A bipartisan bill to ensure that military recruiters can wear their uniforms in schools is back for the legislative session that starts Wednesday, even though there is no evidence to indicate that military recruiters were ever denied access to a Maine school while in uniform.

A similar Republican-backed bill was narrowly defeated in the last session after acrimonious debate and bitter accusations of anti-military bias. The bill became a political football, with supporters outraged that it wasn’t getting broad support, and opponents upset at being cast as anti-military. School officials were upset that they were being accused of turning away recruiters in uniform.

The current bill, L.D. 1579, sponsored by Rep. Mick Devin, D-Newcastle, would require schools to allow military recruiters to wear their uniforms on campus, as well as public safety officials, from firefighters to game wardens. Devin, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, said he’s already lining up support for the bill.

“I am working very hard to ensure there is no one that’s the bad guy,” he said.

Devin has done recruiting in schools, as has the bill’s co-sponsor, Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, a retired Maine state trooper. Among the bill’s 10 co-sponsors are veterans from both parties and the Education Committee’s House chairman, Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, who voted against the bill last year.

“It sounds like people have taken a deep breath and, at least thus far, can get past the partisan acrimony and political theater of this to work in a bipartisan way,” said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine. “It sounds like they are going to get a piece of legislation passed that the governor will sign.”

Gov. Paul LePage is likely to support the bill if it’s similar to the previous one, said his spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett. After the last session, LePage blasted Democrats for defeating the bill, and said he intended to reintroduce it this year, if necessary.

“He’s looking forward to working with (Devin),” Bennett said Friday. “It’s not a partisan issue for the governor.”

CLAIM OF DENIED ACCESS UNVERIFIED

Supporters of the original bill said it was needed because some Maine Army National Guard recruiters said they were denied access, according to an email from Sgt. Maj. Richard Hannibal to Stephen Bowen, who was education commissioner at the time.

Guard spokesman Peter Rogers said the issue arose from a specific incident in which a recruiter was asked not to wear a uniform while giving a test to potential recruits. Rogers said he didn’t know where or when the incident occurred, and no one asked Hannibal for those details.

He said Hannibal got the report from a military recruiter who reported to him. Despite repeated requests for more details on the incident, Rogers said the Guard would not provide more information or allow interviews with Hannibal or recruiters because it didn’t want to “get in a back-and-forth” with the schools.

Opponents of the bill questioned whether it was needed, since public schools are prohibited from barring military recruiters under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The federal law makes no mention of uniforms.

When asked which schools barred uniformed recruiters, Rogers said, “There are no schools that we know of that have barred recruiters in uniform.”

In Hannibal’s email, Oak Hill High School in Wales, Noble in North Berwick, and high schools in Wells, York, Kennebunk, Gorham and Yarmouth were identified as allowing “minimal access,” but officials at all of the schools denied that.

PREVIOUS DEBATE TURNED UGLY

The bill initially passed in the House, 115-28, and passed unanimously in the Senate. But by the deciding vote on July 9, the Democratic House caucus was split. Some supported the bill, or at least felt it was harmless. Others said it was being used as a political weapon. The House voted 97-45 in support, after 19 Democrats changed their votes, leaving the bill shy of the needed two-thirds of all representatives.

MacDonald said the “pretty awful debate” led him to switch his vote: “It was a protest vote. I just didn’t want to support a vote on that tide of rhetoric.”

LePage called the final vote a disgrace, and sent angry, handwritten notes to Democratic lawmakers who voted against the bill.

As a freshman representative last session, Devin said he found the upheaval “perplexing.”

“I’ve talked to a lot of people at this point and their anger or overzealousness or enthusiasm may have been misdirected,” he said. “For vets, this bill brought back memories of coming back from Vietnam and being spit on. As a veteran, I totally understand that. I empathize with that. On the other side, they were concerned that the government and the military were trying to take over the school systems.”

MacDonald said Devin’s bill is different.

“It’s not a ‘wrap yourself in the flag and say you’re for or against the military” kind of bill, MacDonald said.

The first bill, for example, said uniformed military recruiters must have the same access as other recruiters. Devin’s bill makes no comparisons to other recruiters, and just says military and public service recruiters can wear their uniforms.

Devin said he’s made a point of reaching out to veterans, members of both parties, school management groups and military recruiters, including the Maine Army National Guard.

Although schools may not have policies against uniformed recruiters, “that doesn’t mean that individuals within guidance departments can’t act as gatekeeper(s),” Devin said.

“The reality is that there was never going to be any major changes. The vast number of schools have been welcoming and accommodating,” he said.

A RISK OF MORE POLITICAL FEUDING

Burns, the co-sponsor, said he knows that some people still think the bill would fix a problem that doesn’t exist.

“For me, it’s the principle,” said Burns. “I’m retired law enforcement and I’ve been in the schools many, many times. This isn’t a comment on patriotism. … (The military and public service) is an extremely important part of our life. Why shouldn’t that exposure be to our young children?”

But bipartisan support today can easily tip into party politics, especially when it involves the military, Brewer said.

“This is true nationwide, given the current party universe as it exists in the United States,” he said. “Republicans are in a much better position to appeal to veterans and present a message that they are strong on defense, and they have been very quick, whenever possible, to depict Democrats as unpatriotic. And most of the time it’s pure politics.”

The initial bill was “an emotional issue,” said Jodi Quintero, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, who supported the initial bill.

“The governor unnecessarily pitted school districts against recruiters, and that was an unfair representation,” she said.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com