Arming Maine’s forest rangers ran headlong into another controversial issue at the Legislature last week as a task force report provoked sharp questions (which no one was available to answer), skepticism, frustration and even laughter.
Last spring Gov. Paul LePage assembled the Task Force on Review of Needs, Resources and Opportunities for Efficiency among Natural Resource Law Enforcement. LD 297, a bill to require arming of rangers, was held over to the upcoming session as legislators awaited the task force report, which was recently released. The task force “could recommended arming forest rangers over a period of several years. See Bangor Daily story.)
At their Dec. 11 work session, some Criminal Justice Committee members said the report raised more questions than it answered, especially about funding and “efficiencies.” The majority of the committee favors arming rangers, but they have no authority over the Maine Forest Service budget, which is under the oversight of the Agriculture Conservation and Forestry Committee (ACF). Time also is a factor, since carryover bills must be voted out of committees by Friday, Jan. 24.
“We initially passed this bill through this committee. In all fairness to the chief executive we reconsidered and looked forward to the final report,” said Rep. Ricky Long, R-Sherman. “If you recall, when we heard testimony, the (ACF) commissioner was against this. Now they all come out in favor of a tiered program, but they don’t know how they’re going to finance it. If you want to kill a bill — and they know this as well as we do — if there’s no funding, we can pass all the bills we want and it’s dead on arrival. I think they’ve come up with a nice, neat way to say, ‘Well boys do what you want, but it doesn’t matter.’”
The Criminal Justice Committee ultimately decided their chairs should meet with the ACF chairs to determine how to proceed. But getting to that unanimous decision was not without drama. The committee invited task force members, including the chair, Public Safety Commissioner John Morris, and other commissioners, to discuss their report. The invitation was declined, the committee’s analyst, Curtis Bentley, told legislators, “but if you have questions they’d be happy to answer them.”
This has become the routine answer to requests for executive branch staff to attend legislative meetings. In statements released by governor’s office, LePage has said he’s tired of having some of the top people in his administration spend hours at legislative meetings instead of doing their jobs. (See MPBN story.) Of the 10 task force members, eight work for state agencies, while two represented large and small landowners.
Adding fuel to the fire, Bentley said he also was told the committee’s invitation was declined, “because their report speaks for itself.” That phrase did not go over well with the committee chairs, Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, and Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Cumberland, who called it “unfortunate” and “very disturbing” that they could not speak to task force members.
After more unproductive discussion about possible funding sources, Dion’s frustration spilled over. Bentley was sitting in the chair usually reserved for those present to answer questions when Dion said, “Curtis is in the wrong chair. Really, that chair should be empty, so I could talk to the appropriate party.”
So Bentley got up and headed back to his desk, but when laughter broke out in the crowded committee room, he stopped and asked, “You were serious?”
“Oh, I’m dead serious,” Dion answered. “To have effective legislation, we need all branches of government. Therefore, I’ll talk to the empty chair.”
For the rest of the session, questions — most about funding — were referred to the “empty chair.”
Gerzofsky, who has been focused on the funding question from the start, pointed out that the task force report just repeated the same options the Maine Criminal Justice Academy presented last spring without recommending one of them. The cost estimates ranged from $142,000 to more than $2 million.
“They said it was self explanatory,” Gerzofsky said. “Well, it is self explanatory. You can take one from Column A, one from Column B, and the bill’s going to be waiting for you when you go to the checkout stand and you’re going to have to pay for it. That’s where we’re at.”
Several committee members also questioned why a task force recommendation to consolidate dispatch services among the state’s law enforcement agencies would cost $150,000 more annually.
“This report is supposed to be self explanatory,” said Rep. Thomas Tyler, R-Windham. “How does consolidating something add $150,000 in cost? Now that’s not very efficient. Why does it cost more per year to be efficient?”
The report also said more than 50 proposals for efficiencies have been suggested for evaluation, including:
- “Provide Forest Rangers and Marine Patrol Officers with ATV and Snowmobile accident investigation skills.
- “Establish joint task forces (seasonal) for enforcement of laws regulating the harvest of moose, elvers, smelts and evergreen boughs etc.
- “Establishing protocols for having one Natural Resources Law Enforcement Officer serve as the court officer for arraignments at District Court, rather than the current practice of each agency sending its own.”
Dion, a lawyer and former Cumberland County sheriff, had some questions about those efficiencies.
“I’m kind of curious how marine patrol officers get to an ATV crash scene,” Dion said, getting a big laugh from the crowd. “Again, I would ask the chair that.”
Having one court officer might be more efficient, he said, but was “Natural Resources Law Enforcement Officer” a new job classification or a “catchall for wardens, marine patrol and wardens?”
Hearing no answer to his questions, Dion just shook his head.
“I can only imagine if I filed a motion with a judge,” he said, “and wrote at the end of my motion, ‘It speaks for itself your honor and I’m playing golf.’ I suspect the judge would not view it favorably.”