Wednesday, May 19, 2010

June Election: Referendum questions

Published in the Portland Phoenix

All Maine voters — whether you are registered as a member of a particular party or not — get to vote on five questions on June 8.

First is a PEOPLE’S VETO, repealing a law that would give Maine a flat 6.5-percent income-tax rate (changing from a graduated rate with the highest bracket at 8.5 percent for people with income over $16,700) and make up the money lost by expanding the sales tax to a wide range of services including auto repair, tickets to movies and performing-arts events, sightseeing tours, pet-care services, bar cover charges (for live-music venues), and admission to amusement parks. A “Yes” vote is for repeal; a “No” vote supports the new law.

Second is a $26.5 MILLION BOND FOR “ENERGY INDEPENDENCE,” giving $11 million to off-shore wind development (which will also draw $24.5 million in federal and other funds) and $15.5 million to energy-efficiency improvements at the University of Maine, community colleges, and Maine Maritime Academy.

Question 3 is a $47.8 MILLION TRANSPORTATION BOND to spend $24.8 million to improve highways, $16 million for railroads (plus designating an additional $4 million from last November’s transportation bond for railroads), and $6.5 million for a deep-water pier at Portland’s Ocean Gateway terminal.

Question 4 is a $23.8 MILLION ECONOMIC-DEVELOPMENT BOND including $8 million for redevelopment of the Brunswick Naval Air Station, $11 million for various business-grant programs, and $1.25 million for purchasing historic properties for preservation.

Question 5 is a $10.3 MILLION WATER-QUALITY BOND supporting improving water supplies for drinking and for agriculture, as well as improving household and municipal wastewater treatment systems. If approved, this bond will draw as much as $33.3 million in federal and other funds to augment these projects.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Up-and-Comers Dept.: Deering High musician having a banner year

Published in the Portland Phoenix

You might have caught 18-year-old Dominic Sbrega on NPR’s From the Top last week, playing Mexican folk-dance music on his stand-up bass, accompanying three trumpeters (from the Washington DC area), two 17-year-old Maine percussionists, and show host Christopher O’Riley on piano.

If you’re a road-tripping music fan, you also might have caught Sbrega in California, performing in the Grammy Jazz Ensembles back in January as part of the week leading up to the Grammy Awards ceremony. But if you’re a jazz fan, it’s pretty much a sure thing that you’ll see him performing on even larger stages at some point not too long from now.

Sbrega plays the upright bass in classical, jazz, and (apparently) Mexican folk pieces, and is also one of seven high-school students recognized this year by DownBeat magazine for outstanding performance. In the fall, he’ll head to Rochester, New York, to attend the Eastman School of Music to study jazz performance on the bass.

A Deering High School senior at the moment, Sbrega is unimpressed with the Rams’ music program, saying the facilities are fine but the people could be more dedicated. Of course, he sets a high bar: In addition to performing with the Portland Youth Symphony Orchestra and various all-state music ensembles, he spent two weeks last summer taking master classes at Eastman. Keep your eyes — and ears — out for his return to town, but after a very busy winter and spring, he says, “I think I might take a little bit of a break” over the summer.

Follow-up: Attorneys cleared

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Three attorneys who faced allegations of professional misconduct (see “CMP Attorney, State Regulators Under Review,” by Jeff Inglis, April 2) have been cleared of wrongdoing by a committee of the Maine Board of Overseers of the Bar, according to a ruling issued last week.

The three had been the objects of a complaint from Bob Bemis of Levant, stemming from how they handled communications with him and with staff of the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) during a regulatory proceeding.

Ken Farber, the general counsel for Central Maine Power, was given the cleanest bill of health, with the board noting in its ruling that the person charged with proving the allegations, Jacqueline Gomes, admitted during last month’s hearing on the matter that he had done nothing wrong.

Eric Bryant, an attorney for the Maine Office of the Public Advocate, had admitted failing to send a copy of a single e-mail message to Bemis and another party in the proceeding, but the review board’s report says that error was “of little consequence,” and the e-mail contained “no new information” that needed to be provided to Bemis. As a result of those facts, he was also found not to have violated any rules of the bar.

Joanne Steneck, general counsel for the PUC, was found to have been “operating under the sincere, though perhaps mistaken belief” that Bemis and another party to the proceeding had agreed to let her communicate without sending copies of correspondence to them. The report suggested a couple of things Steneck could have done that “would have been better practice,” but because she was operating in good faith and because the report said no serious damage was done by her actions, she was also found not to have violated any rules.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Press Releases: Poor WGME

Published in the Portland Phoenix

As the gubernatorial primary date inches closer, we’re starting to see more and more TV ads showing would-be governors touting themselves and their qualifications for the job. But this year is a little different: We’re not seeing any Democrats advertising on WGME, the Sinclair-owned CBS affiliate that broadcasts on Channel 13 from Portland.

That’s unusual, though the ostensible reason isn’t: there is an ongoing dispute between unionized station employees and management, and the Dems want to be seen supporting union workers.
More unusual, though, is that the station’s general manager, Tom Humpage, went public to complain about it. Naturally, though, he barely even mentioned the real issue: money.

In a video statement that went out on the airwaves and streamed online, Humpage lamented the candidates’ decisions, but he appeared unclear about how to approach them. Should he cozy up to these people who are depriving his business of cash, or get angry?

First, he went courtly, calling their decision “surprising . . . given that WGME is one of the most watched stations in Portland.” (That’s true; WGME has posted strong ratings for individual news programs, and is generally in second place for viewership in the Portland-Auburn market, though very far behind top-rated WCSH 6, the Gannett-owned NBC affiliate.)

But Humpage, who did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story, quickly got combative, pointing out a few facts in his favor: the union is not on strike (true), the station is “not violating any state or federal labor laws” (true, though a union-filed unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board has yet to be ruled upon), and that WGME “employs more union employees than any other television station in all of Maine” (a claim that is nearly impossible to prove either way).

We can forgive him for being worked up — and confused. This is not a total Democrat boycott of WGME: all the Democratic candidates participated in an April 28 debate televised on that channel and moderated by WGME news anchor Gregg Lagerquist.

But while they seem happy to take the free airtime and face-time from the station, they’re not giving anything back. And that’s really what has Humpage upset. The amounts in question are significant. In 2002, for example (the last time the governor’s race was for an open seat), the 15 candidates spent more than $2.5 million on television advertising (more than half of all campaign spending in that race). In 2006, with a Democratic incumbent facing a primary and a host of Republican challengers, TV ad spending for the governor’s race still hit $2.2 million. (Legislative revenue is minuscule by comparison — combined, all the State House candidates in 2008 spent barely over $75,000 in TV ads.)

Already in this year’s gubernatorial campaign, the 30 candidates have collectively spent nearly $1 million on TV ads alone, a pace that suggests the final tally will be much higher. It’s reasonable for Humpage to want to get a cut of that spending, and for him to be upset at learning that his station’s union relations are hurting that possibility.

Of course, that money is split across as many as seven TV stations around the state, but it’s money WGME was certainly planning on receiving that now it has to scramble to make up. (By contrast, Gannett as an overall corporation reported the Olympics drove significant gains in first-quarter advertising and is projecting as much as 20-percent increases in the second quarter.)