AUGUSTA – Newly minted state Rep. Abby Holman, R-Fayette, did not get the committee assignment that she had sought. She’s angry and so is the chairman of the committee, who says his panel has formed under an unnecessary partisan cloud.
Whether the snub – as some lawmakers consider it – was the result of an intense lobbying campaign or something more benign has thrown the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry into a bit of a tizzy.
Holman, a lawyer, lobbyist and tree farmer with deep roots in Lewiston, had sought the committee assignment with the blessings of House Republican Leader Josh Tardy of Newport. She was the only member of the minority party in the House not to get an assignment approved by Tardy.
But when it came time to parse out the spots, Speaker of the House Glenn Cummings decided that Holman shouldn’t sit on the committee. Ultimately, Cummings, a Portland Democrat, has the authority to make committee assignments and his decision is final.
The decision caused consternation on the committee, and left Tardy disappointed and Holman angry.
Committee Senate Chairman John Nutting, a Leeds Democrat who doesn’t always act like one, said that in the past his panel has been able to put aside partisanship.
Going into the 123rd Legislature, the makeup of the committee has cast a shadow over the nonpartisan goodwill members have worked to build and created hurt feelings and partisan anger, Nutting said. It’s also left a gap in expertise because no one on the panel has direct forestry experience.
“The forestry and agriculture communities are scratching their heads about the appointments,” Nutting said.
“It was definitely a very partisan thing for the speaker to do,” Holman said. “There isn’t any rational reason, so it’s a partisan issue.”
Holman may be new to the Legislature, but she’s not new to the State House or to politics. She worked in the administration of Gov. John McKernan and for Olympia Snowe when she first ran for the U.S. Senate. She served as the executive director for the Alliance for Maine’s Future, a pro-business political organization, and was a lobbyist for the forestry industry.
She was also an important part of Republican Peter Cianchette’s gubernatorial campaign in 2002. Cianchette lost to Gov. John Baldacci, but the ghosts of that campaign have been summoned by some to explain the Holman-free Agriculture committee.
According to Nutting, Tardy and Holman, Pat McGowan, the commissioner of the state’s Department of Conservation, opposed Holman’s appointment to the committee and made sure that opposition was known. McGowan was Baldacci’s finance director during the 2002 campaign and ran twice against Snowe for U.S. Congress.
McGowan flatly denies influencing Cummings’ decision, and Cummings backs that up.
“They give me a lot more power than I’ve got,” McGowan said Tuesday. “I have no influence on committee assignments.”
Cummings said that as the presiding officer of the House, he will guard the prerogatives of the body closely.
“I will not make decisions based on the position of the executive branch,” Cummings said, adding that McGowan was just one of many that had contacted his office concerning Holman.
McGowan, who spent 10 years in the Legislature and was the original sponsor of the Land for Maine’s Future, which preserves open spaces through conservation easements, said the Agriculture committee hasn’t always been friendly to the Baldacci administration, but that separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches leaves committee assignments to the speaker.
“We don’t have control over that,” McGowan said. “I wish we did.”
“I supported (Holman’s) opponent in the election,” McGowan said, adding, however, that he holds no left over bitterness from the 2002 campaign. “We won,” McGowan said.
According to Cummings, he didn’t give Holman the seat because she had recently lobbied the committee, which could create the appearance of impropriety. With a new emphasis on legislative ethics and clearer lines about potential conflicts of interest, Cummings said he also denied new state Rep. Jon Hinck, a former lobbyist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine and a Democrat from Portland, a seat on the Natural Resources Committee.
“In this case, Rep. Holman has a long career lobbying for the woods product council,” Cummings said. “There’s a context here in which the Maine people and opinion leaders are concerned about a perceived conflict of interest.”
Further complicating the matter, Holman is in the process of creating a conservation easement on her 19th-century Fayette farm through the Land for Maine’s Future, which the committee oversees. The deal has been approved by the LMF’s board of directors, but has not been finalized.
Holman got her top choice of another committee assignment by being placed on Judiciary. She also has a seat on Legal and Veterans Affairs. Most minority-party freshmen don’t garner two choice committee assignments.
Nutting, Tardy and Holman remained unconvinced.
“He has this rule for some people,” Nutting said. “He doesn’t have it for everyone.”
Nutting, however, wouldn’t name names.
She said that state Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Farmingdale, Patsy Crockett, D-Augusta, and Hinck all were placed on committees where their work as a lobbyist is more recent than her own before the Agriculture committee.
“Even still, if you take the standard that Cummings said he’s using, I haven’t been a lobbyist in more than 24 months,” Holman said.
Treat spent 14 years in the Legislature, the last two as Senate majority leader in 2003-04. She was elected to the House this year and was appointed to the Insurance and Financial Services Committee.
Treat is also the executive director of the National Legislative Association on Prescription Drug Prices, which Holman says shows she has a conflict with her assignment.
Not so, said Treat on Tuesday. Her efforts before the Legislature, she said, have been with the Health and Human Services Committee, and she specifically asked not to be placed there because her work is too closely connected to it.
“Most of the work I do is in other states,” helping lawmakers craft legislation to lower the cost of prescription drugs, Treat said.
“I actually represent legislators, including Maine representatives,” Treat said. “I don’t represent the industry or an advocacy group.”
Crockett, who also has a seat on Insurance and Financial Services, was a lobbyist for 11 years before being elected to the House in November. In that time, she said, she may have appeared before the Insurance Committee three or four times and, in those cases, it was filling in for someone else.
Crockett spent most of her time working with the Appropriations and Taxation committees.
“I did lobby, but I lobbied for a lot of different clients,” Crockett said, including for adult education, the Maine Dental Association and Maine sheriffs.
“They may not have presented before the committee,” Holman said. “But there’s a big difference between testifying before the committee and talking about the issues with lawmakers on the third floor where the real lobbying takes place.”
While Hinck wasn’t placed on Natural Resources, he is on Utilities and Energy, and, Holman said, certainly his employer has had issues before that committee.
“This standard isn’t being applied evenly,” Holman said. “You would hope it would be fair and consistent.”
Conflict of interest?
Tardy said Tuesday that he doesn’t think that a lawmakers’ life experiences should be held against them and that members are conscientious about the state’s conflict of interest regulations.
There are five or six new members who have been lobbyists, Tardy said, and he doesn’t have a problem with them serving on any particular committees.
“I think whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, when you take the oath of office it’s a serious one, and people take it seriously,” Tardy said.
Expertise on the issues that come before a committee is important, Treat said, “but at the same time you don’t want to put people in a position where it looks like there’s a conflict of interest.”
Holman said Wednesday that she cares passionately about conservation, forestry and agriculture, and that’s part of the reason she was elected.
“It’s something I believe in and something I was elected because of,” Holman said. “I was elected by the people because of the positions I shared with them on these issues.”
Cummings retorted: “She still has the ability as a legislator to influence public policy in the areas she’s interested in.”
“It was definitely a very partisan thing for the speaker to do,” said Rep. Abby Holman, D-Fayette. “There isn’t any rational reason, so it’s a partisan issue.”
“He has this rule for some people,” said Sen. John Nutting, D-Leeds, the Senate chairman of the Joint Commmitte on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “He doesn’t have it for everyone.”
“(Rep. Abby Holman) still has the ability as a legislator to influence public policy in the areas she’s interested in.” – Rep. Glenn Cummings, D-Portland, Speaker of the House
More online: A full list of House committee assignments is available at: speaker.maine.gov/Committee/index.html