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Political Brew: Tribal rights in Maine, debt deal, and Biden falls onstage

NEWS CENTER Maine's political analysts Phil Harriman and Betsy Sweet weigh in on the major political issues of the week.

PORTLAND, Maine — NEWS CENTER Maine political analysts, Republican Phil Harriman and Democrat Betsy Sweet, share their takes on the major political issues in Maine and the country in the last week from tribal rights to the national debt limit bill passing. 

Tribal Rights Bill

New legislation would allow Native Americans in Maine to benefit from federal laws despite the state's land claims settlement. The bipartisan proposal was introduced by Democratic House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, but the Mills administration opposes it.

ZACH: Betsy. This does not go so far as to call for sovereignty like the tribes are asking for. So what can be done to make sure that this is more palatable for the governor? Anything?

BETSY: No, I don't think so. I mean, I think this is more palatable for the rest of the Legislature, so that there might be a veto override. But basically what this does is say until we get to a place where we can have this sovereignty discussion, at least let the tribes benefit from all the federal laws. We're the only state in the country where they're not allowed to benefit from some of the federal programs that allow them to have courts and health care and other things. So this is a stopgap measure to say, "At least in the interim, let us do that." It's a pretty reasonable measure. I mean, it is a very reasonable measure, but it gets us between now and when sovereignty is granted.

ZACH: Phil, I want to focus on this idea that this would create legal challenges in the future. Is that a legitimate concern?

PHIL: I believe it is. And that's probably the rub between the Constitution and the law and the emotions that we all feel towards Native Americans. In the 1980s [the] Indian Land Claims Settlement was clear in the transaction to consummate this outcome that they were going to abide by Maine law. And I think what you heard in the governor's testimony is that it's so unclear that there will be court challenges.

BETSY: By whom, though, the governor might. Right? Who else would challenge it? So it's a really unfortunate additional step in this long journey.

PHIL: I know that. I mean, that's the point is I think this is to try and get around what's going on behind the scenes in the interim.

Paid Family & Medical Leave

Another big issue that doesn't have buy-in from the Mills administration is a proposal to bring paid family and medical leave to the state. The plan to require it here in Maine made it out of committee this week along party lines. The business community has concerns about just how much this would cost. Mills has suggested some changes to make it more business-friendly, including cutting back just how much a worker would make when they take leave.

ZACH: Phil, even with these changes, is this really something the Maine State Chamber and businesses are going to support?

PHIL: Well, I think there is a willingness to get to a place where people can have family leave. I'm surprised that they didn't make this bill applicable to all employers. They exempted employers with 15 or fewer people. It just seems to me that if it's good for employees, why should they distinguish between whether someone's got 15 or more employees?

BETSY: Well, just to be clear, what they exempted was employers of 15 are having to pay in all in. No, no, no. All employees would still be eligible. Employees would pay in. So every employee in Maine would be eligible. So nobody's exempted. What it does is say to small businesses, listen, we recognize that you have smaller margins. 

Maine Supreme Court on Referendums 

This week the Maine Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments on whether the Legislature can take action on four ballot initiatives. It comes after the secretary of state and governor's office certified the referendums, essentially sending them to voters in November. Attorneys for the Legislature argue that subverted the chance for lawmakers to act on the proposals without sending them to voters. It all is a result of a procedure in which the Legislature adjourned its regular session in March to enact the state budget. 

BETSY: Well, I think it's a pretty unusual situation that they would adjourn and then be in a special session. And so the question really is, when do the bills get presented to the Legislature? And clearly, it says on the actual printed bill presented to the special session. So I think I think it's much more not really about what the procedure is or even what the law is. I think this is an effort to not have this come to the governor's desk because this past week the Legislature went once before and she vetoed it. I don't think she wants to do that again. And so I think this bill passes as this is supported by 90 percent of Mainers in all demographics, all ages, all parts of the state. And so, you know, nobody wants foreign governments in our elections. And so I think it's a political problem that what they tried to do procedurally and I think they got caught.

PHIL: It's a good example of the law of unintended consequences when the Legislature did the maneuver to pass the budget. This is one of these issues that got left in the confusion zone. And now we're going to have to have a court, I think. 

New Maine License Plate?

All right. A little less high stakes. Let's talk about the push to change Maine's standard-issue license plate after 25 years, the secretary of state wants to swap out the chickadee for the 1901 state flag. If it passes, the plates would start going out in 2025. Phil, this is surprisingly an issue that a lot of people have strong opinions about. What's yours?

PHIL: You know, actually, let's keep the chickadee plate. Let's bring on the, you know, centennial flag of the state of Maine. Let's bring on the New England Patriots on the license plate. It's the number that matters, not the artwork around it.

BETSY: I'm a huge fan of the centennial flag license plate just because I love it. But I think it could be anything. And I think, you know, the number of times where we've had the state bird insect flower dance in the Legislature maybe it's a good thing for people to spend time on that kind of thing instead of, you know.

PHIL: It's a great illustration whether the bill is the billions and billions of dollars in the budget or a chickadee license plate, it's all going to have a public hearing. It's going to have a committee report and it ends up on the Political Brew.

