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Children in Maine
  • Maine's New Licensing Rules for Child Care Providers Might Put Children at Risk

    Article and photos by Ramona du Houx

    Hymanson: “Regulations need to keep children safe and ensure quality.”

    A new set of licensing rules for in-home child care providers developed by the Department of Health and Human Services took effect Wednesday, September 27, 2017. The new rules potentially put Maine's children at risk.

    “Access to high-quality, affordable child care is critical to early development, and therefore critical to Maine’s future. Many people in our large, rural state have limited choices for their child care providers, so the regulations need to keep children safe and ensure quality by standards set by child-care experts. These, our next generation of citizens and their parents, deserve that,"said Health and Human Services Chair, Dr. Patty Hymanson.

    “Rolling back these regulations has been opposed by advocates, experts and legislators. Parents need to have access to every piece of information about every part of the day care center where they entrust care and education of their child. These rules will negatively impact the quality and standard of care and I will work within the legislative process to ensure the safety of our kids.”

    The new rules allow in-home child care providers to care for more children than the state previously allowed, without having to add staff. They will also lessen the amount of information to which parents receive about the facility and restrict the degree of access parents have to their children while they’re in care. 

    “High-quality, affordable child care is out of reach for too many families in our state. I regularly hear from people in my district who either cannot find care they can afford, cannot find suitable care or cannot find open spots for their children at all," said Sen. Ben Chipman of Portland, the lead Senate Democrat on the Health and Human Services Committee. "The department’s solution to this problem is to impose new rules on childcare providers that diminish the standards of care. But that’s not a solution that works for Maine families. I’m committed to doing what’s necessary to make sure state regulations expand access to safe, responsible and affordable child care.  Our families deserve nothing less.”

  • Grants from Full Plates/Full Potential for Maine School breakfasts

    Full Plates Full Potential, an organization dedicated to ending child hunger in Maine, just granted over $26,000 to Maine Public Schools and nonprofits addressing student hunger and increasing access to nutritious school breakfast.

    The grants are funding breakfast models called ‘breakfast after the bell’, which have increased the number of children  participating in the healthy School Breakfast Program. Teachers who have implemented the ‘breakfast after the bell’ models have also seen fewer disciplinary issues, less visits to the nurse's office and better results academically.

    The traditional breakfast in the cafeteria offered before the bell isn’t meeting the needs of all Maine students. Many students arrive at school just as the bell rings or later and don’t have the time to get breakfast before starting their day. Models such as Breakfast in the Classroom and Grab N’ Go allows all students the opportunity to eat a healthy breakfast before starting their school day.

    “Besides meeting their nutritional needs, a full belly allows students to focus on their academics and to reach their full potential,”  according to Michelle Lamm chair of the FPFP breakfast sub-committee and supervisor at the Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative.

    Research by Feeding America shows that when kids lack proper nutrition, they’re less able to live up to their full potential in the classroom—and later in life, too, when they join the workforce and raise families of their own. In 2016, nearly 87,000 kids in Maine — 47 percentof all public-school students—lived in “food insecure” households (homes where there is often not enough nutritious food to eat). 

    About Full Plates Full Potential

    Full Plates Full Potential is a 501(c)3 organization that is dedicated to ending child hunger in Maine. Every day, thousands of Maine children don’t get enough good, nutritious food to eat.

    Full Plates Full Potential believes it’s possible to increase the number of children enrolled, participating, and consuming nutritious meals available through the safety net of child nutrition and school-based programs, eliminating child hunger in Maine within five years.

    Full Plates Full Potential funds best practices to increase access and participation in USDA child nutrition programs, which include: breakfast, lunch, child and adult care food programs and the summer food service program. FPFP was established in 2015 and has built a strong track record of providing technical assistance to schools and nonprofits, creating a five year plan to end childhood hunger and giving grants to support best practices. Their website www.fullplates.org 

  • Maine voters overwhelmingly voted for Research and Development bonds

    The official tabulation of votes from the June 13, 2017 Special Referendum Election show that the bond issue was approved overwhemingly by Maine voters.

    The Elections Division has certified the results and Gov. Paul LePage signed the official vote proclamation.

    The certified election results show a total of 63,468 votes in favor of the bond issue, and 39,549 votes in opposition. Voters cast a total of 104,213 ballots in this single-question statewide referendum, with 1,196 blanks.

    Question 1 asked: “Do you favor a $50,000,000 bond issue to provide $45,000,000 in funds for investment in research, development and commercialization in the State to be used for infrastructure, equipment and technology upgrades that enable organizations to gain and hold market share, to increase revenues and to expand employment or preserve jobs for Maine people, to be awarded through a competitive process to Maine-based public and private entities, leveraging other funds in a one-to-one ratio and $5,000,000 in funds to create jobs and economic growth by lending to or investing in small businesses with the potential for significant growth and strong job creation?”

    The funds will support job growth in Maine’s high tech industries, creating good-paying jobs, new products and new services. Mainers will benefit from innovation in biotech, forest products, marine resources and information technologies. New construction projects will create additional jobs for building contractors, tradespeople, equipment suppliers, and professional service providers, increasing economic activity throughout the State.

    The funds will be administered by the Maine Technology Institute (MTI)www.mainetechnology.org and applicants will be selected through an independent, review process to select projects with the greatest potential for return on investment. Applicants are required to match dollar-for-dollar, the amount of the grant award -increasing private sector investments and accountability.

    The Elections Division will post the results online this week at http://maine.gov/sos/cec/elec/results/index.html.

    The legislation will become law 30 days from the date of the official proclamation (July 21, 2017).

  • Students welcome spring with orchard plantings across Maine

    Hundreds of students at eight Maine public schools got their hands dirty in orchard plantings this spring. Thanks to the nonprofit ReTreeUS, these grade school, middle, and high school students are leaving their mark for years to come. The organization, in its fifth year of planting, is dedicated to promoting an environmentally sustainable, socially-just food system through education, practical resources and mentorship. It lives up to its mission: before each planting is a lesson.

    “We believe that by engaging students in the process of growing their own food and caring for trees, we can create lasting change,” says Richard Hodges, ReTreeUS Program Manager. This spring, a variety of 128 apple, peach, plum and pear trees were dispersed among the eight school orchards: Manchester Elementary, Oxford Hills, Walker Elementary, Ellsworth, Pownal, Connors Emerson, Newport, and Bath Middle School. Schools become eligible for their own orchard by applying to participate through ReTreeUS, and at no expense.

    The trees provide shade, look better, provide a habitat for animals and birds, and provide food for the cafeteria,” said Pam Lanz, school garden coordinator at Manchester Elementary. In about five years, these trees will start to produce fruit. For now, it’s an education in sustainability and understanding where your food comes from.

    “I really like educational experiences like this. I've learned a lot already!” says a Bath Middle School student. Twelve varieties of apples and pear trees were planted among the orchards. “Often these kids think that the apples they see in grocery stores are the only varieties,” Hodges explained. “We are teaching them that types like Liberty, Enterprise, and Wolfe River also exist, and can be grown right here in Maine.”

    The mornings began with the dormant trees soaking in water while students dug holes. They then mixed compost into the piles of soil from each hole and pushed the mixture over the roots to plant. “These are your trees,” Hodges says to the students at the end of each planting. The orchard is made complete with ReTreeUS signs about apple history, pollination, and its environmental impact to make the space accessible for self-guided tours.

    The eight schools that participated in this spring’s planting have ended their day with a new orchard for all to enjoy. “Each orchard is a legacy in the school,” Hodges says. “Fruit trees take awhile to come into production, students watch the trees grow over time and know that they will be giving back to future generations.”

    Apply for an Orchard Planting: ReTreeUS is now accepting applications for Spring 2018 school plantings. If your school is interested, learn more at retreeus.org or by emailing richard@retreeus.org.

  • LePage Proposes Bill that would Directly Increase Maine Kids living in Poverty



    By Ramona du Houx

    Governor LePage, Commissioner Mayhew, and Rep. Ken Fredette rolled out the draft idea of a proposed bill that would plunge Maine children, and their families, further into poverty. The governor needs the bill to codify some changes to welfare programs that his administration has already made by executive action. Many of the proposals outlined by LePage have been introduced as bills in the past but died in the legislature.

    Since LePgae's so called reforms have been put in place the number of children living in deep poverty and the infant mortality rate has risen. According to the 2016 Kids Count Data Book, more Maine children live in poverty than before the recession. Now, over 82,000 children in Maine — more than the entire populations of Bangor, Augusta and Biddeford combined - live in poverty.

    The USDA estimates that 15.8 percent of Maine households, or more than 209,000 individuals, are food insecure.
     
    “These so-called ‘reforms’ by the administration have created lasting damage. We’ve driven children and families deeper into poverty, increased childhood hunger, and removed basic health care from struggling families," said Health and Human Services Chair, Dr. Patty Hymanson. 
     
    "I believe that true reform means improving people’s lives, not driving them deeper into poverty. True reform should be based on a vision that would reduce child poverty by creating real opportunities for Maine families. I propose stabilizing families so that they can meet their basic needs, breaking down barriers to work, eliminating the welfare ‘cliff,’ expanding access to education for better paying jobs, making child care and transportation more accessible and affordable and holding government accountable to administer programs that truly reduce poverty."

    Trying to promote the package that would potentially endanger thousands of children LePage has the audacity to call his proposed changes — the Welfare Reform for Increased Security and Employment Act.

    "If we want Maine children to thrive, we need to reduce the number of children living in poverty. That starts with supporting and properly administering effective anti-poverty programs, while creating an economy that works for everyone," said Rita Furlow is senior policy analyst at the Maine Children’s Alliance.

    LePage's Draconian measure will:

    Shorten the lifetime limit for Maine families under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program from five years to three years, also codifying a work requirement for the same program and establishing a $5,000 asset test on certain households that get food stamps. It will also:

    — Place photographs on electronic benefits cards
    — Ban or suspend parents not cooperating with child support services from receiving food assistance
    — Disqualify lottery and gambling winners of $5,000 or more from receiving food assistance
    — Require education programs paid for with TANF money to be for jobs with average or better outlooks
    — Ban repeat felony drug offenders from receiving food assistance
    — Disqualify all adults in a household from receiving TANF if an individual is convicted of welfare-related theft or fraud

    While the Republicans declare they want less government LePage continues to propose more government invasion into the lives of Maine citizens.

  • Former CEO and Executive Director of The Silk Road Project will lead MECA

    The Maine College of Art’s (MECA) Board of Trustees has announced the appointment of Laura Freid, Ed.D., as the 18th president of the 135 year-old institution.

    Freid comes to MECA as a passionate and proven advocate for the arts and education, most recently serving in partnership with internationally acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, as CEO and Executive Director of The Silk Road Project, a global cultural arts organization based at Harvard University.

    Silkroad works to connect the world through the arts, presenting musical performances and learning programs, and fostering radical cultural collaboration around the world to lead to advancing global understanding.

    Her prior leadership experience includes serving as Executive Vice President for Public Affairs and University Relations at Brown University and Chief Communications Officer at Harvard University where she was publisher ofHarvard Magazine.

    Led by alumnus Brian Wilk ’95, incoming chair of MECA’s Board of Trustees, and Vice President at Hasbro Toys, MECA’s presidential search process officially started in August  2016, when a search committee composed of a diverse group of representatives from within the MECA community convened to discuss and understand the most essential attributes needed in the College’s next leader.

    In announcing the choice, Wilk remarked on the thorough and extensive nature of the selection process. “It was clear to the entire search committee that we needed someone who has the skills, experience, and appetite to continue building our mission of educating artists for life while expanding our reputation as an international destination for world-class arts education. After carefully considering our impressively deep pool of seasoned candidates from all over the world, our search committee unanimously agreed that Dr. Laura Freid was the right person to guide MECA through our next critical period of growth.”  


    Debbie Reed, chair of the MECA Board of Trustees, described Freid as “an exceptional leader who understands MECA’s mission and the importance of creativity.” According to Reed, “From the moment we met Laura, we were interested in learning more about her demonstrated track record of engaging multiple constituencies while serving in senior leadership roles at multiple institutions. The Board of Trustees looks forward to an exciting future under Laura’s leadership as we move the College forward.”

    “I am grateful for the dynamic leadership that has guided MECA to date and to the entire College community and the city of Portland for creating such an exciting American center for the arts, culture and entrepreneurship,” Freid said. “In times as rife with international, political, and economic tensions as we are experiencing today, I believe investing in the arts has never been more imperative. Art gives us meaning and identity, helping us reflect on and shape our lives; it is fundamental to our well-being. That is why I believe providing artists with the education they need to succeed is such a critical and vital mission.”

    Freid’s educational background is rooted in the philosophy of aesthetics and in the history of reputation in higher education. She holds a B.A. in Philosophy from Washington University, an MBA from Boston University Graduate School of Management, and an Ed.D. from University of Pennsylvania.

    Freid will take office on or before July 1st, replacing Interim President Stuart Kestenbaum, Maine’s Poet Laureate and former Director of the Haystack Mountain School of Arts. Kestenbaum stepped in to lead during a transition year after Don Tuski, Ph.D. accepted the position of President at Pacific Northwest College of the Arts in Portland, Oregon, on the heels of six years of continuous enrollment and endowment growth at MECA.

  • Scientists call on Collins

    The Penobscot is polluted with mercury - we need the EPA

    Editorial by Dianne Kopec and Aram Calhoun,

    As the name implies, the goal of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is to protect our environment, and it has worked toward that goal since it was created in 1970. That start date is important to the people and the environment of the lower Penobscot River, for in late 1967, the HoltraChem chlor-alkali plant began operating in Orrington on the banks of the river. In the first four years of the plant’s operation, waste mercury was routinely discharged into the river. Much of that mercury continues to contaminate the Penobscot.

    We ask that the community, and Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King — who will soon vote on the nominee to head the agency, Scott Pruitt — consider the value of the EPA and the critical importance of appointing a director who embraces the mission of protecting our environment.

    Senator Susan Collins – (202) 224-2523 Senator Angus King – (202) 224-5344

    We are scientists. We examined the impact of the mercury discharges into the river as part of the Penobscot River Mercury Study, an independent court-ordered study of mercury contamination of the Penobscot River from the HoltraChem plant. This work gave us first-hand knowledge of the value of the EPA and of the environmental consequences when regulations are absent or not enforced.

    One of the first actions of the EPA was a thorough revision of water pollution laws and the creation of the Clean Water Act, which was passed by Congress in 1972.

    For the first time in our history, the government began regulating pollutant discharges into surface waters. It was no longer legal for the Orrington chemical plant to dump its waste mercury into the Penobscot. Instead, HoltraChem began storing the waste mercury in landfills that greatly reduced the amount of mercury entering the river. Yet, roughly 90 percent of an estimated nine tons of mercury that was ultimately released into the Penobscot River was discharged before the EPA began regulating pollutant discharges into our rivers, streams and lakes.

    Today, the evidence of those mercury discharges can be seen in the sediment of the Penobscot River. Buried 16 inches below the surface of the sediment is a layer of extreme mercury contamination, deposited during the early years of plant operation.

    The sediment deposited after EPA was created is less contaminated.

    Yet, buried contaminants do not always remain hidden. River and slough channels can change course, releasing long-buried mercury into the surface sediment that is swept up and down the river with the tide. So in some parts of the lower Penobscot the most contaminated sediment is not buried, but near the surface, where it enters our food web and accumulates in our fish, birds and lobster.

    Now 50 years later, we have mercury concentrations in waterfowl almost four times greater than the Maine action level for mercury in muscle tissue, prompting the state’s first health advisory on the consumption of breast meat from ducks. Migratory song birds arrive in marshes along the lower Penobscot with low mercury burdens, but quickly accumulate mercury concentrations in their blood that exceed levels known to cause reproductive failure. Average mercury concentrations in lobster living near the mouth of the Penobscot River are two to three times greater than the Maine action level, and individual lobster have concentrations over six times greater.

    There is now a state ban on lobster harvesting in that area. Without EPA regulations, the river would be even more contaminated. Finally, mercury concentrations in the surface sediments of the river are seven to 10 times greater than background concentrations in rivers Down East, and we estimate it will take a minimum of 60 to 400 years, depending on the area, for the Penobscot to clean itself.

    Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general, has been nominated to head the EPA, despite the fact that he is a leading advocate against the agency. His history of suing the EPA over environmental regulations, the same regulations that now limit discharges to the Penobscot, should disqualify him from service as the agency’s director.

    This is only one example of the positive role the EPA plays in safeguarding public and environmental health. Environmental regulations save our country money, provide jobs, and ensure the health of all animals, plants and the humans who see clean air, water and soil as an American right. The EPA needs a leader who will defend that right.

    Dianne Kopec is an adjunct instructor in the department of wildlife, fisheries, and conservation biology at the University of Maine in Orono. Aram Calhoun is a professor of wetlands ecology at UMaine. Peter Santschi, a regents professor in the department of marine sciences at Texas A&M University in Galveston, and Ralph Turner, a mercury researcher at RT Geosciences Inc., also contributed to this piece.

  • Impact of the Affordable Care Act in Maine and how Dirigo Health helped

    By Ramona du Houx

    Since the Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010 thousands of Mainers have gained coverage, and hundreds of thousands more have had their coverage substantially improved.

    On January 16, 2017 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released an extensive compilation of state-level data illustrating the substantial improvements in health care for all Americans over the last six years.

    The data show that the uninsured rate in Maine has fallen by 17 percent since the ACA was enacted, translating into 22,000 Mainers gaining coverage, some transfered to the ACA from the established state program, Dirigo Health Care. 

