May 13, 2013

Statehouse Notebook: Junk food, grades, abortion on Augusta agenda

Also, the Government Oversight Committee opens an investigation into possible improprieties at the Maine Center for Disease Control.

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

Gov. Paul LePage's proposed A-F grading system has generated strong reactions from Democrats and Maine schools.

Even before it was rolled out, Democrats graded the grading system. They've since proposed a vague alternative to it. Republicans have graded the Democrats' proposed system. And at least at one school, students have come up with their own grading system to counter LePage's system.

An April 11 news release from Senate Democrats spokeswoman Ericka Dodge was headlined: "A-F Grading System Gets 'F' From Democrats."

On Wednesday, Democrats rolled out the idea of their alternative, saying a stakeholder group will determine what would be figured into the formula.

On Friday, the Maine Republican Party posted an outline of the Democrats' proposal marked up in red, giving it a C- . On Twitter, House Republican spokesman David Sorensen called that grade "generous if you ask me."

The Kennebec Journal reported Thursday that the student council at Cony High School in Augusta, upset over a C grade from the state, came up with its own grading system.

Not surprisingly, it was more favorable than the state's portrait of the school, giving it an A- grade or higher in six of 10 areas, which included student/staff relationships, athletics and diversity.

It didn't include performance, which the LePage administration's system is almost wholly based on, factoring in standardized test scores in math and English, students' growth and progress, and graduation rates for high schools.

Critics have said it skews toward wealthier schools and since it's graded on a bell curve, grades relate only to themselves. Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen has said he wanted to hold all schools to one standard, and the bell curve was used to set a baseline for the first year's grades.

'PAY PEOPLE TO GET SICK?'

A LePage bill that would direct the state to seek federal approval to allow Maine to bar food-stamp recipients from buying soft drinks and junk food was dealt a blow in a legislative committee Thursday.

The Health and Human Services Committee voted 8-5 to recommend the bill not pass. Proponents of the bill argued that the taxpayer-funded program shouldn't be used to purchase foods that could cause health problems. Opponents said there's no evidence there are health benefits from prohibiting certain food choices.

It's sponsored by Assistant Minority Leader Roger Katz, R-Augusta, and Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, a freshman legislator and organic farmer.

That, along with the breakdown of the committee vote, suggests the bill should still motivate a hearty debate when it hits the House and Senate floors, as the bill rallies both certain fiscal hawks and the health-minded.

"I am shaking my head over this disappointing vote," Katz said in a prepared statement Friday. "We know obesity causes huge health issues. Why would we want to pay people to get sick?"

INVESTIGATION SEASON

It's been a relatively slow session for the Legislature's watchdog arm, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

But the Government Oversight Committee, which directs the office, made a notable move Friday by deciding to launch an immediate investigation into questions of impropriety at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention after allegations were made about program funding being distributed unfairly and about demands that documents be illegally shredded.

The allegations surfaced in a complaint to the Maine Human Rights Commission by Sharon Leahy-Lind, director of the CDC's Division of Local Public Health. She said she was assaulted after she refused to destroy certain documents related to scoring results for 27 Healthy Maine Partnerships, which she alleged were skewed to take funding from a Lewiston organization.

Also on Friday, the Government Oversight Committee decided to postpone an investigation into allegations that LePage pressured unemployment hearings officers to make more pro-business decisions, which the governor's office has denied.

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