,” said Bev Uhlenhake of the Brewer City Council, noting that the federal government is only expected to pay $200 billion, or 13 percent, towards the total improvements. The bulk of the funds for transportation, utility and communications projects across the nation are expected to come from state and local governments as well as private investment.

“That will make the infrastructure improvements we need nearly impossible,” Uhlenhake continued. “Our communities that have the biggest need for improvement will have the least ability to do it.”

The Maine Small Business Coalition, which sponsored the talk, further noted that lower- and middle- income taxpayers “already pay the highest effective tax rate of all Mainers,” and will likely have to “pay even more than their fair share of the costs of improvements.”

Gale White, owner of Lubec Brewing Company, expressed concern that rural towns won’t be able to shoulder the cost to maintain federal roads and bridges.

“My town and my business depend on tourism and trade across the border with Canada,” White said. “U.S. Route 1 and the international bridge are federal throughways that benefit all Americans. Our town of just over 1,000 can’t afford to maintain these roads and bridges. All Americans should.”

White and others said they were  disappointed that Rep. Bruce Poliquin has expressed support for the proposal.

The White House plan also paves the way for governments that can’t afford to pay for the bulk of the repairs to sell public assets, such as bridges and water systems, to private entities. And environmental groups were quick to criticize Trump’s proposal to streamline the project permitting process, which they said would decimate environmental protections.

At the forum, Orono Town Council member Laurie Osher, who also owns energy efficiency firm Osher Environment Systems, noted that the president’s budget, also unveiled this week, includes major cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Science Foundation, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Department of Labor.

“All of these government agencies are essential to improving our infrastructure while also protecting the environment and workers,” Osher said. “The proposal to build infrastructure by using private funding sources leveraged with public funds without the oversight and guidance of these science-based agencies is a recipe for only meeting the goals of the very rich.”

The infrastructure plan is the latest policy released by the Trump administration that is designed to benefit corporations, with costs falling to middle and low-income taxpayers. The recent Republican tax overhaul slashed taxes for wealthy individuals and profitable companies while ballooning the deficit and likely leading to cuts to health care and other vital services for Maine families.

Gov. LePage’s new attempt to cut health care, explained with GIFs

Thu, 02/22/2018 - 08:45

Have you heard that the Trump administration is likely about to approve a waiver for Governor LePage’s administration to kick a bunch more people off health care? Have you heard about the “debate” over work requirements? Are you wondering what the heck is going on? Buckle up. Here is the GIFsplanation you’ve been waiting for.

OK. Let’s start at the very beginning.

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson* authorized Title XIX of the 1935 Social Security Act, which signed Medicaid (healthcare for low-income people) and Medicare (healthcare for seniors) into law.

Medicaid was designed to provide health coverage for low-income people–at minimum, for kids in low-income families, seniors, pregnant women, and disabled people. Over the next 50 years, Medicaid kept millions of people out of poverty and saved huge amounts of money in health spending.

As one of the most smashingly successful programs in American history, it was clear it needed to grow. However, there were only a few basic rules that states had to follow to administer the program, so there was a lot of variation in who was covered. Until…

The Affordable Care Act standardized rules for determining eligibility and expanded Medicaid to people living in families that make less than 138% of the Federal Poverty Level (which is really low–we’re talking $24,600 a year for a family of four).

This was a huge deal, and one of the cornerstones of the ACA…

…until the Supreme Court struck down the provision that required states to expand Medicaid (or else lose their existing Medicaid funding)–making expansion effectively optional.

Which meant that some states with Republican governors that were already the worst at administering Medicaid were precisely the states now dragging their heels to accept the huge influx of federal dollars to make sure people had health care.

This story is going to get worse before it gets better. But we’ll get there. Hang in.

Flash forward to 2017: The Year Republicans Tried and Failed Like 65 Times to Repeal Obamacare After Campaigning Against It For Eight Years. Their core objective? Decimate Medicaid.

As you know, they failed.**

**Republicans will still of course, 100 percent, try to force major cuts to Medicaid (among other programs) following their $1.5 trillion tax giveaway to the wealthy.

Not to be deterred from their mission t0–in the words of one of my favorite political journalists, Sean McElwee–“brutalize their own voters by denying them health care,” Republicans went searching for another solution.

And they came up with a sneaky, back-door way to kick hundreds of thousands of poor Americans off healthcare: Section 1115 Demonstrations.

Section 1115 is a waiver that the federal government can grant to states that want to test new approaches for Medicaid. To get approved, the Department of Health and Human Services has to determine that the initiative is an “experimental, pilot, or demonstration project” that “is likely to assist in promoting the objectives of the program.”

Under the Obama administration, this was interpreted to mean that that at minimum, people had insurance coverage, i.e. the whole point of the program. But now the Trump administration is all like, “Did you say experiment??”

How about,” they said, “we change the standard so states can kick tons of people off insurance by putting in place punitive, ineffective, and byzantine ‘work requirements’ and call that an experiment?”

First of all, work requirements do not actually “work.” There is zero evidence to support claims that work requirements make any meaningful impact on people’s employment or wages. Actually, two decades of studies show that these requirements increase poverty. That’s because when you kick people off healthcare for not filling out complicated paperwork correctly (a hallmark of the work requirements program), guess what gets worse? Their health–and therefore their ability to work. It’s completely upside down and makes no sense.

Secondly, nearly 80 percent of people on Medicaid are already working or in a family with someone working. Of those 20 percent not working, 36 percent are disabled or sick, 30 percent are caretakers (aka the great invisible laborers of our society), 15 percent are in school, 9 percent are retired, and 6 percent are looking for work. That leaves three percent–out of 20 percent!–of people they are supposedly talking about when they say things like “able-bodied adults.” Quick math check: that’s a whopping 0.6 percent of people on Medicaid.

Soooo, if we’re talking about a completely ineffectual program that in theory only applies to a tiny, tiny percentage of Medicaid recipients, why are they pushing this so hard?

Clue #1: Work requirements for Medicaid are being promoted by the same set of people who think it’s a good idea for the federal government to mail poor people a predetermined packaged food once a month, eliminate all assistance for families struggling to heat their homes in the winter, and evict hundreds of thousands of families from public housing.

Clue #2: This quote from House Speaker Paul Ryan discussing work requirements (emphasis mine): “We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning to value the culture of work, so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.”

Wait, so are you saying this is part of the decades-long strategy by the conservative right to racialize social services like food stamps and welfare so that struggling white people vote against their own economic self-interest, paving the way for powerful elites to cut these programs to death to make room for massive tax cuts and corporate benefit?

Dang. Got it. OK, so can we please pull out of this tailspin and move towards what can be done?

#1: It is a BFD that Maine voters overwhelmingly passed Medicaid expansion in November (The first state to do so by referendum!). Maine voters said clearly, “We want MORE health care, not less.”

#2: There is a very strong argument that work requirements are illegal, and it’s entirely possible they will be thrown out by the courts. There are pending lawsuits in Indiana and Kentucky, while in Maine the formidable attorneys at Maine Equal Justice Partners are prepared to sue if necessary.

#3: The upcoming 2018 election is critical. The governor appoints the head of Health and Human Services and that will make a difference for implementation. Plus, the more candidates running on a visionary health care platform, the stronger the message. During the Obamacare debate, universal single-payer was off the table. Under Trump, we’re now talking about about Medicare for All. Let’s bounce forward from this disastrous idea of work requirements to health care for everyone!

