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Perspective: Dignity, workers rights, and fair taxes: Why I’m voting yes on Question 1

Wed, 10/31/2018 - 09:46

My parents are salt-of-the-earth people. Lifelong Mainers and retired educators, both of them, and they spend their retirement years visiting nursing homes.

Between the two of them, every week they are in and out of several nursing homes in the midcoast area where they live. They go from room to room, from resident to resident, visiting, listening to stories, reading mail, offering the consistency of a friendly face and sought-after companionship, no agenda, no strings attached. They lead a Bible study group once a week, where residents of several different faith traditions gather to reflect on the stories of their faith. My dad even taught himself to play the guitar and started a little band called Silver Threads, and now he and his friends lead sing-a-longs among the nursing home residents — an appreciative audience! — and offer concerts of old favorites and holiday tunes.

In retirement, this is their ministry. They give hundreds of hours of volunteer time to it every year. They know nursing homes. They’re listening, day after day, to the joys and heartaches of aging seniors.

And on more than one occasion, they have said to my siblings and me, “Please don’t ever make us move to a nursing home.”

Often there’s a little hint of desperation in their voices — the desperation that comes from knowing how they want to age, hoping and praying they’ll be strong and healthy for many years to come, and having a keen awareness of the realities that many people face.

My parents cared for their own aging parents — fortunately, my grandparents were mostly able to stay in their own homes, with the exception of one who spent the final few months of her life in a skilled care facility — and it was not easy. Now my grandparents are all deceased, and my parents, still healthy and active and enjoying their retirement, are beginning to wonder what choices will be available to them as they age.

My parents are not alone. As Maine’s senior population swells, more and more of our parents, our grandparents, our neighbors, our friends, and members of our faith communities are worrying about the limited choices they’ll face as they think about aging.

That’s why I’m looking forward to voting yes on Question 1 — Maine’s universal home care initiative.

Here’s why this initiative is so important: Demographically, Maine is the oldest state in the country — and we’re getting older. By the year 2030, the share of Maine’s population over age 65 is expected to increase by 50 percent.

Those statistical figures are important, but they aren’t just numbers — those are people, each one a beloved child of God. Every aging senior is someone’s parent, someone’s grandparent, someone’s special aunt or uncle, someone’s neighbor, someone’s friend. We owe it to them to ensure that we are putting systems in place to guarantee that they can age with dignity.

Currently, the options are grim: the median annual cost of home care in Maine is over $50,000 a year — much less expensive than a nursing home, but still out of reach for most Maine families. Every day, families are forced to make impossible decisions about how to care for their loved ones, and too many seniors are being forced out of homes they don’t want to leave. At the same time, home care workers barely make above minimum wage, which is often not enough to support their own families. As a result, turnover among home care workers is 67 percent a year.

Question 1 offers hope in the form of universal home care — the guarantee that any senior and any Mainer with a disability who needs assistance with an activity of daily living in order to stay in their home will be able to get it. Question 1 also provides support for family caregivers and increased wages for home care workers. The initiative is funded by a 3.8 percent tax — that’s 1.9 percent for employees and 1.9 percent for employers, or the full 3.8 percent for those who are self-employed — on individual income over $128,400, affecting the wealthiest 2.6 percent of Mainers. Currently, income over $128,400 isn’t subject to the payroll tax at all.

The reason why I think people of faith and conscience should care is because the universal home care initiative addresses three critically important justice issues that all of us should be concerned about: (1) Dignity of those who are aging and people with disabilities; (2) Fair wages and benefits for home care workers, who are almost always women, people of color, and immigrants; and (3) Fair and just taxes.

Dignity of those who are aging and people with disabilities

At the foundation of my faith is the conviction that every human being is a child of God, created in the image of God and beloved by God. While our society often places supreme value on youth and ability, as people of faith, we recognize and affirm the full humanity and sacred worth of all persons, including seniors and those with disabilities.

Seniors have a right to age with dignity, and to make choices about how they will spend the final years of their lives. Likewise, people with disabilities have a right to make decisions about their living situations, and to live with as much independence and personal agency as their abilities will allow. While skilled nursing care in a nursing home or assisted living facility is the right choice for many, people should be able to live as independently as they choose, especially when they don’t require the level of support that a nursing home provides.

Our respect for the inherent dignity and sacred worth of all persons must always lead us to enact policy that recognizes, maintains, and strengthens the human rights of all; that honors human dignity; and when needed, that allows for compassionate care and independence.

In a world guided by principles of justice and compassion — a world where we believe the dignity of seniors and people with disabilities mattered — the decision to ensure universal home care would be self-evident.

Fair wages and benefits for home care workers

The sacred texts of nearly every faith tradition call us to treat workers with respect, dignity, and fairness, and they condemn those who would withhold fair pay to workers.

The reality is, the vast majority of home care workers are women, people of color, and immigrants. Typically their wages and benefits are poor. In fact, people often find they have to leave the profession, even if they enjoy it and find meaning in it, even if they feel called to this vocation, simply because it doesn’t provide an adequate salary to support a family.

The universal home care initiative would ensure fair wages and benefits.

Like seniors and people with disabilities, home care workers — women, people of color, and immigrants — are persons of sacred worth, too. As such, they deserve a living wage for their labor — sufficient wages to afford shelter, food, clothing, health care, and other basic expenses.

Now more than ever, Maine needs compassionate, capable home care workers. Caregiving is important, life-giving work, but it can be physically, emotionally, and financially draining, too. Question 1 acknowledges the truth that workers’ rights are human rights.

Fair taxes

People of faith are right to be distressed as the gap between the rich and poor widens worldwide. Fifty-five years ago, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. insisted, “God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty.” And yet increasingly, that is the stark and painful reality our nation faces.

It is the role of government to ensure that both the burdens and the benefits of a nation’s common life are shared equitably and proportionally among its citizens. Tax laws must be judged by their impact on children, low-income families, the elderly, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable populations. Our laws should correct inequalities, not institutionalize them.

Most people believe that long-term care should already be paid for through our existing social service insurance system, but it isn’t — in part because our tax system benefits the wealthy.

We might ask: Why should high-earning individuals be exempt from paying Social Security tax on the portion of their income above the arbitrary line of $128,400? Wouldn’t it stand to reason that those with the highest wages are best equipped to pay their fair share of taxes, not that they should receive special exemptions?

The issue of fair and just taxes is a profound justice issue, one that I and many of my clergy and faith leader colleagues addressed last fall during the debate around the Republican tax plan.

This initiative funds a desperately needed service, while moving us closer to tax fairness.

For these reasons, the universal home care initiative has been endorsed by a whole host of senior citizen, disability rights, worker, small business, and veteran organizations, including the Maine Council of Churches.

In a recent editorial in the Bangor Daily News, Rev. Dr. Myrick Cross, who serves as priest-in-charge of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Brewer, shared his own reasons for supporting Question 1. Having cared for an elderly father and then his wife, after she’d suffered a stroke, now he finds himself caring for an aging mother and a daughter with Down’s Syndrome — and it’s not easy. “Every week, it’s like doing a puzzle to figure out who can come in when so my mom is not left alone for more than a couple of hours,” he says. “I wish I could find a live-in person to help. After researching several agencies, I found I could not afford their services.”

That seems to be everyone’s story when it comes to finding appropriate care for their aging loved ones: “I wish I could… but I found I could not afford it.”

A budget is a moral document, and so is a tax plan. And so is a society’s provision for caring for its elders in their final years. These decisions have moral and ethical implications, and one way or the other, we will feel these implications long into the future.

In Rev. Dr. Cross’ words, “Making sure the wealthiest Mainers pay their fair share, so everyone can receive the care we need when we need it, seems to me common sense and part of what it means to live in a community. I think the real ‘scam’ is that for-profit nursing homes and health care [agencies] are protecting their business interests at our expense.”