    Photo: President Barack Obama came to Maine after the ACA was enacted and praised Governor John Baldacci for his work on the creation of the Dirigo Health Care Act. Photo by Ramona du Houx

    “As our nation debates changes to the health care system, it’s important to take stock of where we are today compared to where we were before the Affordable Care Act,” said Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell. “Whether Mainers get coverage through an employer, Medicaid, the individual market, or Medicare, they have better health coverage and care today as a result of the ACA. Millions of Americans with all types of coverage have a stake in the future of health reform. We need to build on our progress and continue to improve health care access, quality, and affordability, not move our system backward.”

    Photo: Governor John Baldacci with Robin Mills talking about Dirigo Choice in 2007. Photo by Ramona du Houx

    Maine was an unusual case, because the state had enacted the Dirigo Health Care Act during the Baldacci administration, and many of the ACA benefits were already apart of Dirigo. Because of Dirigo it was easier to transfer over to the ACA.

    Governor John Baldacci deserves recognition for creating a model for the ACA. Other portions of Dirigo were dismantled by Gov. Paul LePage, who succeeded Baldacci. Never-the-less Baldacci's Dirigo saved thousands of lives by giving people health insurance for the first time, by expanding preventative care, covering more young adults, by eliminating the pre-existing condition and discrimination against women in health coverage.

    Dirigo Choice, the insurance branch of Dirigo Health, insured more than 40,000 Mainers and also became a model for President Obama’s ACA. In 2010 Monique Kenyon said, "We were shocked,” when she found out her husband was suffering from cancer. “Being a middle-income family we didn’t qualify for any assistance. We couldn’t afford all the treatment without insurance, but insurance companies wouldn’t accept him because he has this preexisting condition. He’s still with us because of Dirigo Choice.”

    Signed into law in the 2003 Dirigo Health Care Reform Act was a bold step toward universal health coverage during a time when policymakers in Washington D.C. and in state houses struggled to take even small steps. A few years later Governor Romney of Massachusetts used elements of Dirigo in his health care policies.

    “In many ways, Dirigo was a pace-setter and blueprint to national reform,” said Trish Riley, former director of Maine Governor John Baldacci’s Office of Health Policy and Finance. Riley said the program saved many lives by helping thousands of uninsured gain access to medical care and enabling more than 1,000 small businesses to provide insurance for their owners and employees.

    Baldacci expanded Medicare, covering many more Mainers, but LePage has refused to accept this part of the ACA, so thousands who were on, what the state calls MaineCare were kicked off because of LePage -  too many have died.

    In 2003, Maine ranked 16th healthiest among the states; in 2010 Maine was in the top ten. In 2003, Maine ranked 19th among the states in covering the uninsured; in 2010 Maine was sixth. With Dirigo Health, Maine created an efficient public health system with eight districts that cover the entire state through Healthy Maine Partnerships. During the Baldacci administration the state reached a milestone in healthcare coverage, won awards for Dirigo and became a model for the nation. (photo below taken in 2010)

    The ACA picked up the torch and contained to save the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people in Maine.

    Highlights of theACA  data include:

    Employer Coverage: 702,000 people in Maine are covered through employer-sponsored health plans. 

    Since the ACA this group has seen:

    An end to annual and lifetime limits: Before the ACA, 431,000 Mainers with employer or individual market coverage had a lifetime limit on their insurance policy. That meant their coverage could end exactly when they needed it most. The ACA prohibits annual and lifetime limits on policies, so all Mainers with employer plans now have coverage that’s there when they need it.
    Young adults covered until age 26: An estimated 8,000 young adults in Maine have benefited from the ACA provision that allows kids to stay on their parents’ health insurance up to age 26.

    Free preventive care: Under the ACA, health plans must cover preventive services — like flu shots, cancer screenings, contraception, and mammograms – at no extra cost to consumers. This provision benefits 588,281 people in Maine, most of whom have employer coverage.

    Slower premium growth: Nationally, average family premiums for employer coverage grew 5 percent per year 2010-2016, compared with 8 percent over the previous decade. Family premiums are $3,600 lower today than if growth had matched the pre-ACA decade.


    Better value through the 80/20 rule: Because of the ACA, health insurance companies must spend at least 80 cents of each premium dollar on health care or care improvements, rather than administrative costs like salaries or marketing, or else give consumers a refund. Mainers with employer coverage have received $2,507,067 in insurance refunds since 2012.


    Medicaid: 273,160 people in Maine are covered by Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program, including 115,217 children and 52,077 seniors and people with disabilities covered by both Medicaid and Medicare. The ACA expanded Medicaid eligibility and strengthened the program for those already eligible.

    40,000 Mainers could gain coverage: An estimated 40,000 Mainers could have health insurance today if Maine expanded Medicaid under the ACA. Coverage improves access to care, financial security, and health; expansion would result in an estimated 5,000 more Mainers getting all needed care, 5,700 fewer Mainers struggling to pay medical bills, and 50 avoided deaths each year.
    Thousands of Mainers with a mental illness or substance use disorder could get help: Nearly 30 percent of those who could gain coverage if more states expanded Medicaid have a mental illness or substance use disorder.


    Maine could be saving millions in uncompensated care costs: Instead of spending $40 million on uncompensated care, which increases costs for everyone, Maine could be getting $430 million in federal support to provide low-income adults with much needed care.
    Children, people with disabilities, and seniors can more easily access Medicaid coverage: The ACA streamlined Medicaid eligibility processes, eliminating hurdles so that vulnerable Mainers could more easily access and maintain coverage.


    Maine is improving health care for individuals with chronic conditions, including those with severe mental illness: The ACA established a new Medicaid flexibility that allows states to create health homes, a new care delivery model to improve care coordination and lower costs for individuals with chronic conditions, such as severe mental illness, Hepatitis C, diabetes and heart disease
    Individual market: 75,240 people in Maine have coverage through the Marketplace. Individual market coverage is dramatically better compared to before the ACA:

    No discrimination based on pre-existing conditions: Up to 590,266 people in Maine have a pre-existing health condition. Before the ACA, these Mainers could have been denied coverage or charged an exorbitant price if they needed individual market coverage. Now, health insurance companies cannot refuse coverage or charge people more because of pre-existing conditions.
    Tax credits available to help pay for coverage: Before the ACA, only those with employer coverage generally got tax benefits to help pay for health insurance. Now, 63,896 moderate- and middle-income Mainers receive tax credits averaging $342 per month to help them get covered through HealthCare.gov.

    Women pay the same as men: Before the ACA, women were often charged more than men just because of their gender. That is now illegal thanks to the ACA, protecting roughly half the people of Maine.

    Greater transparency and choice: Before the ACA, it was virtually impossible for consumers to effectively compare insurance plan prices and shop for the best value. Under the ACA, Maine has received $5 million in federal funding to provide a more transparent marketplace where consumers can easily compare plans, choosing among 25 plans on average.

    Medicare: 315,160 people in Maine are covered by Medicare. The ACA strengthened the Medicare Trust Fund, extending its life by over a decade.

    Medicare enrollees have benefited from:

    Lower costs for prescription drugs: Because the ACA is closing the prescription drug donut hole, 18,970 Maine seniors are saving $19 million on drugs in 2015, an average of $986 per beneficiary.
    Free preventive services: The ACA added coverage of an annual wellness visit and eliminated cost-sharing for recommended preventive services such as cancer screenings. In 2015, 165,892 Maine seniors, or 71 percent of all Maine seniors enrolled in Medicare Part B, took advantage of at least one free preventive service.

    Fewer hospital mistakes: The ACA introduced new incentives for hospitals to avoid preventable patient harms and avoidable readmissions. Hospital readmissions for Maine Medicare beneficiaries dropped 4 percent between 2010 and 2015, which translates into 232 times Maine Medicare beneficiaries avoided an unnecessary return to the hospital in 2015. 

    More coordinated care: The ACA encouraged groups of doctors, hospitals, and other health care providers to come together to provide coordinated high-quality care to the Medicare patients they serve. 6 Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) in Maine now offer Medicare beneficiaries the opportunity to receive higher quality, more coordinated care.

    ACA Content created by Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs (ASPA)

  • Rep. Devin combats ocean acidification, addresses conference with Gov. Jerry Brown

    Rep. Mick Devin, of Newcastle, ME, joined fellow members of the International Alliance to Combat Ocean Acidification, including California Governor Jerry Brown, at a combat acidifacation launch event in CA. 

    Maine recognized as a national leader in fighting for healthier oceans 

    By Ramona du Houx

    In December of 2016,  U.S. and global leaders launched the International Alliance to Combat Ocean Acidification in Coronado, CA.  Rep. Mick Devin, D-Newcastle, represented Maine at the event and was a key speaker. 

    “It was an honor to show the rest of the country how Maine is a leader when it comes to addressing the quality of the water in our oceans,” said Rep. Devin. “Scientists are working around the clock because they know how many people depend on the ocean to make a living.”

    The oceans are the primary protein source for 2.6 billion people, and support $2.5 trillion of economic activity each year. Maine's lobster industry could suffer greatly from ocean acidification. Catches like this one would only be read in history books. This lobster was put back into the ocean, as it's way beyond the size fishermen can legally catch.

    Maine is seen as the leading state on the East Coast addressing ocean acidification.  Maine was the first state to establish an Ocean Acidification Commission.  As a result of the commission the Maine Ocean and Coastal Acidification Alliance, or MOCA, was established. 

    Ocean acidification occurs when carbon dioxide from fossil fuel use and other carbon sources dissolves in the water and forms carbonic acid. Other sources of acidification include fresh water from rivers and decomposing algae feeding off nutrients in runoff. Carbonic acid dissolves the shells of shellfish.

    Maine’s major inshore shellfisheries, including clams, oysters, lobsters, shrimp and sea urchins, could see major losses if ocean acidification is left unchecked.

    At the conference, Devin addressed how state leaders are using science to establish priorities in dealing with the rising acidity of the earth’s oceans. He explained how Maine used those priorities to develop a long-term action plan.  

    He stressed the importance of addressing ocean acidification by developing plans to remediate and adapt to it. Devin said that strategy is crucial for Maine to maintain its healthy marine economy, particularly the commercial fishing and aquaculture industries, which are valued well in excess of billion dollars annually. 

    Devin finished his presentation by showing a slide of a boiled lobster dinner and repeating his trademark line about one reason the marine economy matters to so many: “People do not visit the coast of Maine to eat a chicken sandwich.” 

    The Alliance includes several state governments, governments of Canadian provinces, North American tribal governments, and countries as far away as France, Chile and Nigeria. 

    While lobsters are the iconic image of Maine, many other shell fish will be effected, like musscles, and clams. Photo by Ramona du Houx

    Members have five primary goals: advancing scientific understanding of ocean acidification; taking meaningful actions to reduce causes of acidification; protect the environment and coastal communities from impacts of a changing ocean; expanding public awareness and understanding of acidification; and building sustained global support for addressing the problem.

    Devin, a marine biologist at the Darling Center in Walpole and a member of the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee, is serving his third term in the Maine House. He represents Bremen, Bristol, Damariscotta, Newcastle, part of Nobleboro, part of South Bristol, Monhegan Plantation and the unorganized territory of Louds Island.

     

  • The 128 Legislature and how to help the state out of stagnation

     By Ramona du Houx

    Members of the 128th Legislature were sworn into the Maine House of Representatives on December 7, 2016, led by Democratic Speaker of the House Sara Gideon. There are 25 new members and 52 returning representatives in the House, including 36 women.

    “Today, we start out with a Maine economy that is lagging behind New England and the rest of the country in terms of economic growth, recovery of jobs lost during the recession and wage growth,” said Gideon, D-Freeport.  “We lead New England when it comes to the number of Maine children and seniors living in poverty. Those are the facts.  And here is another fact: We have to do better. We will always work together and come to the table in search of common ground to help the 1.3 million Mainers who expect us to rise above politics.” 

    There are issues that could grow Maine’s economy, which haven’t been addressed during the LePage administration. Instead he’s focused on cutting benefits and lowering taxes for the wealthy. in his speach today to the lawmakers he talked about changing the Minimum wage referendum that passed, not about how to grow jobs.

    In a recent interview, Former Governor John Baldacci sited a study conducted by Former Governor King, which listed the top areas in need of investment that still remain areas that need funding.

    "The two leading factors in the study were the education and training of the population and the amount of Research and Development funds invested to help businesses get the latest cutting edge technologies so they can compete successfully with other businesses anyone in the world,” said Gov. Baldacci.

    Maine has suffered under LePage by the lack of Research and Development (R&D) funds that used to spur economic activity as the research, conducted at the University of Maine and other laboratories, was regularly used by start-up Maine companies, there-by growing jobs across Maine. The people have always voted overwhelmingly for R&D bonds in Maine. But LePage doesn’t believe in bond issues and has held bond funds hostage in the past.

    "We've been doing a terrible job at putting resources in Research and Development," said Gov. Baldacci, who invested dramatically in R&D during his administration. "We also need to focus on job training. We're not doing enough to match jobs to the industries established here. Our Labor Department needs to be our Human Resource Department. There are plenty of job opportunities out there that need trained workers and plenty of workers who want the opportunity to work. Our people, families, and small businesses aren't looking for a handout, but are looking for opportunities. Our responsibility is to make sure that happens throughout all of Maine."

    Baldacci started this work with Former Labor Secretary Laura Fortman, but little has been done to progress these job opportunities under the LePage administration.

    The lack of these investments, along with other LePage policies has led to stagnation in Maine.

    “Under Republican leadership, Maine has lagged behind in the national economic recovery. We work longer hours than our neighbors in any other state in New England, yet the purchasing power of our paychecks in one of the lowest in the country. Meanwhile, our governor has turned a blind eye as five of our friends, family members and neighbors die every week from the opioid epidemic. I look forward our leadership team’s work over the next few months to create good jobs and a fair economy that works for everyone, not just those at the top." 

    Members of the House include teachers, small business owners, nonprofit leaders, a former mill electrician, prominent civil rights advocates, farmers, former law enforcement officials, and veterans. 

    “I’m proud of the bipartisan work we achieved last session, particularly to improve services for veterans, but there is more work to be done,” said veteran Marine Rep. Assistant Majority Leader Jared Golden. “In the short term, our first task is to pass a balanced budget that reflects the needs of our state, but we also have to keep an eye on the future. Maine needs to create good paying jobs by investing in the infrastructure our communities need to compete. I look forward to working with my colleagues to address these and other challenges facing our state.”

  • Democrats won a battle for greater transparency for LePage's forensic facility plan

    Photo and article by Ramona du Houx

    Maine democrats won a battle for greater transparency to build a secure forensic facility next to the Riverview Psychiatric Center on November 30, 2016. 

    Democrats said the forensic unit project needs vetting by the Legislature’s appropriations and health and human services committees for a range of reasons including the financing, operations and policy matters related to who would be housed in the facility. Gov. LePage intends for the facility to be privately run, which could jeopardize the health and wellbeing of citizens if not carefully monitored. That overseeing duty needs to be clarified by the Legislature.

    “This is a fundamental change in how Maine cares for forensic patients that demands proper legislative oversight and public input.” said Assistant House Majority Leader Sara Gideon “DHHS has never brought this proposal to the Legislature, but is essentially threatening to build the project elsewhere and at greater cost if they don't get their way. We must provide proper care to Mainers with serious mental illness, and we are committed to making this happen with the proper oversight that protects this vulnerable population.”

    The Democrats present at the Legislative Council meeting – Gideon, Speaker Mark Eves and House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe – sought to table the proposal so it could be fully vetted as soon as the 128the Legislature convenes in January.

    House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, however, forced a vote to simply approve the project. His motion failed by a vote of 3-3.

    “Let’s remember what got us here in the first place. Three years ago, the feds came in and found that Riverview patients were severely abused – sometimes even with pepper spray and Tasers,” said Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, House chair of the Health and Human Services Committee. “As lawmakers, we have a duty to ensure the safety and well-being of the patients in the state’s care. We can’t simply hand a blank check over to the administration.”

     

  • Equal Protection of the Laws: America’s 14th Amendment - A Maine Exhibit

    Justice?, by Ramona du Houx
     
    Maine's Equal Protection of the Laws: America’s 14th Amendment exhibit opens on Thursday, September 22nd and runs through December 22nd, 2016
     
    The exhibit will be at the Michael Klahr Center on the campus of the University of Maine at Augusta, 46 University Drive in Augusta.
    Featured are 36 works by 17 Maine artists who were inspired by the rights granted by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
    Themes depicted relate to many areas of American society covered by the amendment: including due process, liberty, gender and sexuality, race, legal protections, equality in the workplace, housing, education, law enforcement, rights of the incarcerated, tolerance, and local, state, and federal representation
    The exhibit is being hosted by the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine, in conjunction with the Harlow Gallery of the Kennebec Valley Art Association, with support from the Maine Humanities Council and associated program support by the Maine Arts Commission.
     
    The Holocaust and Human Rights Center is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. or weekends and evenings by appointment or when other events are being held.
    People Power, by Ramona du Houx
     

    Participating artists are listed below alphabetically by town:

    Augusta: Anthony Austin
    Bangor: Jeanne Curran
    Biddeford: Roland Salazar
    Brunswick: Mary Becker Weiss
    Camden: Claudia Noyes Griffiths
    Falmouth: Anne Strout
    Gardiner: Allison McKeen
    Hallowell: Nancy Bixler
    Lincolnville: Petrea Noyes
    Manchester: Bruce Armstrong
    Solon: Ramona du Houx
    Tenants Harbor: Otty Merrill
    Town Unknown: Julian Johnson
    Waterville: Jen Hickey
    West Rockport: Barbra Whitten
    Wilton: Rebecca Spilecki
    Winslow: Mimi McCutcheon

    There are several events planned in association with this project, including the Pride Film Festival – a series of four free films held Friday nights in October at 7 p.m. The films this year are The Boys in the Band (10/7), Fire (10/14), Paragraph 175 (10/21), and The Danish Girl (10/28).
     
