Kumiega: Legislature has been “overwhelming” learning experience

Rep. Walter Kumiega, a Democrat from Little Deer Isle, is seeking re-election to a fourth and final term in the Maine House.

As others in the Hancock County delegation know, it is not easy to maintain a business and serve in the legislature. A contractor by trade, his constituents are accustomed to seeing him “up on a roof covered with sweat and dirt.”

If anything, they may hesitate to approach him because they can see that just like them, he’s working hard. But Kumiega welcomes interaction with the voters, calling constituent service his favorite responsibility. Helping with local issues such as heating assistance when people really need it is why he keeps at the job.

The unpredictability of legislative work hours adds to the difficulty of scheduling his business workload at home. “Sometimes we work on weekends, or into the night,” he says. The date of adjournment can be a moving target. “At times it’s not real smooth.”

Despite sessions that run just part of the year, the work goes on around the calendar. He is the House chairman of the Marine Resources Committee, and his district includes territory within Zones B and C. Though his committee rarely needs to meet in the summer or fall, he is engaged with fisheries management concerns year round.

Warming waters in the Gulf of Maine and along the Atlantic coast mean stocks are shifting their habitats. Black sea bass are among them, and their shift eastward means there is a new predator for lobster in the Gulf. Careful stock monitoring is critical.

Unlike many of the policy committees, his has had good access to and “great relations” with executive branch staff in the Department of Marine Resources. It is perhaps the only committee with “blanket access” to the department since Governor Paul LePage restricted department participation at committee meetings.

Ashore, Kumiega is participating in community efforts to manage the upsurge in opiate addiction plaguing Maine, including the area he serves. He is frustrated by the dynamics in the Statehouse that have stalled implementation of new proposals the Legislature has managed to pass.

Though the Legislature designed an approach that included education, treatment and law enforcement, only law enforcement has moved forward, and requests for proposals (RFPs) for education and treatment have yet to be issued.

It has discouraged him regarding the possibility of a comprehensive state policy on addressing poverty, a policy sorely needed, especially in rural Maine. “Poverty and poor health go hand in hand,” he says. “If you’re sick, you can’t work.”

Yet the state is not making progress toward a comprehensive plan. He identifies the need for more case workers and smaller case loads, and funding for those purposes. But the bottom line: “There’s no point in writing a plan if it won’t be implemented.”

Also on his legislative wish list are a comprehensive solar energy policy and expansion of the Medicaid program, an option rejected by the Governor to date. In the positive column, he cites the Governor’s successful effort to keep tuition from increasing at the University of Maine.

With a Republican governor and the chambers of the Legislature divided, majority House Democrats can only block what they consider unwise proposals. They cannot move forward proposals of their own without a two-thirds vote to overcome a gubernatorial veto.

Kumiega’s district is both unique and resplendent, but not an easy one when it comes to reaching his constituents in person. All of the towns within it are on islands, from his home island of Deer Isle/Stonington to Swan’s Island, Frenchboro, Cranberry Isles, Isle au Haut, Vinalhaven, North Haven, Southwest Harbor and Tremont.

It is a neat circle of coastal Maine, but he drives over an hour east to Bass Harbor or west to Rockland to catch the ferries that serve the outer islands. “Come fall,” he says, “they’ll see me out on the island roads on my bicycle.”

He is acutely aware of the recent problem generated by the postal service for the islands of Swan’s and Frenchboro. The boat that has provided highly reliable mail delivery for years is now restricted to carrying only mail, and no other deliveries. Mail delivery alone cannot cover the boat owner’s costs, nor can he operate the service on non-postal deliveries only. Kumiega has weighed in with Maine’s federal delegation.

The coming session could see a significant shift in Kumiega’s Augusta responsibilities. He is running for majority leader of his caucus, a post that would give him a chance to address systemic challenges in the legislative process.

His goals if he serves in leadership? A Legislature that functions in a more bipartisan fashion. Including committee leads, the minority leader on each committee, in more of the decision-making. Improved training, especially for new legislators, whose orientation varies considerably from session to session. Better preparation for committee chairmen.

Throughout his terms, serving as a legislator has only become “more and more interesting.” An “overwhelming” learning experience has lead to his wish to enhance the experience for legislators who will carry on when his time in Augusta is over.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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