Monthly Archives: February 2013

Guns, privacy, politics and school budget hits

Report to Maine House District 35 from the Legislature: week of February 19-22, 2013:

Guns, privacy, and politics

On Tuesday, as predicted, we acted with legislative alacrity to enact a temporary law that shields concealed weapons permit data from public view.

No matter where one stands on privacy, public safety, or government transparency, the action was nearly indefensible as good policy-making process.  But please understand that it’s naive to expect that policy-making can be safely firewalled from politics on a matter inflamed by such hysteria.

It’s clear to me that there are some interests out there whose political aim is singularly to create distraction through ideological smoke and noise, in the hopes that honest legislative deliberations are obstructed or derailed. If the volume of email in my inbox over last weekend was any indication, all sides were getting played like Wurlitzers on this issue and the legislature, predictably, reacted like a flock of starlings spooked by a truck backfire.

We are, after all, merely the twitchy nerve network of the public’s body politic.

The hasty temporary action wasn’t law-making at its best, certainly.  Nevertheless, I am convinced it was the prudent interim course, given the worse alternative of escalating shoulder-bumping about respective unproven harms and risking the displacement of the enormous amount of work that presses immediately in negotiating the next budget.

So, instead, may we please talk directly about improving prosperity, education, and community well-being?

‘Restraint and seclusion’

On Wednesday, our committee heard five hours of testimony regarding a bill, LD 243, sponsored by Senator Saviello that seeks to  amend some sections of the rules governing the classroom use of physical contact, adopted a year ago by consensus through a stakeholders’ group.   Much tension appears around the precise terms of the ‘physical escorting’ of a child who is disruptive or defiant in class.  While there was disagreement among those testifying about whether ‘shepherding,’ ‘guiding’, and perhaps ‘scooting’ are legally permitted, there seemed much less disagreement about whether these were reasonable and necessary practices.

There was some disagreement about whether the simple damaging of property justified physical intervention by a teacher or whether intervening was appropriate only in the event that a child’s destruction of property threatened to harm himself or other students.

There was also an interesting disagreement about whether it was appropriate for teachers to engage in more forcible intervention with the explicit permission of a child’s parents or whether such action would further confuse students about the appropriate consequences of disruptive behavior.

Proponents argued that current rules are unfair to the great majority of students whose learning is curtailed when schools allow disruption to continue without intervention.

The bill’s opponents argued that the rules are fine but that more training is needed to give teachers better strategies for dealing with disruption and that substantial parts of what the bill seeks to allow are in fact already permitted under the present rules.

Towards the end of the hearing, there seemed some hope that opposing stakeholders could find some common ground in agreeing to some modifications in the terms of ‘physical escot’ and some clarification about some greater latitude permitted under the current rule.

Early voting

On Wednesday, the Legal Affairs Committee heard three bills related to absentee and early voting.  Two bills, LD 53 and LD 54 seek to eliminate restrictions on absentee voting. Many town clerks say these bills would disrupt their pre-election set up and greatly complicate supervision on election day.  A third bill, LD 156 which would streamline direct early voting via a Constitutional amendment, appears to have much broader support.

Supplementary budget

While a few Democrats objected that the compromise struck by the Appropriations Committee shortchanged schools and health care and wished for a broader discussion about increasing state revenue, the $153M supplemental budget passed the legislature with enormous margins on Thursday.

This clears the way for this session’s substantial work, the $6.3B biennial budget.

Gun training mandate rejected

On Thursday, our committee voted to kill the bill which would have required secondary schools to offer gun handling classes.  This position was apparently endorsed by the Governor whose representative testified at the public hearing that a mandate for such classes is unwarranted.

Maine schools remain free to offer both gun handling classes and gun safety classes, should their boards choose.  But the state will not require that they offer these programs.

We also threaded the needle on the superintendent residency bill, declining to override the municipalities which require residency but granting municipal school boards the authority to waive such a requirement, if they wish.

