Down East 2013 ©
Representative Gary Knight took a beating on the so-called Takings bill when it came to a key vote in Maine’s House of Representatives. Knight is a very capable legislator who chairs the Taxation Committee. And he was very angry after changing his vote on the controversial bill to break a tie and send it on to the Senate.
The takings issue has been raised to address the concerns of landowners that state laws and rules diminish the value of their land. Landowner groups including the Farm Bureau, Maine Forest Products Council, and Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine brought the issue and original bill to the legislature.
A majority of the members of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee rejected the bill, and supported an amended version that would establish a process of mediation followed by legislative consideration when a landowner has suffered a loss of more than 50 percent of the value of his land due to a new state law or rule.
Some believe this amended version of the bill was simply created to head off the bill itself, and there is some truth to that, although I think the authors of the amendment are sincere in thinking it addresses the issue in a satisfactory way.
The version of the bill supported by a majority of the Judiciary Committee never came to a vote in the House, because the minority report on the bill was considered first. That minority report is similar to the original bill, and establishes a litigious system in which the landowner could sue the state – or be granted a waiver from the law or rule – if the land’s value was diminished by 50 percent or more because of a new state law or rule.
Some see this version of the takings bill to be an attempt to intimidate future legislators from enacting any laws limiting land uses. And there is some truth to this as well.
Although Attorney General William Schneider warned that any takings bill that allowed landowners to sue the state would be expensive for his office that would have to defend the state in all litigation, Republicans in the House worked hard to win support for the minority report.
Environmental groups are aligned against the minority report, and most support the less stringent majority report (but some oppose both bills).
Rep. Knight got caught in the middle, when the House deadlocked on the minority version of the bill (the stronger version), by a vote of 73 to 73. Before that vote, on the third floor of the Capitol outside the House chamber, I heard Rep. Knight chastise some environmental lobbyists for continuing to ask if he was still committed to voting against the minority report. “I promised to vote no, and I keep my promises,” he said. An hour later, he broke that promise.
Sitting in the gallery as the House Speaker kept the roll call vote open, searching for a Republican House member who would switch his or her no vote to a yes vote for the minority report, breaking the tie and sending it on to the Senate, I watched from the balcony as the Assistant Republican Majority Leader Andre Cushing hastily scribbled a note and handed it to a Page who delivered it to Rep. Knight.
The note asked Knight to meet Cushing in the back of the Chambers. When Knight left his seat, I suspected that opponents of the bill were in trouble. Sure enough, in the back of the chamber Knight found not only Cushing, but several of his closest friends and allies in the House, as well as Republican Senator Mike Thibodeau, all of whom pounced on him demanding that he change his vote.
As he related the scene to me right after the vote, they asked him to change his vote and help them move the bill to the Senate, and told him he could vote against the bill on final enactment when it returned to the House from the Senate.
Under enormous pressure, Knight returned to his seat and switched his no vote to yes and a split second later, the Speaker closed the vote and announced that the bill had passed by a vote of 74 to 72. The Speaker quickly adjourned the House for the day and Knight stormed out of the chambers.
Wanting to talk to him, I made my way from the balcony to the third floor, where I spotted Knight engaged in a lively discussion with the Speaker. He stepped to the door of the Speaker’s office and shouted to me to stay put. “I want to talk to you,” he said, very obviously agitated. A couple of minutes later, he pulled me into the clerk’s office, along with Beth Ahearn of the Maine Conservation Alliance, and told us the whole story, mincing no words about how angry he was at Cushing.
I think I’ll have to use this incident in my book, How the Legislature Really Works – or Doesn’t. It’s a great example of how friendships and party affiliation sometimes trump good sense and even a legislator’s promises. I don’t fault Knight. He’s an honorable guy who was in a very difficult situation.
Ironically, when the bill got to the Senate, it stalled – although it did generate an ugly after-midnight debate in the final hours of the session, before the entire lashup was recessed until May 15.
While a rumor is going around that some Republican Senators are working on another compromise version of the takings bill, I can’t find anyone who is willing to say they’re involved. So the final fate of the takings bill is unknown. The Senate will have to act on it when it reconvenes on May 15.
If the minority report passes in the Senate, it’ll go back to the House for final enactment, giving Rep. Knight another chance to make good on his promise to vote no. I will make one prediction. If the minority report fails, I think the majority (less stringent) version of the bill will fail as well, with its supporters no longer needing it to head off the stronger bill.