April 1, 2013

Legislature's oversight panel sits in glare of charter school politics

Members say they can shun the fierce debate as they decide on whether to conduct an inquiry into the financial viability of the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

(Continued from page 1)

GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE

Sen. Emily Ann Cain, D-Penobscot, co-chair
Sen. Margaret M. Craven, D-Androscoggin
Sen. Christopher K. Johnson, D-Lincoln
Sen. Roger J. Katz, R-Kennebec
Sen. Edward M. Youngblood, R-Penobscot
Sen. David C. Burns, R-Washington
Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, co-chair
Rep. Andrea M. Boland, D-Sanford
Rep. Matthew J. Peterson, D-Rumford
Rep. Paul T. Davis, Sr. R-Sangerville
Rep. H. David Cotta, R-China
Rep. Lance Evans Harvell, R-Farmington

Mills declined, saying she lacked the authority. LePage jumped into the dispute with a news release in which he criticized Brennan's "blatant attack" on the proposed school.

CHARTER POLITICS SPUR DONATIONS

Many Democratic lawmakers voted for the charter school law in 2011. However, the party's allies in the public education sector used charter schools as a wedge issue in the 2012 legislative election, which saw Democrats retake control of the State House.

The Maine Education Association spent $164,498 on the election and donated money to two of the most active political action committees of 2012, Citizens Who Support Maine's Public Schools and the Committee to Rebuild Maine's Middle Class.

The MEA diverted $157,846 to the Middle Class PAC, which in turn spent more than $758,000 attempting to elect Democrats in more than two dozen legislative races.

S. Donald Sussman, the majority share owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, gave $60,000 to the Middle Class PAC, according to campaign finance records.

Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville, a member of the Government Oversight Committee, benefited from some of that spending by the Middle Class PAC, which targeted Johnson's race 17 times. Republican Sen. Edward Youngblood of Brewer, also on the committee, was at the other end of the PAC spending. Youngblood's race was targeted 12 times by the Middle Class PAC.

Youngblood did not return calls or messages seeking comment.

HOLDING THE HEAT AT BAY

Republicans and LePage haven't forgotten who spent heavily to defeat their colleagues. The governor and Republican operatives have said repeatedly that Democratic leaders are beholden to the same interests groups -- particularly the state's teachers union -- that helped bring them into power.

Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, also sits on the oversight committee. He said Friday that he hadn't decided if the Baxter review was necessary. Harvell, however, echoed Cain's comments that he thought the committee could hold off the politics.

"I think it's going to be as hard as we decide to make it," he said. "There's no doubt that these charter schools have been a fight. It represents a change, a philosophical difference, it represents a political difference."

Harvell noted that the teachers union endorsed few, if any, Republicans. "They were part of coalitions that beat us in fairly significant Democratic elections," he said. "But when the venting is over, you know, some people put that kind of thing aside better than others."

He added, "From our side it's not any kind of payback. It's that we're going to defend the changes we made."

Despite all the rhetoric and legislative and electoral politics, Cain remained confident the oversight committee will shut out the rhetorical din.

"I expect that we'll have a positive conversation," she said.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: @stevemistler

 

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