If you want to learn more, here’s a good place to start. If you want to contact your legislators and tell them to stay vigilant on this issue, that will only help. If you have a story to share–i.e. are currently on Medicaid and might lose coverage, or know somebody who fits that criteria–please email Victoria Rodriguez at vrodriguez@mejp.org. You can also take this short survey to determine whether your coverage is at risk.

In Washington County, Sen. King stresses need for homecare for seniors

Thu, 02/22/2018 - 05:30

Elevating the importance of “thriving in place,” Senator Angus King attended a conversation with seniors and caregivers in Machias on Tuesday to discuss what could be done to help Mainers age safely and comfortably in their homes.

“Maine seniors have contributed immensely to our state, and they deserve the opportunity to remain in their homes and live full, happy lives in the communities they’ve helped build,” said the Independent senator.

“It’s well established that Maine is one of the oldest states in the nation, and while that age comes with benefits–say, wisdom–it also brings medical and logistical challenges,” King continued. “Those challenges are what make conversations like today’s so important.”

It is a problem not unique to Maine, but as the state with the oldest median age, the question of how to best care for the substantial senior population will become increasingly important in the years to come, particularly because many of the costs associated with homecare are not covered by Medicare.

One solution recently put on the table is the creation of a universal homecare system, guaranteeing every senior, veteran, and person with a disability in Maine who wants to can stay in their homes. Last month, activists delivered nearly 70,000 signatures to the Secretary of State in order to place the initiative on the ballot in November.

Afterwar the event, Sen. King took to social media to underscore his desire to “help solve these problems to help Maine’s seniors thrive in place as they age.”

The forum was hosted by Community Caring Collaborative, which works to bring together service providers and volunteers from a wide range of organizations to coordinate and improve the health and well-being of people in Washington County.

Photo: Jack Faherty/Twitter

Constituents criticize Rep. Poliquin at ‘retirement party’

Wed, 02/21/2018 - 05:30

Wishing their two-term representative a preliminary (and hopeful) adieu, voters in Bangor held a tongue-in-cheek retirement party for Republican Bruce Poliquin on Tuesday afternoon. They gave toasts highlighting his votes to cut health coverage and grant large new tax breaks for the wealthy, which have put him increasingly at odds with his constituents.

“He knows his health care vote was bad, that’s why he runs and hides every time someone tries to talk with him about it,” said Valerie Walker of Winterport, whose son has Klinefelter syndrome and relies on health coverage through Medicaid. “He can’t possibly justify voting to cut hundreds of billions of dollars from Medicaid and then giving hundreds of billions in tax cuts to the wealthy.”

Poliquin voted multiple times to repeal the Affordable Care Act and helped pass President Donald Trump’s tax plan, which the GOP has signaled will likely trigger cuts to Social Security and Medicare. More than 300,000 Maine seniors access health care through Medicare.

Poliquin backed the health care repeal, which would have increased health premiums, and slashed Medicaid, over vehement opposition from Mainers, who voted in November to pass Medicaid expansion in the state.

During the event, which was hosted by Indivisible Bangor, Mainers for Accountable Leadership, and the Maine People’s Alliance, more than three dozen attendees discussed Poliquin’s positions over pizza and cake.

“Opioid addiction is tearing families apart left and right and Bruce Poliquin would make it even harder than it already is for people to enter recovery and harder for them to stay there,” said Linda Cousens, a therapist in Bangor.

National pollsters and odds-makers say Poliquin’s second-district seat is one of the most likely to change hands come November. Four Democrats are currently vying for his office: Jonathan Fulford, Rep. Jared Golden, Craig Olson and Lucas St. Clair,

In between toasts, party-goers signed a large retirement card for Poliquin and vowed to do whatever it takes to make sure Mainers know about his actions in Washington.

“I’m sure Rep. Poliquin hoped that his constituents would have forgotten about his votes to raise premiums and cut coverage while giving massive new tax breaks to the wealthy, but we haven’t,” said Sam Portera, a Bangor-based organizer with the Maine People’s Alliance. “He’ll be back working on Wall Street soon enough. It’s clear his heart never left.”



Rep. Poliquin’s campaign advisor Brent Littlefield blamed “outside political groups” for the gathering of local residents, according to WABI TV, terming it a “media distraction.”

‘LIFT 2.0’ bill will pave the way out of poverty for many Mainers

Tue, 02/20/2018 - 08:50

On Tuesday, Maine’s Speaker of the House, Sara Gideon, presented a bill to reduce poverty by expanding access to education and job training. The legislation will lift Mainers out of poverty and increase participants’ lifetime earnings—the knock-on effect of which will support Maine’s economy at large.

The bill—LD 1774, “An Act to Reduce Child Poverty by Leveraging Investments in Families for Tomorrow”—is known more colloquially as “LIFT 2.0,” for its relation to anti-poverty legislation included in last year’s biennial budget. Whereas the first LIFT bill addressed the immediate needs of families in crisis, such as ensuring basics such as housing and heat, LIFT 2.0 will help the state meet a goal we all share: providing a pathway out of poverty for low-income Mainers.

LIFT 2.0 makes it easier for low-income students to complete their studies by boosting existing anti-poverty programs: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known by many in the public as “food stamps.” The bill’s enactment will provide low-income Mainers with children who qualify for TANF and SNAP with job training and educational resources.

The Parents as Scholars Working Families Program, as established by the bill, would provide non-cash financial aid to low-income parents of minor children who are pursuing a post-secondary degree or credential in a field with good prospects for employment (as determined by the Department of Labor).

The bill’s second initiative, The Food Supplement Employment and Training Program, would create partnerships between the state and third-party educational institutions or community organizations that provide education and job training to SNAP participants.

Education is perhaps the single most effective tool in fighting poverty, and LIFT 2.0 makes it easier for low-income parents to enroll in college and earn a degree. In addition to helping parents and children, the bill will also help Maine businesses and our economy by strengthening our workforce and readying Maine workers for today’s job market.

Low-income students face unique challenges in completing their studies

Several years ago, I was a member of staff and adjunct professor at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College. A large part of the student body there has much in common with other Mainers this bill will help.

Nearly every student I met was a nontraditional student. Many were parents, and most were struggling to make ends meet. Some were trying to balance work, family and school—a nearly impossible task. As a lecturer, there would rarely be a week when I didn’t have a student in distress. Someone would have to miss class because their boss wouldn’t let them change shifts and they couldn’t afford to lose the income. I had a work-study student who would bring her grandchild with her some days because she couldn’t afford child care. Her daughter was also a student at the college. I spoke to a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, a father who broke down into tears because he was going to be late for an assignment. His girlfriend had assaulted him, and he was living with his kid in a motel.

I share these stories to show just how close many low-income adult students are to crisis. Every graduation ceremony at the college was like a victory celebration. These students persisted against all kinds of challenges to get their degrees and build a better life for themselves and their families.

But many don’t make it to graduation. So many students find their paths to a diploma or certificate interrupted by crisis. Those who are working their way through can sometimes only afford the expense and time for one class a semester. At that rate, it takes 10 years to complete a bachelor’s degree [1]. We know that the more classes a student can take in a semester, the more likely they are to complete their degree [2]. This bill would relieve a lot of the stress faced by students like those I taught. It would mean less time worrying about how to put food on the table or arrange child care, and more time to go to class and do homework.

