Speaker’s pick reflects image is everything

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Rep. Glenn Cummings, the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, had the unenviable task recently of deciding committee placements for the 123rd Maine Legislature. Some of his choices rankled representatives, and led to postulation the Portland Democrat pushed partisan politics to pack panels with his preferences.

Rep. Abby Holman, R-Fayette, a former forestry lobbyist and a freshman legislator, criticized the speaker for declining to place her on the Joint Committee on Agricultural, Conservation and Forestry, a decision, she said, that lacked “any rational reason” and was politically motivated.

The speaker disagreed.

“There’s a perception issue we have to be careful of,” he said. The methodology, Cummings said, involved vetting assignments through the attorney general and the state’s ethics panel to avoid “inappropriate or perceived” conflicts of interest.

“I erred on the side of caution,” the speaker said, which was the right thing to do.

All this attention on the slighting of one first-year representative, for a seat on one committee, may seem overblown. After all, some observers feel the influence of legislative committees in Maine has eroded since the enactment of term limits. For example, a 2004 study of the Legislature, part of a project of the National Conference of State Legislatures, found term limits perhaps weakened committees’ ability to shape policy.

Committee chairmen have become more inexperienced, the study found, as term limits shifted institutional knowledge from elected representatives to employed committee staffers. New legislators are unsure “who to talk to about proposed legislation,” the study said, and may “propose overly simple solutions for complex problems.”

Complex long-term issues also became harder to handle, as committee members focus on the “near-term, because they will be termed out after eight years.”

“Many members hold the view that, ‘My job is not to solve the budget problem long-term, it is to focus on the next two years,'” the study said. “[A] former [legislator] put it more bluntly, stating, ‘Committee reports do not mean anything any more.'”

Such negative assessments aside, committee assignments remain an important facet of Maine’s citizen Legislature, a fact highlighted by last year’s intense scrutiny on Rep. Tom Saviello, I-Wilton, his place on the Natural Resources committee, his employment at Verso mill in Jay, and his alleged improprieties with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Though he was exonerated of ethical violations, the controversy over Saviello led to a slate of proposed ethical reforms for legislators, including broadening the definition of conflict of interest and opening the ethics complaint process to the public. The reforms, we’ve said, are thoughtful and much-needed.

Cummings’ selections were the litmus paper for whether Augusta learned from the Saviello experience.

Holman’s exclusion – for minor conflicts, but conflicts nonetheless – show the speaker passed this test.

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