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Former Foes Become Allies in Battle Over School Consolidation
10/22/2009   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

That old adage about politics making for strange bedfellows has emerged in Maine this election season. Some of Governor John Baldacci's former adversaries in his failed attempt to pass a beverage tax to fund the Dirigo Health Program are now coming to his aid. They're contributing tens of thousands of dollars to protect the administration's controversial school consolidation law from repeal at the ballot box on November 3rd. Critics -- including one Democratic lawmaker -- are suspicious of the contributors' motives.

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Last year, Maine Chamber of Commerce President Dana Connors and State House lobbyist Newall Augur combined their talents to form the Fed Up with Taxes political action committee that raised more than $4 million dollars to defeat a proposed beverage tax. In doing so, they crossed Gov. John Baldacci and other State House Democrats, who wanted the tax to fund the embattled Dirigo Health Program.

The political fallout was at times intense, but a year has passed and the governor has now apparently found new friends among old enemies as he attempts to protect his school consolidation law from a repeal effort on the November ballot. But some observers suggest that it's more than just coincidence.

"When you just look at the list of contributors, it does make you wonder," says Terren Bragdon of the Maine Heritage Policy Center. Bragdon says the contributions to the Maine People for Improved Education PAC that opposes repeal of the school consolidation law reads like a who's who of Maine businesses: the UNUM group, LL Bean and Nestle Waters North America that bottles Poland Spring Water from several sites across the state.

Each of those companies gave $25,000 to the administration-supported PAC. Bragdon says it seems odd that, until now, these big names have been silent on education issues in Maine.

"Here are a series of businesses who, before, have had nothing to do with education policy in Maine, and I would suspect probably after this campaign will have nothing to do with education policy going forward," Bragdon says. "So it's fascinating that they're weighing in so heavily on a question that doesn't impact them. It makes me wonder why."

"If someone had asked me, I doubt very much that I'd get one cent out of these companies, because I have nothing to offer them in return; and my sense is that people make contributions not for esoteric reasons, but for reasons of -- they need something," says
Skip Greenlaw, a former state legislator and one-time staffer to former Gov. Joseph Brennan who's one of the moving forces behind the effort to repeal the school consolidation law.

Greenlaw says that thus far this year, his PAC has raised a little more than $8,000, a drop in the bucket compared to the more than $230,000 reported last week by his opponents. He says that when it comes to the contributions from companies like Nestle, he is particularly troubled.

"It is my understanding that they convinced the Governor to take the beverage tax off water and whatnot, so in this case it's paid for what has been done -- if you want to use that terminology -- in the past," Greenlaw says.

Democratic state Rep. Jim Schatz of Blue Hill uses another phrase to describe the support from some of these companies, and that's "pay-to-play. A long-time opponent of Baldacci's school consolidation law, Schatz says it's no surprise that organizations like the Maine Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association, which opposed the Dirigo tax -- were among the contributors that coughed up $25,000 each to pump up Baldacci's Question 3 opposition PAC from zero to nearly a quarter million dollars in less than 90 days.

"Obviously somebody's cashing in some political capital, I suppose," Schatz says. "And also the constitutency groups that these people represent are probably housed in areas and school districts that have nothing to do with school consolidation."

"It is an allegation, but it's absurd," says Maine Chamber President Dana Connors. "There is absolutely no substance to that allegation in any form, shape or matter."

Connors is heading up the effort to fight the repeal campaign for Baldacci. He's also serving as its spokesman -- a role that is valued as a $10,000 in-kind contribution on the group's campaign finance report. Connors says those who question the motives of the PACs contributors are missing the real reason that these major employers have stepped up to the ???? on school consolidation.

"I doubt if there is a single business person in this state that does not equate economic opportunity and prosperity with education, with a highest level of quality education for every Maine student possible and the skills that come out of that are absolutely paramount for a business to compete, to be competitive."

Baldacci says that while he and Connors were on opposing sides over the battle for Dirigo funding last year, he respects the ability of former foes to unite over policies that are in the best interests of the state. "It's one thing to say, "No, I'm fed up with taxes,' but it's another thing to get involved and to help, and to reduce the overall costs. It's not easy, certainly, but it's to be commended."

Baldacci acknowledges that he has made personal appeals for contributions to the Question 3 opposition PAC. Updated campaign finance reports for all ballots questions are due by midnight Friday.


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