Political Pulse: 98 days to make whoopie

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Nuggets from the notebook while considering the alacrity of insurance reform versus the dense, sticky slog of legislating whoopie pies …

Lawmakers have made a lot of arguable statements during the furor over Republicans’ fast-tracked attempt to overhaul the state’s health insurance laws.

But one remark made during the House debate last Thursday remains uncontested.

Rep. Mike Bryant, D-Windham, told lawmakers that the Legislature had spent more time reviewing legislation that designated the whoopie pie as the state’s official treat than it did vetting the GOP proposal that makes sweeping changes to health insurance.

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Bryant is correct, at least in terms of time elapsed during the public process. 

It took 52 days for LD 71, the whoopie pie bill, to go from public hearing to the first House vote. 

It took eight days for LD 1333, the insurance bill, to travel the same distance.

It took 65 days from the hearing for LD 71 to become law. Ninety-eight days elapsed from the time the bill was assigned to committee to becoming law. The 98 days doesn’t include the time it took to draft the bill.

Gov. Paul LePage never signed the bill, apparently because he didn’t think too highly of it.

But lawmakers invested a lot of time working whoopie pie legislation, a seemingly innocuous proposal that turned serious (sort of) when lawmakers started hearing arguments that perhaps the state shouldn’t be promoting “frosting-delivering vehicles masquerading as food,” as Rep. Don Pilon, D-Saco, put it.  

And then there was the blueberry debate. Maybe, some lawmakers thought, it was better to consider blueberry pie as the official dessert, and whoopie pies as the official treat.

Or snack.

Or frosting-delivery vehicle.

In any event, 13 people, including several of the whoopie pie bill’s nine co-sponsors, testified during the Jan. 31 public hearing.

Fourteen days elapsed between the hearing and the committee’s vote.  It was reported out of committee 24 days later with amendments and a divided report.

The one-page bill moved to the House six days later, where it had its first reading. It was tabled that same day and remained listed as unfinished business for two more session days before the March 23 debate.

During the debate, 14 legislators spoke from the floor, eight Republicans and six Democrats. Legislative records don’t track the length of debates or public hearings, but the process went long, so long that one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Rep. Stephen Wood, R-Sabbattus, had clearly had enough.

“I signed on to this bill way back. I’m sorry that I did,” Wood said from the floor. “This is the biggest waste of time, waste of money, and I really think we need to vote this down because it’s just making us all look funny.”

Twenty-two people testified during the public hearing for the insurance overhaul bill. Despite the number of speakers, the hearing didn’t run long, according to the committee clerk.

Two days after the hearing, despite objections from Democrats, Republicans on the Insurance Committee voted on the insurance bill, which had gone from a four-page bill modifying community rating to a 29-page repeal and rewrite of state insurance laws.

Five days later the bill was reported out of committee with more language changes that pushed the legislation to 45 pages.

Less than 18 hours later, Republicans in the House gave the insurance bill preliminary approval.

Just two GOP lawmakers spoke during the insurance debate. About a dozen Democrats railed against the process, the impacts of the legislation and Republicans’ unwillingness to answer questions about the bill.

The bill has a second reading Tuesday, followed by a Senate vote. Barring some major procedural interference by Democrats, the bill could soon be on LePage’s desk.

Unlike whoopie pies, the governor will undoubtedly sign the insurance bill.

If that happens next week, it means the Legislature will have taken less than half the time to rewrite Maine’s insurance laws than it took to make whoopie pies the official state treat.

“What’s the rush?”

In response to complaints about the fast-tracked process for the insurance bill, Republicans have said they’ve been pushing similar proposals for years.

The response is accurate, but Democrats aren’t buying it.

Some have wondered why the GOP majority would push a divisive proposal and potentially sacrifice bipartisan work on the budget and other issues with more than a month left in the session.

“There’s got to be a hidden agenda somewhere,” Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, said.

Democrats are weighing several theories. 

One is that Republicans are desperate for a big policy victory. By the GOP’s own admission, the governor’s penchant for controversy has distracted the party from its agenda.

While LD 1, the regulatory reform bill, is advancing, Democrats have claimed victory for being able to extract the most controversial “rollbacks” from the proposal.

Meanwhile, other Republican initiatives, such as welfare reform and job creation, haven’t come together so quickly.

Insurance reform has. But some Democrats wonder if the expedited process is designed to benefit Tarren Bragdon, the outgoing CEO of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, the conservative advocacy group.

Bragdon, they note, has lobbied the insurance bill with gusto. Before the House vote last week, he reportedly briefed the Republican caucus about the legislation.

Bragdon leaves later this month for Florida, where he will oversee insurance and health care policy for a new free-market think tank.

Republicans scoff at the idea that fast-tracking insurance reform is some kind of victory lap for Bragdon.

The way the GOP tells it, Democrats were going to resist the insurance bill regardless of whether the process took 44 days or 98 days.

smistler@sunjournal.com

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