Education and job training lift people out of poverty by increasing lifetime earnings

When students earn a degree, their lifetime earnings potential increases greatly. Even for the average TANF recipient, at age 35, [3] an education boosts lifetime earnings dramatically. A 35-year-old Maine woman with a high school education who earns an associate degree will earn, on average, $250,000 more before she turns 65 than she would have without the degree. For someone who earns a bachelor’s degree, those extra earnings rise to $400,000 [4]. Extra earnings mean a decreased likelihood of falling back into poverty and better life chances for their children. It means greater access to health care and, ultimately, a better quality of life.

Those higher earnings will also save the state money and strengthen our overall economy. A modest investment of public money now be repaid with thousands of dollars in additional tax revenue. What’s more, by investing TANF and SNAP funds in education, we make it less likely that individuals will need state help again in the future. We also improve their chances of a retirement with dignity. That’s especially important for women, who are more likely to reach retirement age without enough Social Security contributions for a secure retirement. Helping parents to complete college also provides a positive role model for their children, making it more likely that they will get a degree themselves. This is an investment that will keep paying dividends for generations.

More education also equips these Mainers for the future of work. An estimated 66% of Maine jobs will require a post-secondary qualification by 2020. A college education will give Mainers the ability to access these jobs. It will also give employers more workers to fill these positions.

LIFT 2.0 addresses Maine’s workforce dilemma

We must do everything we can to improve not just the quality, but also the quantity of our workforce. Since 2001, the share of prime-age Mainers (those between the ages of 25 and 54) in our workforce has been dropping steadily. MECEP estimates about 22,000 more people would be in the labor force if prime-age Mainers were participating at the same rate today as they were in 2001. [5]

To put that in perspective, 20,000 Mainers were looking for work and officially counted as “unemployed” in December 2017 [6]. If those missing workers were included in the official unemployment rate, it would be nearly twice as high. This labor force dropout has a complex set of causes, but we know that the drop out is especially high among those without a college degree. Prime-age labor force participation among Mainers without a college degree has dropped from 84% to 75% since 2001, accounting for nearly all of those 20,000 missing Mainers [7].

Source: MECEP analysis of US Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 2001-2017 data.

Conclusion

Enactment of LIFT 2.0 will transform our safety net with a revived focus on education and routes out of poverty. It will transform the lives of Maine families by helping them reach their full potential and build better lives. It will improve our state’s workforce, and in doing so, boost our economy and help our businesses. For all those reasons, MECEP supports enactment of LD 1774.

[1] Based on a student taking one 3-credit class in each of the four semesters each school year (including winter and summer semesters).
[2] Complete College America data.
[3] MECEP analysis of US Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2016 data
[4] MECEP analysis of US Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2016 data. Assumes a 2-year completion for an associate degree and four years for a bachelor’s degree.
[5] MECEP analysis of US Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 2001-2017 data.
[6] Maine Department of Labor data.
[7] MECEP analysis of US Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 2001-2017 data.

In boon for national labor movement, campaign workers get organized

Mon, 02/19/2018 - 05:30

Progressive campaign workers are getting organized, and the billion-dollar industry that relies on their labor may never be the same.

Called the Campaign Workers Guild, this organizer-run union has exploded onto the scene as the campaigns for the 2018 midterms begin to staff up ahead of the summer primaries and the general election in November. With an executive board that spans the country (including two founding members and young Maine progressive organizing superstars Meg Reilly and Colin O’Neill), the Guild aims to bring a sustainable foundation to campaign labor organizing by providing a structure that will persist year-over-year for a virtually invisible industry that is in desperate need of increased worker protection.

Political campaigns are a hallmark of the American experience. With over 500,000 elected offices in the United States, in any given election cycle there can be one million or more candidates running for public office around the country. From dog-catchers to governors, these offices require people to build a campaign to make the case to their constituents. For many local offices, this campaign may only consist of the candidate herself, but in races with greater competition or for more powerful seats, these campaigns can involve millions of dollars and dozens of full-time professional campaign workers managing complex organizations that rapidly rise and fall in a lifecycle that sometimes spans less than a year.

While the inner workings of political campaigns may seem somewhat opaque to those who have never worked on one, being inside a campaign apparatus can feel like being part of an emerging startup: the electric rush of being part of building something from nothing married to the constant insecurity inherent in a project of such professional risk and volatility. Because the goal of victory for your candidate is so singular, the predominant professional culture is one of ends justifying means that often involve 80-hour work weeks and an ethos of personal and financial self-sacrifice that becomes internalized at all levels of the work.

This might mean putting thousands of work-related miles on your personal vehicle, spending a campaign cycle placed in “supporter housing” living spaces provided by volunteers for want of a moving stipend, or tolerating temporary office spaces that may lack even basic features like running water. For many, the salaried compensation for these jobs amounts to a sub-minimum wage. And because of the extremely sensitive nature of work in politics, instances of workplace harassment or abuse may go either unreported or end up quietly forgotten for fear of damaging the reputation of the candidate.

Often, the workers subjected to these conditions are young, driven idealists who have joined a campaign in an earnest effort to get a candidate that they support elected. Most of the people in management were once these exact workers, who now see these conditions as part of the dues-paying that is required of anyone who wishes to advance in the industry from one campaign to the next. The candidates themselves are often insulated from HR and personnel issues by campaign management, who are charged with operating the professional campaign apparatus. The ephemerality of the campaign means that poor conditions, bad bosses, and burned-out junior staffers are forgotten by the next campaign cycle where the process begins again. The high mobility of professional staffers, the constant fear of unemployment, and the genuine patriotic desire to be part of the political process have kept progress from reaching the industry.

But this dynamic is beginning to change.

Technology has made it possible for past coworkers to remain connected after the election creating more permanent networks of young organizers and campaign workers. Consequently, the natural the cross-pollination of staffers from one campaign to the next has yielded a vibrant national network of young progressives trained to connect, organize and go to the mat for what they believe in. It was only a matter of time before that force turned inward toward the broken professional culture of campaigns, themselves.

Enter the Campaign Workers Guild, a first of its kind effort to bind the workers of the campaign industry together, to create a bargaining unit for them to organize for better conditions, and to bring some stability to a profession that is defined by boom and bust cycles of employment.

Tapping into a groundswell of pent-up grievances, the Guild has exploded into the professional organizing space as most who have spent time in the industry say “it’s about time.” The CWG made waves last week as Randy Bryce, the pro-union Democrat challenging House Speaker Paul Ryan for his seat, announced that his workers had decided to unionize as part of the CWG. Since then, the narrative of Labor Democrats needing to practice what they preach has begun to pick up steam around the country, as more past and current Democratic leaders (myself enthusiastically included) sign on in support of the CWG.

If the momentum continues to build, it is conceivable that–for Democratic candidates at least–the question of whether their workers are organized becomes as much of a litmus test as whether their yard signs and campaign materials are printed in a union shop. It’s hard to see the genie going back into the bottle for a political party that celebrates its relationship with organized labor.

The idea of the next generation of young progressive professional organizers coming to age in an era where union membership is the norm in their workplace is an exciting one. Millennial workers are already reinvigorating union participation around the country, and giving tens of thousands of young workers the experience and benefits of union membership whether they remain in campaign work or ultimately move on to other fields could very well be the shot in the arm that the American Labor Movement needs.

So when you’re thinking about who to support in the upcoming primaries and where to make your next campaign contribution, it might be time to ask: Is this a union shop?