    Mike Daisey’s one man play The Trump Card had sold out runs this fall in Washington and New York and is now touring throughout the country. With special permission from the playwright, HHRC Program Director and UMA adjunct professor of drama David Greenham will read the hard-hitting and hilarious monologue on Saturday, October 22nd at 7 p.m. and Sunday, October 23rd at 2 p.m.
    The Trump Card reminds all of us of the role we have played in paving the way to create one of the most divisive presidential campaigns in recent memory. Tickets for The Trump Card are $15 and proceeds benefit HHRC’s educational outreach programs.
    As the Stage Review put it, “Daisey breaks down what makes Trump tick—and in doing so illuminates the state of our American Dream and how we’ve sold it out.” 
     
    14th Amendment by Allison McKeen 
    The HHRC is also pleased to host Everyman Repertory Theater’s production of Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly November 17th, 18th and 19th. The Pulitzer Prize winning play is a love story set in Missouri in 1942 and addresses issues of prejudice and the injustices that caused many to flee Europe in the years leading up to World War II.  
    The New York Times said about the play, “It is perhaps the simplest, and the most lyrical play Wilson has written—a funny, sweet, touching and marvelously written and contrived love poem for an apple and an orange.”   Tickets go on sale September 27th.
     
    Also in November, a group of UMA drama students under the direction of adjunct drama professor Jeri Pitcher will present a reading of their work in progress called Created Equal. The project, created in partnership with the HHRC, the UMA Writing Center, and UMA students will focus on the importance of the 14th amendment today. A full performance of the piece is planned for the spring of 2017.
  • ME's proceeds from Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative’s close to $82M

    Maine makes over $2,270,635in 33rd auction

    Article by Ramona du Houx

    Maine brought in $2,265,634.20 from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), 33rd auction of carbon dioxide (CO2) allowances.

    RGGI is the first mandatory market-based program in the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. RGGI is a cooperative effort among the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont to cap and reduce CO2 emissions from the power sector. 

    The program, first started in Maine when Governor John Baldacci pushed for it’s implementation and had a bill introduced. The legislation won unanimous support in Maine’s Senate and House. To date RGGI has brought in $81,837,449.15 to the state for weatherization and alternative energy projects, for businesses and homes. 

    “RGGI is working. It is helping Mainers reduce our energy bills and reduce emissions. It is a win-win and a model for the entire nation," said Former State Representative Seth Berry, who sat on Maine’s legislative committee that approved the final RGGI rules.

    States sell nearly all emission allowances through auctions and invest proceeds in energy efficiency, renewable energy, and other consumer benefit programs. These programs are spurring innovation in the clean energy economy and creating green jobs in the RGGI states.

    14,911,315 CO2 allowances were sold at the auction at a clearing price of $4.54.

    The September 7th auction was the third auction of 2016, and generated $67.7 million for reinvestment in strategic programs, including energy efficiency, renewable energy, direct bill assistance, and GHG abatement programs. Cumulative proceeds from all RGGI CO2allowance auctions exceed $2.58 billion dollars.

    “This auction demonstrates RGGI’s benefits to each participating state, helping to reduce harmful emissions while generating proceeds for reinvestment. Each RGGI state directs investments according to its individual goals, and this flexibility has been key to the program’s success across a diverse region.” said Katie Dykes, Deputy Commissioner at the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and Chair of the RGGI, Inc. Board of Directors. “Another key RGGI strength is our commitment to constant improvement, as exemplified in the program review process. The RGGI states are continuing to evaluate program elements and improvements as part of the 2016 Program Review, with the goal of reaching consensus on program revisions that support each state’s unique goals and priorities.

    Governor John Baldacci led the effort in Maine to join RGGI and had a comprehensive energy plan similar to Cuomo. Baldacci's clean energy plan focused on how to get Maine off fossil fuels and bring clean energy jobs to the state. His administration created grants to help new innovations like the floating offshore wind platforms and windmills developed at the University of Maine under Dr. Habib Dagher's leadership. (photo: by Ramona du Houx. Dr. Dagher talks with Gov. John Baldacci about the next steps for wind farm implementation offshore. The prototype of the floating windfarm is the firs photo on the page)

    Nine Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).        

    “Independent reports have found the reinvestment of RGGI proceeds is creating jobs, reducing consumers’ utility bills, and boosting state economies while driving down carbon emissions,” said Jared Snyder, Deputy Commissioner at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Vice Chair of the RGGI, Inc. Board of Directors. “Our reinvestment of RGGI proceeds is supporting Governor Cuomo’s transformational clean energy and energy efficiency goals to generate 50 percent of New York’s energy from renewable sources and reduce carbon emissions 40 percent by 2030, ushering in the low-carbon economy essential to the wellbeing of future generations.”

  • Infants at risk because of LePage's DHHS outsourced contract

     

    Sen. Breen and Sen. Haskell: Seemingly unnecessary sole-source contract is troubling

    Article and photos by Ramona du Houx

    Senate Democrats are asking questions about why Governor Paul LePage’s administration gave control of a critical state program for infants to a third-party without a competitive bidding process and without availing itself of the checks and balances built in to the state procurement protocol.

    A report in August 11th Bangor Daily News described how the administration had “quietly handed off financial oversight” of Maine Families, a $23 million program that provides home visitations to new parents. By working with parents, home visitors have successfully reduced abuse and neglect and improved health for thousands of infants and families.  

    The report said the contract was awarded after “a closed decision-making process, the state’s questionable justification to avoid competitive bidding, and limited communication about the transfer of a multimillion-dollar state program to the nonprofit sector.”

    “The administration has always said the competitive bidding process makes state contractors more accountable and protects taxpayer dollars. I agree, which is why I’m at a loss for why this contract was handled behind closed doors and without seeking bids,” said Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth. “The Legislature needs to take a look at state procurement rules. We need to know that transparency and accountability are baked into the process.”

    Maine Families had been administered by a collection of groups across the state for years, with financial oversight maintained by the state. However, in April, LePage and his Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Commissioner, Mary Mayhew, signed away the program without a competitive bid or public input. The deal was also made without consultation with the state Attorney General -- a procedural safeguard in the procurement process -- thanks to an executive order signed by Gov. LePage making that safeguard “optional.”

    The report described how even board members of Maine Children’s Trust, the nonprofit awarded the sole-source contract, had questions and misgivings about the scope of its new work, the process by which it was awarded, and the effect it could have on the board’s independent advocacy for Maine children.

    “Sole-source contracts are a necessary part of government in the case of an emergency, but I can’t for the life of me see what caused the urgent need for the state to give up its role in ensuring this program’s success,” said Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland. “The facts presented in this report are troubling. As a member of the Health and Human Services Committee, I would welcome an explanation from the administration.”

  • USDA Grants totaling $212,753 for Aroostook and Piscataquis and Maine Native American Tribe

    By Ramona du Houx

    Four Maine organizations in northern Maine have been selected to receive USDA grants that will benefit people living in rural communities in ways that will enhance their regions creative economy. 

    “Each of the USDA Rural Development grants play a vital role in the community they serve. From providing economic development opportunities that will assist the Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians in utilizing valuable Tribal resources, to supporting performing art, agricultural history, and vital health and wellness equipment for children, these grants make an important impact on the quality of life for Northern Maine citizens," said USDA Rural Development State Director Virginia Manuel. 

    In Maine, four organizations have been selected to receive Grants totaling $212,753:

    • Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians, in Presque Isle, has been selected to receive a Rural Business Development Grant in the amount of $122,953. Rural Development funds will be used to develop a strategic economic and community development plan to consider the best use of the Tribe’s 3,000 acres of land, other Tribal assets, and the community ecosystem. Feasibility analyses and business plans for two potential Tribal enterprises, specialty foods, and alternative energy will be funded. This projects is estimated to create up to 20 jobs and save up to 10.

    • Southern Aroostook Agricultural Museum, in Littleton, has been selected to receive a Community Facility Grant in the amount of $14,700.  Rural Development funds will be used to replace the heating system in the museum, which is dedicated to preserving artifacts of the agricultural way of life in Aroostook County and what early farm life was like. The existing steam heating system is approximately 65 years old and unreliable and inefficient to operate compared to current technologies. They will replace it with a more modern oil fired hot water boiler system

     

    • Maine School Administrative District 27, in Fort Kent, has been selected to receive a Community Facility Grant in the amount of $42,000. Rural Development funds will be used to purchase and install wellness equipment for the Fort Kent Elementary School playground. In designing the playground structure, the District incorporated components that are particularly appropriate for occupational therapy and physical therapy students as well as the general population. The structure will also be ADA compliant.\

    • Center Theatre, Inc., in Dover-Foxcroft has been selected to receive a Community Facility Grant in the amount of $33,100.  Rural Development funds will be used to purchase lighting, sound, stage, and other equipment needed to provide the Theatre an opportunity to increase capacity by utilizing the stage and event space available at Central Hall. This will allow for them to host dances and provide dinner theater activities that cannot be held at their existing facility. Central Hall will also be a dedicated rehearsal space. 

     

    Each grant reciepient is part of a regional economic development plan developed by a local/regional team with broad participation. These plans are built upon analysis of the region’s assets, including its key current and emerging economic clusters. These multi-county regions can be within the state or may cross state boundaries.

  • More Maine kids would go hungry under LePage plan to shut down food stamp program

    Editorial by Rep. Scott Hamann (D) of South Portland 

     Here’s a sobering truth. Since Governor Paul LePage took office, extreme child poverty has spiked faster in Maine than anywhere else in the United States.

    I serve on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. 

    For years, we’ve seen evidence that Maine is heading in the wrong direction when it comes to the well-being of our children. A new report confirms this.

    The Kids Count report shows that more Maine kids are growing up poor – some of them extremely poor, as in $12,000 or less per year for a family of four. The latest figures show that 19 percent of Maine children are living in these conditions.

    The implications are huge for our youth and for the success of our state as a whole. We need policies that give Maine kids a decent shot at success and that help families climb out of poverty. 

    But the governor chooses to attack the poor rather than poverty itself.

    Here’s one of the latest, troubling examples.

    The governor is at odds with the federal government over SNAP – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – commonly known as food stamps. The governor, like a good number of people, doesn’t want food stamps to cover junk food, but that decision rests solely with the federal government.

    So, what does the governor want to do?

    He’d shut down Maine’s SNAP program completely, eliminating all emergency food assistance for 200,000 Mainers. These are mothers, fathers, young children, veterans, senior citizens and people with disabilities who reply on SNAP to eat and stay healthy. 

    I agree that SNAP should be spent on nutritious foods and beverages. No argument here. But shutting down the entire program does nothing to help families escape poverty and hunger.

    Consider that on the governor’s watch, more than 60,000 Maine children battle food insecurity and that Maine has the highest rates of both child and senior hunger in New England.

    Yet his solution to hunger is more hunger?

    Instead of attacking the poor, let’s attack poverty – together.

    We need to approach food insecurity as the public health crisis that it is. We need to recognize that it’s far less expensive to make sure that people have access to proper nutrition than to pay for avoidable, diet-related health care costs down the road.

    Here’s a real solution: make healthy food more accessible to all families.

    We’ve got ways to do this. There are federal programs available to help low-income households purchase fruit and vegetable, farmers throughout the state eager to feed their neighbors in need. And we have education programs that teach food-insecure Mainers how to make healthy food choices on a budget.

    It’s time for solutions. Let’s bring together experts from the public and private sectors and work together to strengthen SNAP without hurting Mainers.

  • Editorial: Rep. Doore: We need an economy that works for all of us

     

    Editorial by Rep. Doore:

    Minimum wage boost would help workers, their families and our entire economy

    In November, voters will decide whether Maine’s low-wage workers will finally get a raise. I say it’s about time.

    I believe an honest day’s work deserves an honest day’s pay and that no Mainer working full time should live in poverty. But our minimum wage here in Maine has been stuck at $7.50 an hour since 2009. 

    Even though the cost of living keeps going up, wages are nowhere close to keeping pace. We have a chance to move Maine’s wage a bit closer to a living wage. 

    Under the proposal, the minimum wage would go up to $9 next year. It would increase gradually after that – $1 a year until it reaches $12 in 2020 – and then have a cost-of-living adjustment pegged to the federal Consumer Price Index.

    These days, a Mainer working full-time for the minimum wage takes home only about $12,300 a year – that’s about $300 a week. No one can support a family on wages like these. 

    The governor is painting an inaccurate picture of the ballot question and Maine’s low-wage workers.

    The fact is that 90 percent of low-wage workers are 20 years old and older.

    They include hard-working Mainers in highly skilled positions. They are nursing assistants, preschool teachers and paramedics. They are working seniors who can’t afford to retire. They are working parents struggling to support their children.

    A new report – Kids Count – shows that a growing number of Maine children are living in poverty. Forty-eight thousand Maine kids – 19 percent – are growing up poor. Clearly, we are moving in the wrong direction when it comes to the well-being of our kids and what this means for the future of our entire state. 

    Raising the minimum wage is one thing we can do to get us moving in the right direction. This much-needed boost in the minimum wage would help workers, their families and our entire economy.

    More Mainers will be able to climb out of poverty and be able provide their kids with groceries, a roof over their heads and other basics. And putting more money in the pockets of working Mainers benefits the economy by generating millions in additional consumer spending.

    What we need is an economy that works for all of us, not just the wealthy few.

    But the governor fails to see that. He keeps pushing policies that would hurt everyday Mainers.

    Even though many of his fellow Republicans oppose it, the governor keeps trying to sell his income tax plan. It would be a great deal for the wealthy. But getting rid of the income tax would simply shift the burden onto everyday Mainers and put at risk important public services like schools, police, fire protection and road maintenance.

    Eliminating the income tax would create a huge hole – one that we could not fill even if we cut off all state funding for public education and higher education.

    Who would be left to pick up the rest of the tab?

    Property taxpayers like you and me. Working families that are struggling to keep up, let alone put some money aside for their future. Seniors on fixed incomes who are already having a hard time staying in their homes.

    It’s time for policies that promote strong communities and a brighter economic future for all of us. I hope you’ll keep that in mind when you weigh in on the minimum wage in November.

     

  • Maine Senate endorses Sen. Alfond’s bill to streamline anti-hunger program

     The Maine Senate on April 7, 2016 gave initial approval to a bill that would expand access to food for hungry children and seniors by improving and simplifying a federal program’s needlessly complex application and moving the application process online.

    The Senate passed the bill 29-6 in a preliminary vote.

    The bill, LD 1472, would improve administration in Maine of the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program, or CACFP,  which provides funding so that home daycares, adult day cares, child care centers, emergency shelters and at-risk afterschool programs can provide nutritious meals. It is one of several proven anti-hunger programs by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

    “We need to do everything we can to ensure Mainers have access to healthy, nutritious food,” said Sen. Alfond, D-Portland. “This bill will make it easier for qualified organizations to receive federal reimbursement for meals programs that feed hungry young people and our seniors. Fighting hunger is government work at its best, and I thank my colleagues for supporting this bill.”

    Navigating through the 40-page, multi-part application is unnecessarily complicated and confusing, especially for small providers such as daycares and after-school programs. More than $50 million in federal funding for anti-hunger programs through CACFP is sitting on the table because of low utilization by eligible providers in Maine.

    Roughly half of Maine’s K-12 students are “food insecure,” the federal term used to designate hunger. Maine ranks 12th in the nation and 1st in New England for food insecurity, and is one of the few states in the country where hunger is growing.

    The bill now goes to the House.

  • Maine State Sen. Breen says mental health service cuts would devastate families — including her own

    Editorial by State Senator Cathy Breen, from Falmouth

    Gov. LePage’s Department of Health and Human Services recently announced its plan to make dramatic cuts to services for people living with mental illness. That announcement sent a shock wave to families of people who depend on those services to survive. 

    I could get into the weeds about the proposed changes in eligibility and funding for clients with mental illness. But instead, I want to talk about the catastrophic effect those changes could have on a family in my district. 

    In this case, that family is mine. 

    I have a 21-year-old daughter.  She is wonderful, intelligent, talented and generous. She also lives with child-onset schizophrenia. Her symptoms began when she was in the sixth grade. Over the past 10 years, she and our family have learned how to manage and live with this devastating illness. 

    But late last summer, my daughter suffered a profound relapse. She admitted herself into the psychiatric hospital in our area, and it took about 7 weeks of in-patient care to get her well enough to return home.  

    Since that time, she has gradually improved with the help of medication, therapy, and in-home daily living support. For seven hours a day, she receives support in our home and community. That support helps her live a stable life.  But her stability remains so precarious and fragile that she cannot be safely left alone.

    This Monday, she greeted me in the mudroom when I got home. Her support person had given her some big news: Because of the governor’s proposed cuts, her service provider was going to close. No more in-home support.

    The very next thing she said was: “I’m gonna wind up back in the hospital.”

    She was so certain that was true, and it made sense.  Because that’s exactly what happened last summer, when my daughter’s condition deteriorated rapidly during a gap in support services. By August, she had a cast of characters in her head who — every day, all day — threatened to kill her family if she didn’t get to the nearest overpass and throw herself onto Interstate 295.

     Ironically, under the governor’s proposed rule changes, my daughter remains eligible for services.  But her service provider is closing after 16 years because it can’t survive under DHHS’s new conditions.