Budget hits from Governor’s proposal to shift teacher retirement costs to local schools

On Friday, the Department of Education released the preliminary figures for state subsidy of schools for the coming fiscal year which begins in July.

This is our first look at the consequence of the Governor’s proposal in the biennial budget  to shed the state’s obligation to fund public school teachers’ retirement by shifting the liability to local school units.

The Governor proposes to temper this shift for the coming year by kicking in a $14M subsidy of roughly half the statewide cost of $28M.  Because the Governor proposes to run the subsidy through the regular school funding formula, this is no relief to MDI’s schools as we received virtually no state subsidy through the formula anyway.

So here, from the preliminary figures, is the immediate hit the Governor proposes for MDI schools whose budgets are already largely set for town meeting votes beginning in the next few weeks.

  • Bar Harbor: ($105,611.89)
  • Cranberry Isles: ($4,720.64)
  • Frenchboro: $2,381.79
  • Mount Desert: ($60,942.74)
  • Southwest: ($65,957.99)
  • Swan’s Island: ($15,916.60)
  • Tremont:($32,192.72)
  • Trenton: ($61,771.42)
  • MDI High School: ($187,444.41)
  • Total: ($532,176.62)

Source:

Our committee is scheduled to receive a briefing on this proposal on Monday morning at 10:30..

Contact

Please let me continue to hear your thoughts on these topics above and any other legislative concerns.

With gratitude,
Brian


Representative Brian Hubbell,
Maine House District 35
Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor, Cranberry Isles, Mount Desert

RepBrian.Hubbell@legislature.maine.gov
http://www.mainehousedistrict35.com/
https://www.facebook.com/Hubbell.HD35
https://twitter.com/Brian_Hubbell
66 Park Street, Bar Harbor, ME 04609
(800) 423-2900 (Augusta)
288-3947 (home)

Feb 11-15: four dilemmas and a decent compromise

Dear Friends in House District 35,

As things are beginning to roll now in the legislature, rather than make a comprehensive report I’ll just outline some of the dilemmas I’ve had to face this week as your representative.

Understanding that not all of you will agree with me, I will do my best to explain clearly my reasoning.  Always I welcome contrasting discussion. Please let me continue to hear from you.

Home rule vs. state relief

On Monday, our committee heard LD 6, An Act To Prohibit a Requirement That a Superintendent Reside in the School Administrative Unit.

Six Maine municipalities — Biddeford, Lewiston, Augusta, Waterville, Brewer, and Presque Isle  — have requirements in their municipal charters specifying that school superintendents must be city residents.  Biddeford and Augusta currently are searching for new superintendents (along with nearly a third of Maine’s school districts) and both have found that their residency requirement is a significant deterrent to many good candidates. Therefore, representatives from those two cities are seeking to have the legislature comprehensively prohibit municipalities from imposing a residency requirement.

I fully understand why the residency requirement is almost certainly bad policy.  But, to me that determination is better made by local school boards than by comprehensive state prohibition.  After all, there may be some communities in which residency may have overarching importance.

But what troubles me most about this bill is that it seeks to make an end-run around municipal voters.   Each of these towns has their own local avenue of relief by having their voters amend their charters.  Biddeford, in fact, attempted exactly this but had it fail at referendum.  Given this, it seems arrogant and anti-democratic for the state to conclude that it knows better than local voters about the respective merits and drawbacks of municipal policy.

On their own, Lewiston apparently found a middle way to solve this problem by leaving the residency requirement in place in their charter but allowing the municipal school board to waive the restriction.  To me, that seems the proper solution and I would hope the other five municipalities could find their way out similarly.

On Wednesday at a work session, our Committee had tabled this bill pending some legal questions and is considering some amendments proposed by the Maine School Management Association.  While I remain open-minded to this additional information, I’m inclined to oppose this bill as presented.

Here’s a news report.

Community vs. commitment

On Wednesday afternoon, our committee heard two bills related to granting private-schooled and home-schooled students increased access to public school programs.

