Modeling bipartisan spirit by co-hosting, State Representatives Ellie Espling (R-New Gloucester-Poland) and Jessica Fay (D-Casco-Raymond-Poland) held community office hours on Monday evening, March 6, in Poland. They shared an inside look at the legislative process from the perspective of a member of leadership (Espling) and a first-termer (Fay), and provided constituents an opportunity express concerns. Some two dozen area residents took up the offer and engaged in a lively, wide-ranging exchange about pending bills, the status of last fall’s referenda, and how citizens can make their voices heard in Augusta. The two-hour session took place at Poland’s Ricker Library.
Revenue-sharing in general and school funding in particular led attendees’ concerns. Residents noted the increased local property tax burden as municipal revenue-sharing has dwindled, and expressed support for a bill that would restore revenue-sharing to previous levels. On the school front, attendees described overcrowded buildings, aging or broken equipment, and inadequate state support. Grace Leavitt, a Poland resident who teaches Spanish in Cumberland and is vice president of the Maine Education Association, spoke of students’ “increasingly complex needs” and the impact of budget cuts locally and across the state. Leavitt and others urged the two legislators to honor last fall’s ballot initiative earmarking for public education a 3 percent surcharge on income over $200,000. Governor Paul LePage has asked lawmakers to repeal, delay, or reduce the tax surcharge; several pending bills would do just that. As Espling and Fay reminded the group, the Legislature can amend or repeal citizen-approved laws.
Espling and Fay also heard attendees’ objections to bills that would require voter identification and proof of residency, cut clean elections funding, require state and local governments to enforce federal immigration laws, and reduce the age to carry concealed weapons, among others. On the opiate crisis, Representative Espling said that many more bills are pending this session and noted that the Legislature has expanded access to and funding for the emergency overdose treatment Narcan, imposed prescribing limits on opiates, and most recently formed a statewide task force that includes people from prevention and enforcement. Espling had sought a special joint committee to consider all proposed heroin and opioid legislation.
Both legislators encouraged attendees to contact them with any constituent service requests or comments on pending legislation. They also urged citizens to contact the chair and members of whichever legislative committee is considering a bill of particular interest. “It does matter,” said Fay, “even if the legislator is not your representative.” Best time? “As soon as you know what you think,” said Espling, touch base with the relevant committee; don’t wait until the public hearing. Fay recommended tracking bills through the maine.gov website and signing up for email updates by topic or committee as bills move through the Legislature.
For a communication to have maximum impact Fay suggested, “Keep it short, tell a story, and don’t forget to say where you’re from.” Fay described receiving hundreds of form-letter emails about a flame-retardants bill before her Environment and Natural Resources Committee but having no way to tell whether the senders were even Mainers.
New Gloucester resident Penny Hilton asked whether it’s a waste of time for citizens to travel to Augusta to testify on highly partisan bills. “Never!!!” burst out Espling and Fay simultaneously. Espling added that even on divisive issues, “You’re dealing with individuals who can’t be defined by party alone.”
Both legislators offered a generally optimistic take on life in the Legislature. Representative Fay said, “I’m more encouraged than you hear in the news,” a sentiment echoed by Representative Espling: “You’re not going to hear about all the good things we accomplish. The papers are more interested in what we fight about.” The legislators acknowledged the practical effect of a divided legislature. “We’ll have to compromise,” said Representative Fay.