I have studied this universal home care proposal pretty extensively, and I’ve listened to the objections. I understand the opposition. But I also understand that every vote we take leads us either one step closer to the world we want to live in, or one step further away. The world I want to live in is one that cares for aging seniors with dignity and compassion — and Maine has the opportunity to be the first state in the country to prioritize that by ensuring universal home care.

On Election Day, without hesitation, as an expression of my faith, I’ll be voting Yes on Question 1.

More than a thousand Mainers honor lives lost after antisemitic attack in Pittsburgh

Wed, 10/31/2018 - 08:21

Over 1,500 people poured into South Portland’s Congregation Bet Ha’am Synagogue Tuesday night to attend a vigil honoring the 11 lives lost after an adherent of white nationalism– who later told police “he wanted all Jews to die” – opened fired on those attending a Shabbat worship service last Saturday at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Reaching a size some life-long Bet Ha’am attendees said they never witnessed before, the crowd that pushed the synagogue to overcapacity joined guest speakers in remembering Daniel Stein, Joyce Feinberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil and David Rosenthal, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger — the victims of what is believed to be the deadliest attack on Jewish people in American history. CNN has also recently published their individual biographies.

Becky, a 32-year-old South Portland resident, attending a vigil in honor of those killed in Pittsburgh at Congregation Bet Ha’am synagogue Tuesday night.

The perpetrator’s social media was rife with antisemitic posts and preoccupied with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS, a Maryland-based nonprofit that provides aid for refugees and which a few who attended Tree of Life Synagogue’s Saturday service support.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, antisemitic incidents in the U.S. rose 57 percent in 2017, the largest single-year increase on record. Yet the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue also bears hundreds of years of historical precedence.

While guest speakers, such as South Portland Mayor Linda Cohen, encouraged the audience to rise up against intolerance, Becky, a 32-year-old South Portland resident with Ashkenazi roots who has attended services at Bet Ha’am for many years, described feeling “a touch of despair” that goes deeper, further back than what she’s experienced in her lifetime.

“It touches the past,” she said. “It feels like, in some ways, this has always been a threat.”

In other ways, though, hate-fueled violence against Jewish people had started to seem more and more a remnant of the country’s past, she told Beacon. Growing up, even though she was among a minority in Maine, Becky believed it was a “safe time for Jews” and, because she looked like a white person, didn’t envision herself as a target for hate.

“I do a lot of work around racial justice,” she explained. “I’ve felt that my condition of whiteness as a Jew has protected me, and that I’ve not been directly targeted. This feels more personal.”

The knowledge that Jewish people are conditionally white – and yet that whiteness “can be revoked at any moment”– defines a history of Jewish people “leaving their shoes by the door,” she said.

“In case, suddenly, you need to go,” Becky continued. “In case you’re no longer welcome. It’s starting to feel like that.”

Advocates vow to fight attempts to weaken Portland paid sick day law

Tue, 10/30/2018 - 05:30

Workers rights advocates and Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling are pushing back against an effort by the city council to weaken the proposed paid sick day ordinance to create a two-tiered system.

The latest draft of the ordinance, which is being shaped by Portland council members on the Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee, proposes that businesses that have over 10 employees give workers a minimum of 48 hours, or six work days, of accrued paid sick time each year.

For businesses having fewer than 10 employees, they would be required to provide 24 hours, or three days, of paid time, and allow employees to take an additional 24 hours of unpaid time off for illness.

‘We’re not dealing with ideals’

This proposal alters an initial proposal considered by the committee, favored by workers rights advocates and Strimling, which would require that workers in the city are universally guaranteed six paid sick days per year.

“I would strongly recommend we not do this,” Strimling said of the latest draft during the committee meeting last Tuesday. “This committee said before that we didn’t want to do some sort of unpaid requirement.”

Strimling cited numerous cities that have passed paid sick leave laws, and said the latest proposal would place Portland’s law among the weaker laws on the books nationally. Austin requires small businesses to provide 40 hours and larger businesses 60 hours; Berkeley requires 48 hours for small and 72 for large; and Duluth requires 64 hours for all workers, he said.

“That fact that we are doing this is extraordinary,” said

Committee chair Belinda Ray countered by saying that the fact Portland is considering a paid sick ordinance at all “is extraordinary.” The two-tiered proposal, Ray said, “still places us very, very high in terms of what people are doing nationally.”

She added, “We’re not dealing with ideals. We are dealing with what we are comfortable with as a city mandating what employers do. What I’m comfortable mandating here as councilor in Portland, Maine is different from what I would love to see [nationally].”

Strimling responded, “Having three days of unpaid sick time certainly is better than not, but it’s better than not by a very small amount.”

Strimling further challenged the other committee members’ definition of a small business.

“Ten [employees] is big,” Strimling said. “At 10 employees, you’re not just a small Mom and Pop operation anymore. You got a half million dollar budget at a minimum, before you get into your cost of doing business.”

Low-wage workers are ‘put in an impossible situation’

Eliza Townsend, right, and DrewChristopher Joy of the Southern Maine Workers Center consulted with Mayor Ethan Strimling in drafting the initial ordinance that called for a universal guarantee of paid sick days in Portland.

Workers rights advocates from the Maine Women’s Lobby and the Southern Maine Workers Center also attended the meeting and agreed with the mayor’s belief that smaller businesses should not be held to a lesser standard than larger businesses.

Eliza Townsend of the Maine Women’s Lobby, who together with DrewChristopher Joy and Arlo W. Hennessey of the Southern Maine Workers Center, consulted with the mayor in drafting the initial ordinance that called for a universal guarantee of paid sick days for Portland workers.

“We have felt from the get-go that we need a universal policy that covers everybody,” Townsend said. “People who work in small businesses get sick and need time off just as much as people who work in large businesses.”

Townsend, who has also lobbied the state legislature to pass a statewide paid sick law, says she is encouraged by the progress of the committee but that she and other advocates will continue to pressure the city council to pass a universal law.

“The need for this is to support those people who are working in low-wage jobs where they are least likely to have benefits, where they are struggling to get by. And those are primarily women and people of color — they include a high representation of new Mainers,” Townsend said. “When they or a family member gets sick, they are put in an impossible situation.”

Townsend echoed Strimling’s argument that, in addition to being a very necessary worker protection for wage-earners, the proposed ordinance is also fundamentally a proactive public health policy.

“It’s an economic justice issue for low-wage workers and it’s a public health issue,” Townsend said.

Small business owner Zack Anchors, who owns Portland Paddle and employs nearly 40 seasonal employees, supports the effort to give all workers in the city universal protection under the proposed ordinance.

“I’m very much in favor of a policy that applies universally to businesses,” said Anchors, who has already rewritten his hiring policy for his seasonal employees to conform with the advocates’ preferred universal policy of six paid sick days.

Anchors says he has written to the committee in support of Strimling and the advocates’ initial proposal. “What’s the city’s trying to say is that in Portland we believe this is a basic level of protection that all workers are entitled to,” he said.

The city’s Health and Human Services Committee is not expected to hold a public hearing on the two-tiered proposal until early 2019, which is another point of contention between the committee members and the mayor, who advised the committee not to slow walk the process, as committee membership could change after the Nov. 6 elections.

After a public hearing, the paid sick day ordinance would then go to the full city council for a vote.

A statewide initiative for paid sick days is also underway. Volunteers with the Maine People’s Alliance will be collecting signatures on Nov. 6 to put a paid sick law on the ballot in 2019.

(Photo: Sign in a Portland storefront supporting the proposed paid sick day law. | Beacon)

Lauren and Seth Rogan Endorse Maine’s Question One

Mon, 10/29/2018 - 11:53

Lauren Miller Rogen and Seth Rogen, founders of Hilarity for Charity, released a video Monday endorsing Question One — the initiative to guarantee seniors and Mainers with disabilities have access to home care — on Maine’s ballot.