Meg Reilly, vice president of the Campaign Workers Guild (center left), with newly-organized workers from Randy Bryce’s campaign. (Photo via Campaign Workers Guild)

Students from Maine to Florida demand gun control in wake of Parkland shooting

Sat, 02/17/2018 - 05:30

Since the tragic shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida on Wednesday, the national conversation has again turned to the question of gun control and why murderous assault rifles continue to be available to anyone interested in getting their hands on one.

This time, however, the people driving that conversation are the students themselves.

Following the lead of a number of the Parkland teenagers who since the attack have publicly demanded voters and elected officials take immediate action, roughly 100 students at Mount Desert Island High on Thursday staged a silent protest calling for more gun control.

According to NewsCenter Maine, “Students walked silently across the gym, carrying signs that read: ‘The Second Amendment Must Be Amended,’ ‘Put Senate in Lockdown until Students are safe,’ and ‘Our Right to a Safe environment far exceeds your right to guns.’”

The students then lined the halls of the school where they stood silently for a number of minutes. After school let out, parents, community members, and activists with Indivisible MDI joined a number of the students for a protest outside the school.

Students rallied at Mount Desert Island High School today for #GunControlNow #Parkland #ThoughtsAndPrayersDoNothing pic.twitter.com/oQeSOmq1bd

— Indivisible_MDI (@Indivisible_MDI) February 15, 2018

The location of the protest is notable because it falls within the state’s 2nd district, currently represented by Republican Bruce Poliquin, who the New York Times recently identified as being the eighth highest career recipient of funds from the National Rifle Association in the U.S. House of Representatives, having accepted $201,398 as of October 2017. Since that time, Poliquin has accepted an additional $2,000 from the gun rights group for his re-election campaign.

Parkland student Cameron Kasky published an op-ed at CNN on Friday in which he blasted lawmakers who “take large donations from the NRA and are therefore beholden to their cruel agenda.”

“I’m just a high school student, and I do not pretend to have all of the answers,” Kasky wrote. “However, even in my position, I can see that there is desperate need for change–change that starts by folks showing up to the polls and voting all those individuals who are in the back pockets of gun lobbyists out of office.”

Members of Women’s March Youth Empower are working with local groups and partners to organize a nation-wide school walk-out for students, parents, teachers, and allies.

“We can’t ignore the issues of gun control that this tragedy raises. And so, I’m asking–no, demanding–we take action now,” Kasky continued. “Why? Because at the end of the day, the students at my school felt one shared experience–our politicians abandoned us by failing to keep guns out of schools. But this time, my classmates and I are going to hold them to account. This time we are going to pressure them to take action.”

Students at Mount Desert Island High School held a silent protest on Thursday demanding gun reform in the wake of the Parkland, Florida school shooting. (Photo: Indivisible MDI/Twitter)

Now’s the time for MaineCare for All

Sat, 02/17/2018 - 05:30

The moment we’ve been waiting for

Last week, we talked about the major issues at stake in the gubernatorial election, particularly for the Democrats. While all the Democrats support Medicaid expansion—and some Republicans, like Sen. Roger Katz, in the Maine legislature do as well—the state and national momentum around single payer (aka “Medicare for All”) has become truly phenomenal.

Long-considered one of the most ambitious, elusive reforms of the American left, a majority of Americans, including 69 percent of Democrats, now support the idea. Last fall, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced his plan, garnering important co-sponsorship from a host of possible 2020 presidential candidates like Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). In Maine, thanks to leaders like Sen. Geoff Gratwick and grassroots organizations like Maine AllCare, renewed efforts are on the way to examine how we could implement single payer at the state level. Many gubernatorial candidates even attended a candidate forum centered on “Medicare for All.” Even the most historically formidable opponents—like the American Medical Association—have fundamentally shifted their stance. After surveying their members in Maine last year, only 27 percent of doctors say they favored their current system, while an incredible 63 percent favored a single-payer approach.

But can we actually pull this off in Maine? The last major feasibility study Maine conducted on the issue concluded that we can–but those numbers are now fifteen years old. We know that Vermont came very close to implementing a version of single payer, known as Green Mountain Care but pulled back ostensibly because of the high tax rates it necessitated, making it politically challenging for a narrowly re-elected Governor Peter Shumlin to get behind. Given all of that, thoughtful progressives might ask: “Despite the national excitement around the issue, is it prudent for leaders in Maine to be pushing an issue this big at this time?”

I’d like to argue that this is absolutely the time to get behind a significant reform like Medicare for All or single payer in Maine. Most of the policy and political concerns over a single payer plan have to do with misunderstandings about how such a system would be financed. This is particularly true in the case of Vermont, where few people took the time to actually examine the—frankly—bizarre decisions the governor made in trying to design the tax system.

How NOT to pay for single payer

To be clear, we already have more than enough money in our healthcare system to provide everyone coverage. America continues to spend more per-capita on healthcare than any other country, including countries that cover everyone, and we often still have worse health outcomes. Our real cost problem is closely related to issues of quality: we spend too much for too little. It doesn’t take a lot of head scratching to come up with creative ways to get more money into the system; we simply need to directly regulate prices. An analysis of the single payer proposal currently under consideration in California found that over time the system is expected to save an incredible amount of money because it would mitigate the tremendous amount of price-gouging and waste in the current system.

Despite these savings, switching to a single payer system does require individuals and corporations to pay for healthcare through taxes rather than private insurance premiums. This change has some psychological obstacles; for many conservatives and skeptics, even if the tax bill is lower than the insurance premium, it still takes some getting used to. So, the question becomes, “How do you design a tax system to make this transition in a way that the public can actually support?”

Vermont went the furthest down this road than any other state, passing its single payer bill in 2011, thanks in large part to the powerful “Health Care is a Human Right” campaign led by the Vermont Worker Center (It included a gutsy, eleventh-hour stand where they refused to exclude undocumented immigrants from coverage, even as allies threatened to withdraw support). The law, however, didn’t include an explicit financing mechanism, which meant that the battle to implement the plan centered on how to fund the system. In 2012, the campaign proposed a series of progressive taxes. But two years later, Gov. Shumlin rolled out a politically tone deaf tax plan that specifically exempted the wealthiest from paying their fair share, forcing far higher rates on middle income households. After a surprisingly narrow re-election, he withdrew his support, citing “the limitations of state based financing” as his main concern.

There are some real lessons here for us. Shumlin got squeezed between the (good) strictures of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and the (bad) conventional wisdom of “social insurance” that suggests universal programs must be paid for by regressive taxes, like flat payroll taxes with caps that exempt most of the income made by the wealthy.

Under the ACA, states are allowed to create their own alternative healthcare systems to the private insurance model so long as they provide coverage to at least the same amount of people at rates at least as affordable. That means, particularly when it comes to healthcare for low-income people who qualify for Medicaid, the plan can’t include regressive taxes that hit poor people hard. If poor people would have to pay hundreds more in taxes under the new system, it would be a worse deal for them than simply receiving Medicaid under the old system, where out-of-pocket costs are strictly limited. Thus, in order to comply with the Affordable Care Act, Gov. Shumlin exempted the poorest Vermonters from having to pay more for their health insurance. No one under 138 percent of the poverty line had to pay new taxes. This is what he had right.

