Dust collectors

THE QUOTE

“Studying these key issues will allow legislators to make better policy decisions about critical health care, education, and natural resource challenges facing our state.”

WHO SAID IT

Speaker of the Maine House Rep. Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, on April 15, 2014.

BACKGROUND

Eves’ statement was in a press release boasting that the Legislative Council had approved 11 studies on topics from expanding legalized gambling to paying for college tuition to ending student hunger to the effects of “ocean acidification on commercial shellfish.” The Council is the administrative body of the legislature; its members come from the leadership of both parties. Because Democrats dominate the legislature this session, six of the 10 members are D’s.

THE FACTS

While no one could object to lawmakers getting more information on a topic, the record shows that “send it to a study committee” is a time-tested way to avoid a touchy problem. While the state doesn’t keep records about the total number of studies and blue ribbon commission reports and the like going back to Year One, the always-helpful Maine State Law and Legislative Reference Library provided a list of studies, reviews and short-term committees ordered by the legislature between 2005-2011. During that period, the legislatures — Democratic and Republican — authorized 411 studies.  And that number is likely low, because the library’s list was incomplete and some data is no longer online.

There is no “study of the studies” to show how effective they have been, but the Center’s research on a range of topics has over and over again turned up examples of studies that were ignored.

The state, for example, empaneled two blue ribbon commissions on the public pension system in 1980 and 1994  — and ignored both, although the studies accurately predicted pension debt would eat up a growing part of the state’s budget. The debt rose to $4.2 billion and wasn’t addressed until 2011. In 2006, a legislative-authorized study warned the state to fix its antiquated bail system — but little was done until 2011 when a man who had been released twice on low bails for domestic violence killed his wife, two children and then himself. And the legislature has been told at least twice in studies it asked for that there is waste and potential fraud in its economic development programs – but there have no substantial changes in those programs.

That’s not always the case. A study by the the state’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability of spending at the Maine Turnpike Authority was taken seriously by the legislature and eventually led to an overhaul of the MTA and to the head of the authority serving jail time.

TRANSLATION

“Rather than make a decision and be held accountable, let’s send this to a committee for a study. When we get the study, maybe we’ll do something and maybe we won’t. But it will always be there on the shelf collecting dust.”

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The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting specializes in watchdog reporting, but as much as our government’s policies and actions need watching, so does their language. During the Vietnam war, we had “protective air strikes” -- doublespeak for bombing villages. And during the 2004 presidential election, John Kerry gave this twisted explanation of his vote on a military spending bill: "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."

This new feature of pinetreewatchdog will call attention to fresh cases of the “pure wind” that blows regularly from our public figures: politicians, business people, commentators and others “practiced in the art of deception.”

As usual, we aim to be equal opportunity offenders. Because no party, no ideology, no special interest is immune from spin, obfuscation, weasel words, cant, misdirection, euphemisms, flummery, cheap shots and other forms of BS.

— John Christie, editor-in-chief

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