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Many ways to get more involved in local and state decision-making

People don't have to remain quiet when they can easily reach lawmakers to pass on their views.

 

From time to time I get e-mails in response to a column with the question: "What can I do?" What, indeed, can we do as individual citizens? The answer, of course, is "Get involved."

Attending a hearing in Augusta is not a bad place to start, although it would be best to do some homework before making the trip. You might start by contacting your state representative or state senator.

There are several ways one could do this. The easiest is to Google search "Maine Legislature," which will get you to the Legislative Web site.

There you can click on either the House or the Senate, put in the first letter of your town and then scroll down alphabetically to your particular town.

In my case I scrolled down the C's to Cumberland and found I am represented by Meredith Strang Burgess in the House and Gerald. M. Davis in the Senate. Clicking on these names gives me all sorts of information about contacting them, including their e-mail, phone numbers, committee assignments and often what bills they are interested in.

I recommend a call to their home phones in the evening. Legislators are generally very good about following up on constituent calls. If you don't catch them, they will call you back.

When your legislator calls, introduce yourself and explain that you would like to be more aware of the issues being debated in Augusta. Get her or his view of what the hot-button issues are.

Just now the most controversial issue before the Legislature is the same-sex marriage bill. There is a hearing on this bill scheduled for the Augusta Civic Center on April 22.

Another issue your legislator may mention is tax reform, an area in which the most promising bill would lower Maine's top income tax rate from 8.5 percent to 6.5 percent.

In addition, there are a raft of pending bills that address Maine's long-term energy strategy. This is a hot topic this term in part because there are federal funds in the stimulus package available for the development of alternative energy sources.

To my mind, the most interesting proposal here is an 80-plus-page bill developed by Opportunity Maine, the creative nonprofit that developed the higher education tax credit.

The group has turned its attention to the great potential for a comprehensive weatherization program for Maine.

Their proposal (available at www.opportunitymaine.org) is daring, innovative, and costly in its initial investment stage, but pays big dividends in the long run.

For those of you interested in education, there are also several bills that are getting attention: new graduation standards (though not until 2016!), a long overdue Charter School proposal, and, of course, a bill to abolish the governor's school consolidation law. This bill is a citizen initiative and likely to be on the ballot in November as a referendum question.

Hanging over all legislative deliberation is the sizeable and still-increasing budget deficit. Perhaps the most interesting hearings of all are those by the able and hard-working Appropriations Committee. It has the thankless task of trying to reconcile all of the competing budget requests with tax and fee revenues that continue to show weakness.

These are a few of the highlights of the Legislative calendar from my perspective. It will be interesting to get the perspective of your legislator.

Once you have these perspectives, I recommend picking an afternoon to spend in Augusta taking in a few hearings.

Democracy is messy and often boring. However, there are moments of real enlightenment. You might get lucky and catch one of those.

Beyond this introduction to the Legislature, there are lots of other ways to be involved, of course.

If you are interested in energy policy, for example, Opportunity Maine has developed a Facebook group to exchange information.

On the business and economic front, your local Chamber of Commerce is a good option for involvement.

For Southern Maine, the Portland Chamber offers many good public policy forums, including the popular monthly Eggs & Issues breakfasts.

For education, think about running for your local school board. Most school districts are eager for able, interested citizens to join the process.

Finally, of course, the ultimate way to participate is also the simplest -- to vote in municipal, state and national elections.

If you do a little of what I suggest above, you are likely to be better informed in making local and legislative choices.

An informed electorate is our last, best hope for good Maine government.