Politics

December 18, 2012

Statehouse Notebook: Experience plays role in Maine salaries controversy

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

There was an interesting subplot to last week's controversy in the Legislature over the salaries for three political positions.

click image to enlarge

Millie MacFarland

Staff File Photo

Millie MacFarland, who was elected House clerk by the new Democratic majority, was at the center of it because House leaders were considering paying the longtime clerk what she was earning when she left the post in 2010.

Lost in the debate was the fact that Democrats were in a bind to fill a position that is far more than the paper-shuffling job its name suggests.

MacFarland spent 32 years in the clerk's office before losing her job when the Republicans won the majority in 2010.

In addition to overseeing a 10-person staff, the House clerk has significant control over parliamentary procedures – which lawmakers can sometimes exploit to advance or defeat legislation.

The recently ousted Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, was one of the best-known practitioners of parliamentary tricks, which can sometimes be used by the minority party to stall or prevent passage of a bill.

An experienced clerk can blunt those tactics.

The House speaker often confers with the clerk to ensure that the rules are followed. The clerk is a bit like a referee – who favors the home crowd.

That's why the position is a partisan one.

MacFarland, a Democrat, retired after 2010. She told the Kennebec Journal recently that she never thought she would return.

But the new Democratic majority needed her. With 41 freshmen among the 89 members, the group is relatively inexperienced.

Also, Democrats had few people who could jump in and replace MacFarland.

MacFarland, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2006, told the Press Herald last week that she took the job with the intention of training Robert Hunt, the assistant House clerk, for the lead position.

Democratic leaders in the Senate faced a similar situation when veteran Joy O'Brien was poised to return as secretary of the Senate.

But rather than take her old position, O'Brien became the assistant, which will allow her to coach first-time Secretary Darek Grant.

O'Brien took less money to return as the assistant secretary, which is why she wasn't pulled into the same controversy as MacFarland.

So why didn't House Democrats convince MacFarland to become the assistant clerk? Experience.

Grant, the new secretary of the Senate, has worked in the office. But Hunt, a two-term state representative, is new to the House Clerk's Office and will get some experience under MacFarland's wing.

Walmart, Aetna raise LePage funds

Gov. Paul LePage hasn't made any formal announcements about whether he will seek a second term in 2014, but his re-election committee is proceeding as if he will.

On Dec. 5, Aetna, an insurance company, and the mega-retailer Walmart hosted a fundraiser for the governor at the Portland Country Club in Falmouth.

The reception cost $1,500 per person, $2,000 per couple and $3,000 for three guests.

The fundraiser was one of several that have been held for LePage's re-election bid.

Campaign finance reports show that the governor's re-election committee has drawn more than $82,000 since the last reporting period, in July.

Donations from the most recent fundraiser are not reflected in the semiannual report.

Just don't call it 'ME-SPAN'

Executives at C-SPAN, the channel that covers Congress, have taken an interest in the new Maine Public Broadcasting Network channel devoted to State House coverage.

And it's not because C-SPAN is offering advice.

Last week, Bruce Collins, C-SPAN's general counsel (translation: attorney), contacted MPBN President Mark Vogelzang about the name of the new Maine station.

Vogelzang had already adopted a working title of "MPBN State House Channel," but Collins was concerned about a reference in a Portland Press Herald story to "ME-SPAN," an informal moniker that some folks in the State House had used to describe the channel.

Apparently, there could be some copyright issues with a title that makes use of "SPAN."

Not that it matters. Using "SPAN" in the name captures the intent of the MPBN channel, but as Vogelzang noted, the acronym, Satellite Public Affairs Network, isn't accurate.

The MPBN channel will be broadcast digitally over the air.

PAC moonlighting

Megan Sanborn, who was the spokeswoman for outgoing Secretary of State Charlie Summers, was paid about $3,600 by four Republican political action committees this election season, according to the most recent campaign finance reports.

Sanborn was paid to coordinate fundraisers and other administrative duties.

It may surprise some to see the assistant of Maine's top election official show up on multiple PAC campaign finance reports. However, there doesn't appear to be any prohibition on such activity.

Part of the reason, according to incoming Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, is that the office is a political office.

The secretary of state is elected by the Legislature for what is considered a partisan position.

Sanborn certainly isn't the first employee of the Secretary of State's Office to engage in political activity. Dunlap said he once had to ask one of his employees to stop participating in voter registration efforts for a Democratic group.

No committee split

Lawmakers are expected to announce assignments to legislative committees this week. Unlike in 2010, it should be a relatively low-key announcement.

Two years ago, the Republican majority was accused of provoking organized labor by merging the Labor Committee with the Business, Research and Economic Development Committee.

Now that Democrats are back in power, there has been speculation that they will disband the merged committee to appease labor groups.

It's not happening.

Some labor groups say the merged committee is overworked and handles widely divergent policy issues. But Jodi Quintero, spokeswoman for House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said Democrats aren't interested in "turning back the clock."

Familiar faces in reshuffled staff

The change in power has produced a reshuffling of the legislative staff.

With one exception, the faces are fairly familiar.

The biggest change is in House Speaker Mark Eves' office. Eves has hired Ana Hicks as his chief of staff. Hicks was a senior policy analyst for Maine Equal Justice Partners, a low-income advocacy group that's a go-to resource for Democrats on health care and welfare issues.

That Eves chose Hicks as his chief of staff caught some by surprise because she's not from the traditional operative network.

But Eves, who was the lead Democrat on the Health and Human Services Committee, worked closely with Hicks during budget battles that led to Medicaid and welfare cuts.

S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of the Portland Press Herald, has previously donated to Maine Equal Justice Partners.

Other chiefs:

• Earl Beirman will continue to lead the House Republican staff.

• Kate Simmons, who recently worked as a press contact for U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree's re-election campaign, will head the House Democratic office.

• Chuck Quintero is chief of staff for Senate President Justin Alfond.

• Heather Priest, former House clerk, is the Senate Republican chief.

• Andy Roth Wells is chief for the Senate Democratic office.

 

Staff Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@mainetoday.com

twitter/stevemistler

 

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