But instead of simply having a progressive income tax that kicks in at that level, his plan capped the contributions of the wealthy. Under Shumlin’s plan, income over about $290,000 would not be subject to the new taxes. With most low-income people exempt from new taxes and the wealthy shielded as well, the governor essentially proposed that the middle class foot the steepest bill for the state’s universal healthcare. Unsurprisingly, all this exempted income made the tax rates on middle class families much higher than they would otherwise have to be—obviously neither good policy, nor good politics.

Thus, while most of the buzz coming out of Vermont after Shumlin pulled his support focused on the system being “unaffordable” due to “high taxes,” this was a completely artificial and avoidable problem. As progressives in Vermont have argued, policymakers must ensure that the wealthy pay higher tax rates with their “unearned income” (i.e. from capital gains or bonds, not their labor) taxed as well.

A better approach

For those looking for the overlap between politically popular and good policy that actually reduces inequality, taxing the wealthy makes a lot of sense. The public loves this idea. Also, it’s where most of America’s wealth actually resides. So, it’s fair to wonder why an otherwise progressive Democrat would support regressive tax policy.

For the real nerds out there, I’ll do a Beacon article one day that just focuses on the history of these bizarre tax caps that create loopholes for the rich in our most important public programs. For now, suffice to say, this backwards thinking dates back to the 1930s when President Franklin Roosevelt had to strike a deal with the conservative, Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party. Essentially, wealthy Democrats would acquiesce to the creation of America’s largest, most important fiscal programs like Social Security, but only if the rich didn’t have to pay their fair share. Essentially, Democrats have a long, bad habit of caving to the rich when they want to move a transformative policy.

Still, there is tremendous precedent for moving in more progressive directions of tax fairness, even from the most centrist of Democrats. As far back as 1993, President Bill Clinton–committed as he was to “triangulation,” the “third way,” and other party-propagated nonsense–still had the presence of mind to eliminate caps on the Medicare Hospital Insurance payroll tax in his first budget, ensuring all wages of the wealthy would be subject to the tax. The Affordable Care Act went even further, actually creating a progressive rate structure on that otherwise flat tax and expanding it to include exactly the kind of “unearned” income that Vermont progressives are now calling for. It’s telling that, thus far, the only major ACA provision to be repealed is the mandate, a regressive tax, while the progressive taxes that provide the lion’s share of new funding remain. Far from being a major flash point for the right, the specter of more “tax breaks for the rich” has become an important rallying cry for the left. If we use tax fairness as our North Star, it’s completely possible—from both a policy and political perspective—to imagine a state healthcare system, anchored by a single public payer, that covers everyone.

Moving forward

Far from a liability, far from proof that states can’t “afford” to build a public payer system that provides universal coverage, collecting the necessary taxes is eminently doable–and may even help build political support with populist voters concerned about inequality and excited about taxing the wealthy. With the fiscal bogeyman dispensed with, it becomes a lot more fun to think about how to actually make this work in Maine.

When I talked to healthcare champion Sen. Gratwick earlier this week to hear an update about the progress of the Maine commission currently studying the issue, his energy and confidence were palpable. He listed the cautions that people who work on this issue at a state level usually make: federal restrictions (like the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA) and other public payers will continue to exist; nothing will happen while Governor Paul LePage is in office; it’s incredibly difficult to untangle the mess of private insurance.

Nonetheless, his optimism shone through. “It has to change,” he said. What we can’t afford is the system we currently have. We can’t not do it.” Among the innovative possibilities that Gratwick spoke about, my favorite is building out MaineCare, our state’s Medicaid program, as a public option, just like Nevada’s so-called “Sprinklecare.” Under this approach, people could buy into Medicaid, just like private health insurance, even using the Obamacare subsidies available on the exchange to help make their purchase.

While Sen. Sanders’ Medicare for All is more famous, it’s worth noting that Medicaid/MaineCare is already administered by the state, has better benefits, little out-of-pocket costs, and lower prices than Medicare., We know from the Medicaid expansion referendum last year that the public already supports the program—even when it’s just for low-income people. Broadening its base should only make it more popular.

While there’s lots of outstanding questions about how a system should work, there’s no question that it can work. Flipping the skeptics’ claims about “unaffordability,” we ought to adopt Gratwick’s attitude: What’s really impossible is imagining our healthcare system continuing to limp in its current form. Something has to give and now’s the time to demand that everyone running for office gets on board. As Rep. Mike Sylvester, one of Maine’s most outspoken leaders of the Democratic Socialists, told me earlier this week, “Candidates that would have never uttered the words “Medicare for All”…are saying the magic words. Winning Medicare for All won’t happen by magic, though. Now we need to see plans.”

For those interested in getting more involved, you can show up for the next study commission hearing—March 2nd in Augusta. From 1-4pm the public can offer testimony in support. Let’s seize this opportunity to replace skepticism with hope.

(Photo: Molly Adams/ Creative Commons via flickr)

Allegations of sexual harassment and assault at Maine’s State House brought to light

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 10:04

This week on the Beacon podcast, we hear the audio of Sarah Bigney of the Maine AFL-CIO testifying about her own experiences of sexual harassment and assault at the State House and sharing the experiences of nine other women who work as legislators, staff and lobbyists, who shared their stories with her anonymously.

Also: Gov. LePage’s last State of the State address and Ben brings some substantive policy discussion to the race for governor.

You can ask a question or leave a comment for a future show at (207) 619-3182.

Subscribe to the podcast feed right here using your favorite podcasting app or subscribe using iTunes.

Photo via Flickr/Terry Ross

Augusta obstructionism shows why we need Ranked Choice Voting now

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 06:30

I’m a middle class professional, husband, and father who turned 50 last September and have been quite politically active since the 2004 campaign. I’m a strong supporter of Ranked Choice Voting for one simple reason: I believe that winners of elections in a democracy should have a majority or as close to it as possible.

The current plurality system all too often results in spoiler effect vote splitting and “winners” often secure well below a majority. For me, it is simply a matter of principle.

Many campaigns have become so nasty that we need to take real steps to temper down the rancor. Ranked Choice Voting offers some relief on this point because under this system candidates in multiple candidate elections will have to appeal to voters outside their own narrow base.

I was very pleased to see Ranked Choice Voting win in 2016, but I was also not surprised when the governor and forces in the legislature went right to work to undermine it. The court’s advisory opinion taking such a narrow reading of the plurality clause was surprising since a majority is also a plurality–but then I again was not surprised when the legislature would not support an amendment to fix this part of the law. Nor was I surprised when they hastily voted last fall to effectively throw out the entire law instead of just suspending the three elections in question as was attempted with Rep. Kent Ackley’s amendment to do just that.

Additionally, I was not surprised because Augusta politicians have been attacking all of the recent referendums. And, right now, forces in Augusta are out to further attack the minimum wage law voted in by referendum and even the MaineCare Expansion law which just passed this last November with a whopping 59 percent of the vote.

It’s no wonder people are taking measures to the ballot box with the Augusta establishment tied in knots and unable to get things done on a host of issues important to the public.

So, like so many others in the state, I rolled up my sleeves and went to work to help secure the required 61,100 signatures for the People’s Veto to Restore Ranked Choice Voting. I became the Penobscot County volunteer team captain, and I worked with others in Penobscot County and Hancock County to gather signatures on election day, door-to-door, and in various locations in downtown Bangor–often in sub-zero weather.

And it was amazing how many times I had people tell me how totally fed up they were with Augusta blocking so many of our referendums. I heard this time and time again. I even had some people tell me they didn’t support Ranked Choice Voting in 2016 but were signing the petition now because they were so angry about Augusta politicians overturning the will of the people on our referendums. Other petition circulators from around the state reported the same thing. And, after just 88 days, over 80,000 people signed the petitions.