The Rogens, both prolific actors, writers and directors, founded their charity in 2012 to raise awareness of Alzheimer’s and contribute to progress made in its care, research, and support. Lauren’s own mother, Adele, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s more than a decade ago, and in the video she mentions how her family has been lucky enough to afford to care for her mother at home.

“However, for most people, that choice isn’t a possibility because of the extreme cost of home care,” said Seth. “Currently, there isn’t nearly enough being done to make sure our loved ones can stay in their own homes and communities and age with dignity and the support they need.”

According to researchers, the steep cost of living in a Maine nursing home — estimated at around $8,000 a month in 2017 — is 50 percent higher than the $4,000 a month it costs to hire a home health aide.

Despite home health care costing less than living in a nursing home, only about 5,600 of the 27,000 Mainers with home care needs are currently able to access public long-term care services, a proportion expected to worsen as Maine’s senior population grows over the next two decades.

Further, over 28,000 Mainers also have Alzheimer’s, with 69,000 families and friends providing care for them while simultaneously working to make ends meet, according to… In the video, Lauren argues that family caregivers should not have to go bankrupt trying to make sure their parents’ care needs are met and no family should be “forced to send a loved one” to a nursing home because they cannot afford the cost of home care.

“Question One in Maine provides the support those families need and sets an example for the rest of the country to follow,” she said.

 

Critics warn Moody’s waffling on climate change ‘would put Maine on a dangerous course’

Mon, 10/29/2018 - 00:00

Despite new warnings about the severity of the climate crisis, Republican gubernatorial candidate Shawn Moody’s position has shifted throughout his campaign, prompting critics to declare his untrustworthiness on this matter a threat to the future of the state.

During a GOP primary debate in early June, the four candidates were asked: “Do you believe human activities are currently changing the climate of Maine’s land and waters?”

Moody was the last to reply in the quick-fire round. “It’s mostly…” He paused, motioning with his hands as if searching for a better answer, and then said bluntly, “It’s no.” Moody shook his head as the audience laughed at his momentary struggle for the right response.

Since then, Moody’s position has expanded without fundamentally changing. Most recently, during another televised gubernatorial forum on Oct. 17, the auto repair entrepreneur suggested the environmental phenomenon has been occurring since the days when the Earth’s land mass comprised a global supercontinent.

“Obviously human activity adds, or contributes, to climate change, but the climate has been changing since the world was created,” Moody said. “You look at [how] the continents were breaking off and drifting. There was an ice cap hundreds of feet thick, and all that. So the climate’s been changing.”

Pointing out that the state Department of Environmental Protection recognized his auto body business as an “environmental leader,” Moody urged Mainers to “set your own voluntary targets, how you’re going to reduce your own carbon emissions at your local communities, businesses, municipalities, nonprofits.”

Yet his Democratic rival, state Attorney General Janet Mills, was quick to jump on Moody’s geologic view of global weather patterns.

“The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was not talking about continents separating apart millions of years ago. They’re talking about the increase in temperature right now and over the next 30 years,” Mills said. “The fact that the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans, the fact that we’ve already had a crash of the cod fisheries, the shrimp fisheries, herring fisheries, and the lobsters, yes, are moving north and east.”

The alarming Oct. 6 report from the UN IPCC referenced by Mills found there are roughly a dozen years before global warming exceeds 1.5 degrees Celsius (34.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, beyond which we are likely to experience weather extremes, including severe drought, floods, and extreme heat, bringing famine and poverty to hundreds of millions of people. The report concluded that avoiding this fate “would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities.”

Additionally, since 2004, the Gulf of Maine has already been found to have “warmed faster than anyplace else on the planet, except for an area northeast of Japan,” according to a 2015 special report by the Portland Press Herald.

Despite these predictions, Moody has dismissed the more dire warnings as an overreaction and cautioned against government intervention. At an Oct. 4 candidate forum in Rockland focused on the seafood industry, Moody conceded there are notable scientific findings on climate change, but claimed the public should not become inflamed by the evidence.

“I think we need to have people on the ground. We have to listen to scientific data and research. We can’t overreact,” Moody said.

“I believe that the industry itself will navigate the channels,” Moody continued. “We’ve just got to make sure that government doesn’t impede that forward progress so that adaptability, if you will, as this takes place over the next two to five years.”

Following the seafood forum, Maine Democratic Party chairman Phil Bartlett issued a statement condemning Moody’s lukewarm response to the climate crisis.

“Telling Mainers – especially our fisherman – not to overreact to an issue that will significantly affect their livelihoods just shows how out of touch Shawn Moody is,” Bartlett said. “How can Maine people rely on Shawn Moody to address this serious issue when he won’t even acknowledge the scientific facts behind it?”

On occasion, Moody has underscored the potential economic opportunities of the renewable energy industry. Though his campaign website does not mention climate change, his issues page states, “We must have a strong economy while minimizing our impact on the environment. We cannot sacrifice one at the expense of the other.”

Similarly, during the Oct. 17 debate at the University of Maine in Augusta, Moody noted, “there’s a lot of pent-up investment and excitement around renewables.”

“You’re going to see a lot of investment coming into Maine, jobs, and boost our already growing economy around renewable energy,” he said. “It will lower our carbon footprint.”

When asked his view on Moody’s various positions on climate change, Bartlett said that it is a sign of general untrustworthiness.

“In the Republican primary, Shawn Moody denied human activity was causing climate change, but now, in the general election, he admits it’s a factor,” Bartlett wrote in an email. “Mainers just can’t trust what Shawn Moody has to say, and it’s become clear that with LePage’s campaign team at the helm, he’ll say just about anything to get elected. We don’t need a governor who has a change of heart when the polls don’t look good. We need someone who is truly committed to fighting climate change and protecting our natural resources.”

Maureen Drouin, executive director of Maine Conservation Voters, also expressed concern, saying Moody’s “waffling just shows that Maine people can’t trust him to address the threat climate change poses to our state’s fisheries, economy and public health.”

“Climate change is putting our state and economy at risk,” Drouin continued. “Shawn Moody’s refusal to accept climate science would put Maine on a dangerous course…He simply can’t be trusted on this critical issue.”

During a June primary debate, Republican gubernatorial candidates Rep. Ken Fredette, Sen. Garrett Mason, and former commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services Mary Mayhew look on as Shawn Moody shares his views on climate change. 

Maine law enforcement is keeping drug bust money meant for state general fund

Fri, 10/26/2018 - 12:00

A state law intended to curb police corruption in Maine is apparently going unheeded, according to a Beacon investigation into asset forfeiture.

When cash or assets connected to a drug crime are seized by police in Maine, those funds are required by state law to be deposited in the general fund. That statute has been lauded by a national civil liberties watchdog for curbing potential police corruption by putting forfeitures proceeds under the control of lawmakers, instead of the police departments who seize the money.

That law is not being followed. At the same time, some public health responses to the opioid epidemic have gone unfunded.

This disclosure follows a Beacon report published last week revealing that state law enforcement agencies are also failing to account for property and cash forfeited from drug prosecutions as required by Maine law.

The Institute for Justice (IJ), a non-profit libertarian public interest law firm, previously gave Maine’s forfeiture laws a “B+” because, “with few exceptions, all forfeiture proceeds go directly into the state general fund.”

According to their reading of the statute, “all forfeiture proceeds go to the general fund unless […] specifically approved by the court and by the governor or attorney general (in the case of a state forfeiture) or the relevant governmental entity (in the case of county-level or municipal-level forfeitures).”

