We may be headed for a long June

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Memorial Day weekend is usually a time for rest, celebration and reflection – the gateway to the summer season. But not necessarily for a political party taking full power for the first time in more than 40 years. Everyone knew that the newly-in-command Republicans would face some trying weeks, but this has been an unusually arduous one.

For once, Gov. Paul LePage has not been part of the dustups. This one has played out almost entirely on the third floor of the State House, between the House and Senate chambers and assorted committee rooms.

Things got off to a bizarre start when a freshman Republican, Rep. Fred Wintle of Garland, was arrested in a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot in Waterville last weekend after allegedly threatening a news photographer with a loaded handgun. The incident apparently had nothing to do with the news, but instead turned on Wintle’s apparent mental instability. A judge ordered a psychiatric evaluation as a condition of bail.

Wintle had reportedly been showing increasingly erratic behavior around the State House – and had been banned from the building by Speaker Robert Nutting – but no one wanted to intervene before the parking lot incident.

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The arrest did shed an interesting light on GOP bids to expand guns rights within the State House complex. Security there has long been a hot potato – previous legislative leaders purchased metal detectors but haven’t used them. (On Friday, Nutting announced that the detectors will be activated, at a cost of $546,000 to cover personnel.)

Rep. Dale Crafts (R-Lisbon) is among the critics of security arrangements. “It’s wide open here,” he told a reporter. “I could carry a weapon unchecked every day and so could others. That’s not a safe environment.”

Unfortunately, his proposed solution, LD 932, would allow concealed weapons permit holders to carry their guns through the halls. Crafts hasn’t actually said he’d feel safer with more armed legislators around, but that’s the implication. And despite a favorable 8-5 party line committee vote on the bill, Republican leadership now favors carrying it over to 2012.

Things were murkier over at the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, where the co-chair, Sen. Roger Sherman (R-Aroostook County) struggled to maintain order during debate over bills to eliminate the Land Use Regulation Commission. LURC, as it is known, oversees development in the unorganized territories – about half the state. Direct state oversight, where municipal government does not exist, has been a long-time irritant for landowners, so it’s understandable Republicans would target it for deregulation. What exactly can be done is another matter.

LURC has taken a lot of heat concerning the Plum Creek development plan around Moosehead Lake – with gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler calling the process a “train wreck,” but it turns out LURC may have been too accommodating to the developer, not too strict. A Superior Court judge ruled that the process by which LURC staff negotiated changes violated the law.

One of the bills proposes to abolish LURC and divide its duties among the counties — a truly preposterous idea. Counties, still funded by property taxes, struggle to perform their basic mission of law enforcement, prosecution and registries. None has the wherewithal to begin doing land use planning, and providing that capacity would cost far more than LURC.

There is a problem with LURC, which is understaffed and can take far too long to approve a routine driveway or garage permit – something best handled by local government, if there were a local government. The answer should be to streamline procedures, simplify regulations for homeowners and provided swifter response.

Unfortunately, Republicans are not interested in streamlining rules; they’d rather propose abolition.

The GOP recently claimed a victory in forcing through a health insurance bill virtually no one except committee leaders and lobbyists had read. Unfortunately, their refusal to allow the Bureau of Insurance to analyze the bill leaves everyone in the dark – a major demerit, if the legislation becomes subject to a people’s veto campaign, which it may.

If the health insurance bill – enacted without hearings, analysis or more than pro forma debate – becomes the model, then we’re in for a long June, possibly stretching into July.

Republicans on the Appropriations Committee predicted this week they’d wrap up the budget by Tuesday. That budget, with $200 million in tax cuts, $500 million in state employee concessions and now, with Gov. LePage’s revisions, terminating health insurance for 28,000 Mainers, has not been seriously debated even within the committee. Getting Democrats to vote for it – essential to gaining the required two-thirds majority – may be a long and difficult process.

From the evidence on view, that process has not even begun.

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