Debt Limit Bill Passed

This week in Washington, all efforts were focused on getting that debt ceiling bill passed. And finally, it did, with just days before the deadline. It suspends the debt limit through January 1, 2025. But not before Republicans in the Senate voiced their concerns last-minute over certain elements of the bill, including a cap on defense spending. Among them, Maine Senator Susan Collins.

ZACH: Now, Phil, I want to start with you. This is obviously a done deal. The 11 amendments they proposed failed, but was Collins right to voice these concerns?

PHIL: Yeah, I think so. But as Betsy, I think would agree with me, these amendments were all for senators to put their feelings on the record. And even though they probably are going to, you know, look back and say, "I voted for something that worked," this is more about positioning. And let's remember Senator Collins, who's also on the Defense Appropriations Committee, she's the ranking Republican, and B.I.W. was very important to the Maine economy. So I think she was basically standing up and speaking up for Maine workers.

BETSY: Well, and you know me, I have to go out to the 35,000-foot view. I mean, we have the largest bloated defense budget in the world, more than the next five countries combined. They got 10 percent more than they asked for in the original budget. And the Republicans had this whole showdown over the debt ceiling because they wanted to cut spending. So to stand up and say, "Oh, we shouldn't cut that spending," it just seemed the whole thing is like, I agree with you. I think it's all political theater. 

Trump Classified Documents

Former President Donald Trump is making headlines again for his handling of classified documents. This time for a recording of Trump talking about keeping a classified planning document related to a potential attack on Iran. That recording, made in 2021, was played during testimony given to the grand jury that has been investigating the former president's handling of classified documents.

ZACH: Betsy, this obviously goes against the argument that he made, that he had declassified the documents and shows that he perhaps knew what he was doing?

BETSY: You know, I think we make a mistake in this country by thinking that he's just a buffoon and doesn't really know. And, you know, he kind of does that. He kind of says, "Oh, I don't know." He's a very smart man. I don't agree with him on anything... but he's a very smart man. And so I think this is just proof. And I think he tries to play that like, "Oh, I didn't know I did. I thought I did it like..." and but I think this was a very deliberate kind of thing." And I think you know, his voice tells the truth.

PHIL: Now, this is going to come down to splitting hairs. I think this is a case where he was the sitting president when he took the documents. But the people who were given access to those documents, I guess it was about writing an autobiography of some sort. They didn't have security clearance, and I think that's going to be the issue that they're going to try to indict him on.

Pence & Christie

This week, former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie are expected to announce their plans to run for president. They will join what's likely to be a crowded GOP field. 

ZACH: Phil, I've asked you this before. I'll ask it again. What is the path to victory here?

PHIL: I don't know what they're thinking. They've got they have to be surrounded by people who are telling them what they want to hear, not what they need to know. I don't think either one of them has the momentum, the money, the organization, or the message to overtake DeSantis or Trump.

BETSY: And if this is not a clarion cry to Republicans to support ranked choice voting, I don't know what is. Because that is the only way that Trump gets defeated. Now, you have the Trump folks and then everyone who's against him, now split up between four or five, six candidates. Right? But if all of those people in a ranked-choice voting got done, they would likely overtake Trump as the nominee, even including DeSantis. So to me and to my Republican friends, hop on the ranked-choice voting band and you'll get it all settled out.

President Biden Falls Onstage

Speaking of the presidency, an embarrassing mishap for President Joe Biden when he fell on stage at an Air Force graduation ceremony this week. The White House says he's doing just fine after tripping over some black sandbags that were used to secure equipment on stage. The president even joking to reporters after the fact that he got "sandbagged."

ZACH: Betsy. Republicans are pouncing on this, saying it speaks to his "fitness" for office. What are your thoughts?

BETSY; Come on. I mean, I think he just wanted to remind people that the election is in the fall. But, you know, I mean, we saw George Bush fall asleep at a Chinese dinner. We saw someone else throw up. I mean, these people are human. He didn't see the black sandbag. He fell. You know, that could happen whether you're 35 or whether you're 105.

ZACH: Phil, is it fair for Fox News and Republicans to be taking advantage of the situation?

PHIL: I think in that one instance it's not fair to the president. Gerald Ford was known to stumble a bit back in the day. But I do think it illustrates this is not the first time. There's been several instances where his balance has been compromised, and I think that's what's leading to the concern. Although the politicians use it to ramp up the rhetoric. But generally, I think, you know, he does have a balance problem.

Winners & Losers

PHIL: My loser of the week is no one. Summer has started. It's time to think positive and enjoy vacationland. My winner of the week, Zach, is the University of Maine baseball team for the first time in over a decade, made it to the NCAA national tournament.

BETSY: My losers of the week are the every single member of the Labor Committee in the state house who voted against family paid medical leave, even though saying they support family values and they want to keep family strong. So those are my losers. The winners of the week is joyful. It is to every person, family, business, city, municipality celebrating Pride Month this week for our LGBTQ+ community. Where we look, we spread respect, we spread commonality, and we spread love. We all need more of that.

You can catch Political Brew every week Sunday morning on NEWS CENTER Maine's Weekend Morning Report.

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