LD 61, An Act To Amend Standards for Participation in Certain Public School Services by Students Who Are Homeschooled, seeks to extend access to special education services to home-schoolers.  LD 92, An Act Relating to Private School Student Participation in Public School Cocurricular, Interscholastic and Extracurricular Activities, as the title suggests, proposes to allow private school students to participate in public school team sports and other co-curricular  activities not offered by their own schools.

Underlying the arguments regarding both bills is the struggle for insufficient school resources.  Opponents hold that those committing to attend public schools ought to get first dibs on school activities including competitive placement on teams.  Proponents argue that they support these school activities with their tax dollars and so ought to have an equal claim to participate.

I sympathize with both views.  But, ultimately, for me it comes down to the frame of the special turf that public schools possess as community institutions.

Wholly unlike private, parochial, and charter schools, a public school represents a community’s capacity to provide educational opportunity to all students.  To the same extent that I believe all citizens bear an obligation to support this public educational opportunity, I believe our schools are obligated to extend that opportunity to every child in the community, even to those who only partially participate by choice.

In many ways, private and charter schools and even home-schoolers deepen the tribal divides between community members.  In contrast, public schools offer a privileged common ground.

This seems a fundamentally important principle: the more broadly mapped a community is to its school, the better our community prospects and vitality – and the broader the community support at budget time.

This is also why I deeply oppose diverting public money through vouchers and tax credits to private, parochial, and charter schools which bear none of this sort of broader obligation.

Encouragement vs. requirement

Nothing ignites passions this season like guns.  I still trust that Mainers can discuss gun rights and gun regulation with equal respect and rectitude.

We had a committee hearing on Thursday on the first of this session’s gun-related bills, LD 93, An Act To Require Public Secondary Schools To Offer a Course in Gun Safety and Handling.

At the hearing there were significant differences between the bill’s proponents about whether the best purpose of the bill was to teach actual gun handling to high school students or gun avoidance as part of a broader health and safety program for elementary students — both of which are currently allowed (but not required) in public schools.  The Governor’s counsel further muddied the water by testifying, nominally in support of the bill, that the Governor thought that such efforts ought to be ‘encouraged’ but not mandated.

Given the Governor’s position in particular, I think the chances of passage of this bill, which mandates the provision of such instruction, are very slim.

Privacy vs secrecy

But any debate on this bill is now greatly eclipsed by the furor that same day following another bill, LD 345, An Act To Ensure the Confidentiality of Concealed Weapons Permit Holder Information which seeks to make secret the issuance of public permits for concealed weapons.

Similarly to the way that concern about expanded national gun restriction has stimulated current gun sales, this bill prompted the Bangor Daily News to seek the current public lists of concealed weapons permits from the respective local authorities that issue the permits and maintain the records.

Fearing that this request foreshadowed public publication of permit holders’ names and addresses, legislators have been deluged with emails from angry gun owners demanding that public access to permit data be immediately restricted.

I have some sympathy about the privacy concerns of law-abiding gun owners, especially given that there is virtually no evidence in Maine of the slightest criminal activity of any concealed permit holders.

At the same time, it seems strange to me that public knowledge of gun-carrying permits increases the chances of gun-owners being victimized.  In contrast, I might hypothesize that knowing how common guns are in Maine and the respectability of permit holders might aid in allaying public fear about gun ownership.  But I am open to education about this.

In the meantime, the Governor and Democratic legislative leaders have proposed an emergency bill which would temporarily restrict access to public concealed weapons permit data until the legislature can properly deliberate on the original LD 345.

So, knowing that I will unavoidably disappoint many good friends not matter how this is resolved, I want to say that I begin by being fundamentally distressed by the concept of our government secretly issuing permits of any kind.

Principle vs. compromise

On Wednesday, the Appropriations Committee reached unanimous bipartisan consensus on the supplemental budget.