In short, cash and property seized by state law enforcement is meant to be deposited into the state’s general fund where the money is under the discretion of the state legislature and elected public officials to utilize as they see fit.

In states where no such provisions exist, forfeitures go back to police departments. Other states, such as North Carolina, Wisconsin, Indiana and Missouri have laws that direct the money into public education. Maryland’s laws are most similar to Maine and also direct money into a general fund. IJ credits these laws with removing the temptation for police to seize property to boost their own budgets.

However, despite Maine’s forfeiture law’s potential to curb corruption, the state’s Office of Fiscal and Program Review has confirmed that — aside from a single deposit of $4,335 made by the Public Safety Department in 2010 — no recent proceeds from property forfeitures have gone into Maine’s general fund.

The provisions to direct seized cash and property into the state general fund were originally drafted in 1987 and amended in 1999. It is not clear how long this law has not been complied with by state public safety officials.  

“We see it as a problem and a way that is circumventing the intent of the law, which is to not give this money to law enforcement,” said Jennifer McDonald, a senior researcher with IJ, after reviewing the new evidence.

Because state law enforcement is failing to comply with the asset seizure reporting law, Maine lawmakers have no way to monitor the amount of money police are bringing in from forfeitures. Because of non-compliance with the general fund provisions, they can’t make use of those assets through the appropriations process.

Windfall for police as property seizures are on the rise nationally

Nationally, local law enforcement agencies are bringing in more money from forfeitures by conducting joint-investigations and prosecutions with federal drug enforcement agencies.

Through a practice called “equitable sharing,” the federal government typically keeps 20 percent of the proceeds and returns 80 percent back to state and local police. These shared funds would not go into the state’s general fund as intended by Maine statute since they are awarded through federal law.

In equitable sharing, prosecutions occur under federal forfeiture laws, which are typically less strict than state laws. Maine law requires a criminal conviction, along with proof that the asset is connected to a crime, before the property is forfeited. In contrast, federal law allows civil asset forfeitures, under which individuals do not have to be convicted of a crime to lose their property.

Nationwide, the amount of property and cash seized each year by the U.S. Department of Justice ballooned from $407 million in 2001 to $1.6 billion in 2017 — peaking in 2014 at $4.5 billion at the onset of the opioid crisis.

In all, the Justice Department shared $4.7 billion in forfeiture proceeds with local police departments across the country from 2000 to 2013, according to the IJ.

In Maine, the funds brought in from these joint drug busts may also be increasing.

Between 2000 and 2017, according to reports to Congress made by the U.S. departments of Treasury and Justice, the federal government paid nearly $13.3 million to Maine’s state and local law enforcement through its equitable sharing program — an average of $737,888 per year.

Source: The Institute for Justice obtained these totals through a Maine Freedom of Access Act request made to the Maine Department of Public Safety.

In 2017, the federal government paid Maine’s law enforcement agencies nearly $1.38 million, which is the third-highest amount since 2000 — behind $1.69 million in 2013, and $1.96 million in 2010.

To compare, the state’s main drug prosecution force, the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, averages $237,395 per year in prosecutions without federal partners.

There are no available records indicating that any of this money was ever deposited in the general fund — other than that 2010 deposit of $4,335 made by the Public Safety Department.

‘You go through the federal process, which is more lucrative to local departments’

Chief Rich Stillman has headed the Bridgton Police Department for three years. Before that, he worked in law enforcement in Massachusetts, where state laws do not a require a conviction before a property is seized and as much as 100 percent of forfeiture proceeds go to law enforcement.

Though Maine has stricter laws, in his experience in both states during the onset of the opioid crisis Stillman observed that partnering with federal agencies typically benefits local police departments financially, he said.

“You go through the federal process, which is more lucrative to local departments if you come across a large sum of money in a drug seizure,” Stillman said.

“If it’s a large drug seizure you might want to go federal,” he said, “especially if it is Fentanyl, because the Feds have definitely ramped up the interest in prosecuting Fentanyl cases.”

A public health opportunity for Maine

The federal government, through the equitable sharing program, paid Maine’s law enforcement agencies nearly $1.38 million in 2017, which is the third-highest amount since 2000 — behind $1.69 million in 2013, and $1.96 million in 2010. | Photo courtesy of Flickr

In Maine, the general fund provisions present an opportunity to create a public health response to the state’s opioid crisis if law enforcement begins to conform with state law directing the millions seized in drug busts into treatment and other programs.

Lawmakers and advocates have suggested using money from drug prosecutions to fund initiatives such as medical-assisted recovery with FDA-approved drugs like methadone, harm-reduction services such as clean needle exchanges, and HIV and hepatitis testing, as well as diversionary programs for opioid users involved in the criminal justice system.

“There’s an intent here that this money go to the general fund, unless there has been some sort of court determination,” said state Rep. Drew Gattine (D-Westbrook), who co-chairs the Maine Legislature’s Appropriations Committee.

“There’s certainly bills with relatively low dollar amounts that don’t get funded and if there were a dedicated pot of money that could be possible used, that would be helpful,” Rep. Gattine said.

In the legislature, LD888, a forfeiture reform bill, failed to pass last year. It proposed that records of forfeited property be posted by the Public Safety Department on a publicly accessible website and also prohibited state and local enforcement agencies from transferring seized property through a joint task force to a federal agency to circumvent state statute.

As equitable sharing continues between state and federal law enforcement agencies, and as public safety officials continue to fail to report seized assets mandated by statute, lawmakers are limited in their ability to steer forfeiture proceeds from further entrenching the War on Drugs, which many view as a failure.

“I never want to vote for more jails and prisons,” said state Rep. Karen Vachon (R-Scarborough), who sponsored a needle-exchange bill and a $6.6 million initiative creating a statewide resource and referral center for substance use disorder treatment — both of which were passed in July after Governor Paul LePage’s vetoes were overidden.  

“I think way too many people are being put in [jail] when they should be treated for a disease, just like diabetes,” Rep. Vachon said.

(Top photo via Flickr.)

Poliquin’s big lie on climate change

Fri, 10/26/2018 - 08:10

Rep. Poliquin is running an ad that the Bangor Daily News calls “a whopper” and WMTW labelled “just plain false.” Taryn, Ben and Mike get into details on the podcast this week.

They also explore the evolving sign war and other updates on Question 1, the universal home care initiative, and discuss U.S. Senate candidate Eric Brakey’s use of white nationalist rhetoric.

Plus: Ben is named one of the Frederick Douglass 200 and other rays of hope.

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.

Home care campaign leader Ben Chin named ‘Frederick Douglass 200’ honoree

Thu, 10/25/2018 - 15:00

An enduring champion for social progress in Maine, Ben Chin, deputy director of the Maine People’s Alliance (MPA), is among only 200 people nationwide who have been selected by the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives and American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center as embodying abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s “legacy of social change.”

To commemorate the bicentennial of Douglass’s birth, Chin has been honored as one of the FD200, specifically as a person in politics who has helped promote justice and opportunity in Maine communities. Other honorees include Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and former President Barack Obama.

A Bates College graduate, Chin joined MPA as a community organizer in 2007, becoming the organization’s political engagement director after three years. In 2011, he served as field director of the Protect Maine Votes coalition, which worked to pass a ballot initiative that overturned a section of Maine law prohibiting same-day voter registration.

He also worked on the campaign to pass the 2016 state ballot initiative that ensured Maine’s minimum wage will increase by one-dollar-a-year increments to $12 an hour in 2020, a voter-approved measure that has already lifted 10,000 children out of poverty.

Now, as campaign manager for Yes on 1, the initiative to guarantee seniors and Mainers with disabilities have universal access to home care, Chin said this honor is not all his own.

Instead, he said, the change he’s fought for has always depended on a larger network of people across Maine. The people who, year after year, have pushed back against injustice with him and demanded a better, fairer place to live.

