Lessons from Augusta

By Richard M. Sykes
State Representative
District 98

Election season 2010 is behind us. Gone are the thousands of road side signs, robo telephone calls, polling, millions of dollars in media advertisements (many of them negative and deceptive), postal mailers and political candidates knocking on your doors. The voters have spoken and now it is time for those who have been elected to live up to their campaign promises.

My eight years serving as the State Representative from District 98, Bridgton, Harrison, Lovell, Stow and Sweden, have come to an end due to term limits. My service in Augusta was very interesting, educational, rewarding and at times very frustrating. I thank the citizens for their support and confidence. I tried very hard to be a voice of common sense in the House and to be responsive to the citizens who requested my assistance in dealing with a problem they had with state government.

Please allow me to share some of my observations and experiences during my four terms in office.

In 2001, I retired as the principal of Lewiston High School. I was asked to run for the House of Representatives. I first declined wanting to spend some time in retirement. After being asked several more times to reconsider, I told my wife, Kaye Ann, that I would like to give it a try. I had been a history and government teacher and thought it would be interesting to see the process from the inside. She said okay but with these words of caution, “As a high school principal, you made good things happen everyday, as a legislator probably you will not make anything happen.”

My attempt to control the speed of boats on Long Lake sunk. I was able to get the boundary between Bridgton and Harrison changed to the middle of Long Lake to help resolve a mooring issue. I sponsored a bill to prohibit the sale of novelty lighters as a safety measure, and I responded to a problem in Bridgton by a bill to reduce the number of copies of child pornography in one’s possession in order to be charged with the intent to distribute.

Many of you called for help in cutting through the red tape of state government. Problems with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), unemployment, insurance, motor vehicles issues, Department of Corrections (no I can not get someone out of prison, but I was able to arrange for you to visit them in the Maine Correctional Center), child support, beavers in your backyard, Department of Labor requirements for volunteer fire departments, the court system and many more. Each department in state government has a legislative liaison to deal with issues brought to them by legislators. I encourage any person who has a problem with a state agency to contact their senator or representative for assistance.

As a retired educator, I thought I could be most useful on the Education Committee so I volunteered for that assignment the first week after I was sworn in. Being in the minority party, I was promptly assigned to the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, where I have served for all four terms. Many legislators serve on more than one committee and during my tenure I also served on the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee and Labor Committee. All were interesting assignments, but the last term I was placed on the Ethics Committee, which had never met in at least the last seven years. In 2009, this committee met to decide the fate of a fellow legislator charged with unethical conduct. This was a very interesting and difficult experience.

As I began my service in the legislature, I considered myself to be a moderate conservative. As I end my eight years I have developed a much more conservative position. In my first budget hearing, a representative from the State Police requested an additional quarter of a million dollars for the Computer Crimes Task Force. Seemed like a reasonable request, but when I asked what the money was for — hardware, software, personnel or other equipment — I was told he did not know and would have to go back and determine exactly what they were requesting. I made the motion to deny the request. I made sure that I drove the speed limit home that night!

In this last term, a bill was presented to increase the amount of money from Hollywood Slots set aside to help problem gamblers. In researching how this money was used in the past, I discovered that not a penny had ever been requested, yet we had a bill to increase the money for a program that had never been used. It passed!

Gimmicks and questionable accounting practices are used regularly to balance the budget. Delay a school subsidy payment from June to July pushes the expenditure into the next fiscal year. Declaring a state budget cut by reducing revenue sharing to towns is pushing the fiscal problem down to the towns. Keeping checks in a draw to hold them until the next fiscal year, taking money from a dedicated account such as the fuel tax to help balance the budget are examples and there are many more.

I have said publicly that I believe that no political party should control all three places: the House, Senate and Blaine House. I saw that first hand in all eight years. Power breeds arrogance and there is no need for the party who is in power to negotiate. At one point during budget negotiations, we were told the negotiations were over, we had the votes and we would raise taxes to balance the budget. Now, a different party controls all three places. I hope they can avoid the arrogance and egos that I observed for eight years.

The 17 legislative committees have jurisdiction over their particular aspects of state government. That includes accountability for the job being done by the commissioner and department heads. I saw very little of any committee holding hearings to determine if the job expectations were being met or goals and objectives being established. There was almost no follow up by the committees of jurisdiction. There is a serious lack of accountability in state government.

Unfortunately, in state government, there is no prioritization of state programs. Everything is equally important. The state seems to have the attitude that it can be all things to all people. I can honestly say that I did not find a bad state program, but I did find some programs much more important than others. In the recent June bond vote approved by voters, there was a bond to borrow money for the preservation of historic buildings. I certainly do not place that anywhere near the funding for mental health assistance for example.

In the eight years I served, many state programs were added or expanded. However, I cannot think of a program that was evaluated, found to be ineffective, inefficient, or not a priority and therefore eliminated.  None! Once a program is added, it is there forever. Too many legislators cannot pronounce a simple two-letter word — No!

All elected officials come to Augusta with good intentions. Different philosophies on the role of government define the political parties. But something happens when it comes down to pushing the green or red button on their desk. Too many times, a decision is made to vote red or green based on whether or not that vote will help or hurt their reelection. It happens in both parties, not with everyone, but unfortunately it is a way of life in the legislature. I am proud to say that I never made a decision on a vote based on how it would affect my reelection bid. I received criticism from my own party on occasion as a result. My feeling was that I was sent to Augusta to represent District 98 and not worry about being reelected.

Each session, approximately 2,000 bills are introduced for consideration. It is impossible to become familiar with all of them especially when committee amendments are added. Fortunately, leadership in my party called a meeting prior to the daily legislative session to review and discuss the bills on the agenda for that day. Committee leads (I was the lead on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee) had the responsibility to explain the bills being considered by their committee. For me, that meant the night before going over each bill and the amendments that had been proposed and so that I could explain them in detail the next morning. The caucus would then take a position on these bills.  The state website, www.maine.gov, is a good place to follow legislation as it progresses through the state house.

I believe there are a great many places in the budget that can be reduced to control spending. It will take some difficult decisions and prioritizing those programs that are a necessity. Welfare for example should not be a lifetime benefit. Regulations and red tape to start a business in Maine should be reduced and centralized to make it less complicated. Borrowing and increasing our debt load needs to be controlled. Education should be funded as the people determined, 55%, but not jump on all the latest trends such as “Race to the Top.” The local school boards can hold teachers and administrators accountable. Most of all commissioners and department heads need to be held accountable for accomplishing specific goals and objectives. All programs should be evaluated with the goal of eliminating those found to be ineffective or not a priority.

With all of my concerns and criticisms of the imperfections of our state government, it is still a great way of life. We are very fortunate to live in a society, which allows us to have a strong voice in how we make decisions in governing. Remember, that a state legislator really only does two things: they control your life and they spend your money!

Once again, I am deeply appreciative of the opportunity to have served as your state representative.

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