    We will most likely face another gap in services.  And my daughter’s well-being, her ability to function on a daily basis, her safety, and even maybe her life, will be put in jeopardy.  The hard-earned progress she’s made will be unraveled.  And the cost of hospitalization will be astronomically higher than in-home supports.

    I can’t for the life of me understand why these cuts are necessary. But I do know that, for families like mine, they will be devastating.

    I’m calling on all of my colleagues, Democrats and Republicans alike, to do what they can to prevent these needless cuts. We have the power to make sure people like my daughter aren’t abandoned by our public health system.

      

  • Maine Bill to increase access to child care earns initial House go ahead

    Article and photos by Ramona du Houx

    Measure to help parents work and children to succeed advances in party-line vote 

    Working families would have greater access to quality, affordable childcare under a bill that earned initial House approval Tuesday. The 82-65 vote fell largely along party lines.

    “At its core, this is an economic development issue. We can help more low-income parents work, strengthen Maine's economy and prepare the youngest Mainers to succeed throughout their lives,” said Rep. Scott Hamann, D-South Portland, a member of the Health and Human Services Committee. “We know that the investment in early childhood more than pays for itself, saving the state and taxpayers costs like special education down the line.”

    LD 1267 uses available federal funds to expand access to quality childcare. It does so by increasing the reimbursement rates to the 60th percentile of the market rate for providers who accept vouchers from working families. The federal government recommends that vouchers pay at the 75th percentile, which was where Maine was until a reduction a few years ago.

    Maine was on track to increase its rate from the 50th percentile to the 60th percentile. But the Department of Health and Human Services unexpectedly decided last month to retain the 50th percentile rate.

    The rate reduction shrank the number of providers accepting vouchers, limiting quality childcare options for low-income working families and their young children. Parents and childcare providers were caught by surprise. Some providers, include Head Start agencies, had built budgets for their businesses that assume the 60th percentile.  

    Path to a Better Future: The Fiscal Payoff of Investment in Early Childhood in Maine, by University of Maine economist Philip Trostel, found a 7.5 percent return on investment. It also found that high-quality preschool education for a low-income child saves taxpayers an average of $125,400 over the child’s lifetime – more than five times the initial investment.

    LD 1267 faces further action in the House and Senate.

  • Maine House stands its ground on Hickman bill establishing a right to food

    By Ramona du Houx

    Maine has New England’s highest rate of food insecurity

    The House on March 31, 2016 insisted on its previous approval of a bill to amend Maine’s Constitution to address the issues of food security and food self-sufficiency in Maine.

    Rep. Craig Hickman introduced the bill to establish a constitutional amendment declaring that every individual has a natural and unalienable right to food.

    “Food is life. When one in four children among us goes to bed hungry every night, we must do better,” said Hickman, D-Winthrop, House chair of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee. “We cannot allow a single one of us to go hungry for a single day. Maine has all the natural resources and the hard-working, independent-spirited and resourceful people who will make a way out of no way. We will find and feed ourselves the food we want to eat.”

    The House gave initial approval to the bill March 29, 2016 with a vote of 97 to 45. The Senate voted Wednesday to reject the measure. The bill now goes back to the Senate.

    With more than 84,000 hungry children, Maine has New England’s highest rate of food insecurity, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

    “This bill is about freedom of choice, access to wholesome food, food self-sufficiency, freedom from hunger, individual responsibility and our basic fundamental right to work out our own nutrition regimen free from unnecessary interference,” said Hickman.

    Because the bill proposes to amend the Constitution, it needs two-thirds approval by the Legislature in order to send it to the people for a vote in the next statewide election.

    Hickman is an organic farmer and House chair of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee.  He is serving his second term in the Maine House and represents Readfield, Winthrop and part of Monmouth.

  • Maine’s welfare policies, since LePage, have had dire consequences for kids

    Changes in public policy motivated by politics, not facts, have been disastrous for Maine children.

    Since Congress passed “welfare reform” 20 years ago, it has become increasingly clear that many of these so-called reforms have failed, leaving many parents and children in deeper poverty without sustainable employment.

    Many of these policies simply were not based in the realities of people’s lives and ignore the economic environment people are living in. They are unsupported by social science research or evidence and have left far too many families and children behind.

    Today, we see increasing levels of severe poverty — for example, the doubling of the number of people living on less than $2 per day — and thousands of single parents working in low-wage jobs with little hope for the future. They’re working, but they still can’t support their families and often must leave their children with inadequate care.

    For a while, Maine was able to buck this trend and be a national leader. Twenty years ago, with unanimous agreement on both sides of the aisle, policymakers increased opportunity for poor families through innovative programs such as Parents as Scholars, which sent thousands of low-income parents to college. 

    They increased stability for low-income working parents with important transitional services such as health care and child care.

    Today, we are crashing toward the bottom of states, as more children and their parents go without health insurance, a place to live or enough to eat.

    Five years ago, Maine changed direction. Our state took a highly politicized turn in its policy making around poverty and welfare. This change has had dire consequences for some of Maine’s most vulnerable children and families and, ultimately, for the whole state.

    While other parts of the country have shown improvement in fighting poverty and hunger, Maine has seen an increase in deep child poverty, growing numbers of uninsured children and parents, and more and more households facing food insecurity.

    Between 2010 and 2014, Maine had the sharpest increase (50 percent) of any state in the country in the number of children living in extreme poverty — or less than half the federal poverty line, about $10,000 for a family of three. Growing up in extreme poverty has life­long consequences for individuals and their communities, including poor school attendance, increased contact with the criminal justice system and a weaker connection to the labor market.

    Among families with children eligible for TANF, only half as many (31 percent) received the help they needed from that program as did those in 2010 (60 percent). A study we conducted on the consequences of families losing assistance because of the state’s strict five-year time limit revealed harsh consequences for families, including increased hunger and homelessness, often leading to family separation. Maine ranks in the worst third of all states in the country in terms of children living apart from their families.

    Since the 2010 Affordable Care Act, every state in the country except Maine has seen an increase in the percentage of people with health insurance. This is a direct result of Maine refusing federal dollars to expand Medicaid, something that was prescribed in the historic health reform law as a method for increasing health insurance coverage. Maine is the only state that has had a statistically significant increase in the number of children without health insurance between 2010 and 2014.

    Maine families also are experiencing increased hunger. While food insecurity has declined in the rest of the nation as a whole, the percentage of people in Maine who face food insecurity increased from 2009 to 2014. Maine has the third highest ranking in the United States for very low food security and the highest rate of child food insecurity in New England.

    These trends are dire and very troubling. They are a direct consequence of policy decisions based on ideologies that withhold opportunity instead of promoting it. They are creating untold hardships for the poorest children in our state; hardships that will result in lifelong consequences, and as such do not bode well for their or our futures.

    It is imperative that we turn these frightening trends around so we do not ruin the lives of a large segment of the next generation of Mainers.

    If we don’t change course, the damage will seep into every part of our state, undermining our workforce, our schools and our communities.

    Sandy Butler is professor of social work and is the graduate program coordinator in the School of Social Work at the University of Maine. Luisa S. Deprez is professor emerita of sociology and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine. First appeared in the BDN

  • Index highlights LePage administration’s failure to provide for rural Mainers

    by 


    A recent study by the Economic Innovation Group (EIG) reveals that 52,000 Mainers live in distressed communities and demonstrates the extent of the LePage administration’s failed economic policies in the wake of the Great Recession.

    For a project called The Distressed Communities IndexEIG identified the zip codes with the greatest levels of economic distress using a series of economic indicators. The indicators, which were measured in 2013, include: education levels, housing occupancy, labor force participation rate, poverty rate, ratio of median income to the statewide median, the change in employment since 2010, and the change in number of businesses since 2010. These indicators show long-term, structural economic problems.

    In one respect, Maine fares better than most states. Only 4 percent of its population lives in zip codes with more than 500 people identified as “distressed” by the study—that ranks Maine 40th out of 50 states and Washington, DC.

    Still, approximately 52,000 Maine people live in distressed communities. The disparity between Maine’s most and least distressed communities is striking and represent two different narratives of economic recovery since the Great Recession.

    Most Distressed: 04774 (St. Francis)

    Maine Average

    Least Distressed: 04021 (Cumberland)

    No High School Degree 23% 9% 2%
    Housing Vacancy Rate 10% 7% 0%
    Adults Not Working 65% 41% 31%
    Poverty Rate 21% 14% 2%
    Median Income vs. State Median 51% 100% 194%
    Change in Employment, 2010-13 -11.8% 1.3% 48.7%
    Change in Businesses, 2010-13 -3.6% -0.8% 15.1%
    Distress Score (out of 100) 95.6 0.0

    St. Francis, Maine’s most distressed community by zip code, has twice the proportion of its adult population not working compared to Cumberland. This is partly because the population of St. Francis is older (in 2013, it had a median age of 53.9, compared to 45.0 for Cumberland), which is itself a symptom of economic distress. But other indicators affirm the disparity between these two communities. The median income in St. Francis is almost one quarter what it is in Cumberland, and half the statewide average. St. Francis has lost jobs and businesses while Cumberland has seen significant increases in these indicators.

    The general disparity between Maine’s southern and coastal communities and the rural areas inland and Down East has been a growing concern for policymakers and has only gotten worse since the recession. While many in Southern Maine have seen jobs and incomes return to pre-recession levels, those in other areas are still hurting desperately.  Statewide economic statistics that show Maine (slowly) emerging from the worst of the downturn mask this divergence.

    Against this backdrop, it is instructive to evaluate LePage administration policies. Time and again, the administration has undercut programs and investments that could buffer rural Mainers from the continued impacts of the recession and leave them better positioned to seize emergent opportunities. Refusal to accept federal funds to provide health care access to tens of thousands of Mainers has a disproportionate impact on rural Mainers and undercuts jobs. The administration’s refusal to apply for a federal waiver last year to make nutrition assistance more widely available also hits rural residents hardest.

    In fact, the most distressed communities based on EIG’s analysis are the same communities that stand to gain the most from Medicaid expansion and supplemental nutrition assistance. Beyond these programs, policies that cut income and estate taxes reduce state funding for schools and local services and are a step in the wrong direction. They ultimately trigger property tax increases for residents in communities with little capacity to absorb such cost shifts and are a recipe for increasing inequality.

  • Classic cat survival story has lessons for humans of all ages

     Most books about cats don’t have their main character facing knife-wielding street punks, wannabe witches, birds of prey, or near-certain death beneath a subway train. Or, for that matter, a dead body on the floor—by page thirteen.

    But Nine Lives on the Street is hardly a typical cat book. In the first place, the author is allegedly a real feline who dictated the story to a human, advertising creative director and copywriter Jon Saunders. In the second, it seems to be a children’s book written for adults. Or, perhaps, for children who regularly read the New Yorker.

    Nine Lives purports to be the recollections of a pampered pet named Boo whose luxurious lifestyle comes to an abrupt end when his elderly owner dies.

    He is suddenly forced to live by his wits on the streets of New York. His struggle to survive transforms him from a self-centered and lazy loafer into a hero that one of his fellow felines calls “a credit to his species.”

    The 130-page book is, by turns, funny, scary, and serious. Its publisher, Polar Bear & Company calls it “an adventure story for all ages.” 

    According to Polar Bear’s Paul Cornell du Houx, Nine Lives on the Street  has sage lessons for humans, as well as being a delight to read. To see the world through another’s eyes, albeit those of a cat, can bring clarity to one’s own vision.”

    Nine Lives on the Street is available at bookstores, Amazon, B&N.com and directly from the publisher at www.polarbearandco.com 

    Visit: facebook or Boo's website. http://ninelivesonthestreet.com/

     

  • President Obama's full State of the Union, 2016

     PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, members of Congress, my fellow Americans:  

    Tonight marks the eighth year that I’ve come here to report on the State of the Union.  And for this final one, I’m going to try to make it a little shorter.  (Applause.)  I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa.  (Laughter.)  I've been there.  I'll be shaking hands afterwards if you want some tips.  (Laughter.) 

    And I understand that because it’s an election season, expectations for what we will achieve this year are low.  But, Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the constructive approach that you and the other leaders took at the end of last year to pass a budget and make tax cuts permanent for working families.  So I hope we can work together this year on some bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform -- (applause) -- and helping people who are battling prescription drug abuse and heroin abuse.  (Applause.)  So, who knows, we might surprise the cynics again. 

    But tonight, I want to go easy on the traditional list of proposals for the year ahead.  Don’t worry, I’ve got plenty, from helping students learn to write computer code to personalizing medical treatments for patients.  And I will keep pushing for progress on the work that I believe still needs to be done.  Fixing a broken immigration system.  (Applause.)  Protecting our kids from gun violence.  (Applause.)  Equal pay for equal work.  (Applause.)  Paid leave.  (Applause.)  Raising the minimum wage. (Applause.)  All these things still matter to hardworking families.  They’re still the right thing to do.  And I won't let up until they get done.

    But for my final address to this chamber, I don’t want to just talk about next year.  I want to focus on the next five years, the next 10 years, and beyond.  I want to focus on our future.

    We live in a time of extraordinary change -- change that’s reshaping the way we live, the way we work, our planet, our place in the world.  It’s change that promises amazing medical breakthroughs, but also economic disruptions that strain working families.  It promises education for girls in the most remote villages, but also connects terrorists plotting an ocean away.  It’s change that can broaden opportunity, or widen inequality.  And whether we like it or not, the pace of this change will only accelerate.

    America has been through big changes before -- wars and depression, the influx of new immigrants, workers fighting for a fair deal, movements to expand civil rights.  Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change; who promised to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control.  And each time, we overcame those fears.  We did not, in the words of Lincoln, adhere to the “dogmas of the quiet past.”  Instead we thought anew, and acted anew.  We made change work for us, always extending America’s promise outward, to the next frontier, to more people.  And because we did -- because we saw opportunity where others saw only peril -- we emerged stronger and better than before.

    What was true then can be true now.  Our unique strengths as a nation -- our optimism and work ethic, our spirit of discovery, our diversity, our commitment to rule of law -- these things give us everything we need to ensure prosperity and security for generations to come. 

    In fact, it’s in that spirit that we have made progress these past seven years.  That's how we recovered from the worst economic crisis in generations.  (Applause.)  That's how we reformed our health care system, and reinvented our energy sector.  (Applause.)  That's how we delivered more care and benefits to our troops coming home and our veterans.  (Applause.) That's how we secured the freedom in every state to marry the person we love.  (Applause.) 

    But such progress is not inevitable.  It’s the result of choices we make together.  And we face such choices right now.  Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, turning against each other as a people?  Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, in what we stand for, in the incredible things that we can do together?

    So let’s talk about the future, and four big questions that I believe we as a country have to answer -- regardless of who the next President is, or who controls the next Congress. 

    First, how do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy?  (Applause.) 

    Second, how do we make technology work for us, and not against us -- especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change?  (Applause.) 

    Third, how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?  (Applause.) 

    And finally, how can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?

    Let me start with the economy, and a basic fact:  The United States of America, right now, has the strongest, most durable economy in the world.  (Applause.)  We’re in the middle of the longest streak of private sector job creation in history.  (Applause.)  More than 14 million new jobs, the strongest two years of job growth since the ‘90s, an unemployment rate cut in half.  Our auto industry just had its best year ever.  (Applause.)  That's just part of a manufacturing surge that's created nearly 900,000 new jobs in the past six years.  And we’ve done all this while cutting our deficits by almost three-quarters.  (Applause.) 

    Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.  (Applause.)  Now, what is true -- and the reason that a lot of Americans feel anxious -- is that the economy has been changing in profound ways, changes that started long before the Great Recession hit; changes that have not let up. 

    Today, technology doesn’t just replace jobs on the assembly line, but any job where work can be automated.  Companies in a global economy can locate anywhere, and they face tougher competition.  As a result, workers have less leverage for a raise.  Companies have less loyalty to their communities.  And more and more wealth and income is concentrated at the very top.

    All these trends have squeezed workers, even when they have jobs; even when the economy is growing.  It’s made it harder for a hardworking family to pull itself out of poverty, harder for young people to start their careers, tougher for workers to retire when they want to.  And although none of these trends are unique to America, they do offend our uniquely American belief that everybody who works hard should get a fair shot.

    For the past seven years, our goal has been a growing economy that works also better for everybody.  We’ve made progress.  But we need to make more.  And despite all the political arguments that we’ve had these past few years, there are actually some areas where Americans broadly agree.

    We agree that real opportunity requires every American to get the education and training they need to land a good-paying job.  The bipartisan reform of No Child Left Behind was an important start, and together, we’ve increased early childhood education, lifted high school graduation rates to new highs, boosted graduates in fields like engineering.  In the coming years, we should build on that progress, by providing Pre-K for all and -- (applause) -- offering every student the hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one.  We should recruit and support more great teachers for our kids.  (Applause.) 

    And we have to make college affordable for every American.  (Applause.)  No hardworking student should be stuck in the red.  We’ve already reduced student loan payments to 10 percent of a borrower’s income.  And that's good.  But now, we’ve actually got to cut the cost of college.  (Applause.)  Providing two years of community college at no cost for every responsible student is one of the best ways to do that, and I’m going to keep fighting to get that started this year.  (Applause.)  It's the right thing to do.  (Applause.) 