Now the opposition is out there talking a bunch of nonsense by trying to say that Ranked Choice Voting for our June primaries will be “chaotic.” What a bunch of BUNK! Ranked Choice Voting has been used with no problems in the last two elections for mayor in Portland, our largest city, including in 2011 when there were some 15 candidates. It is used in a number of other medium and large cities around the nation and in countries around the world. There is no reason to believe it will be “chaotic” at all.

What would be chaotic is if we had major party primary candidates winning with around 20 percent of the vote. In these crowded upcoming primaries for governor, that is exactly what could happen. This is a very disturbing and very real possibility.

So, if you are also sick and tired of Augusta politicians overturning the will of the voters on such things as increasing the minimum wage, additional funding for education, MaineCare Expansion, and Ranked Choice Voting, then please help us win the People’s Veto to Restore Ranked Choice Voting in June and send a clear message to Augusta that we are putting the brakes on them blocking the will of the people on all of our referendums. Please write letters to the editor, OpEds, donate to the cause and do anything else you can to help in this effort. Our very democracy is at stake.

The Committee for Ranked Choice Voting delivers signatures to the State House to get the initiative on the ballot. (Photo: Committee for Ranked Choice Voting/ Facebook)

Poliquin silent as Trump administration shreds consumer protections

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 05:30

Consumer advocates are sounding the alarm as the Trump administration is taking steps to dismantle from within the agency responsible for protecting consumers from abusive and deceptive practices of financial institutions.

On Monday, NPR obtained internal memos from Mick Mulvaney, who was appointed by President Donald Trump to head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), that indicate a plan to revise the mission of the agency to “fulfill its statutory responsibilities but go no further.”

Mulvaney, whose appointment to lead the agency has resulted in an ongoing lawsuit, has spent the early days of his tenure limiting the agency’s ability to act as a watchdog for consumers. In January, Mulvaney announced he was delaying and reopening rules reining in the worst practices of predatory payday lenders and recently announced plans to shelve an investigation into Equifax’s failure to protect the data of millions of consumers.

The moves by Mulvaney, while alarming, are not unexpected. As a congressman, Mulvaney called the CFPB a “sick, sad joke” and often defended the industry and urged the consumer bureau to back off regulations, in some cases within weeks of taking in campaign contributions from industry donors.

Mulvaney recently ended two separate CFPB investigations into payday lenders, including one that contributed money to his campaign.

The consumer bureau was created in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown as an independent agency tasked with protecting consumers from the worst practices of the financial industry. The bureau has handled over a million complaints and secured nearly $12 billion in relief to consumers by enforcing federal regulations against fraudulent lenders and servicers. In Maine, the bureau has handled nearly 4,000 complaints and provided monetary relief for 248 Mainers since 2011 on issues ranging from abusive debt collection to incorrect credit reporting.

Republicans in Congress have remained quiet about Mulvaney’s actions, including Maine Rep. Bruce Poliquin, who sits on the House Financial Services Committee, and has oversight over the consumer bureau. A former Wall Street banker, Poliquin has raised millions of dollars in campaign contributions linked to financial service companies he’s charged with regulating, from Bank of America and Goldman Sachs to payday loan companies like Advance America.

Poliquin has long opposed the consumer bureau, despite the positive benefits it’s brought to Maine consumers, and publicly railed against Obama-era bureau head Richard Cordray during committee hearings. It’s unlikely that Poliquin would offer as chilly a reception to Mulvaney, his former house colleague, should he be called before the committee. In June, Poliquin voted for a bill, HR 10, that would have repealed regulations created in the wake of the great recession in 2008 as well as stripped power from the CFPB.

On the road to making our democracy more democratic

Wed, 02/14/2018 - 07:20

With the submission of over 72,000 signatures, the movement for ranked choice voting is one step closer to ensuring that voters have the benefit of the election system they have repeatedly demanded.

The last hurdle to overcome is the Secretary of State’s certification of at least 61,123 signatures no later than March 5th, and all signs indicate that the certification is very likely.

This puts Maine on the pathway to a new and improved approach to elections for the primary on June 12, 2018. Candidates, party primary voters, and the general public are eagerly looking forward to having their full voice heard for the first time in a statewide election anywhere in the United States.

Even some unenrolled voters are signing up with one of the parties for the simple reason that they want the experience of filling out a ranked-choice ballot in fulfillment of this long quest.

RCV was designed to fit neatly within the existing election system, honoring the practices and traditions that are so deeply engrained in our political culture. But it will require some adjustments to the design of the ballot, the process of counting the votes, and the announcement of results.

So although the opportunity for voters to fully express their voice is early anticipated, much work remains to be done to ensure a smooth, accurate, and user-friendly Election Day experience across over 400 voting districts in Maine.

The moment the signatures are confirmed, state election officials should immediately take the following steps to guarantee a seamless transition to ranked choice voting:

First, the Secretary of State should be given all the resources necessary to administer the law and ensure transparent and accurate counting of RCV ballots. This is not an opportunity to acquire ancillary equipment, but where necessary the state (and municipalities) should invest in the infrastructure appropriate to RCV elections.

Second, election officials should begin a public process for receiving input on the implementation of RCV. While public officials and staff have expertise, the public should be included in the formulation of the detailed election plan just as the public would be included in any comparable regulatory process.

Third, state and local officials should review the “best practices” from those jurisdictions – including Portland – where RCV has been implemented successfully in recent years. This is an easy way to benefit from the real-world experience of many other clerks, wardens, and administrators who have navigated this transition and conducted RCV elections consistent with the very highest standards the public expects.

Fourth, candidates, voters, and the political parties should support educational efforts to notify all voters of the new ballot form and to provide assistance with any questions that might arise as voters make the transition to RCV for these races.

All of this work should be performed in a way that honors our tradition of highly transparent, reliable, and democratic election procedures. The League of Women Voters of the United States has developed the following core election principles which we believe should guide Maine election officials in the administration of the June primary election – our first statewide election using ranked choice voting:

  1. The election must be accessible. This means that the voter registration and voting processes are free from unreasonable obstacles; that all voting procedures and instructions, including the ballot itself, are widely available, clear and understandable to voters; and that voters with voting questions receive appropriate assistance from clerks, wardens, and volunteers at the polling place and that voters experiencing cognitive or physical disabilities shall have the same opportunity as other voters to vote their ranked-choice ballot privately and independently.
  1. The election must be secure. This means that ballot applications, ballots, voter rolls, and all related paper and electronic records are created, distributed, stored and maintained so that no unauthorized person can tamper or interfere in any way, and that no records are inadvertently damaged, misplaced, delayed, or altered during the election process and through any recounts or audits.
  1. The election results must be accurate. This means that the voters’ marks on ballots are read to correctly reflect the intention of the voter, that the mechanisms for aggregation and tabulation of separate ballots into an election result strictly conform to the approach set forth in law and regulations, and that protocols are in place to detect and limit the effect of any human or mechanical errors, flaws, irregularities, loss of information, or discrepancies that diminish confidence in the process or affect the outcome of the election.
  1. The election must be transparent. Every step in the election process from the design of election procedures through the completion of all recounts or audits must be visible to the public to the greatest extent possible and any portions of the process not open to public inspection must be protected by appropriate security measures to ensure the integrity of election systems and materials. Any software, digital files, or electronic processing and transmission of election information shall be open to inspection, verification, and replication by the public using appropriate means including third-party software tools. Transparency shall be provided without delay.
  1. Election results must be announced to the public in a timelyfashion. The public must have sufficient and immediate information about the process of tabulating ballots as the process is unfolding, including immediate progress reports, intermediate status, and publication of statewide first-rank vote recipients. Election administrators must create and implement a plan for tabulating and announcing the results recognizing that time is of the essence, and that any needless delay would be detrimental to public confidence in the results. Final election results must be certified within the time frame established under current law.
  1. The election must be recountable. Consistent with existing recount principles, referring back to the source paper ballots, election officials must institute a plan that allows for complete, prompt, and accurate recounts in any race where the tabulated results show that small anomalies in the count could affect the ultimate outcome.
  1. Maine needs to implement election audits. Ideally, within a short time after results are finalized, election administrators should perform a random audit of appropriate design and sufficient scope to verify Election Day tabulations and confirm public confidence in all aspects of the election administration. Although it does not appear likely in time for the June 2018 primary, Maine should move toward implementing election audits as soon as possible.

