Wednesday, December 26, 2012

In With A Bang: What to Look Forward to in 2013

Published in the Portland Phoenix, these are my contributions to a package done with Deirdre Fulton and Nicholas Schroeder

We're thrilled the world didn't end in 2012 — aren't you? Not just because it lets us keep those plans to go to Asmara for lunch every day (why is that place not packed?), and live up to our promises to actually read that book recommended (or possibly written) by a friend or co-worker. There are some pretty amazing things slated to happen in Maine in 2013, and now that we're going to be around to enjoy them, we're getting even more excited. As you celebrate the beginning of the new year, think about all the unknown prospects and possibilities — but also about these very real events, already slated to occur.
We've already seen the sparks flying between the Blaine House and the State House, with Republican Governor Paul LePage in a snit because the Democrats apparently want to hear — and record — everything he has to say at public appearances, but things may end up escalating. We know there will be huge fights about medical costs, tax policy, social services, and environmental regulations — not to mention labor agreements, business development, and how much Mainers can afford to spend coddling wealthy out-of-state corporations. We hope things won't get as far as actual combat, of course, but we expect talks will eventually break down completely. When that happens, our state's desperate leaders might remember that fireworks are legal — and start launching barrages across Augusta's Capitol Street, from the State House toward the Blaine House, or (more likely) the other direction. We're not expressing hope this happens, but rather warning about its possibility. It definitely wouldn't be the healthiest (nor safest) way to express political disagreement, but we have to admit it sure would provide some otherwise-missing drama for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network's planned "ME-SPAN" coverage of the usually staid meetings and conferences among policymakers. If it gets as bad as lawmakers replacing scheduled votes on bills with five-minute Roman candle fusillades, we'll be certain the legislative session will end with no winners, and a whole bunch of losers. Which is more or less what we expect anyway.
The Earth's climate is changing, quickly and dangerously. Even when we had a stable climate and semi-regular weather patterns, meteorologists were frequently wrong and often in doubt. Their jobs once involved standing in front of green-screens and looking out windows, with annual contractually obligated live shots in significant wind or snow. With our global weather system on the verge of being catastrophically disrupted, we expect they'll just give up. They're already unable to explain why it rained this afternoon, instead of being sunny like they said it would be this morning. Facing a community to tell them why, instead of a few clouds in the sky, their entire neighborhood was swept away, simply isn't a sustainable profession. No longer able to be generally inaccurate, not given the airtime to explain the detailed science behind weather-prediction models, and (like the rest of us) barely able to comprehend the monumental power of an extremely pissed-off planet, these poor weather-people will flee for the hills in the face of being comically — or catastrophically — wrong.
When US Senator Angus King is sworn in on January 2, his plan to calm the disturbed waters of Congress will begin to take effect. His peaceful, friendly visage and manner will radiate throughout the halls of the US Capitol — and beyond, unto Washington and all the land — bringing harmony and concord where we were so recently a people riven asunder by all manner of disagreements and offenses. Or, the gridlock will continue apace, just with a new, amiable, lanky Virginian from Maine taking the place of a nice Greek lady, still striving to unstick the country from its mire.
Maine is already a national leader in voting rights — allowing same-day registration, absentee balloting without an excuse, and even letting inmates and people with criminal records vote. But we can do even better, and we're poised to. Departing Secretary of State Charlie Summers appointed an officiously named Commission to Study the Conduct of Elections in Maine back in May, because he and his Republican cohorts apparently believed there was some sort of huge problem with voting fraud in Maine. (Spoiler alert: There's not, and never was.) The group has heard public hearings all over the state, and the vast majority of the commentary has been two-fold: 1) there's no problem with the existing laws, and 2) if we're going to change things in any way, it should be to expand access to the ballot box, not contract it.
Suggestions have included changing the state Constitution to allow early voting (a technical change from the perspective of those of us who vote absentee in advance, but a major improvement in the burden placed on municipal clerks handling those ballots cast before Election Day); restoring in-person absentee balloting on the Friday, Saturday, and Monday just before Election Day (it was removed in 2011 in hopes of easing clerks' workload but ended up inconveniencing voters instead); and clarifying ancillary rules relating to students who vote in Maine (the Constitution's position is clear, but there are other state laws not directly related to voting that may — or may not — come into play; it's those that might need tidying up).
Having heard all the testimony, and taken written comments as well, the committee will report its findings, and any suggested legislation, to the legislature by the end of January; we can look for the Democrat-controlled State House to frown on any new restrictions, and to cheer for any ideas to make voting easier, clearer, and more accessible to all Mainers.
We've long since lost count of how many hotels there are in Portland, how many rooms each has, and how often they're full or vacant. Until recently, though, we thought we had a handle on how many new hotels were in the works. But when we last looked, the list had grown by one more — and we're sure it'll have added another by the time this hits the streets. This sort of competition has existing hoteliers worried that oversupply will mean lower occupancy rates, cheaper room prices, and reduced profits. That's almost a given when many of the new hotels open in 2014. It's not outlandish to think that, in hopes of fending off this impending competition, Portland lodgings will drop their rates to ridiculous, Priceline-like levels, preferring to lose money and discourage new hoteliers, rather than make insane profit margins and attract gold-diggers galore. If this plan comes to fruition, by December, rooms will be so cheap that Portland's homeless situation will be entirely solved — and we'll still have rooms for all the tourists flocking here.