    But a great education isn’t all we need in this new economy. We also need benefits and protections that provide a basic measure of security.  It’s not too much of a stretch to say that some of the only people in America who are going to work the same job, in the same place, with a health and retirement package for 30 years are sitting in this chamber.  (Laughter.)  For everyone else, especially folks in their 40s and 50s, saving for retirement or bouncing back from job loss has gotten a lot tougher.  Americans understand that at some point in their careers, in this new economy, they may have to retool and they may have to retrain.  But they shouldn’t lose what they’ve already worked so hard to build in the process. 

    That’s why Social Security and Medicare are more important than ever.  We shouldn’t weaken them; we should strengthen them. (Applause.)  And for Americans short of retirement, basic benefits should be just as mobile as everything else is today.  That, by the way, is what the Affordable Care Act is all about.  It’s about filling the gaps in employer-based care so that when you lose a job, or you go back to school, or you strike out and launch that new business, you’ll still have coverage.  Nearly 18 million people have gained coverage so far.  (Applause.)  And in the process, health care inflation has slowed.  And our businesses have created jobs every single month since it became law.

    Now, I’m guessing we won’t agree on health care anytime soon.  (Applause.)  A little applause right there.  Laughter.)  Just a guess.  But there should be other ways parties can work together to improve economic security.  Say a hardworking American loses his job -- we shouldn’t just make sure that he can get unemployment insurance; we should make sure that program encourages him to retrain for a business that’s ready to hire him.  If that new job doesn’t pay as much, there should be a system of wage insurance in place so that he can still pay his bills.  And even if he’s going from job to job, he should still be able to save for retirement and take his savings with him.  That’s the way we make the new economy work better for everybody.

    I also know Speaker Ryan has talked about his interest in tackling poverty.  America is about giving everybody willing to work a chance, a hand up.  And I’d welcome a serious discussion about strategies we can all support, like expanding tax cuts for low-income workers who don't have children.  (Applause.)  

    But there are some areas where we just have to be honest -- it has been difficult to find agreement over the last seven years.  And a lot of them fall under the category of what role the government should play in making sure the system’s not rigged in favor of the wealthiest and biggest corporations.  (Applause.) And it's an honest disagreement, and the American people have a choice to make.

    I believe a thriving private sector is the lifeblood of our economy.  I think there are outdated regulations that need to be changed.  There is red tape that needs to be cut.  (Applause.)  There you go!  Yes!  (Applause  But after years now of record corporate profits, working families won’t get more opportunity or bigger paychecks just by letting big banks or big oil or hedge funds make their own rules at everybody else’s expense.  (Applause.)  Middle-class families are not going to feel more secure because we allowed attacks on collective bargaining to go unanswered.  Food Stamp recipients did not cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did.  (Applause.)  Immigrants aren’t the principal reason wages haven’t gone up; those decisions are made in the boardrooms that all too often put quarterly earnings over long-term returns.  It’s sure not the average family watching tonight that avoids paying taxes through offshore accounts.  (Applause.)   

    The point is, I believe that in this In new economy, workers and start-ups and small businesses need more of a voice, not less.  The rules should work for them.  (Applause.)  And I'm not alone in this.  This year I plan to lift up the many businesses who’ve figured out that doing right by their workers or their customers or their communities ends up being good for their shareholders.  (Applause.)  And I want to spread those best practices across America.  That's part of a brighter future.  (Applause.) 

    In fact, it turns out many of our best corporate citizens are also our most creative.  And this brings me to the second big question we as a country have to answer:  How do we reignite that spirit of innovation to meet our biggest challenges?

    Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there.  (Laughter.)  We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight.  And 12 years later, we were walking on the moon.  (Applause.)   

    Now, that spirit of discovery is in our DNA.  America is Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers and George Washington Carver.  America is Grace Hopper and Katherine Johnson and Sally Ride.  America is every immigrant and entrepreneur from Boston to Austin to Silicon Valley, racing to shape a better world.  (Applause.)  That's who we are. 

    And over the past seven years, we’ve nurtured that spirit.  We’ve protected an open Internet, and taken bold new steps to get more students and low-income Americans online.  (Applause.)  We’ve launched next-generation manufacturing hubs, and online tools that give an entrepreneur everything he or she needs to start a business in a single day.  But we can do so much more. 

    Last year, Vice President Biden said that with a new moonshot, America can cure cancer.  Last month, he worked with this Congress to give scientists at the National Institutes of Health the strongest resources that they’ve had in over a decade. (Applause.)  So tonight, I’m announcing a new national effort to get it done.  And because he’s gone to the mat for all of us on so many issues over the past 40 years, I’m putting Joe in charge of Mission Control.  (Applause.)  For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the families that we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all.  (Applause.) 

    Medical research is critical.  We need the same level of commitment when it comes to developing clean energy sources.  (Applause.)  Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it.  You will be pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it.  (Applause.)   

    But even if -- even if the planet wasn’t at stake, even if 2014 wasn’t the warmest year on record -- until 2015 turned out to be even hotter -- why would we want to pass up the chance for American businesses to produce and sell the energy of the future? (Applause.) 

    Listen, seven years ago, we made the single biggest investment in clean energy in our history.  Here are the results. In fields from Iowa to Texas, wind power is now cheaper than dirtier, conventional power.  On rooftops from Arizona to New York, solar is saving Americans tens of millions of dollars a year on their energy bills, and employs more Americans than coal -- in jobs that pay better than average.  We’re taking steps to give homeowners the freedom to generate and store their own energy -- something, by the way, that environmentalists and Tea Partiers have teamed up to support.   And meanwhile, we’ve cut our imports of foreign oil by nearly 60 percent, and cut carbon pollution more than any other country on Earth.  (Applause.)  Gas under two bucks a gallon ain’t bad, either.  (Applause.) 

    Now we’ve got to accelerate the transition away from old, dirtier energy sources.  Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future -- especially in communities that rely on fossil fuels.  We do them no favor when we don't show them where the trends are going.  That’s why I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet. And that way, we put money back into those communities, and put tens of thousands of Americans to work building a 21st century transportation system.  (Applause.) 

    Now, none of this is going to happen overnight.  And, yes, there are plenty of entrenched interests who want to protect the status quo.  But the jobs we’ll create, the money we’ll save, the planet we’ll preserve -- that is the kind of future our kids and our grandkids deserve.  And it's within our grasp. 

    Climate change is just one of many issues where our security is linked to the rest of the world.  And that’s why the third big question that we have to answer together is how to keep America safe and strong without either isolating ourselves or trying to nation-build everywhere there’s a problem.

    I told you earlier all the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air.  Well, so is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker.  Let me tell you something.  The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth.  Period. (Applause.)  Period.  It’s not even close.  It's not even close. (Applause.)  It's not even close.  We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined.  Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world.  (Applause.)  No nation attacks us directly, or our allies, because they know that’s the path to ruin.  Surveys show our standing around the world is higher than when I was elected to this office, and when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead -- they call us.  (Applause.)

    I mean, it's useful to level the set here, because when we don't, we don't make good decisions.    

    Now, as someone who begins every day with an intelligence briefing, I know this is a dangerous time.  But that’s not primarily because of some looming superpower out there, and certainly not because of diminished American strength.  In today’s world, we’re threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states. 

    The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.  Economic headwinds are blowing in from a Chinese economy that is in significant transition.  Even as their economy severely contracts, Russia is pouring resources in to prop up Ukraine and Syria -- client states that they saw slipping away from their orbit.  And the international system we built after World War II is now struggling to keep pace with this new reality.

    It’s up to us, the United States of America, to help remake that system.  And to do that well it means that we’ve got to set priorities.

    Priority number one is protecting the American people and going after terrorist networks.  (Applause.)  Both al Qaeda and now ISIL pose a direct threat to our people, because in today’s world, even a handful of terrorists who place no value on human life, including their own, can do a lot of damage.  They use the Internet to poison the minds of individuals inside our country.  Their actions undermine and destabilize our allies.  We have to take them out.

    But as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands.  Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks, twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages -- they pose an enormous danger to civilians; they have to be stopped.  But they do not threaten our national existence.  (Applause.)  That is the story ISIL wants to tell.  That’s the kind of propaganda they use to recruit.  We don’t need to build them up to show that we’re serious, and we sure don't need to push away vital allies in this fight by echoing the lie that ISIL is somehow representative of one of the world’s largest religions.  (Applause.)  We just need to call them what they are -- killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed.  (Applause.)  

    And that’s exactly what we’re doing.  For more than a year, America has led a coalition of more than 60 countries to cut off ISIL’s financing, disrupt their plots, stop the flow of terrorist fighters, and stamp out their vicious ideology.  With nearly 10,000 air strikes, we’re taking out their leadership, their oil, their training camps, their weapons.  We’re training, arming, and supporting forces who are steadily reclaiming territory in Iraq and Syria. 

    If this Congress is serious about winning this war, and wants to send a message to our troops and the world, authorize the use of military force against ISIL.  Take a vote.  (Applause.)  Take a vote.  But the American people should know that with or without congressional action, ISIL will learn the same lessons as terrorists before them.  If you doubt America’s commitment -- or mine -- to see that justice is done, just ask Osama bin Laden.  (Applause.)  Ask the leader of al Qaeda in Yemen, who was taken out last year, or the perpetrator of the Benghazi attacks, who sits in a prison cell.  When you come after Americans, we go after you.  (Applause.)  And it may take time, but we have long memories, and our reach has no limits.  (Applause.)  

    Our foreign policy hast to be focused on the threat from ISIL and al Qaeda, but it can’t stop there.  For even without ISIL, even without al Qaeda, instability will continue for decades in many parts of the world -- in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, in parts of Central America, in Africa, and Asia.  Some of these places may become safe havens for new terrorist networks.  Others will just fall victim to ethnic conflict, or famine, feeding the next wave of refugees.  The world will look to us to help solve these problems, and our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet-bomb civilians.  That may work as a TV sound bite, but it doesn’t pass muster on the world stage.

    We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis, even if it's done with the best of intentions.  (Applause.)  That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately will weaken us.  It’s the lesson of Vietnam; it's the lesson of Iraq -- and we should have learned it by now.  (Applause.)   

    Fortunately, there is a smarter approach, a patient and disciplined strategy that uses every element of our national power.  It says America will always act, alone if necessary, to protect our people and our allies; but on issues of global concern, we will mobilize the world to work with us, and make sure other countries pull their own weight.   

    That’s our approach to conflicts like Syria, where we’re partnering with local forces and leading international efforts to help that broken society pursue a lasting peace.

    That’s why we built a global coalition, with sanctions and principled diplomacy, to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.  And as we speak, Iran has rolled back its nuclear program, shipped out its uranium stockpile, and the world has avoided another war.  (Applause.)   

    That’s how we stopped the spread of Ebola in West Africa.  (Applause.)  Our military, our doctors, our development workers -- they were heroic; they set up the platform that then allowed other countries to join in behind us and stamp out that epidemic. Hundreds of thousands, maybe a couple million lives were saved.

    That’s how we forged a Trans-Pacific Partnership to open markets, and protect workers and the environment, and advance American leadership in Asia.  It cuts 18,000 taxes on products made in America, which will then support more good jobs here in America.  With TPP, China does not set the rules in that region; we do.  You want to show our strength in this new century?  Approve this agreement.  Give us the tools to enforce it.  It's the right thing to do.  (Applause.)   

    Let me give you another example.  Fifty years of isolating Cuba had failed to promote democracy, and set us back in Latin America.  That’s why we restored diplomatic relations -- (applause) -- opened the door to travel and commerce, positioned ourselves to improve the lives of the Cuban people.  (Applause.) So if you want to consolidate our leadership and credibility in the hemisphere, recognize that the Cold War is over -- lift the embargo.  (Applause.)  

    The point is American leadership in the 21st century is not a choice between ignoring the rest of the world -- except when we kill terrorists -- or occupying and rebuilding whatever society is unraveling.  Leadership means a wise application of military power, and rallying the world behind causes that are right.  It means seeing our foreign assistance as a part of our national security, not something separate, not charity. 

    When we lead nearly 200 nations to the most ambitious agreement in history to fight climate change, yes, that helps vulnerable countries, but it also protects our kids.  When we help Ukraine defend its democracy, or Colombia resolve a decades-long war, that strengthens the international order we depend on. When we help African countries feed their people and care for the sick -- (applause) -- it's the right thing to do, and it prevents the next pandemic from reaching our shores.  Right now, we’re on track to end the scourge of HIV/AIDS.  That's within our grasp.  (Applause.)  And we have the chance to accomplish the same thing with malaria -- something I’ll be pushing this Congress to fund this year.  (Applause.) 

    That's American strength.  That's American leadership.  And that kind of leadership depends on the power of our example.  That’s why I will keep working to shut down the prison at Guantanamo.  (Applause.)  It is expensive, it is unnecessary, and it only serves as a recruitment brochure for our enemies.  (Applause.)  There’s a better way.  (Applause.)   

    And that’s why we need to reject any politics -- any politics -- that targets people because of race or religion.  (Applause.)  Let me just say this.  This is not a matter of political correctness.  This is a matter of understanding just what it is that makes us strong.  The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity, and our openness, and the way we respect every faith. 

    His Holiness, Pope Francis, told this body from the very spot that I'm standing on tonight that “to imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.”  When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad or our fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid is called names, that doesn’t make us safer.  That’s not telling it like it is.  It’s just wrong.  (Applause.)  It diminishes us in the eyes of the world.  It makes it harder to achieve our goals.  It betrays who we are as a country.  (Applause.) 

    “We the People.”  Our Constitution begins with those three simple words, words we’ve come to recognize mean all the people, not just some; words that insist we rise and fall together, and that's how we might perfect our Union.  And that brings me to the fourth, and maybe the most important thing that I want to say tonight.

    The future we want -- all of us want -- opportunity and security for our families, a rising standard of living, a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids -- all that is within our reach.  But it will only happen if we work together.  It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates.  It will only happen if we fix our politics.

    A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything.  This is a big country -- different regions, different attitudes, different interests.  That’s one of our strengths, too.  Our Founders distributed power between states and branches of government, and expected us to argue, just as they did, fiercely, over the size and shape of government, over commerce and foreign relations, over the meaning of liberty and the imperatives of security.

    But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens.  It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice.  It doesn’t work if we think that our political opponents are unpatriotic or trying to weaken America.  Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise, or when even basic facts are contested, or when we listen only to those who agree with us.  Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get all the attention.  And most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some special interest.

    Too many Americans feel that way right now.  It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency -- that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.  I have no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.

    But, my fellow Americans, this cannot be my task -- or any President’s -- alone.  There are a whole lot of folks in this chamber, good people who would like to see more cooperation, would like to see a more elevated debate in Washington, but feel trapped by the imperatives of getting elected, by the noise coming out of your base.  I know; you’ve told me.  It's the worst-kept secret in Washington.  And a lot of you aren't enjoying being trapped in that kind of rancor. 

    But that means if we want a better politics -- and I'm addressing the American people now -- if we want a better politics, it’s not enough just to change a congressman or change a senator or even change a President.  We have to change the system to reflect our better selves.  I think we've got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around.  (Applause.)  Let a bipartisan group do it.  (Applause.) 

    We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families or hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections.  (Applause.)  And if our existing approach to campaign finance reform can’t pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution -- because it's a problem.  And most of you don't like raising money.  I know; I've done it.  (Applause.)  We’ve got to make it easier to vote, not harder.  (Applause.)  We need to modernize it for the way we live now.  (Applause.)  This is America:  We want to make it easier for people to participate.  And over the course of this year, I intend to travel the country to push for reforms that do just that.

    But I can’t do these things on my own.  (Applause.)  Changes in our political process -- in not just who gets elected, but how they get elected -- that will only happen when the American people demand it.  It depends on you.  That’s what’s meant by a government of, by, and for the people. 

    What I’m suggesting is hard.  It’s a lot easier to be cynical; to accept that change is not possible, and politics is hopeless, and the problem is all the folks who are elected don't care, and to believe that our voices and actions don’t matter.  But if we give up now, then we forsake a better future.  Those with money and power will gain greater control over the decisions that could send a young soldier to war, or allow another economic disaster, or roll back the equal rights and voting rights that generations of Americans have fought, even died, to secure.  And then, as frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into our respective tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background.

    We can’t afford to go down that path.  It won’t deliver the economy we want.  It will not produce the security we want.  But most of all, it contradicts everything that makes us the envy of the world. 

    So, my fellow Americans, whatever you may believe, whether you prefer one party or no party, whether you supported my agenda or fought as hard as you could against it -- our collective futures depends on your willingness to uphold your duties as a citizen.  To vote.  To speak out.  To stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us. (Applause.)  We need every American to stay active in our public life -- and not just during election time -- so that our public life reflects the goodness and the decency that I see in the American people every single day. 

    It is not easy.  Our brand of democracy is hard.  But I can promise that a little over a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I will be right there with you as a citizen, inspired by those voices of fairness and vision, of grit and good humor and kindness that helped America travel so far.  Voices that help us see ourselves not, first and foremost, as black or white, or Asian or Latino, not as gay or straight, immigrant or native born, not as Democrat or Republican, but as Americans first, bound by a common creed.  Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word -- voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love. 

    And they’re out there, those voices.  They don’t get a lot of attention; they don't seek a lot of fanfare; but they’re busy doing the work this country needs doing.  I see them everywhere I travel in this incredible country of ours.  I see you, the American people.  And in your daily acts of citizenship, I see our future unfolding.

    I see it in the worker on the assembly line who clocked extra shifts to keep his company open, and the boss who pays him higher wages instead of laying him off. 

    I see it in the Dreamer who stays up late at night to finish her science project, and the teacher who comes in early, and maybe with some extra supplies that she bought because she knows that that young girl might someday cure a disease.

