Sen. Troy Jackson slips, admits party politics, not issues, are driving “emergency” bills

AUGUSTA – A recent public admission by Senate President Troy Jackson is calling into question the criteria used by member of Maine’s Legislative Council in approving bills in the Legislature’s Second Legislative Session. Sen. Jackson’s admission followed a heated exchange with Assistant House Republican Leader Rep. Trey Stewart.

The Maine Constitution is crystal clear – the second session of the Maine Legislature is for emergency legislation. Because of that Constitutional requirement, the Legislature’s Legislative Council, a committee made up of the ten members of legislative leadership, is required to screen all proposed bills and only accept those it deems “emergencies.”

The requirement, listed in Article IV, Part Third, Section 1 is very clear that beyond budgetary matters, bills brought by a sitting Governor, bills carried over from the first session or referenda brought by the people, the only way lawmakers may introduce new bills is if they are approved as emergencies.

Maine Constitution Article IV, Part Third, Section 1

“… the business of the second regular session of the Legislature shall be limited to budgetary matters; legislation in the Governor’s call; legislation of an emergency nature admitted by the Legislature; legislation referred to committees for study and report by the Legislature in the first regular session; and legislation presented to the Legislature by written petition of the electors under the provisions of Article IV, Part Third, Section 18.”

The emergency requirement has been interpreted liberally through the years, with some, more conservative lawmakers, challenging whether many of the bills were truly emergencies or if they could wait until the next regular session.

This year, however, Senate President Troy Jackson slipped and admitted that the decisions behind the bills are not about the merits of the legislation, but the politics of the sponsors of the bills.

The exchange in question began near the end of the council’s “appeal” day. On this day, legislators whose proposed bills were rejected rejected by the council in the initial screening have the opportunity to appeal to the ten members of the council and make their case for why their bill is an emergency worthy of a coveted spot in the second legislative session.

Having already called out the fact that Democrats, who hold six of the ten seats on the council, approved 17 bills sponsored by Democrats as “emergencies” for each Republican bill they allowed to move forward, Assistant House Republican Leader Trey Stewart spoke up.

Rep. Stewart expressed disappointment after three of his bills, including one related to the Northeast Fire Protection Compact  and another related to mental health and Maine’s criminal justice system, were killed mostly along partisan lines.

The Northeast Fire Protection Compact Commission is a multi-state organization that shares resources and equipment to help states in the coalition when they experience a forest fire. Stewart’s bill would have allowed for updates to the organization’s charter to allow them to make needed changes.

The second bill that was killed, Rep. Stewart had explained, was geared toward addressing recidivism as it was related to mental health issues in Maine’s courts and jail system. Stewart explained that while an existing group was studying part of the problem, his bill was seeking to address other pieces that were contributing to Maine’s court system being tied up.

A third bill, brought forward by Rep. Stewart to streamline professional licensing in Maine due to the current shortage of workers, had just been killed in a party line vote when Stewart’s fourth bill, geared toward reforming the legislative process, was brought up for consideration.

“You know, this bill really looked at a number of different components of the legislature, but I think I’m going to take this time right now to point out the fact that in the 125th Legislature the minority party got 38 percent of the bills that were allowed into the second session,” said Rep. Stewart, introducing his final bill.

“By the back of the napkin math I’ve done today with my staff, the minority party in the 129th Legislature,” continued Stewart, as Senator Troy Jackson interrupted him, telling him to “talk to the bill.”

“I am, this is about the legislative process,” responded Stewart. “That is what the bill title is.”

“Today, we’ve got less than a quarter of the bills that have been allowed in on appeal,” continued Stewart, referring to the count of Republican-sponsored bills approved by the council. “In the 125th, almost half of the bills allowed in were for the minority party.”

“I think that points to the fact that when the average Mainer sends their representative to the State House, they don’t expect their representative, because they voted for the wrong party, to suddenly be silenced for the next legislative session,” said Rep. Stewart. “And that is in effect what has happened here throughout this whole process. I’ve been very disappointed, and expected that we would see more bipartisanship demonstrated here, and that’s why I think this bill is critical, thank you.”

In response, Senator Jackson told the Bangor Daily News that representatives “can’t spend a year voting against everything as an individual member” and expect to get bills in.

That criteria, a fundamental requirement that lawmakers vote the way Senate President Jackson or Speaker Sara Gideon want them to if they want their bills to be heard in the second session, flies in the face of the Maine Constitution.

Instead, it sounds uncomfortably close to Senator Troy Jackson demanding a “quid pro quo” to some observers.

The Maine Constitution makes no reference to using the voting record of any individual member as criteria for determining if their bill is worthy of emergency status in the second session.

While Stewart saw bills to streamline professional licensing, work on the mental health crisis as it relates to Maine’s courts and criminal justice system and a bill to help fight forest fires all killed off by Democrats, other bills from more “loyal” members of the legislature have been approved.

Among the proposals approved on appeal were:

A proposal from Democrat Rep. Maggie O’Neil to change the laws around the confinement of egg laying hens and the sale of eggs laid by those hens.

A proposal from Democrat Rep. Mark Lawrence to provide travel reimbursements for members of the Maine-Canadian Legislative Advisory Commission.

A proposal from Democrat Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross to create a new program for prisoners re-entering the community.

Another bill, put forward by Rep. Patrick Corey to fix a problem Republicans say will lead to thousands of voters being disenfranchised in the March Presidential Primary as it relates to a people’s veto vote, was killed by Democrats in a party line vote.

As a result, the vote on a people’s veto related to public health and parental choice is likely to be decided by an electorate that is largely only registered Democrats. That is because the Democratic Party has a competitive Presidential primary election this cycle.

Republicans felt it was important that the conflict be fixed so that the vote on the people’s veto would occur when a broader electorate would be coming to the polls, instead of just during a narrowly attended partisan primary.

In the initial votes on the entire round of second session bills, Democrats on the Legislative Council approved seventeen bills from members of their own party for every bill they approved from Republicans.

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