“I am humbled by this award,” Chin said. “It points to all the tremendous work done by the people and organizations I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with and learn from.”

Hundreds of LGBTQ+ Mainers and allies rise up in Portland: “We will not be erased.”

Thu, 10/25/2018 - 12:46

Hundreds braved the cold this past Wednesday evening to convene in Portland’s Monument Square and show that Maine’s transgender, intersex, and non-binary communities will not be defined out of existence by the Trump administration.

The event was part of a nationwide response to the administration’s apparent efforts, apparent efforts to establish a legal definition of gender “on a biological basis,” according to a report on a leaked memo in The New York Times , with thousands of LGBTQ+ activists and allies mobilizing on- and off- line to proclaim “ We will not be erased .”

Elliot Caron, 22, from North Monmouth, Maine, who described the act of living every day as a transgender person in America as an “act of courage.” | Cara DeRose

An estimated 3,000 to 8,000 people ages 18 to older than 65 in Maine are transgender, while the nation as a whole is home to almost 1.4 million transgender people. If the administration’s efforts prevail, a person’s gender would be defined strictly as male or female and be determined based on the genitals they were born with. Transgender and intersex individuals would not, advocates say, ‘exist’ under this definition.

This definition also runs counter to the medically understood fact that transgender individuals are not making a personal choice to identify as transgender.

Rather, ‘transgender’ defines an essential aspect of who they are, as Elliot Caron — a 22-year-old trans-masculine University of Southern Maine student from North Monmouth, Maine — shared at the rally.

“I am a transgender individual who doesn’t want my rights taken away,” he said. “It’s scary to think my ability to receive access to care, to change my name, and live my life authentically could be stripped away because of outdated ideals.”

As someone who recently came out as a trans-masculine person, Caron spoke at the event about how he fears the government will force him “back into the closet.”

He now frets over whether he will get the testosterone he needs to transition, or whether he will be able to successfully transition at all, and told the crowd that, as most of them know, the act of living every day as a transgender individual in America is “an act of courage on its own.”

Transgender individuals who need immediate support can call the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860.

 

(Top and bottom photos from the event Wednesday night, where hundreds gathered in solidarity with the nation-wide #WillNotBeErased movement. | Cara DeRose)

Signs highlight nursing home lobby’s attacks on Question 1, the home care initiative

Thu, 10/25/2018 - 11:56

Supporters of Question 1 say they are bringing a little transparency to roadsides and street corners this week with new yard signs calling out the nursing home lobby for opposing the universal home care initiative.

The signs, which read “The nursing home lobby paid for this sign,” with an arrow, are being planted by volunteers to point at “Stop the Scam” signs all over Maine. They say the signs are designed to highlight how nursing homes and other industries that benefit from a lack of home care options in Maine are actively working to undermine and sow confusion about the universal home care referendum being voted on next week.

“It’s disgusting that the nursing home lobby has placed their own profits ahead of patient care and are trying to scare seniors with lies about Question 1,” said Mainers for Home Care campaign manager Ben Chin. “Along with the banking lobby and other groups who don’t want the wealthiest 2.6 percent to pay more of their fair share of taxes, they’ve run one of the most dishonest campaigns in Maine history.”

According to Chin, although the Maine Health Care Association is featured in ads against Question 1 and CEO Richard Erb has been a prominent spokesperson against the home care initiative, many Mainers don’t know that this generic-sounding organization represents the state’s nursing homes and similar facilities.

Chin points out that as the rest of the nation moves toward significantly increasing the amount of care provided in home and community-based settings, according to a recent government report, Maine has moved in the opposite direction, in part due to the MHCA’s lobbying. The state has prioritized funding for nursing homes over home care and now ranks last in the nation in home care affordability.

In a radio interview on Monday, Erb admitted that his group would oppose the initiative even if their tax claims are proven to be incorrect.

Home care advocates say that they hope that the simple signs can help break through the noise during the final two weeks of the election and make clear the stakes facing voters as they decide on Question 1.

“I think using the word ‘scam’ is deceiving. The issue here is care,” said Esther Pew, a campaign organizer who has been helping Question 1 supporters place the signs. “I think it is important for people to know who’s behind a campaign.”

“Thousands of Maine families are making impossible choices trying to care for their loved ones. Every day, more seniors and veterans are being forced from their homes. It’s time to stop the lies and confront the problem,” said Chin. “Maine seniors deserve to be able to stay in their own homes and age with dignity.

(Beacon photo)

Brakey promotes white nationalist conspiracy theory in attack on King

Thu, 10/25/2018 - 07:29

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Eric Brakey suggested in a Twitter post on Tuesday that, if reelected, Senator Angus King would “repopulate” Maine with Latino immigrants, echoing a common conspiracy theory propagated by white nationalists in the U.S. and Europe that mass migration will replace white culture and identity.

The Twitter meme shared by Brakey features an image of King superimposed over an image of asylum seekers from Honduras and other Central American countries reportedly bound for the U.S.’s southern border. Above the image, the post reads, “Do you think we ought to bring high paying jobs to Maine to keep our children here…Or do you agree with Angus’ bright idea to import our population?” The image is captioned, “Angus King’s bright idea to repopulate Maine.”

Brakey’s rhetoric of “importing our population” to “repopulate Maine” mirrors language used by far-right white nationalists in describing a “Great Replacement,” the conspiracy that waves of Muslim and Latino immigrants and falling fertility rates in the U.S. and Europe are an existential threat to white people.

“For a second I thought I was still logged into Gab. But nope, just [Brakey’s] Twitter feed,” journalist Andy O’Brien wrote on Twitter in response to Brakey’s post, referring to the social media platform popular among white nationalists.

“This is truly shameful xenophobia, [Brakey]. I really hope you do some significant soul searching after this campaign. Ask yourself, was it worth it?” wrote former Auburn City Councilor Adam Lee in response to the post.

With the tweet, Brakey joins other national Republican politicians who have spread similar conspiracy theories.

The Huffington Post recently reported on an interview Iowa Congressman Steve King did in August with the far-right Austrian site Unzensuriert. In the interview, King said “The U.S. subtracts from its population a million of our babies in the form of abortion. We add to our population approximately 1.8 million of ‘somebody else’s babies’ who are raised in another culture before they get to us.”

The interviewer responded, “That’s what we call the Great Replacement.”

On Wednesday, Brakey upped his rhetoric even further, falsely claiming that “100 ISIS terrorists were arrested in the caravan while en-route to the US.” His posts come after President Donald Trump told reporters that gang members and “Middle Easterners” are among the asylum seekers. 

President Trump also called himself a “nationalist” in front of a crowd of supporters in Houston on Oct. 22, causing the media to speculate about the president’s use of the “old-fashioned” term.

“Trump is highlighting this word at this moment, with the midterm elections less than two weeks away. And he is spotlighting the word as he presses for his wall on the southern border and provokes fears of foreign invasion by villainizing the caravan of migrants making its way across Mexico,” wrote NPR correspondent Ron Elving.

Similarly, Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) suggested on Fox News Oct. 22 that progressive philanthropist George Soros is funding the asylum seekers, saying, “I can’t help but think that the Democrats, perhaps Soros, others, may be funding this, thinking it’s going to help them [in the midterm elections].”

Claims that Jewish people, such as Soros, are behind the Great Replacement conspiracy are also prevalent among white nationalists in the U.S. and in Europe.

In September, Brakey, currently representing the 20th Senate District in the Maine legislature, defended state Senator Amy Volk (R-Cumberland) after she called the Southern Poverty Law Center — an organization that tracks racist movements and leaders — a “hate group.” Brakey wrote in response to a Facebook blogpost by Volk, “SPLC is a hate group with a clear partisan agenda. I stand with Amy.”