    I see it in the American who served his time, and bad mistakes as a child but now is dreaming of starting over -- and I see it in the business owner who gives him that second chance.  The protester determined to prove that justice matters -- and the young cop walking the beat, treating everybody with respect, doing the brave, quiet work of keeping us safe.  (Applause.) 

    I see it in the soldier who gives almost everything to save his brothers, the nurse who tends to him till he can run a marathon, the community that lines up to cheer him on.

    It’s the son who finds the courage to come out as who he is, and the father whose love for that son overrides everything he’s been taught.  (Applause.) 

    I see it in the elderly woman who will wait in line to cast her vote as long as she has to; the new citizen who casts his vote for the first time; the volunteers at the polls who believe every vote should count -- because each of them in different ways know how much that precious right is worth.

    That's the America I know.  That’s the country we love.   Clear-eyed.  Big-hearted.  Undaunted by challenge.  Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.  (Applause.)  That’s what makes me so hopeful about our future.  I believe in change because I believe in you, the American people.  

    And that’s why I stand here confident as I have ever been that the State of our Union is strong.  (Applause.) 

    Thank you.  God bless you.  God bless the United States of America. 

  • To lawmakers: Support a Maine Minimum Wage increase - for moms and kids

    By Katie Logue, Auburn

    There are so many ways that the economy is rigged against women and families and I have seen the impacts first-hand. A few years ago, I was a single mom struggling to make ends meet, making slightly more than the minimum wage ($8 per hour) and trying to support myself and my 6-year-old after my marriage failed.

    My son and I were on food stamps and MaineCare, even though I was working full time. No matter how hard I tried to find appropriate housing, there was no way I could afford $900-$1,000 a month for rent. I had a car payment for a car that wasn’t even safe but was my only way to get to work. Even after I finally saved enough to get an apartment, it was impossible to keep up with the bills.

    At one point, after being evicted, I was living in a homeless shelter while working full time to save enough to get another apartment.

    I know that I am not the only one who has struggled to support my family on poverty wages. I also know that this issue affects women much more than men.

    The majority of minimum-wage workers are women, many of us supporting families.

    Here in Maine, women still earn, on average, just 84 percent of what our male counterparts earn. It is time for a change.

    In January, the Legislature will consider citizen-initiated legislation to increase Maine’s minimum wage. Lawmakers and voters should stand with Maine women and support it. First appeared in the Sun Journal.

  • Breakthrough book about J.K.Rowling’s work, and the ties her series has with religion and the 9/11 generation

    By Ramona du Houx

    Marilyn R. Pukkila will read from and sign her book The Skill of a Seeker: Rowling, Religion, and Gen 9/11 on January 10th at the Waterville Public Library, from 2 to 4 pm.

    Marilyn’s book is considered a breakthrough in research about Rowling’s work, and the ties her series has with spirituality, religion and its influence with the 9/11 generation.

    “This is a book for everyone: the 9/11 generation, who view their lives through the prism of Harry Potter’s experiences, and their elders who seek to understand them. It has much to say to those who have never read the series but struggle as Harry Potter does to accept death and achieve integrity,” wrote Debra Campbell as an endorsement. Campbell is a Professor of Religious Studies at Colby College.

    Pukkila’s book helps us understand the continued success of the Harry Potter series, and the impact it has had, and continues to have, on our ever-changing society.

    “Marilyn R. Pukkila has delved deep into the world of the spirit and the world of J.K. Rowling. Like Hermione Granger, she brings intelligence and research to bear on her subject, but like Harry himself she also brings a deep love, both for stories and for spirit, teasing out the threads of Rowling’s moral and ethical framework, and suggesting ways that framework may influence millions of young readers and viewers in an increasingly secular age,” endorsed author Jane Raeburn in the book.

    Marilyn answers some compelling questions about the Harry Potter series:

    What inspired you to do your research?

    “I taught a course at Colby College on religious responses to Harry Potter in January of 2010.  I realized from that course that many students didn’t have much in the way of religious background, but that they were comfortable exploring religious and spiritual questions through the medium of Harry Potter because Rowling presented those concepts in a non-denominational fashion. 

    “Since they were also of the group that I called ‘Gen HP’ (Generation Harry Potter) and ‘Gen 9/11,’ I felt that was relevant, and that a book exploring the religious and spiritual content of the series might be interesting, provided it did so in a way that mentioned as many spiritual/religious traditions as possible and pointed out the non-denominational approach.  In essence, I was answering the question that the students had to answer for their final essay:  What is the religious and spiritual content of the Harry Potter series?”

    How much is this generation affected by the Potter books?

    “The books were particularly influential with the folks who grew up with Harry, so to speak. I identify the age range as those born between 1980 and 2000 but the movies brought in more people.”

    Are the movies very different than the books?

    “The movies are profoundly different in their non-treatment of the religious themes, so that the disparities sometimes arise in the course of my public readings, particularly when I talk about Harry as a nonviolent hero.

    “Part of my book discusses the ways that media can take the place of religion for some people, and I question how accurately the media choose to depict concepts of nonviolence as presented in the books that inspired the movies.

    “’If it bleeds, it leads,’ seems to be a big movie mantra as well as a (sensationalist) journalistic one; the way the final movie treated the deaths of Voldemort and Bellatrix (they explode into sparkly bits and fade away; in the books, their bodies fall to the ground with banal finality) radically erases Rowling’s message that evil is a human capacity, and even people who perform acts that are beyond ‘usual evil,’ as Dumbledore puts it, are still, in the end, nothing more than human beings whose evil can be overcome by other human beings.”

    What do you consider the most important lessons Rowling is trying to impart?

    “Love is stronger than any other power, stronger than hate, stronger than death.  That was one of her most important messages.  The other is that death is something to be accepted rather than something to be overcome—and certainly not something to be feared or deliberately ignored.”

    When did you discover the Harry Potter series had hidden depths in spirituality?

    “When I first read the first three books in the series, in 1999.  Each successive book contained more and more religious and spiritual content, a grand crescendo to the glorious finale.

    “The remarkable thing is the way that Rowling was able to present it all without any overtly religious material, and the way she ‘aged up’ her content as her characters aged. Those who were children in 2001 form a particular cohort that faces stark challenges when pondering religious and spiritual themes. But they also have an unexpected, nonviolent hero, whose greatest power is love, who grew up along with them and dealt with the same challenges. Gen 9/11 is also Gen HP, the people who grew up with Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling’s series provides them with an easy entry into the world of Big Questions; my book shows some of her answers and how they resonate with all her readers.”

    About the Author

    Marilyn R. Pukkila is Scholarly Resources and Services Librarian for Social Sciences and Humanities at Colby College, where she also teaches courses on Tolkien, women in myth and fairy tale, the religion of contemporary Witchcraft, and (of course) Harry Potter.

    Good conversation, good food, gardening, and most especially good stories are among her greatest joys, and she’ll happily wander in the woods or along a beach in almost any season.

    Perfect Paperback: 312 pages, $17.95

    Publisher: Polar Bear & Company of Solon, Maine

  • Expanding MaineCare is an immediate way to help young people out of poverty

     Editorial by Karen Heck, a longtime resident and former mayor of Waterville, Maine

    Call me a bleeding heart, but the fact that there are 15,000 children in Maine without health insurance, 1 in 4 children in Maine who are hungry, and 2 in 3 who can’t read at grade level makes me ashamed of my adopted state. Those figures pose a risk to kids’ well-being and to our state’s future economic prosperity.

    A decidedly non-bleeding heart organization, the non-partisan Maine Economic Growth Council, issues a report on 23 Measures of Growth indicating progress toward long-term, sustainable economic growth and a high quality of life for all Maine people future.

    One Measure of Growth the group tracks is the rate of poverty, because “bringing our poverty rates down is critical to helping create a solid foundation for Mainers so we can improve other outcomes like educational attainment, food insecurity, health status, and employment levels.”

    Another measure tracks Maine students’ level of reading proficiency at fourth grade “because fourth grade is the point at which reading should be established as a skill and students transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”

    The Economic Growth Council supports programs like Head Start and quality childcare as critical components in achieving higher levels of reading skills.

    A third measure tracks the rate of health insurance coverage because “health insurance helps people establish a relationship with a provider and access preventive care that can help avoid more costly and disruptive procedures down the road, helping people live healthier, more productive lives.”

    A fourth measure looks at food insecurity, otherwise known as hunger, because “the total annual direct and indirect cost of food insecurity (including poor health, lowered educational outcomes, reduced earnings, and the value of charitable contributions to address hunger) has been estimated at $787 million for Maine.”

    The 2015 Measures of Growth indicate Maine’s poverty rate has risen to 14.2 percent. In addition, 64 percent of Maine children are not proficient at reading by fourth grade — yes, that’s 64 percent — and the rate of Medicaid coverage declined from 23 to 20 percent, leaving 11,000 more children than three years ago without healthcare. Lastly, 24 percent of Maine children are hungry.

    Despite critics’ attempts to deny it, the data is clear about what works in creating a path out of intergenerational poverty. The lives of millions have been improved with an array of services that include Medicaid, Medicare, Head Start, education and job training, and food stamps.

    Some of the people needing those services spent Christmas at the Mid Maine Homeless Shelter. Among them were 14 young children, two 18-year-old high school students working and finishing high school, and two students, ages 20 and 21, enrolled in adult education and working. Their wages at 25 hours a week are so low they can’t afford even a tiny efficiency apartment.

    Many policy decisions that would make a difference in helping these and others move out of poverty will not be debated in this short session of the Legislature. However, the expansion of Medicaid will be.

    Two Republican senators, Roger Katz and Tom Saviello, have reintroduced a bill to expand Medicaid to help the state address the current drug epidemic using federal rather than state dollars. The governor and the majority of Republicans are, again, dead set against this bill becoming law.

    Those who understand that the road out of poverty is one the government can make easier by taking a comprehensive approach that works, not by kicking people off programs, which doesn’t work, can stand up now.

    That means engaging in the political process, something many are loathe to do.

    However, government policies need to be in place to support those who are struggling with little or no work, mental illness, drug addiction and over burdening the criminal justice system, and our voices help create those policies.

    We have the opportunity in this Legislative session to make a difference in this one policy decision that will affect our children’s lives. Expanding Medicaid is something that nine Republican governors have joined two independents and 19 Democratic governors in doing because they know it makes economic sense for their states.

    Really, what other species abandons its young? How did we get to a point where we think it’s OK to have children living at the homeless shelter, while their parents work, try to go to school, look for jobs or deal with mental illness?

    While the animal kingdom relies on instinct to care for their young, we actually have research on the kinds of policies that make a difference in people’s lives.

    Our job is to overcome the voices of those who think the answer is punishing people for their situation. It’s in your own self interest to overcome your reluctance to write letters, talk with candidates and legislators, call the governor, and speak out.

    I hope you will join me.

    This piece first appeared in the Morning Sentinal 

  • Opportunities await girls seeking science and technology careers in Maine

    For too long, men continue to outnumber women working in engineering and computer science careers in America. Fortunately, there are now a number of agencies and groups working to change that disparity.

    Despite the fact that there have been women, throughout history, whom have made important contributions and discoveries to science very few pursue careers in science and technology.

    Research shows unequivocally that girls have just as much aptitude for science and math as boys. The problem is rooted in social systems and cultural biases that encourage girls and young women to find careers in fields traditionally held by women.

    Social pressures continue to discourage girls.

    “If you keep telling girls they're less good at science, that will probably be self-fulfilling. But there are quite a lot of women who are good at it,” said Lisa Randall, a theoretical physicist and professor at Harvard University in Marie Claire magazine.

    “If you look through the shelves of science books, you'll find row after row of books written by men. This can be terribly off-putting for women,” said Randall, who was the first woman to be tenured as a physics professor at MIT and then at Harvard.

    Why should more women work in science and engineering careers?

     “We’ve got half the population that is way underrepresented in those fields and that means that we’ve got a whole bunch of talent . . . that is not being encouraged," said President Barack Obama. 

    In a 2015 research report, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) answered the question this way: “The representation of women in engineering and computing matters. Diversity in the workforce contributes to creativity, productivity, and innovation. Everyone’s experiences should inform and guide the direction of engineering and technical innovation. In less than 10 years, the United States will need 1.7 million more engineers and computing professionals. We simply can’t afford to ignore the perspectives or the talent of half the population."

    More women in science and technology careers could also help close the gender wage gap. Women in science, math and tech jobs earn 33 percent more than women in other occupations.

    Women are making progress in some careers that require math and science education. But according to the National Girls Collaborative Project and the National Science Foundation, female scientists and engineers are concentrated in different occupations than are men, with relatively high shares of women in the social sciences (58 percent) and biological and medical sciences (48 percent) and relatively low shares in engineering (13 percent) and computer and mathematical sciences (25 percent).

    Even though women make up 47 percent of the American workforce, just 15.6 percent of chemical engineers, 12.1 percent of civil engineers and 7.2 percent of mechanical engineers are women.

    One of those female mechanical engineers, Debbie Sterling, in 2012 founded GoldieBlox, a toy company that makes toys to inspire a generation of future of women engineers. Other organizations, like the AAUW and the National Girls Collaborative Project, are sponsoring research about the disparities in the science and math workforce to encourage changes.

    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has developed a joint program with the Girls Scouts of America to create science, technology and engineering projects for girls.

    Organizations like NASA recognize that women represent an untapped pool of science and technology talent. The agency wants to show girls that there are many rewarding opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math careers.

    In Maine, the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone, holds summer camp programs each year to develop children’s interests in math and technology. The school is working to encourage more girls to attend its camp.

    Surrounded by an encouraging social atmosphere, girls at MSSM have an opportunity to excel in the science and technology studies. 

  • Maine House Speaker Eves praises housing bond victory, urges LePage to act quickly

     Speaker of the House Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, on Tuesday night praised the passage of bond Question 2 on the statewide ballot. The bond passed with 68 percent of the vote.

    Eves led the bipartisan effort in the State Legislature to pass the $15 million bond proposal to invest in affordable and efficient housing for Maine seniors.

    “The passage of the housing bond is a huge victory for Maine seniors and the economy. It’s a win win for communities across the state,” said Eves, who sponsored the bond proposal. “The investment will help a dire need for affordable housing for Maine seniors, while also helping to create construction jobs in communities in rural and urban areas of our state. Maine voters sent a strong message tonight in support of seniors. I urge the governor to release the bond quickly and honor the will of the voters.”

    Maine has a shortage of nearly 9,000 affordable rental homes for low income older adults, and that this shortfall will grow to more than 15,000 by 2022 unless action is taken to address the problem, according to a report by independent national research firm Abt Associates.

     “With the passage of the Housing Bond, Maine can start to scale that number back through improved affordable housing measures in some of our most vulnerable communities,”said Lori Parham, AARP Maine State Director. 

    The Senior Housing Bond will enable more Mainers to age in their own homes by revitalizing communities and providing new homes for older Mainers; dedicating funds to home repair and weatherization of some existing homes; and by creating jobs in the construction industry.

    AARP Maine heard from thousands of their 230,000 members in the state regarding this issue in the weeks leading up to the election.  On October 20th, more than 4,000 AARP members participated in a live tele-town hall with Senate President Mike Thibodeau (R-Winterport) and House Speaker Mark Eves (D-North Berwick).  Participants were invited to ask questions during the town hall meeting and many callers expressed their support for the state’s investment in affordable housing.

  • Eight things to look for in a great child care program

    Children playing in Maine, photo by Ramona du Houx

    by Ramona du Houx


    When parents choose child care for their infant or toddler, they are making a decision that goes far beyond choosing a “babysitter” while they go to work. The quality of infant care affects youngsters’ mental and emotional development for the rest of their lives.

    According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, infant experiences shape the development of brain architecture, “which provides the foundation for all future learning, behavior and health.”

    Brain development research shows that growth begins with the creation of a series of paths among the brain’s billions of neurons. These early connections and paths are the foundation of all learning in the future.

    Even though genetics provide the basic blueprint for a child’s brain, Harvard’s research shows that the most important factors in developing healthy neural pathways are positive interactions with parents and other caregivers. This is a process called “serve and return,” in which infants learn by how adults respond to them. When adults don’t respond, or when they respond inappropriately, it affects a child’s long-term development.

    Reading to children need parents and/or care givers to read to them and to help develop strong language skills.

    Languages help build congnative development at earily ages. Learning ABC's are simple ways that help.

    This research points to the critical importance of finding high quality infant and toddler care when parents need to work outside the home. Parents seeking childcare should look for these elements:

     

    • Basic health and safety- Does the provider take steps to ensure health and minimize the risk of injury?
    • Staff education level- Infant and toddler care providers should understand the learning abilities of newborns to 3-year-olds and be able to plan appropriate activities. They should know how to interact with infants and toddlers and respond to them.
    • An age-appropriate environment- Young children need appropriate space for both active and quiet time, along with proper equipment, toys and books.
    • Ratio of staff to children- Infants need one-on-one time and individualized care.
    • A primary caregiver- Each child should be assigned a primary caregiver who can respond to his/her unique needs and temperament. This kind of stability is important for healthy development.
    • Responsive caregiving- Caregivers should be aware of each child’s developmental pace and be prepared to teach or intervene, depending on circumstances.
    • Observation and individualized learning- Caregivers must be aware of each child’s needs, and should prepare individual activities and document progress.
    • Language and literacy- Infants and toddlers should be immersed in story- telling, reading, singing, and conversations so they develop strong language skills.


    More information is available from the Maine Children’s Growth Council.