We recognize the vital role played by election officials and the burden they carry of satisfying the public trust in this fundamental component of our democratic system. The implementation of RCV in Maine will shine a spotlight on their ability to play their crucial role in our democracy. We look forward to saluting them for continuing their tradition of accuracy, transparency, and excellence in election administration.

Health care supporters outshine Gov. LePage at State of the State

Wed, 02/14/2018 - 05:30

“Heatlh Care Now!” was the rallying cry for hundreds of Mainers who demonstrated at the State House Tuesday evening as Governor Paul LePage gave his final State of State address. The protesters said they wanted to show LePage and legislators “that the people of Maine are watching and that we won’t accept any more delays or attempts to weaken the new Medicaid expansion law.”

Before he began his speech, the governor was forced to walk through hallways packed with demonstrators chanting and carrying signs that read “Don’t keep Mainers waiting,” and “Another Mainer for Medicaid expansion.” LePage grimaced and shook his fist at the protestors.

.@Governor_LePage walking into State of the State to a huge crowd chanting #healthcarenow #mepolitics pic.twitter.com/1Aq0MM1ihC

— Taryn Hallweaver (@tarynhallweaver) February 13, 2018

Since the measure to extend healthcare to 80,000 Mainers passed last November, LePage and Republican lawmakers have threatened to defund or derail its implementation, which would put the government in violation of the law. LePage and Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin have also supported efforts by the Trump administration to weaken the federal- and state-run health care program by instituting work requirements or time limits.

Even during the speech Tuesday, LePage attempted to claim that his foot-dragging was because the voter-approved measure was underfunded–a statement swiftly refuted by lawmakers and other policy experts.

The governor is relying on false scarcity to delay expanding access to health care. The funding necessary to expand Medicaid to provide health care to 70,000 Mainers, as approved by Maine voters, is available today. There is no reason to delay. #mepolitics #SOTS

— MECEP (@MECEP1) February 14, 2018

What’s the fund balance in Medicaid again? Was at about $800 million last month. Plenty of money there to implement MaineCare expansion w/o cuts. #mepolitics.

— Sen. Shenna Bellows (@SenBellows) February 14, 2018

It’s also important to remember that Medicaid expansion will draw a 9 to 1 match for most new enrollees, strengthening the state’s economy, protecting hospitals and creating thousands of new jobs. #mepolitics

— Maine Equal Justice (@MeEqualJustice) February 14, 2018

Earlier in the evening, the protesters rallied on the State House steps behind large, illuminated words declaring: “Health Care Now.” Before entering the building, individuals whose health care and, in some cases, lives are dependent on the expansion of Medicaid shared their stories with the crowd.

#HealthCareNow #mepolitics pic.twitter.com/BMCbw8YjmO

— Sarah Bigney (@sarahBMaine) February 13, 2018

Linda Dean of Livermore, who works at a paper mill, said she came to the State House because so many people that she knows, “who were laid off through no fault of their own, have gotten very ill and even died because they lost their insurance when the mills closed.”

“Families like ours need the Legislature to follow the law and implement Mainecare expansion without delay,” Dean added. “We can’t wait any longer.”

Donna Wall of Lewiston, who is currently awaiting surgery for a broken ankle suffered while carrying out her overnight newspaper route, said she is among “the thousands of Mainers waiting to see the doctor, struggling with medical debt, and worried about the next accident.”

“When I was at the hospital,” Wall said, “all I could do was think about who was going to care for my kids, and how I was going to pay for my medical treatment. Knowing that Medicaid expansion is the law and will be implemented on July 2nd is a huge relief for me and my family.”

“Those of us without health care have waited long enough,” Lewiston resident Lynnea Hawkins told the crowd.

“We’re here tonight to say to the governor and lawmakers: We made history by expanding Medicaid at the ballot box. Seventy thousand of our friends, family members and neighbors are on track to obtain live-saving access to health care,” she continued. “We’re here to celebrate this victory, and to ask lawmakers and the governor to implement Medicaid expansion without delay. We haven’t gone anywhere since election day and we will be watching very closely.”

Many of these rally-goers are themselves, without healthcare. They say the people of Maine voted for expansion and the Governor is obligated to ‘do the right thing’ and implement the law. @WMTWTV pic.twitter.com/eMqUXRZOkl

— Erin Dixon (@ErinDixonWMTW) February 13, 2018

The voters who made history by expanding health care to 70,000 of our neighbors at the ballot box haven’t gone anywhere. We’re still here, and we’re watching. #HealthCareNow #mepolitics #SOTS pic.twitter.com/wCAuIOLRpt

— Mario Moretto (@riocarmine) February 14, 2018

One area of health care policy that was notably absent from LePage’s remarks was the opioid crisis. His speech didn’t contain even a single mention of the addiction epidemic, despite the rate of overdose deaths in Maine surging in recent months to more than one every day.

Don’t believe the speech; Gov. LePage has been a disaster for Maine seniors

Tue, 02/13/2018 - 17:13

Protecting Maine seniors is slated to be a major message in Governor Paul LePage’s final State of the State address tonight, which can only mean that he thinks we all have the memory retention of goldfish with head injuries. Over his seven years in office, LePage has cut housing, health care, homecare, assisted living, prescription drugs and even meal programs for Maine seniors. He would have gone farther if bipartisan coalitions of legislators hadn’t acted to stop him.

Here’s a partial list of some of his most egregious actions targeting the elderly:

  • Gov. LePage cut and attempted to eliminate (in multiple budgets) the Medicare Savings Program. If he had succeeded, 40,000 seniors and Mainers with disabilities would have lost access to medical coverage.
  • Gov. LePage cut and attempted to eliminate (in multiple budgets) the Drugs for the Elderly program, which assists with prescription drug costs for low-income Mainers over the age of 62.
  • Gov. LePage continues to this day to block the release of $15 million in bonds for senior housing projects, despite a critical, statewide need and thousands waiting for housing. Almost 70% of Maine voters approved the bonds in 2015.
  • Despite taking credit on a radio call-in show recently for increased reimbursement rates for homecare workers, Gov. LePage actually attempted to veto that legislation. It was one of 51 bills that passed into law in 2015 because he missed the veto deadline.
  • Gov. LePage then attempted to use a line-item veto to cut funding for increased homecare reimbursement rates in the state budget. He was overruled by the legislature.
  • Gov. LePage cut funding for and repeatedly attempted to completely defund Maine’s private nonmedical institutions (PNMIs), which provide assisted living services for low-income seniors.
  • In 2015, Gov. LePage issued a line-item veto eliminating state funding for the Meals on Wheels program.

