Clarification: This column was revised at 3:38 p.m., Nov. 21, 2011, to clarify that a $314,000-per-unit price for the Elm Terrace development in Portland should have been described as the most recent proposed cost. The Maine State Housing Authority has said no to the latest cost estimate and the developer’s response is expected to go before Maine Housing’s loan committee soon.


AUGUSTA — A new voice cropped up last week in the battle over whether affordable housing in Maine is truly affordable.

The Christian Civic League, also sometimes called the Maine Family Policy Council, asked supporters to “speak out now against government waste.” It’s the first time in recent memory the group has taken an active role on issues other than abortion, gay rights or gambling.

The day before a tense board meeting at the housing authority, a “Christian Civic League Action Alert” went out via email urging people to attend the public hearing. At the hearing, State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, who has become increasingly critical of the costs associated with building affordable housing, challenged MaineHousing Executive Director Dale McCormick.

He said she spends too much money. She said he’s been spreading misinformation that is now damaging the agency’s reputation. In particular, Poliquin and new board members appointed by Gov. Paul LePage were asking questions about a proposed Portland housing development that had an initial price tag of $314,000 per unit. McCormick has already sent the proposal back to the developers to demand that the price be lowered to $265,000 per unit.

In the action alert, civic league Executive Director Carroll Conley Jr. encouraged “Maine citizens to voice their outrage regarding the incredible overspending on low income housing projects.”

Conley said in an interview that it’s his mission to expand the reach of the civic league to include issues of social justice or what’s sometimes called Christian charity. He’s been on the job about a year and is rebuilding the organization.

Much of the criticism of the group in recent years has been its near-singular focus on gay rights. The group lost credibility by not focusing more on things such as hunger and housing, but Conley is out to change that.

“Part of the Gospel is recognizing that part of dealing with spiritual truth is recognizing physical needs of those around you,” he said.

For example, he’s concerned about human slave trade and immigration. But he wants to go beyond closing the borders to figuring out why people in other countries are suffering so much that they come to the U.S. illegally.

“You will see us enter into these areas and maybe some that might surprise you,” he said.

Diamond vows to be aggressive

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, is passionate about finding a way to get through the backlog at the state Computer Crimes Unit to catch child predators.

He’s introducing a new bill early next year that requires the state to hire three more detectives — at a cost of $300,000 — to look through more than 470 pieces of evidence that’s “sitting in a closet untouched.”

“To me, each one of those pieces of evidence represents a child whose terrible sexual abuse is continuing and/or a predator who is still out there seeking new victims,” he said in a prepared statement.

In an interview, Diamond said he’s not going to buy the argument that the state government can’t afford to find the money to hire the additional officers. A former chairman of the Appropriations Committee, he said he will work to find the money, challenging anyone to tell him that something is more important.

“I’m going to be very aggressive on this,” he said.

 

‘Pick your own’ bill advances

A Republican lawmaker wants to make it easier for “pick your own” farms in Maine to do business.

Rep. Aaron Libby, R-Waterboro, is sponsoring legislation that will move forward in January that seeks to protect farmers by limiting their liability if they are sued when somebody trips or is “poked in the eye by a tree branch” while picking pumpkins or Christmas trees at a farm.

“These farms are popular family and tourist destinations and many have been forced to close because of the excessive liability that they face,” Libby said in a prepared statement.

The bill was given special permission by legislative leaders to advance, having been deemed an emergency by a majority of the members of the Legislative Council.

A call to the Department of Agriculture to find out how many have closed in recent years was not fruitful. These types of farms aren’t licensed as “pick your own” and the person who might have estimates was in a potato field in Aroostook County and likely did not have cellphone reception when the call was placed last week, according to Hal Prince, director of the division of quality assurance and regulation.

Hair braiding and dog training

A few weeks back, we wrote in this space about two bills up for consideration as emergencies to be heard in the next legislative session.

Both were rejected — twice — by legislative leaders.

Rep. Adam Goode, D-Bangor, tried to persuade legislative leaders that his bill to exempt those who simply want to braid hair for a living — as opposed to cutting it or using dyes on it — should be able to do so without a cosmetology license. The licenses cost $8,000 to $15,000, he said, and require 1,500 hours of study. There are new immigrants to Maine whose culture includes intricate hair braiding and he was hoping to help them start new businesses with less red tape.

But his bill failed on a 5-5 vote, which sounds like a tie, but counts as a loss under parliamentary procedure.

In addition, Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, had his bill to “protect blueberry lands from damage from dog training” thrown out because it was deemed too similar to a bill he introduced last year.

Susan Cover wrote this column.


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