Out to lunch

THE QUOTE

“Today, all we are asking — and expecting — is for the adults to have a conversation about the hungry children at their school, in their community. Today, we are asking schools who already offer summer programming like a rec program, to consider whether a summer food program is right for them.”

WHO SAID IT

Maine state Senate President Justin Alfond in a speech on the floor of the Senate on Feb. 11

THE QUOTE

“This bill presents an irresponsible unfunded mandate.”

WHO SAID IT

Gov. Paul LePage in his Jan. 10 veto message about Alfond’s bill

BACKGROUND

Both Gov. LePage, a Republican, and Sen. Alfond, a Democrat, were referring to a bill, L.D. 1353, titled, “An Act To Further Reduce Student Hunger.” As a Portland Press Herald reporter wrote, the bill “requires schools that hold summer activities, and where more than half the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, to offer the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Services Program, which reimburses school districts for the entire cost of the food.”

Proponents of the bill said only about 16 percent of students eligible for free or reduced cost lunch in the summer get them, leaving up to 70,000 students without that opportunity because the schools in their districts do not have summer lunch programs.

The bill would require those schools to offer the program on their own or with a local organization such as a church (the federal government would pay for the food, but not the cost of setting up and running the program). A school could opt out of the program only if it deemed the program fiscally or logistically “impractical” and only after a public hearing, a vote of the local school board and then notifying all parents in the district of its reason.

The legislature passed the bill, the governor vetoed it and the legislature overruled his veto, meaning it will become law.

THE FACTS

Both sides employed well-established political phrasing to obscure the full story and make their side appear virtuous. LePage played an old favorite of the limited-government crowd — the “unfunded mandate” — even though a good part of the cost was funded.

The key phrase in Alfond’s statement is “have a conversation about,” which sounds innocuous, like talking about the Red Sox pitching rotation over a pint. But the law says nothing about a friendly chat — it requires certain schools to have a summer school lunch program. The only way out is by jumping through a series of legal hoops and then looking like meanies who wouldn’t even give a free meal to a hungry child.

TRANSLATION

For LePage — “The Democrats set a trap for me to look like Ebenezer Scrooge, but the hell with them: No free lunch on my watch.” For Alfond — “If the ‘conversation’ doesn’t go our way, then it’s on you if kids in your town go hungry.”

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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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