In fact, the only time Gov. LePage seems to care about the plight of seniors is when he’s using them as a rhetorical device to advance a conservative policy, like cutting taxes for the wealthy or cutting the minimum wage. As his homecare remarks recently demonstrate, LePage has no problem rewriting history on these issues, so be sure to  keep his real record in mind as he speaks tonight.

Image: Gov. LePage 2017 State of the State video still.

How to stop Gov. LePage’s latest tax giveaway to the wealthy, explained with GIFs

Tue, 02/13/2018 - 05:30

This GIFsplanation is the first in a new series and was constructed with research support from Sarah Austin, policy analyst at the Maine Center for Economic Policy.

 

You’ve heard by now that Trump’s tax plan is a massive bonanza for corporations and the rich. Especially the really rich.

 

 

 

 

 

Over the next 10 years, more than 80% of the benefit will go to the top 1%. Example: the nation’s 175,000 richest families will get an average tax cut of $700,000 (enough to buy a new 50-foot yacht), while the bottom 20% get $60.

 

 

 

This is not a drill. It’s the biggest wealth grab in modern history. For real.

 

 

 

 

 

OK, so how does it affect Maine? Didn’t LePage already give the wealthiest families in the state a huge tax cut? Didn’t the legislature just repeal the voter-approved 3% surcharge for income over $200,000? Are we doomed? YES, YES, and NO.

 

 

 

 

You know how when you file your taxes, you pay both state and federal? (State taxes for things like education; federal taxes for things like Social Security – unless you make over $127,500, after which point you stop paying into Social Security, but I digress…)

 

 

 

 

In some parts of our tax code, lawmakers have decided over the years that rather than craft our own set of tax laws, the state would simply mirror federal law. This is called “conformity” in tax jargon.

 

 

 

 

So are we then forced into a nightmare scenario of expanded state tax loopholes for corporations that prioritize capital investment over jobs, a “free pass” on the first $22 million in estates for the 20 richest families, and increased taxes for most low- and middle-income Mainers???

 

 

 

NOPE.

Tax conformity does not happen automatically.

Maine is under no obligation whatsoever to conform to Trump’s Tax Plan, or whatever Governor LePage might scheme up in his final, lame-duck year in office.

 

 

 

 

There are plenty of places where Maine’s tax code differs from the federal government’s. Lawmakers always have the choice to conform… or not.

 

 

 

 

 

We could even…do something better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Allow for the plunder of tens of millions of dollars in funding for public services in order to give tax cuts to wealthy households and corporations, or take this opportunity to outright reject a Trumped Up Tax Code and make some good changes in the process???

 

 

 

 

Let’s get to work. Even if the choice is easy, making it happen is going to take coordinated action. Starting with the legislature hearing from you. (Look up your reps here.) Tell them: no tax conformity. Honor the will of the voters in Maine. Let’s ask the wealthy to pay their fair share and build an economy that works for everyone. Do it now!

Party of Trump or party of Lincoln? Maine GOP at a crossroads

Mon, 02/12/2018 - 06:30

It’s sometimes easy to frame political parties–especially opposing political parties–as gigantic, monolithic entities that act with one mind from top to bottom. As those involved in partisan politics on either side of the aisle know, however, even in these highly polarized times political parties are made up of a diverse array of internal factions and coalitions that often compete with each other to shape their party’s message and to control the machinery that will ultimately allow that bloc to promote its vision for the party and the community around them.

Some intraparty differences might be cosmetic or tactical, but some–like whether to reject or embrace the rhetoric and aims of white nationalism–are fundamental and irreconcilable. For the Republican Party in Maine, this fundamental choice of posture is quickly becoming a real issue.

While glaring pronouncements of xenophobia have been a fixture of LePage-era Republican politics in Maine for nearly a decade now, in recent weeks attention has been drawn to more overtly white nationalist cohorts that have begun to take root within the infrastructure of the party. Whether these factions represent the most powerful or simply the loudest coalitions in the state GOP remains an open question.

Last week presented a stark example of the ideological and existential fork in the road at which the Maine GOP currently stands.

On one hand, the Waldo County Republican Committee was apparently sent reeling when it was revealed that their vice-chair Adam Ratterree had contacted and given a sympathetic podcast interview to Tom Kawczynski, the disgraced now-former town manager of Jackman who had recently been outed as a white separatist.

It appears that the committee held an emergency meeting, and while ultimately it chose not to remove or censure Ratterree for giving a platform for what amounted to polite hate speech, county chair Michael Cunningham published an earnest if not completely unproblematic op-ed officially condemning racism and xenophobia as incompatible with the founding tenets of the Republican Party. Cunningham goes on to specifically attack the language of “white genocide,” which was coincidentally employed days earlier by none other than Maine state Rep. Larry Lockman, who has used his perch in the State House to rain down a torrent of overtly racist abuse on individuals and groups across the state for years.

Cunningham’s article gave the impression of a leader within the GOP apparatus genuinely grappling with how best to push back against the creep of white nationalist politics within his organization. It’s messy and imperfect, but it represents a good faith attempt to step back from the ledge and intentionally move in a new, more inclusive direction.

On the other hand, over the same time period, and against the same backdrop of heightened public scrutiny over extreme rhetoric, another arm of the state GOP chose to simply jump over the cliff.

The Androscoggin County Republican Committee opted during that time to sponsor a social media post amplifying a speech made at a Lewiston City Council meeting by a member of the community who called Maine’s immigrant community an existential threat to the state. This was followed by the committee publicly attacking the Southern Poverty Law Center–one of the most authoritative civil rights organizations and hate-group monitors in the country–at one point paradoxically referring to the SPLC itself as a hate group.

The committee’s attack on the SPLC parroted a line from the anonymous and ultra-nationalist Maine First Media, by whom the SPLC was attacked after it published an expose linking an anti-female genital mutilation bill sponsored by Republican state Rep. Heather Sirocki to a national anti-Muslim group monitored by SPLC. The SPLC noted that ACT for America, the group with whom Sirocki had been communicating, deploy legally redundant anti-FGM and anti-Sharia Law bills to promote a larger narrative of Islamophobia around the nation.

Unlike in Waldo, in the face of such incendiary rhetoric we see no revulsion, outrage, or even apprehension from the Androscoggin County GOP leadership over what any rational observer would describe as an official social media account that has been hijacked by a ranting white nationalist. Rather, from chair Patti Gagne, a prominent and well-respected member of the Lewiston community, we see consent by silence as the committee promotes a worldview of hatred and exclusion.

Both the Waldo and Androscoggin chapters are comprised of the grassroots activists that form the base of the state Republican Party, but through them we glimpse an organization of two separate minds on who and what it stands for. But the GOP cannot simultaneously be the party of Lincoln and the party of Trump, and despite the efforts of those who envision the former, there is little doubt which faction speaks with more force and authority within the state apparatus.

So if a faction of GOP leadership wishes to project an image of tolerance and moderation, they will need to begin by preaching inside their own divided house.

Adam Ratterree, holding flag, setting up a parade float with the Waldo County Republicans. (Photo: Waldo County Republicans via Facebook)

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