(Photo from U.S. Senate candidate Eric Brakey’s campaign Facebook page.)

Maine state Rep. Paula Sutton says climate change is a good thing

Wed, 10/24/2018 - 13:32

According to a letter to the editor published in The Free Press last week, state Rep. Paula Sutton of Warren holds the belief that rising carbon dioxide levels and global temperatures are not caused by humans and may ultimately be a benefit to mankind.

“If it were not for global warming the earth would still be covered in miles of thick ice so it is safe to say the earth is warming,” Rep. Sutton, a Republican who sits on the legislature’s Marine Resources Committee, wrote in a correspondence with a constituent from Hope, Maine. The constituent shared the first-term representative’s climate denial in full with The Free Press.

“The big question seems to be what is causing it,” Rep. Sutton asserted. “Some obvious factors to consider in climate change are volcanic occurrences, sun cycles and the daily flatulence of every living creature. More carbon dioxide means more heat and more heat means more plant growth with which to feed our growing population,” she added, reiterating a claim frequently shared by those opposed to addressing the rapidly accelerating climate crisis.

In her correspondence with her constituent, Sutton, who is seeking reelection on Nov. 6, went on to dismiss the veracity of the climate science consensus, which links rising global temperatures to human-caused elevated carbon dioxide levels.

“It is my observation and experience in business that often people make the claims that best support their continued economic survival. For example, if I were a scientist who received grants that were supportive of a particular viewpoint, I may be likely to wish to perpetuate data along those lines to increase my chance of continued economic support, and vice versa,” Sutton wrote.

Sutton’s views were shared after the United Nations’ scientific panel released a “landmark report” on Oct. 8 that concludes dire consequences of climate change, including inundated coastlines, intensifying droughts, wildfires, a mass die-off of coral reefs, as well as food shortages and poverty, could occur sooner than originally predicted — as soon as 2040.

The report warns that avoiding these consequences would require transforming the world economy at a speed and scale that has “no documented historic precedent.”

Responding to her constituent’s concern, Sutton went on to propose far less drastic measures to mitigate the catastrophic effects of climate change.

“If you are worried about global warming and greenhouse gas perhaps you are better off walking to the grocery store and avoiding purchasing imported commercial products from faraway places,” Rep. Sutton wrote. “I believe in personal responsibility, choice and freedom and this is an excellent opportunity to show others that you are committed and to lead by example.”

Sutton is running against Bill Pluecker, an Independent candidate for Maine’s 95th House District, which includes Appleton, Hope, Warren and part of Union.

(Photo from Rep. Paula Sutton’s Facebook page.)

Poliquin’s age-based attacks are out of step with his district

Wed, 10/24/2018 - 11:47

Second District Rep. Bruce Poliquin’s attacks on Democratic challenger Jared Golden’s age aren’t sitting well with the young voters who could potentially decide this closely contested race.

When 36-year-old Golden first announced his bid for the Second District’s U.S. House seat, the staff of the 64-year-old incumbent swiftly invoked the Democrat’s age to criticize his candidacy. Poliquin returned to this line of attack during a debate in early October when he repeatedly labelled his opponent a “young radical.”

“Okay, so if I believe what [Golden] believes, I’m a young radical,” said Garth Kinney-Lombard, 25, of Caribou. “That’s not how I see myself.”

Poliquin and Golden are currently locked in a virtual dead heat . Mainers between 18 and 29 make up 15 percent of eligible voters in the state, according to data obtained from the Maine Secretary of State’s office, meaning that a handful of young people could determine this election.

Kinney-Lombard called the ‘young radical’ label “discriminatory” and evidence of how “out of touch” Poliquin is with Millennials and the even-younger Generation Z.

“[Poliquin] doesn’t understand the problems of today,” Kinney-Lombard said. “I really don’t think he has a clue.”

Golden is far from the youngest person to run for the seat. Over the past 50 years, Poliquin’s age, rather than being the being norm, makes him a historic outlier.

Democrat William Hathaway, who represented CD2 from 1965 to 1973, was just 41 when he was elected. In 1973, 33-year-old Republican William Cohen won the seat. He was succeeded by a 32-year-old Olympia Snowe in 1979.

When Snowe ran for and was elected U.S. Senator for the First District in 1995, 40-year-old Democrat John Baldacci replaced her in the U.S. House. Democrat Mike Michaud, who held the seat before Poliquin, was 48 when he assumed office in 2003.

Since 1965, and until 2014, the median age of a newly-elected Second District representative was 40. When first elected in 2014, Poliquin was 62. Golden, if elected, would only be four years younger than the median.

While U.S. House representatives from the Second District have skewed young, members of Congress today are among the oldest in the country’s history , a fact young voters say contributes to how out of touch representatives like Poliquin are with the issues they face.

“He takes his constituents as being really stupid,” 29-year-old Norway resident Carl Langbehn said of Poliquin. “From the get-go, Poliquin has seemed like this cheap, carpetbagging politician, who has essentially seen the Second District as an opportunity to advance his own career.”

Maine has one of the highest opioid-related death rates in the nation and Langbehn sees Golden as more capable of tackling the crisis. Poliquin has expressed concern over the issue while simultaneously relying on campaign mailers funded by some of the same pharmaceutical companies whose practices have contributed to the opioid epidemic .

According to a 2018 study, one in five U.S. young adults between 25 and 34 who died in 2016 did so from opioid-related complications, making them the age group with the highest burden of opioid-related deaths.

Another major national issue on the minds of young people today is student debt.

Kinney-Lombard described his life as initially mired in poverty, but after having “worked tooth and nail,” he forged a successful path to college and eventually a good job while still residing in Aroostook County.

But student debt, he said, represents a serious daily struggle – one that has other young adults fleeing the Second District for higher-paying work elsewhere. Rather than look for ways to ease student debt burden in the Second District, Poliquin instead helped cancel oversight on predatory student loan companies that gave to his campaign.

There is a sense in CD2 that, since young people are leaving, they don’t “know” enough about the issues the district faces, observed Kinney-Lombard. Poliquin targeting Golden for his age, he added, does nothing but make young people feel unwelcome in their own state.

“If we are to grow Aroostook County, we need young people,” he said. “Why should we alienate them?”

(Top photo from October CD2 debate)

In personal videos, Mainers ask voters to support home care and Question 1

Wed, 10/24/2018 - 07:58

In an effort to make the stakes clear in the upcoming vote on universal home care, supporters of Question 1 from across the state are posting dozens of videos to social media explaining why passage of the referendum is so important to them personally, and for the state.

“In the past several years, I’ve had the opportunity of taking care of four different family members. I believe that people should be allowed to grow old with dignity and remain in their homes as long as possible,” said Frank Ayotte, an Air Force veteran from Auburn, in one video. “That’s why I’m voting yes on one this November.”

In another, state Rep. Kim Monaghan of Cape Elizabeth says that she “absolutely” supports Question 1. “It’s such an important issue,” she says. “And as Maine is number one in the aging community, it is extremely important to allow many of these people the in-home care that they deserve.”

In addition to highlighting personal stories, the Yes on 1 campaign says it also hopes the grassroots videos, which are being shared on the group’s Facebook page, will “help break through a wave of confusing ads and outright lies from the nursing home lobby and their allies, who are opposed to Question 1.”

The videos stand in contrast to the opposition’s campaign ads that feature politicians including Governor Paul LePage.

The No on 1 campaign is backed by a number of major industry groups including the Chamber of Commerce, the Maine Bankers Association, and the Maine Health Care Association, the state’s nursing home lobby. The groups have branded the initiative a “scam,” and claimed it would impose a tax on families, despite the 1.9 percent payroll only applying to individuals who make above $128,400.

