January 6

Military recruiting bill returns, aiming for less rancor

A similar bill was defeated amid political wrangling in last year’s legislative session, even though there was no evidence schools denied uniformed recruiters access to students.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

A Maine National Guard recruiter talks to a student at the "Thinking Outside the Box" college and career fair at Portland Arts and Technology High School in March 2013.

Courtesy photo

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.

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