The Appropriations Committee work is heroic, in terms of both endurance and compromise.  So it’s always interesting to note what’s finally in and out of their final report.

Significantly for our area, among many other reasonable provisions, the final bill:

  • maintains the reimbursement rate for rural Critical Access Hospitals such as MDI’s, defending it against the Governor’s initial proposed reductions.
  • reduces the proposed reductions for many other essential health services including the Fund for Healthy Maine and the drugs for the elderly program.
  • adds language requiring the state to pursue any federal funds to facilitate Maine’s participation in the federal insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act.
  • rejects the proposed elimination of cost of living increases for state retirees including teachers.

The only item that failed in the smoke of the compromise was the removal of the ‘curtailment surcharge’ added to school districts which subsidize charter schools.  To the Democrats this seemed self-evident as a matter of basic fairness.  But the Republicans held that it was more important to protect charter school operations from curtailment, even if that required extra cuts to the public schools in the charters’ pupils’ home districts.  And, even though the five thousand or so dollars at stake were vanishingly insignificant against the overall $150 million budget, defense of charters ultimately was the line in the sand the Republicans chose to defend.

Overall, however, the supplemental budget represents a good compromise and the Appropriations Committee deserves the credit it’s receiving for its work so far this session.

Bar Harbor Resolve requesting legislative action

The Bar Harbor Town Council asks legislators to support the transportation bond and transportation infrastructure projects, to reject the Governor’s proposal to end municipal revenue sharing, to re-commit to state support of 55% of the costs of public education, to fund mandated improvements under the Federal Clean Water Act, and to support job training.

February 4-8, 2013

Bluster and improvement

Our committee had been scheduled to receive a briefing from the Department of Education on Monday.  But, after the committee’s report to Appropriations last week on the supplemental budget which was followed by the Department issuing a scathing press release blasting the majority’s recommendation to extend the Governor’s curtailment to include the charter schools, the Department cancelled the briefing.

There was, of course, no way officially to connect the two events.  But, one good consequence was that I got an unplanned day off from Augusta and instead got to attend a Bar Harbor school board meeting at which we heard some good reports from teachers on the progress they’re making in professional collaboration with their peers in other districts as part of the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning.

Never mind the political bluster.   It’s through these individual teacher-to-teacher collaborations that the real work of improving Maine education is happening.

Maine’s debt to Critical Access Hospitals

On Tuesday, I attended a breakfast at the Maine Hospital Association with representatives from Maine’s rural community hospitals – not only our own MDI Hospital, but also hospitals in Blue Hill, Machias, Calais, Houlton, Millinocket, and Lincoln.

In order to ensure rural access to critical health services these hospitals have been federally designated since 1997 as Critical Access Hospitals which allows them direct reimbursement for certain allowable Medicare and Medicaid costs. They are not reimbursed for community health, charity care, or bad debt.

In 2004, in order to leverage state access to federal Medicare and Medicaid revenue, Maine implemented a “tax” on Critical Access Hospitals which triggers a federal “match.”  A portion of the federal “match” is then returned to the hospitals.  Over time the balance of their respective share of “tax” vs. match has become increasingly unfavorable to Critical Access Hospitals.  In 2012 MDI Hospital’s “tax” share was $812,071.  Their “match” reimbursement was $260,054 for a net loss of $552,017.

The Governor’s supplemental budget proposes to reduce the reimbursement rate to these hospitals by an additional 8%.

Under present structure, the effective rate of reimbursement for Maine’s Critical Access Hospitals is $0.87 for every dollar of expense.  As a results these hospitals are operating at a deficit.  Because Critical Access Hospitals are funded in proportion to their expenditures, any effort to rebalance their budgets by reducing expenditures proportionally reduces their revenues.  So, to balance MDI Hospital’s budget, for example, every $1000 reduction in revenue has to be balanced by a $2080 reduction in expenditures.

