R.I.P., LD 1932


The long strange journey of LD 1932 came to an unceremonious end last night when the senate failed to override Governor Baldacci’s veto, effectively killing a bill first put forward by the Department of Education in November of last year. At that time, school units across Maine were struggling to comply with reorganization, and a citizen’s initiative to repeal the law was gaining strength.
The administration offered up LD 1932 in the hope that the slight bill, only a few pages in length, would “remove unintended barriers to consolidation” and allow districts to “move forward.” It was believed that the bill’s early December public hearing date would mean that it would be ready to go to the full House and Senate in early January. There was talk that it would be voted on and signed into law within the first week of the 2008 legislative session.
Now the bill is dead, and legislative leaders find themselves going back to the drawing board with about a week left in the legislative session.
What went wrong??
There is plenty of blame to go around.
First and foremost, blame goes to the legislators who voted for the unworkable bill last year. Rushed through the process, modified and amended countless times along the way, the final bill was a disorganized mess. It was passed anyway under pressure from legislative leaders on both sides who were looking to book the illusionary savings it was to have created into the state budget. A wiser move would have been for the legislature to create some kind of commission to work out the details of the bill over the summer and present a much more thoughtful alternative this spring. They did not.
Blame also goes to the Department of Education, which substantially underestimated the trouble the bill was creating and which submitted a mild fix, LD 1932, to a law with major problems. In so doing, the Department simply invited the avalanche of bills and weeks of legislative meddling that followed. The Department had an opportunity last fall to work carefully with the law’s critics to create a substantive reform bill that might have withstood the legislative process better than LD 1932 did. Instead, they tried a narrow, technical fix, and thus brought on themselves all that followed.
A good deal of blame must also be laid at the feet of the Education committee, which, though well intentioned and hard working, proved repeatedly that it was simply not up to the task of dealing with the reorganization law. Both this year and last, the work of the committee was unceremoniously scrapped by the legislative leadership. Though committed to doing the right thing, the committee never developed any kind of consensus around a cohesive vision for what the reorganization of schools should look like, with the result that every bill on the subject, including LD 1932, came out of the committee in two or three different versions, each competing with one another for the attention and support of legislators. Imagine how things might have gone differently had the committee been able to overcome its own internal divisions and present a united front against the rest of the legislature and the legislative leadership.
And it is with that legislative leadership that the blame for the failure of LD 1932 ultimately rests. That same leadership crafted the flawed reorganization law in the first place, behind closed doors in the waning days of the last legislative session. They then browbeat legislators into supporting it with threats of a state government shutdown should they fail to pass the budget bill which contained the reorganization provision. When legislators returned to session this winter with dozens of bills to amend the troubled law, the leadership virtually guaranteed ongoing dissatisfaction among rank and file legislators by summarily dismissing every reform bill that was proposed. All legislative concerns were to be answered in a single bill, the leadership told them. The bill? LD 1932.
The last hope to save LD 1932 was probably lost when it came out of the Education committee in three different versions, and then a fourth if one counts the amendment drafted by committee member and Senate Majority Leader Libby Mitchell. By immediately offering a floor amendment to her own committee’s bill, even an amendment with much to recommend it, Sen. Mitchell instantly undermined the committee’s work and set divisions in place that lasted until the bill’s final defeat yesterday. In the weeks that followed, countless amendments were offered and the bill was slowly reworked into unrecognizability. As the governor put it in the message that accompanied his veto, the bill’s “original purpose was lost.”
This morning, legislators awake to the challenge of doing something substantive to deal with the reorganization law with only days remaining. A moratorium on reorganization activities is most likely the best option at this point, (if not outright repeal,) accompanied by some kind of incentive package to encourage districts to pursue reorganization where their work thus far has borne fruit. The legislature may also wish to authorize the creation of a commission to rework the reorganization concept over the summer, allowing it to submit proposed changes to the next legislature.
If they do so, one hopes the next legislature will do a better job with this issue than this one did.