  • If waitresses earned a decent minimum wage, our dignity might get a raise

    Editorial by Annie Quandt, a server working in the Old Port and a resident of Westport Island. First appeared in the PPH

    While I’ve never had someone completely stiff me because it took them a while to get their food – the customers’ rationale in the New Jersey incident, as they noted on the receipt – I frequently find myself putting up with almost anything from customers in order to get the tips that make up half of my income.

    In Maine, 82 percent of all tipped restaurant workers are women, and any woman who has worked for tips will tell you that sexual harassment and rude comments are, sadly, just another part of the job.

    When your customers pay your wages instead of your employer, you don’t have the luxury of speaking up when you feel uncomfortable or disrespected; if rent is due that week or you have a family to feed, you just have to put up with it.

    I’ve been working at a restaurant on Commercial Street in Portland for just about a year now, and I just picked up a second serving job on Commercial Street to make ends meet. Recently, two men came in, clearly intoxicated, and sat at their table for an hour and a half trying to look up the waitresses’ skirts.

    All of the women working that night could feel these men leering and were uncomfortable and anxious the whole shift. When we complained to management, they told us to cut off their alcohol consumption – but nothing else was done.

    These types of incidents are commonplace in the restaurant industry. I have been asked out on dates, with the customer’s pen hovering over the tip line as he waited for my answer. I have been asked for my number more times than I can count. I have had customers comment on my outfit or my body while I’m working. I’ve wanted to say something, but the customer is always right … right?

    When women servers can’t defend themselves from rude behavior from customers, the entire restaurant culture begins to accept it as the norm. Even management plays a role in harassment in this industry.

    If you’re not “date ready” when you show up for your shift, in some restaurants, you’ll be told to change or unbutton your top or to put on more makeup to make yourself appealing. In my case, the managers have made it clear that the curvier girls are not allowed to wear certain clothing items, while the more slender servers can wear whatever they want to work.

    Comments like this about body types and personal style not only make us all feel watched and uncomfortable but also sometimes make it more difficult for us to do our jobs. When I’m sweeping and cleaning and doing side work in 95-degree heat, the freedom to wear a skirt versus jeans is almost a necessity.

    Complaints about sexual harassment from co-workers are rarely taken seriously in restaurants. It is always tough to report unwanted attention or harassment from co-workers or customers, but it is especially difficult if the harassment comes from management.

    Where do you turn when the person who holds power over you at your job is the one harassing you? What happens if you do make a formal complaint? The restaurant industry is a tight-knit community, and if any employer thinks you might be a hassle, they won’t hire you.

    Servers wield so little power in their positions and in their wages, and I am inclined to think that the two are inextricably linked.

    According to a Restaurant Opportunities Centers United survey, servers working in states like Maine – where there is a sub-minimum wage for tipped workers – are three times more likely to experience harassment on the job than servers who work in states where everyone makes the same minimum wage.

    This is evidence of a systemic problem – combined with the fact that, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 7 percent of American women work in restaurants but 37 percent of all EEOC sexual harassment complaints come out of this industry. We’re allowing an entire industry full of hardworking women to go to work with the presumption that they will be harassed.

    I support the 2016 “wages with dignity” referendum, which would raise the minimum to $12 by 2020 and eliminate the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers by 2024. Earning the same minimum wage as other workers would mean tipped workers wouldn’t feel like they have to ingratiate themselves with their customers regardless of their behavior.

    It would mean that management and our co-workers would have to respect us as equals (because when you are paid less, you must obviously be worth less). And it would mean a stable wage for the long winters and tough weekday shifts when servers are more willing to sacrifice dignity at work in order to make ends meet.

    I deserve dignity on the job, and one fair minimum wage would help me get it.

  • Maine: where women, children can’t meet basic needs has the wrong priorities

    Photo by Ramona du Houx

    Come election time, it seems every politician loves the ladies. It makes sense — women are registered to vote in higher numbers than men and turn out to vote at higher rates. But how do candidates’ declarations of admiration and affection for mothers, wives and daughters translate into public policy? Look a little more closely, and you’ll find a reality wildly out of step with their flowery words.

    Recently released U.S. Census data demonstrate once again that when we talk about poverty, we are talking about women and children. One in seven American women lived in poverty in 2014, and rates are especially high among women who head families, African American women, Latina women, women over age 65 living alone and women with disabilities. More than two-thirds of the elderly poor are women. Women represent 63 percent of minimum wage workers, 63 percent of part-time workers and 53 percent of the working poor.

    The numbers in Maine are largely consistent with those nationally, with one sad and frustrating exception. In Maine, 58 percent of single mothers of children under 5 live in poverty, a rate far higher than that of the nation. Furthermore, Maine stands out among the New England states for the number of women living in poverty, working part time and earning less than $20,000 per year.

    Poverty rates matter because economic security has a bearing on every other aspect of a woman’s life. Whether a woman has money and how she earns it affects her health, her ability to escape a violent relationship, her ability to chart her own life, her children’s prospects. In other words, the well-being of women is integral to the well-being of society as a whole and a state in which women and children cannot meet their most basic needs is one that has chosen the wrong priorities.

    For far too long, we have been encouraged to believe that economic circumstances, like the weather, are something outside of our control. Furthermore, we’ve been told that poverty is an individual failing rather than a societal one. In reality, millions of American women struggle to support themselves and their families no matter how hard they work due to the combined effects of systematic discrimination established in law long ago and more recent changes to the workplace that allow businesses to profit while treating employees as though they are disposable.

    It doesn’t have to be this way. We can, together, make different public policy choices in order to build a strong middle class and a healthier society where everyone has a chance to succeed. Those choices include ensuring that:

    — Everyone in Maine can meet their basic needs like food and housing.

    — Each child gets off to a healthy start in life, with the nutrition and nurturing that build strong brains and create a foundation for later success.

    — Adults can continue to get an education, acquiring and updating skills to meet the needs of an ever-changing economy.

    — All Mainers have access to the full range of health care, not only for their well-being and dignity, but also so that that they can earn a living.

    — Our workplace policies — wages, scheduling, the ability to earn paid sick time, access to paid leave to address a major life event — reflect the realities of families in the 21st century.

    Building a future in which all Mainers thrive, including eliminating poverty among women and children, is no small undertaking. Yet we already know the building blocks to success. What is required is the will to make change, and the collective effort of Mainers in the political, philanthropic, business and nonprofit sectors.

    There isn’t a moment to lose. Those interested in improving life for women and their families can join us for the Maine Women’s Summit on Economic Security on Friday, Oct. 16, at the Augusta Civic Center.

    Eliza Townsend is the executive director of the Maine Women’s Policy Center.

  • Maine's new law to ban “rehoming” of adopted children goes into effect Oct. 15, 2015

    Sen. Angus King presents Rep. Craig Hickman, with a 2015 Angels in Adoption award for his outstanding advocacy on adoption issues. Hickman was recognized by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute at an awards ceremony in Washington D.C. Courtesy photo.

    By Ramona du Houx

    A measure sponsored by Rep. Craig Hickman to prohibit the unauthorized “rehoming” of adopted children goes into effect Oct. 15. "Rehoming" is a form of buying and selling children once they have been legally adopted. It's slavery and the USA lacks laws protecting these children.

    The Maine law prohibits the transfer of the long-term care and custody of a child without a court order. Hickman, adopted when he was a baby, has been involved in adoptee rights issues for the past 20 years.

    “Imagine being shipped across oceans to a new culture with a new language to become part of a new family, only to have that family decide that they don’t want you. And since it is not against the law, that family advertises you on Facebook or Craigslist or some other social media platform and within days you are dropped off to another stranger in a parking lot behind some Walmart somewhere,” said Hickman, D-Winthrop. “Yes, this actually happens.”

    Sen. Angus King honored Hickman with a 2015 Angels in Adoption award for his outstanding advocacy of adoption issues. The Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, which orchestrates the Angels in Adoption Program, honored Hickman this week.

    The Angels in Adoption Program honors individuals, couples and organizations that have made extraordinary contributions on behalf of children in need of families.

    The Judiciary Committee passed the bill unanimously with an amendment to make rehoming a crime subject to the current penalties for abandonment. It includes an affirmative defense clause to ensure people acting in good faith are not penalized.

    “This law will protect children and families from the outrageous indignity called rehoming and send a clear message to adoptees here and all over the nation that Maine people care about the safety and welfare of all our children,” Hickman said. 

    According to the Washington Times, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Ohio and Wisconsin also have adopted laws against rehoming. 

    “When I saw the votes in favor of this bill, I was moved to tears,” said Hickman. “This is the most important bill I’ve introduced so far. As an adopted person, it goes to the core of who I am. It feels like the culmination of two decades of work. I am so grateful to my colleagues for their support.”

    Hickman is serving his second term in the Maine House and represents Readfield, Winthrop and part of Monmouth.

     

     

  • Senator Angus King Honors Maine State Rep. Craig Hickman as an Angel in Adoption for his adoption advocacy

    Senator Angus King has selected Representative Craig Hickman as a 2015 Angels in Adoption™awardee for his outstanding advocacy of adoption issues. 

    The Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI), which orchestrates the Angels in Adoption™ Program, will honor Rep. Hickman at an awards ceremony on October 6, 2015 and gala on October 7, 2015 in Washington, D.C. 

    “I never would have imagined that twenty years of working on adoption issues would culminate with this great honor,” said Rep. Hickman. “I cannot thank Senator King enough. I will continue to fight for the rights of adopted children in Maine and across this great nation.”

    Earlier this year, Hickman, an adoptee with a long-standing commitment to improving the lives of both adult and minor adoptees, introduced legislation in Maine that would prohibit the unauthorized “rehoming” of adopted children. Inspired by his father, a World War II veteran, and his wise mother, both deceased, Hickman has spent most of his life serving his community and feeding people.

    His award-winning 2005 memoir, Fumbling Toward Divinity, chronicles his search and reunion with his biological family.  

    When presenting his bill, Hickman asked his colleagues to “imagine being shipped across oceans to a new culture with a new language to become part of a new family, only to have that family decide that they don’t want you. And since it is not against the law, that family advertises you… and within days you are dropped off to another stranger.”

    Hickman’s bill, which passed the Legislature unanimously, will go into effect this fall, making rehoming a crime in Maine subject to the current penalties for abandonment.

    Maine will be the sixth state, and the first in New England, to criminalize this damaging practice.Rehoming is not the first adoption issue that Hickman has brought to the attention of the Maine Legislature.

    He first testified, as a member of the public, before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee in 2005, speaking in favor of a bill that would allow adult adoptees access to their original sealed birth certificates. He was successful in this effort as well, and adult adoptees born in Maine were granted access to their original birth certificates in 2009.

    Both in his work as a two-term legislator and as a private citizen prior to his election, Hickman has drawn on his personal experience as an adopted person to advocate for important changes to state law. His success in these efforts is a testament to his dedication to these issues and for these reasons, King recommended Hickman as an Angel in Adoption™ for 2015.

    Hickman is also an organic farmer, chef, actor and poet.

    As House chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, he has championed food sovereignty, food security, self-sufficiency and other efforts to protect Maine’s small family farms and promote rural economic development.

    Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Hickman moved to New England to attend Harvard University, where he graduated in 1990 with a degree in government.

    He and his spouse, Jop Blom, who lived in the Boston area for 16 years, have owned and operated Annabessacook Farm in Winthrop since 2002, raising organic produce, dairy, and livestock, and hosting overnight guests and a fresh food bank for anyone in need.

    The Angels in Adoption™ Program is CCAI’s signature public awareness campaign and provides an opportunity for all members of the U.S. Congress to honor the good work of their constituents who have enriched the lives of foster children and orphans in the United States and abroad. This year, more than 150 “Angels” are being honored through the Angels in Adoption™ program.

  • Help children have meals in Maine schools

    By Maine State Senator Justin Alfond

    Maine has the tools, grit to eliminate state’s quiet crisis of child hunger

    But the hurdles of filling out applications and the stigma that some feel need to be surmounted.

    It’s fall, and schools across our state have welcomed students back to the classroom. The start of the school year is an exciting time for every community, a time many of us look upon fondly. But while most students are ready to learn and do their best, some are facing a monumental challenge: hunger.

     The Maine Department of Education reported that 86,473 of all K-12 public school students in our state – roughly 47 percent – were food insecure, meaning that the child goes without one meal every day. These children are eligible to receive free or reduced-priced meals at school.

    Food insecurity is disastrous for children. Learning, concentration and discipline all suffer when a student hasn’t had enough to eat. Research has shown that children who experience hunger are more likely to struggle in school.

    Childhood hunger is a quiet crisis that’s affecting all of Maine, but there are simple things we all can do to address it.

    Last year, I co-chaired the bipartisan Task Force to End Student Hunger. We created a five-year blueprint to end student hunger in Maine. The first step is to enroll every eligible child in the USDA school meals program. Registration is critical for these students, and enrollment is happening right now at every school through Oct. 15.

    Here’s how it works:

    One of the many forms a parent gets at the beginning of a school year is a Meal Benefit Application, which determines a child’s eligibility for free and reduced-price food, which is provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Eligible students can receive school breakfast, lunch and after-school snacks every day school is in session, if they need them.

    But this year in Maine, many students won’t even apply. 

    Educators I’ve spoken with know that students in their classrooms qualify for help, which would ensure proper nutrition that may otherwise be unavailable. But year after year, they see these kids go without because they didn’t fill out the Meal Benefit Application.

    Some of the reasons for that missed opportunity are simple. The form can get lost in the shuffle of all the paperwork sent home during the first weeks of school, or could be filled out incorrectly. But the real obstacle is the stigma associated with receiving free or reduced-price meals.

    I know that Mainers are proud and independent people. Asking for help is not easy, and it’s never our first instinct. Plus, filling out this paperwork is deeply personal. Often, the completed form is delivered to a school leader the parents know personally.

    But registration is the make-or-break moment for a child in need of food at school. When a child isn’t signed up, not only does it mean they will be one of those hungry students that most likely will struggle in school, but it also means Maine forgoes $50 million in federal funding set aside to feed our children.

    So what can we all do?

    • First, learn about hunger in your community. In 2014, here in Cumberland County, more than one-third of students qualified for free or reduced-price school lunch, according to data from the Maine Children’s Alliance. In nine Maine counties, more than half the students qualify. Childhood hunger affects every single community in Maine and cuts across the political spectrum.

    • Next, call your local parent-teacher organization and see if child hunger is something they are working on, and volunteer to help if you can.

    • Finally, let’s come together and help break the stigma of accepting free and reduced-price meals. There is no shame in accepting help if you need it.

    I’m also excited to announce that Full Plates Full Potential, a statewide nonprofit targeting student hunger, will be focusing on increasing registration by testing best practices from around the country in a few Maine schools this fall.

    I urge everyone to get involved in ending childhood hunger in the community. Let’s make sure we get every eligible child registered this fall.

    No child should go hungry. Fortunately, Maine has all the tools and grit needed to solve this crisis.

    First appeared in the Portland Press Herald

     

     

  • Alfond: “If we are truly going to solve this childhood hunger epidemic then we have to stop the blame game”

    By Senate Democratic Leader Justin Alfond of Portland

    45,000 children in Maine are living in poverty. That’s more than the entire population of Bangor, Hermon, and Hampden. In fact,  according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kids Count report, the child poverty rate is higher today, in 2015, than it was before the recession.

    Just days ago, the National Commission on Hunger was here in Maine as part of their nationwide tour to learn more about hunger and poverty among our children. This 10-member Commission--appointed by the U.S. Congress--is charged with reducing food insecurity by developing innovative reforms in both public and private food assistance programs.

    When it comes to addressing childhood hunger, Maine has a story to tell.

    Astonishingly, in Maine, there are more than 86,000 children who are food insecure--that’s one in four children living in our state without access to enough food. Finding ways for our state to address our childhood hunger epidemic is imperative.

    It’s easy to overlook the signs of hunger.

    I often tell the story about when I was growing up in Dexter. When I was nine-years old, I had a friend in my class named Tom. Back then, everyone knew Tom as “that kid” who got called down to the principal’s office. He was “that kid” who stayed in during recess. He was also “that kid” who missed a lot of school. Later, what I realized as an adult, is that Tom was “that kid” whose family–although they worked hard–didn’t have enough money to make sure Tom got enough food. He was hungry. 
    I tell this story because it underscores how easy it can be to miss the signs. Childhood hunger is one of most hidden challenges facing our state. Yet, it’s all around us.

    Nearly 50 percent of all school-aged children in Maine are hungry. In fact, Maine ranks second in New England for food insecurity.

    Why does this matter? Well, hunger is a roadblock to learning--and success. And it makes sense. Try skipping breakfast, or going an entire work day and not eating enough and still being expected to do your best work. Do you think you could?

    One thing I’ve learned is that there’s a strong corollary between underperforming students and schools with high percentages of students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch.

    Hunger makes a student’s journey through school--and life--incredibly challenging. Children without enough food not only underperform in school--and have behavioral challenges--they are also less likely to graduate from high school or go on to further their education. Lower educational attainment means lower annual incomes--increasing the likelihood they will stay in poverty. By not feeding hungry children now, we make it more likely they will end up in poverty later in life.

    In Maine, we are taking action--albeit slowly. Thanks to legislation, we have an expanding summer foods program--because we know that just because school’s out for the summer, hunger doesn’t go away. We also have a network of churches, nonprofits, and businesses all working together on solving food insecurity. Lastly, we are a state rich in agriculture. We can grow food to help solve this hunger crisis.

    So what’s the problem?

    I would say our biggest problem is the lack of leadership and political will in state government. Some in the legislature on both sides of the aisle are leading on food issues, but there are nowhere near enough lawmakers rallying for this cause. Sadly, it is far too easy for some politicians to talk a good game when it comes to feeding children, but still vote against those interests at every turn.