Under the Governor’s proposed 8% reduction, MDI Hospital would lose $311,104 in Medicaid revenue.  To balance their budget in proportion to the reduced revenue, the hospital will need to cut its expenses by $647,096.  If implemented through the supplemental budget, this reduction would require significant layoffs and curtailment of local healthcare services.

Along with MDI Hospital’s president Art Blank, I have spoken with Peggy Rotundo, the House Chair of the Appropriations Committee about the consequences to our community should this part of the supplemental budget get approved.  I believe the Appropriations Committee understands our concern.

Tuesday evening, the Governor addressed a joint session of the legislature.  Among other points, the Governor repeated his interest in paying down the $275 million debt owed to hospitals.

As the Governor has occasionally framed this as a partisan issue, Democrats find this frustrating because they believe the Governor fails to credit them with paying down $742 million in hospital debt from 2005 to 2010 and for instituting the current “pay-as-you-go” system to hospitals in 2009 which stemmed the debt accrual.

Nevertheless, I hope that repaying the hospital debt is matter of common interest and that it doesn’t get derailed by partisan characterization.

Governor grades education

Also during his State of the State address, the Governor announced an initiative to have Commissioner Bowen give letter grades of A,B,C,D, or F to all Maine schools, presumably based on their students’ performance on standardized tests and their graduation rates.  To me, this seems an oddly over-simplistic measure given the other initiatives currently underway in Maine education to broaden educational pathways for students and recognition that modern educational ‘achievement’ is fundamentally more complex than letter grades satisfactorily can indicate.

But the Governor consistently has couched his criticism of Maine schools in statistics that would appear to demonstrate that Maine schools are failing.  During his address on Tuesday, he said:

As a whole, Maine’s achievement in academic growth is far below the national average. We are next to last. Twenty years ago, Maine was in the top five, and we bragged it for 20 years. Now we’re next to last, because every other state has woken up. They’ve woken up to the Finlands, to the Hong Kongs, to the Shanghais, to the Canada, and they’re beating us, straight up. We need to be more aggressive in the standards of our education and the demands of our schools.

The misrepresentation here is that the Governor is comparing current growth in test scores a lagging measure for Maine with absolute placement in test scores, a measure by which Maine students still perform very well against the national average.

Academic warranty

The Governor also announced his intention to assess public school districts for the cost of remedial classes taken by students in Maine’s community colleges.   Initially there may be some popular reflexive attraction to this concept – for penalizing school systems for graduating students without college skills.  But I believe it’s important to bear in mind that the average age of a student entering the community college system is 27.  How long is it reasonable to expect a public school to provide an academic warranty on its graduates?

Learning from Finland

The real question of course is not about whether Maine schools should be working to improve.  They should.  The battleground is over what policy changes are likely to effect improvement.

The Governor has made it plain that he thinks Maine educational capacity can be increased by concurrently cutting Maine public schools’ governance and finance while simultaneously increasing the number of new charter schools and creating new entitlements for students to attend private and parochial schools.  I’m skeptical.

In his speech, the Governor referenced Finland as one case study of a system of exemplary school achievement.  Yet Finland employs none of the policies the Governor hopes to emplace in Maine. Finland has a robust social safety net, a strong professional class of unionized teachers, and virtually no program of summative standardized testing to judge the academic performance of either students or their schools.

The Governor has pledged to bring experts to Maine in March for a conference on best educational practices.  Whether or not the Finnish model is presented at this conference will tell us a lot about the Governor’s open-mindedness towards learning how to improve Maine’s capacity for education.

Guns and domestic violence

Governor LePage deserves real credit for his focus on reducing domestic violence in Maine. On Thursday, I attended the press conference at which the Governor charged a new task force with ensuring that domestic abusers don’t easily have access to firearms, a topic which is rife with political pitfalls.

Gun control is an issue on the minds of many of you, I know. I appreciate all your emails and letters. I assure you that I will pick my way through this issue as carefully and thoughtfully as I know how.