“It’s time for the wealthiest 2.6 percent to pay a bit more of their fair share to guarantee that no more seniors or veterans are forced from their homes,” Mainers for Home Care campaign manager Ben Chin in a press statement.

In the videos, many supporters agree that the tax, which was designed to narrow the payroll tax loophole for wealthy earners, would go far in lifting up everyone in the state.

“All my life i have worked with the elderly,”Jennifer from Bangor shared in a video. “The families can’t do this alone and we need help from other people.”

“When one walks the depth of a disease with others,” she added, “you will know [that] one person, one family cannot do this alone. They’ve worked all their life, they’ve given, it’s time for them to receive.”


Video: Seniors to nursing home lobby: ‘Seniors over profits’

Tue, 10/23/2018 - 05:34

On Oct 16., over a dozen senior activists went to the office of the Maine Health Care Association in Augusta holding signs including “We’re old, not stupid!” and chanting “Seniors over profits!” and delivered a letter to MHCA president Rick Erb asking him and other and opponents of Question 1 to stop calling the home care initiative a “scam.”

“Question 1 is a promise that we will do right by seniors and veterans in Maine,” said Alicia Barnes, a veteran representing Common Dreams and a supporter of Question 1. “You can disagree with that goal. You can disagree with how it is funded or how it’s administrated, but you shouldn’t employ the kind of sleazy tactics we’ve seen from the nursing home lobby and their allies. The scam here is that right now they’re profiting from seniors being forced from their homes.”

MHCA, which is state’s nursing home lobby, is helping to lead the effort against Question 1, which would guarantee home care access for 27,000 seniors and people with disabilities.

Maine nursing home lobby lashes out at Question 1, minimum wage increases

Mon, 10/22/2018 - 14:51

In an interview on the right-leaning morning radio show on WVOM today, Rick Erb, president and CEO of the Maine Health Care Association, the state’s nursing home lobby, was asked about a “gray area” of the how the initiative’s proposed 3.8-percent tax provision will be interpreted.

The Maine Center for Economic Policy has noted that the intent of the legislation is clear and the tax on high income earners to fund home care would affect only the wealthiest 2.6% of Mainers.

“Whether this gets fought out in court or some other venue, I don’t know,” said Erb, a leader of campaign opposed to Question 1. “We’d be opposed to this regardless.”

“I’m glad they’re finally admitting that their tax argument is a smoke screen,” said Mainers for Home Care campaign manager Ben Chin. “The truth is Maine seniors would rather stay in their own homes. Question 1 helps make sure they aren’t forced into a nursing home or other facility when they don’t have to be. It’s obvious why the nursing home lobby is opposed.”

Erb’s comments come as Maine now ranks last in the nation in home care affordability.

Compared to other states, the scales for senior care in Maine are heavily tipped towards nursing home care and away from in-home care, according to a recent government report from the Medicaid Innovation Accelerator Program. Experts researching this balance in care say in-home care is more cost-effective and better for seniors’ health and independence.

While national Medicaid funding of home- and community-based services surpassed funding of institutional care in 2012, in 2016, Maine funneled $307 million in Medicaid funds into the state’s nursing homes. Home health accounted for just 1.3 percent of Maine’s spending on senior care, with Maine only spending $5.9 million on home health in 2016 — down from $8.2 million the previous year.

When asked whether opponents of Question 1 had any alternative to address Maine’s worsening home care crisis, Erb had no specific recommendations, saying only that the legislature should examine the issue and that “more work needs to be done.”

Instead of advocating for higher pay for home care and other direct care workers, some of the state’s lowest-paid professions, Erb attacked pay increases resulting from the minimum wage referendum passed two years ago.

“When all positions start making eleven and twelve dollars an hour, it does push up the cost and make the situation that much harder,” said Erb. “it has been part of the problem.”

(Video still: Rick Erb, right, speaks at a 2014 press conference with former Maine Department of Health and Human Services head Mary Mayhew and Governor Paul LePage.)

We all have a stake in transgender rights

Mon, 10/22/2018 - 09:52

On Sunday, the New York Times released a story regarding an internal memo from the Trump administration showing that it is considering narrowly defining gender as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth. This is a drastic move by the government to remove protections of transgender people under federal civil rights law. As the executive director of Maine Transgender Network—a non-profit that supports and empowers transgender people across Maine to survive and thrive—I am disheartened and infuriated about this proposed action.

Transgender people live with targets on our backs every day. Although our community here in Maine enjoys hard-fought for protections under the Maine Human Rights Act, federal policy changes still represent a threat to our safety and will embolden efforts to undo settled law in our state. We are already seeing this in states such as Massachusetts, where existing transgender rights protections are already on the chopping block this November.

This change in policy will have a demoralizing impact on the mental health of a community so often relegated to the role of political punching bag, as it proves that their government seeks to codify them out of existence. Social stigma and isolation played major roles in the at least seven reported suicides among transgender people in Maine in 2017.

But attacks on transgender rights and recognition raise red flags that affect all people and speak to issues at the core of this administration’s agenda. The political and cultural fights of the last several months have highlighted issues of sexual violence and abortion access, both of which are fundamentally related to the question of bodily autonomy. The question of “who controls our body” is important to all, and all should be concerned when the government proposes policies that would put it in that role. If you care about protecting abortion access and ending sexual violence, you must also care about protecting transgender rights.

This proposed policy also has ramifications about the right to self determination, a freedom fundamental to American democracy. What business does the government have in defining gender? Promoting a single, narrow definition of gender not only erases transgender people, but serves as a stepping stone for those who seek to undermine the last 150 years of feminist progress, which ensured that gender does not determine the course of our lives. It is alarming that this administration is more concerned with what is in our underwear and which chromosomes we have than it is about protecting our right to free expression.

We all have a stake in creating a world where we are free to be ourselves. We must protect what progress we have made, and invest in efforts to move us forward. Supporting your local LGBTQ+ organizations, questioning candidates on their stances on these issues, and reaching out to your transgender friends, family, and neighbors are essential tenets of allyship.

You can make a donation to MaineTransNet here.

MaineTransNet members Leah Kravette, Danielle Ravyn VanHelsing, Trisha Smith and Ella Merrithew march at Belfast Pride. (Photo: MaineTransNet/Facebook)

King: We must ‘fight like hell’ to stop cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security

Fri, 10/19/2018 - 08:25

U.S. Senator Angus King joins the podcast this week to discuss the Kavanaugh confirmation, the IPCC climate change report, the Mueller investigation and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s remarks on paying for the Republicans’ tax cuts for large corporations and the wealthy by cutting Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Plus: a quick book review of his 1994 campaign monograph and a plug for his weekly podcast, Inside Maine.

King is running for re-election in a ranked-choice contest this November. Listen to the Beacon interview with his Democratic opponent, Zak Ringelstein, right here.

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.

 

Maine law enforcement fails to report money seized in drug busts

Thu, 10/18/2018 - 10:00

Public safety officials in Maine appear to be breaking state law by failing to report cash and property seized by police agencies from drug convictions.

Asset forfeiture is a policing practice where a person can have their property, such as cash, a car or a house, awarded to the state, municipality, or police agencies that participated in their arrest if a court determines the property was connected to a drug crime.

Under Maine statute, the Department of Public Safety — which oversees both the Maine State Police and Maine Drug Enforcement Agency — is required to “maintain a centralized record of property seized, held by and ordered to the department” which “must be provided at least quarterly to the Commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services and the Office of Fiscal and Program Review for review.”

Chris Nolan, director of the Office of Fiscal and Program Review (OFPR) — a nonpartisan office within the legislative branch that analyzes the fiscal impact of legislation — has confirmed that his office has “not received this report” and that they have no record of ever receiving it.

The Department of Administrative and Financial Services, under the direction of Governor Paul LePage appointee Alec Porteous, has not responded to requests to confirm if his department has received the required reporting from the Public Safety Department.