    And perhaps most insidiously, is this administration’s coordinated effort of shaming the poor--embarrassing and stigmatizing the very people who are trying to get back on their feet. There seems to be a belief from this administration that public shame is the missing motivator of moving people out of poverty to self-sufficiency. 

    If we are truly going to solve this epidemic of 86,000 hungry children in our state then we have to stop the blame game--and realize that this is not  just a school problem, and it’s not just a family problem. This is a community problem. It’s your problem, it’s my problem--it’s our problem. And, we have a responsibility to help those in need among us.

    It’s going take each of us working together and in partnership with the State of Maine and the federal government to ensure no child goes hungry in Maine. 

  • Lawmakers pass bill reducing barriers for reporting suspected child abuse

    By Ramona du Houx

    A law that would reduce barriers to reporting suspected child abuse was enacted in the Maine State Senate on May 27, 2015.

    The measure, LD 199, “An Act to Improve the Reporting of Child Abuse,” amends the state’s current law for mandated reporters who are required to report cases of suspected child abuse and neglect. There are more than 32 categories of mandatory reporters including clergy, bus drivers, school officials, doctors, camp counselors, and law enforcement.

    “Child abuse has serious short- and long-term consequences. The sooner we intervene in child abuse cases, the more likely a child will experience less long-term consequences,” said Democratic State Senator Bill Diamond of Windham, the bill’s sponsor.

    In 2013, over 19,000 reports of suspected child abuse were made to Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Child and Family Services.

    Current law states that a mandated reporter may “cause someone else” such as a supervisor to make the report. The bill, amended in committee, requires a mandated reporter working in an institution, facility or agency to acknowledge in writing that s/he has received confirmation that the report has been made by the institution, facility or agency to the department. If the mandated reporter does not receive that confirmation within 24 hours of notifying the institution, facility or agency, then the mandated reporter is required to report directly to the Department of Health and Human Services.  Additionally, the amendment prohibits an employer from taking any action to prevent or discourage an employee from making a report.

    “We know that these reports of abuse are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to child abuse.  And, we need to decrease barriers to the intervention of child abuse,” added Sen. Diamond. “We know from the Penn State-Jerry Sandusky case that too often reports of abuse get lost up the chain. We can make no more excuses for reports of abuse that go unreported or investigated.”

    To date, the measure has received bipartisan support garnering a unanimous report from the state’s Judiciary Committee and unanimous passage “under the hammer” in both the House and Senate.

    The law now goes to Governor Paul LePage for his signature.

  • Union solidarity at BIW in Maine

    Bath Iron Works shipbuilders took to the streets May 21st for a solidarity rally. Photo by Sarah Bigney

    By Ramona du Houx

    Bath Iron Works shipbuilders took to the streets May 21st for a solidarity rally to promote solidarity during the year before the union’s contract expires.

    “The union is behind its leadership, and the company is going to have to negotiate with us and not dictate to us," said Jay Wadleigh, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local S6. “They need to abide by the contract, stop misleading the media and just work with us so we can get the costs of these ships down. We’re the best shipbuilders in the world. We want to work. We just want to be treated with dignity and respect and be negotiated with and not dictated to.”

    BIW is known as one of the best shipbuilders in America. It's slogan is "Bath Built is Best Built."

    This is the second big march at the shipyard this year. On March 24 nearly 1,000 members of the International Association of Machinists Union Local marched to rallying support and protesting a variety of proposed BIW changes.

    Caps on defense spending have resulted in fewer Naval contracts thus spurring the BIW changes including outsourcing work and cross-training employees.

    BIW says the measures will increase the shipyard’s efficiency and keep the costs of building destroyers competitive. The shipyard insists it needs to be competitive to win two bidding contracts. But the union says there are better ways to cut costs. The stalemate has resulted in a third-party arbitration and a federal lawsuit charging BIW with violating its contract with workers.


    Bath Iron Works shipbuilders took to the streets May 21st for a solidarity rally. Photo by Sarah Bigney

  • Education committee unanimously backs bill to end childhood hunger in Maine

    A bill aimed at ending childhood hunger was unanimously supported by the state’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee May 14, 2015.

    “When a child is hungry, they cannot reach their full potential. Their school performance, overall health, and attendance suffer,” said State Senate Democratic Leader Justin Alfond of Portland, the sponsor of the measure.  “Now that we have a blueprint to end student hunger and now we must start doing.

    This is an ambitious bill, but it is one that meets the scope of our challenge,” said State Senate Democratic Leader Justin Alfond of Portland, the sponsor of the measure. “When parents and communities understand the full scope of hunger in their school, they want action.

    In Maine, one out of four children, or more than 86,000, are food insecure. These numbers make Maine the most food insecure state in New England. To address this, the 126th Legislature created the Task Force to End Student Hunger.

    Last year, the Task Force to End Student Hunger met to develop a five-year plan. This measure contains the legislative recommendations developed by the Task Force to End Student Hunger  including establishing a permanent Commission To End Student Hunger. The bill was amended by the committee to reduce the number of members on the Task Force from 17 to 11.

    The bill also directs the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services to collaborate on child hunger and nutrition programs in various ways.

    The measure, LD 933, "An Act To Implement the Recommendations of the Task Force To End Student Hunger in Maine," will now go to the Senate for consideration.

  • Proposed law aims to end childhood hunger in Maine

    By Ramona du Houx

    A proposed law aimed at ending childhood hunger received strong support during a public hearing in the state’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee on April 27, 2015.

    This is an ambitious bill, but it is one that meets the scope of our challenge,” said State Senate Democratic Leader Justin Alfond, the sponsor of the proposal. “When parents and communities understand the full scope of hunger in their school, they want action.

    In Maine, one out of four children, or more than 86,000, are food insecure. These numbers make Maine the most food insecure state in New England. To address this, the 126th Legislature created the Task Force to End Student Hunger.

    Last year, the Task Force to End Student Hunger met to develop a five-year plan. This measure contains the legislative recommendations developed by the Task Force to End Student Hunger. The task force developed a five-year strategic plan to end student hunger include establishing a permanent Commission To End Student Hunger and providing that the full costs of school nutrition are subsidizable costs in the state education funding formula.

    The bill would also make it easier for the state to secure federal funding to help enact the inititives.

    The bill  directs the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services to collaborate on child hunger and nutrition programs in various ways.

    A work session for LD 933, "An Act To Implement the Recommendations of the Task Force To End Student Hunger in Maine," will be scheduled in the coming weeks.

  • Over 500 teens from Maine want to be adopted- now

    Photo and article by Ramona du Houx

    The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) put out the call March 30st for more families to step forward to help children in need. 

    In Maine we have 1,990 children in foster care. Of those, 502 are seeking adoption. There are over 500 kids, from Maine communities, wondering if they’ll ever have a family of their own. If you feel you can help please go HERE.

    “Unfortunately, the number of children in need of safe, healthy and happy homes is far outpacing the number of families willing and able to help them,” said Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew.

    There’s a need for foster and adoptive families for kids of all ages, but it’s especially pronounced for middle-school and high school-aged children, particularly for those with behavior issues. Many of these issues stem from growing up in abusive situations, which with time and love can be turned around. Everyone deserves a second chance, especially if they were not at fault for their circumstance.

    There are more than 1,300 households in Maine currently licensed as foster homes. Becoming a foster home begins without having to make a full commitment. The first step is attending an informational session hosted by the DHHS Office of Child and Family Services. Moving forward in the process involves an application process, three positive references, a criminal background check, a fire safety inspection of the home in question, and a DHHS home study to identify strengths, and needs of an applicant’s home. 

    If you are interested please contact Foster Family Program Manager Linda Brissette at (207) 624-7964 or email linda.brissette@maine.gov.

  • New report shows public investments in Maine children reduce child poverty rate

    Photo by Ramona du Houx

    A report released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that the federal government's official poverty measure created in the 1960s uses outdated information on how U.S. families are faring today, failing to illustrate the effect of programs designed to help them.  The new KIDS COUNT® Data Snapshot, Measuring Access to Opportunity in the United States, points to a better index for measuring poverty - the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) - which captures the effect of public investments and tax policies on children and families.

    By using the SPM, the data show that without any government interventions, Maine's child poverty rate would more than double from 12 percent to 27 percent. However, 31,000 Maine kids still lived in poverty as measured by the SPM. Nationally, the report shows that public investments kept 11 million children out of poverty.

    The Supplemental Poverty Measure, created by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2011, factors in the impact of a number of social programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and takes into account rising costs and other changes that affect a family's budget. The SPM also provides a more accurate assessment of poverty levels on a state and regional basis. It helps illustrate, for instance, the variations in the cost of living and the impact of federal programs from one state to the next.
     

     "The official poverty measure does not provide the accurate information policymakers need to measure the success of anti-poverty programs - nationally and at the state-level," said Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. "Relying on this tool alone prevents policymakers from gauging the effectiveness of government programs aimed at reducing child poverty. Given that child poverty costs our society an estimated $500 billion a year in lost productivity and earnings as well as health and crime-related costs, the SPM is an important tool that should be used to assess state-level progress in fighting poverty."
     

    Measuring Access to Opportunity in the United States provides national and state-by-state data using the SPM to show the effect of a variety of supports to help low-income families. In a striking departure from official poverty rate data, the SPM shows that California has the highest child poverty rate, followed by Arizona and Nevada.
     

    In every state, anti-poverty programs tracked by the SPM have led to a reduction in the child poverty rate. Because federal benefits are not adjusted for differences in regional costs of living, they are likely to have a more significant impact in states where the cost of living is relatively low. States and localities also vary in their contribution to the safety net programs and tax policies that can help move children out of poverty. 
     

    "This report confirms that we need to continue to invest in our children and families," said Claire Berkowitz, the Maine Children's Alliance executive director. "This measure speaks to the joint work of federal and state programs in improving the well-being of children. It is our hope that the SPM can help both federal and state decision makers understand how best to support the thousands of Maine children still growing up in families without sufficient economic resources."
     

    Measuring Access to Opportunity in the United States follows the Casey Foundation's 2014 report, Creating Opportunities for Families: A Two-Generation Approach, which outlined additional recommendations for helping families raise themselves out of poverty that include:

    • Expanding access to high-quality early education;
    • Changing tax credit policies to help families keep more of what they earn;
    • Expanding and streamlining food and housing subsidies; and
    • Developing approaches that link programs for kids - like Head Start - with programs for their parents, such as education and job training.
  • PUC gives in to LePage, reverses wind energy contracts

    Kibby Wind Farm, in Western Maine, opened in 2010 and has given thousands back to the communities it serves with programs and TIFF's- tax incentives.  Photo by Ramona du Houx

    By Ramona du Houx

    Top Maine lawmakers in the State House denounced the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), the state's energy regulator that is mandated not to make political decisions,  for caving to Governor Paul LePage’s demands to reopen bids on two approved wind contracts. 

    The three-member commission, which is supposed to be independent, reversed its decision in a 2-1 vote. The PUC previously approved contract terms with SunEdison and NextEra for wind projects in Hancock County and Somerset County. That approval allowed the parties to begin negotiating final contracts with Central Maine Power Co. and Emera Maine. A lot of work they never would have undertaken if they new LePage was going to pull the plug on. The contracts, which were approved two months ago, would have helped to lower electric costs for Maine consumers by $69 million and create jobs.

    “The Public Utilities Commission is meant to serve the public’s interest – not the governor’s ideology. Maine should be open for all businesses – not just the businesses the governor favors,” said House Speaker Mark Eves. “He is throwing away real energy savings and jobs that Maine needs. Just as we saw when he meddled with StatOil, he is putting hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in investment in our state at risk.”

    Newly appointed PUC Commissioner Carlie McLean - former legal counsel to LePage  - joined the Commission’s Chair and LePage appointee Mark Vannoy to reverse the decision. Commissioner David Littell voted against the re-opening the bid.

    “I’m disappointed to see Commissioner McLean overturn a decision with so little evidence and put future energy business contracts in jeopardy,” said Mark Dion, House Chair of the Legislature’s Energy Utilities and Technology Committee. “This creates an unpredictable environment for future business contracts.”

    According to a letter from LePage to the Commission obtained by MPBN,  LePage attempted to persuade the commissioners to ignore language in the law that directs them to consider new renewable energy sources.

    LePage wrote, "I request that you expand your current request for proposals to include any clean resource, including existing hydropower and nuclear, and review whether these potential contracts could have benefits for the ratepayers in Maine and our broader economy." 

    Nearly 50 individuals and businesses submitted comments warning that re-opening the bid would create economic uncertainty.

    “Shame on the PUC and Gov. LePage for once again yanking the welcome mat out from under two substantial businesses. Broken promises like these do nothing to reassure business that their capital is welcome here. In fact, decisions like these tarnish our reputation and scare off future opportunities,” said State Senator Dawn HIll.

     Statoil, which promised to invest $120 million to develop offshore wind technology in Maine took its investments overseas to Scotland, because LePage pushed through legislation that took away a contract Statoil had made with the PUC.

  • Childhood Hunger Task Force to apply for $50 million in unused federal funding

    Right now Maine has more than 86,000 hungry children- New England's highest rate of food insecurity

     By Ramona du Houx

    The Task Force to End Student Hunger unveiled an ambitious five-year plan to end childhood hunger in Maine through activating public-private partnerships and capturing nearly $50 million in unused federal funding already earmarked for Maine nutrition programs. 

    “We all are letting Maine’s children down. Today, in all sixteen counties, in every school district across our state, there are thousands of hungry children who go to bed hungry and wake up even hungrier,” said Maine State Senate Democratic Leader Justin Alfond, who served as the Task Force’s co-chair. “We can all agree, wholeheartedly, that we need to make our schools a healthy learning environment. But we must also make sure that our children have the nutritional building blocks for success in school and out on the playground.”  

    Currently, in Maine, there are more than 86,000 school-aged children who are hungry, or “food insecure.” And, forty-six percent of school-aged children qualify for free and reduced meals--ranking Maine first in New England and third in the United States for food insecurity.

    “Our goal is straightforward: To end childhood hunger in five years. It’s an ambitious goal but it’s one we can achieve because the problem we’re tackling is solvable,” said Representative Tori Kornfield, who served as the Task Force’s co-chair. “We do, however, need total buy-in from all who care about Maine’s children, schools, and our state’s future.”

    The 17-member panel that includes lawmakers and stakeholders began meeting last summer and culminated their work with a 27-page report that includes two pieces of legislation and a blueprint for further action.

    The report highlights three major immediate action items:

    1. increase public awareness of childhood hunger and its link to academic success;
    2. increase participation in the child nutrition programs in and outside of Maine’s schools;
    3. establish partnerships between farms, the private sector, food distributors, the State of Maine, and other stakeholders.

    “Childhood hunger isn’t just a school problem. It’s not just a family problem. And, so we can’t just look to schools and families to have the solution,” said State Senator Alfond. “Our ideas don’t require much state money. Instead, we need state government to be a leader by collaborating with the private sector, non-profits and volunteers so that can finally end childhood hunger in Maine.”

    Senator Alfond has been a leading advocate of solving childhood hunger during his tenure in the Maine Senate. Last year, he sponsored a measure that expanded summer food programs in Maine. That bill was vetoed by Gov. LePage and later overridden by the Legislature.

    Ron Adams, the legislative chair of Maine School Nutrition Association and the food director in the Portland Public Schools, pointed out the $48 million that Maine foregoes every in USDA food nutrition programs.

    Another area of concern by the Task Force members is the more than 20,000 Maine children who qualify for nutrition programs but are not signed up. Often times, barriers such as stigma and not wanting to identify as a child or family needing help prevent enrollment. Other challenges include the time of day when the food is served, the amount of time given for the child to eat, or the available food options.

    Among other recommendations to the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, the Task Force proposed legislation that (a) creates, for the next five years, a full time commission exclusively focused on ending student hunger; (b) adds school nutrition costs into the EPS funding formula; ( c)  requires the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services to collaborate, work with Maine’s Congressional delegation, and data share on childhood hunger; and, (d) convenes a working group to identify the opportunities and challenges related to the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP)--a new provision that allows schools with 40% of their children qualifying for SNAP, TANF and other benefit programs to offer meals at no cost to all students.

    Amy Gallant, of Preble Street’s Maine Hunger Initiative summed it up with, “Let’s challenge ourselves to be the first state in the nation to end childhood hunger.”

    The Education and Cultural Affairs Committee will be reviewing the Task Force’s recommendations in the weeks to come.

  • State Sen. Alfond appointed to Maine Children's Growth Council

    By Ramona du Houx

    Senator Justin Alfond of Portland was recently appointed to the Maine Children’s Growth Council.

    “We owe it our children to give them everything they need to be successful in life. From universal pre-K to high-quality early care, there’s no greater investment we can make than in our children,” said Alfond. “I’m proud to continue this important work on the Children’s Growth Council.”

    The committee is made up of 33 members and was established by the Legislature along with the Baldacci administration in 2008  to be a resource and provide advice regarding young children and the Children’s Cabinet. It is tasked with adopting and updating a long-term plan for investment in healthy development of young children, monitoring and evaluating progress in accomplishing the plans goals, and to coordinate and consult with various government and nonprofit agencies on issues relating to early care, education and services to families.

    The Maine Children’s Growth Council is also responsible for reviewing and addressing recommendations of legislative studies as they relate to young children.

    “We know that a person’s brain is 80 percent developed by the time they’re three. Healthy development at early ages can set the foundation for healthy development for life,” said Alfond.

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