BRISTOL — On March 5, a bill titled “An Act to Designate a Youth Bear Hunting Day” (L.D. 399) was the subject of a hearing before the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee in Augusta.

Perhaps the purpose of the bill was to promote bonding between parent and child – after all, youth is a time when important values can be taught. But that can be done in ways other than by killing an animal: canoeing up a stream, hiking the Appalachian Trail, perhaps an overnight camping trip.

More likely, however, it was an attempt to introduce a new generation to hunting, an activity that is on the decline almost everywhere.

L.D. 399’s sponsor, Rep. Stephen Wood, R-Sabattus, is a member of the same committee that heard the bill, and is personally known to them as a colleague and possibly a friend. He is also part-owner of a guide service offering moose, deer and bear hunts, which means he has a clear financial stake in the outcome.

These facts raise this question: If the sponsor of a bill may derive personal benefit from its passage, isn’t that a conflict of interest?

LAWMAKER TIES TO INTEREST GROUP

This hints at a much deeper and widespread problem. The committee has 13 voting members, of whom at least eight and possibly more are either members of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, have been highly rated by SAM for their support or both.

This is true of Wood, L.D. 399’s sponsor, and most of the co-sponsors: Sens. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, and John Patrick, D-Rumford, as well as Reps. Russell Black, R-Wilton; Ricky Long, R-Sherman; Roland Martin, D-Sinclair; and Stephen Stanley, D-Medway.

In fact, two committee members – Davis and Rep. Dale Crafts, R-Lisbon – serve on SAM’s board of directors, and another member of the legislative panel, Roland Martin, is also a former commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. It is not unusual for a former commissioner to serve on the committee and sometimes the other way around, in what amounts to a kind of revolving door.

The present head of the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Department, Chandler Woodcock, was a member of the committee, as was David Trahan, now executive director of SAM. The result is almost guaranteed approval of bills that support the powerful hunting and trapping lobby that dominates Maine’s political scene.

What’s wrong with this picture? Imagine an environmental committee whose members were oil executives, or a committee to determine appropriate legal fees staffed only by lawyers. What should be a representative balance in the IFW Committee is instead a classic case of the tail wagging the dog.

The vast majority of the committee members represent a minority of the state’s population (the approximately 11 percent who hunt and trap), whereas the approximately 89 percent who don’t hunt or trap get virtually no representation at all. The outcome is predictable.

Legislation that promotes hunting of any sort with almost any weapon (a recent bill even proposed the use of slingshots) usually gets passed, while any legislation that advocates kinder, less cruel methods (the hounding and trapping of bears, for instance) gets defeated time after time.

That’s why Mainers have had to resort to referendums to try to overcome the obstacles created by the IFW Committee.

MAJORITY COULD GO UNHEARD

However, not content with that, SAM and its legislative allies want to end even the possibility of a citizens initiative by introducing several additional proposals advocating constitutional amendments to exclude wildlife issues altogether from the referendum process. These bills will soon be scheduled for public hearings.

If these measures succeed, the only remedy for legislative inaction will have been eliminated, and the suppression of the voting rights of the vast majority of Maine’s citizens will be complete.

This control of the many by the few could well mean that other voices on other issues will also be silenced and no longer able to contribute to the open discussion and decision-making that characterizes a free society.

Cronyism in support of special interests compromises an important principle of government, especially in a Legislature intended to balance the views of all who live here. One result is the erosion of trust and confidence. The most serious impact, however, is the undermining of democracy itself.