Reporting requirements also apply to Maine’s local police departments, according to a legal interpretation of Maine’s statute by Dan Alban, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice (IJ), a non-profit libertarian public interest law firm, who cited the statute’s requirement that “any officer, department or agency having custody of property subject to forfeiture … or having disposed of the property shall maintain complete records.”

Rep. Drew Gattine, who chairs the state legislature’s Appropriations Committee, said this discrepancy is troubling and that accurate reporting is critical for legislative oversight.

“It’s concerning to me to understand that these reports aren’t being made,” said Gattine. “What I understand from talking to the folks at OFPR, is that it has been a long, long time since they received one of those reports.”

Police departments may use forfeitures to benefit their bottom lines

According to Congressional reports, Maine received nearly $13.3 million in assets from 2000 and 2017 through partnering with federal agencies in drug prosecutions — an average of $737,888 per year.

Federal and state laws allowing police to seize cash and property were drafted as a way to cripple large-scale criminal enterprises by diverting their resources, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

In all, the U.S. Department of Justice seized $27 billion in cash and property between 2001 and 2017 — $4.5 billion in 2014 alone, which coincides with the onset of the opioid crisis.

Much of this was taken through civil asset forfeitures. In civil cases, property owners do not have to be convicted of a crime to lose their property.

In Maine, criminal forfeitures, which require a criminal conviction before the cash or property is awarded to the police, are more common, according to the U.S Attorney’s Office in Maine.

Maine’s Office of the Attorney General is responsible for ensuring that any seized asset that is awarded to law enforcement is in fact connected to a crime. However, Maine still has a low standard of proof. Law enforcement only has to show a mere preponderance of evidence that the property is tied to a crime. For example, if Maine law enforcement believes a car, house or cash was acquired through the commission of a crime, they merely have to show that it is more likely than not crime-related in court to be awarded the property or cash.

Civil liberties advocates say transparency laws, such as Maine’s reporting statute, are vital because, without oversight, police departments may use forfeitures to benefit their bottom lines, inviting seizures motivated by profit rather than crime-fighting.

“Laws like this are designed to make sure that the public knows about abuse,” said Zach Heiden, legal director of the ACLU of Maine. “Secrecy is anathema to the criminal justice system. You can’t have the government have the power to take people’s belongings, lock them up, and allow them to do it in secret.”

According to the IJ, the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency (MDEA) seized $1.5 million between 2009 and 2013 — an average of $247,395 per year.

According to filings with U.S. departments of Justice and Treasury, state and local law enforcement in Maine has also received a total of $13.3 million from the federal government since 2000 as the state and local share of forfeitures seized through joint drug prosecutions with federal agencies, such as the FBI, DEA, ATF and ICE. This is an average of $737,888 per year.

At the local level, in 2017, the Lewiston Police Department took in approximately $37,000 from forfeitures, Bangor Police Department took $25,453, and Portland Police Department took in $13,080 through joint-investigations with MDEA, according to public records obtained by Beacon.

But these findings do not account for the total amount of cash and property state and local law enforcement has seized from drug busts, an amount that is not knowable without collation and reporting by state police officials, as mandated by statute. There is no available documentation on how police in Maine are spending that money.

IJ gave Maine a failing grade in key categories they track how states conform with their forfeiture transparency laws.

“[Maine doesn’t] require any reporting of how agencies spend forfeiture proceeds,” said Jennifer McDonald, a senior research analyst with IJ. “There are no statewide forfeiture reports that aggregate agency activity. Any limited records that do exist are not put online or made accessible. There’s absolutely nobody auditing these forfeiture financial accounts to see if the income and spending is being done properly.”

She added, “Maine, pretty much, is one of the worst in the country in terms of forfeiture reporting, shy of those states that just have no reporting requirements whatsoever.”

Lack of transparency limits lawmakers’ oversight and ability to direct seized assets to address public health priorities

Maine public safety officials’ failure to report these assets make it difficult for state lawmakers responsible for providing oversight of law enforcement to spot potential abuses of cash and property seizures or redistribute those funds

“Obviously, the purpose for that report is so the legislative and the executive branches have some insights into what kind of funds are coming in,” said Gattine.

Advocates such as Maine Health Equity Alliance and Portland OPS are urging lawmakers to fund non-criminal justice initiatives such as medically-assisted treatment, sober-living homes, clean syringe exchanges, overdose prevention sites, walk-in medical clinics for people without medical coverage, mental health counseling, as well as case management services for people living with HIV and AIDS and say seized assets could be one source of funding.

Some members of law enforcement agree, and say it would be natural for assets seized during drug cases to fund those programs that can best address the underlying issues leading to those crimes.

“We’re not arresting our way out of this problem,” said Chief Rich Stillman of the Bridgton Police Department. “[Forfeiture proceeds] should go into mental health services or addiction treatment.”

Public Safety Commissioner John Morris — a former Waterville police chief who was appointed to head Maine’s public safety department in 2011 — has not responded to repeated questions about why his office is not producing the required reporting of seized assets, or whether the department will comply with the law going forward.

John Doyle, LePage’s senior policy advisor for public safety was similarly unresponsive.

(Photos from the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency website.)

With failure to disclose taxes, Moody conforms to national ‘Trump Effect’

Thu, 10/18/2018 - 07:57

Conforming to what experts are saying is a national trend inspired by President Donald Trump, Maine’s Republican candidate for governor, Shawn Moody, has refused to release five years of tax returns, declining to reveal the exact sources of his wealth and potential conflicts of interests. He is the only candidate in the state’s race for governor to do so.

“Where we’re seeing the Trump Effect is in those states where it’s traditionally expected for candidates to release their tax returns and they’re refusing to do so,” said Craig Holman, a campaign finance and governmental ethics lobbyist with the national group Public Citizen.

Trump was the first major presidential candidate to decline to release his tax returns in over 40 years . He also refused to divest himself from conflicts of interest, like his many business holdings , which was the “first time we’ve seen that happen,” according to Holman.

Since Trump was elected, many candidates in gubernatorial races throughout the country have, like Moody, chosen not to release their tax returns or divest from potential conflicts of interest. Of the 36 current races for governor, 18 have one or more candidates who have chosen to not disclose their tax returns or divest from potential conflicts of interest. These include races in states like Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Illinois, where disclosure and divestment have been long-standing, if not legally required, traditions. Vermont is the only state that mandates someone running for governor release at least part of their tax returns.

Non-disclosure of tax returns can make it harder for the public to know how much a candidate has paid in taxes, as well as how they have potentially benefited from a lower effective tax rate — the kind of rate that the LePage administration has maintained for Mainers with an annual household income of $362,000 or more, a subgroup Moody, who marketed himself as a “self-made millionaire,” likely falls into.

Brent Littlefield, a Moody campaign strategist, told the Bangor Daily News that the information Moody has provided — a list of the four corporations he owns, including Moody’s Collision Centers — is enough to comply with state law and is sufficient for anyone trying to decide if Moody has “ any potential conflicts of interest.”

That document reveals that Moody’s chain of auto body shops have “collision repair contracts with the Maine State Police, Maine Department of Transportation and a county sheriff’s department” and raises questions about how his business interests may be tied to state government entities over which, if elected governor, he would have some control.

The issue became a flashpoint in the gubernatorial debate last night. After Moody claimed that his administration would have such a transparent, “open door” policy that he would “take the door right off the hinges,” Democratic candidate and current Attorney General Janet Mills raised the issue of financial disclosure.

“I’m waiting for Mr. Moody to provide his tax returns,” said Mills. “As a first act of transparency I think it’s important to look at his finances just as we’ve looked at our finances, too.”

(Photo via Shawn Moody’s official Facebook)

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