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MaineHousing Accountability Bill Runs Into Slowed Process, Potential Changes

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The Maine State Housing accountability bill, after churning its way through sponsorship, co-sponsorship, emergency status acceptance – so that it could dealt with in the current legislative session — and a committee hearing, seems to have slowed to an idle on its way to the work session phase of the legislative process.

Asked about a rumor that the work session for the LD 1778 bill he’s sponsoring might be delayed until March, Senator Jon Courtney (R/York) answered that, “That would be an issue for me,” but quickly added he didn’t want to engage in rumor speculation. And Courtney said he hadn’t heard that particular rumor.

Because it’s often difficult for members of the public to sort through legislative schedules and details, delays in the progress of a bill can diminish public interest and input.

Courtney did admit he’d heard speculation that a move was afoot to require that a two-thirds majority vote would be required for removal of the Housing director by the commissioners as a component of the bill. In an inference that that would not be a point he’d support, Courtney said he knew of no other quasi-governmental agency, as MSHA is categorized, which requires a two-thirds vote.

Currently, the state housing director is appointed by the governor to a four-year term. The accountability bill dictates that a director, still appointed by the governor, would serve at the pleasure of the board. Some proponents favoring the accountability aspect of the bill have proposed that it be amended to give hiring power to the board of commissioners.

Asked if he would attempt to facilitate an informational exchange between MSHA commissioners and the committee to address additional questions, Courtney said he was “not going to get involved in the committee process.” Current Director Dale McCormick’s views were represented at the public hearing by MSHA Director of Communications Peter Merrill, who offered support of the bill contingent upon it not going into effect until the end of McCormick’s term in 2014.

Senator Chris Rector, who chairs the committee, did not respond to a call asking for a status report on the progress of the bill.

An Act Relating to the Governance of the Maine State Housing Authority was debated in public hearing on January 31 before the Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development. The overall concept of the bill — of making the Maine State Housing Authority director accountable to the Authority’s board of commissioners — garnered support from an encompassing number of groups — the  Affordable Housing Coalition, the Maine Real Estate and Development Association, Associated General Contractors of Maine and Americans for Prosperity —  as well as a number of individual citizens.

A handful of work sessions are listed on the Labor Committee’s calendar for the upcoming week on bills ranging from forestry licensing to preventing the theft and illegal sale of copper, to standardizing the definition of independent contractor to rules regulating relatives hiring home care assistants. But a Labor Committee staff member said no date has yet been slated for the LD 1778 work session.

Former state senator Carol Weston, currently the Maine Director of Americans for Prosperity, has given tours of the legislative process under the State House dome, and describes the work sessions as the opposite of public hearings, where members of the public speak and legislators listen. Work sessions are more wrangling sessions of bill details. Legislators do the talking — members of the public are mute — allowed to speak by invitation only.

A committee analyst presents pertinent aspects of the bill, synopsizes the for, against and neither-for-nor-against points of testimony from the public hearing and highlights any issues about the way the bill is written. An analyst might go so far as “There’s a problem and I’ve corrected it by writing it this way,” said Weston.

The bill can be discussed by committee members as one document or as separate, debatable components of the overall document. The committee clerk has copies for legislators of each aspect of the bill under discussion, with sometimes enough for lobbyists and occasionally enough copies for members of the public. Weston emphasizes individuals have the right to request that additional copies be made to allow them to follow along. “Everyone has the right to the paperwork.”

And while lobbyists occasionally raise a hand to ask a question, members of the public can do the same. The committee chair can recognize them or not. If called upon, they are invited to speak at the microphone so that all remarks become part of the public record.

For those who want to raise a pertinent point less obviously, a written message can be handed to the clerk with a request to give it to a specific member — for the purpose of adding relevant information or recommending a question.

Ultimately, committee action on the bill will lead to an Ought to Pass or Ought Not to Pass vote. A thumbs up will send it to the full legislative body. In the case of LD 1778, because it is sponsored by a state senator, the pro vote would send it to the Senate first, to the House second.

Opponents of a bill that’s being sent forward have a right to craft a minority report, for an alternative version, to be considered only if the majority version does not gain passage.

Any member of the public can be notified of upcoming work sessions by contacting the clerk of the legislative committee overseeing the bill, and asking for email notification of upcoming hearings and work sessions. For LD 1778, contact Committee Clerk Rhonda Miller at rhonda.miller@legislature.maine.gov.

About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson is the former editor of The Maine Wire and currently the executive producer of the Kirk Minihane Show. Follow him on Twitter @BigSteve207.

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