Landlocked Salmon and Brook Trout

On Wednesday morning, I met with Dennis Smith from Otter Creek and Jeff Evangelos, the Representative from Friendship, to discuss a bill that I’ve put in at Mr Smith’s request.to improve the state’s management of landlocked salmon and brook trout.  Representative Evangelos serves on the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee and supports the effort.  The bill is still being drafted and is not yet published.

Maine’s school funding model

On Wednesday morning, our committee heard a presentation from Picus Associates on their plan to review and analyze Maine’s Essential Programs and Services ‘adequacy’ school funding model.  Picus will bring the experience from studying other states’ funding models.  Particularly, I’m looking forward to hearing more detail about how Maine compares with Vermont which is in many ways demographically an educational peer in academic achievement and school governance.

This presentation was followed by a committee forum on Thursday afternoon at which we took public comment on concerns related to the current model.  Picus Associates recorded the comments.  The first phase of their report will be returned April 1st.

Also on Thursday, the Maine Center for Economic Policy released this report:

Briefings on school choice

Also on Wednesday, Commissioner Bowen reported to the committee on the stakeholder group that was formed at the end of the last legislature in response to the Governor’s late session initiative to implement a system of school ‘choice’ in Maine.

The last education committee had found the problems both of governance and of local funding represented in that initiative to be substantial and thorny and so had charged this stakeholder group to hammer out a workable model for implementation.

But the Commissioner report only that the problems had proven too difficult for the stakeholder group to resolve.  So the matter of school ‘choice’ remains stalled at the starting line for now.

Over the same period, Maine school superintendents report a substantial increase in the number of student transfers that Commissioner Bowen has unilaterally approved by overruling transfers that superintendents had individually denied.

The superintendents, who typically approve nine out of ten transfer requests as being legitimately in the best interests of the applicant, fear that unprecedented increase in overrides represents a back-door implementation of school choice by the Commissioner, largely invisible to local schools and the taxpayers that support them.

Control and review of these superintendent agreement overrides are the subject of several legislative requests for bills this session.

Supplemental budget negotiations

The Appropriations Committee is continuing to negotiate the details of the supplemental budget.

The Committee has reached consensus on the less controversial sections of the budget.  They are still working on the more difficult parts which include:

  • General Purpose Aid to Education
  • the General Assistance cap
  • Retiree ad hoc COLA
  • Charter school participation in the curtailment
  • The Governor’s elimination of the Low Cost Drugs for the Elderly Program

This work will continue next week with the hopes that the supplemental budget can go to the full legislature by the beginning of the following week.

Carbon cap

In encouraging news, Maine and eight other northeastern states that participate in the regional cap-and-trade market for carbon have agreed further to lower utility emissions.

Administered through Efficiency Maine, proceeds from the sale of these emissions credits have benefited many Maine industries including Madison Paper, the Verso mill in Bucksport, and the Jackson Lab here in Bar Harbor.

Maine Environmental Priorities

On Thursday morning, the Maine Environmental Priorities Coalition hosted a breakfast meeting with legislators outlining four bills that the coalition will be supporting this session

  • An Act To Improve Maine’s Economy and Lower Energy Costs through Energy Efficiency, Senator Boyle
  • An Act To Open the St. Croix River to River Herring, Rep. Soctomah
  • An Act To Protect Water Quality and Avoid Taxpayer Clean-up Costs from Metallic Mineral Mines, Rep. McCabe
  • An Act To Further Strengthen the Protection of Pregnant Women and Children from Toxic Chemicals, Senator Goodall

Upcoming week in Education

The Education Commmittee begins public hearings this week on this session’s education bills.

Representative Brian Hubbell,
Maine House District 35
Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor, Cranberry Isles, Mount Desert

RepBrian.Hubbell@legislature.maine.gov
http://www.mainehousedistrict35.com/
https://www.facebook.com/Hubbell.HD35
https://twitter.com/Brian_Hubbell
66 Park Street, Bar Harbor, ME 04609
(800) 423-2900 (Augusta)
288-3947 (home)