May 25, 2016
The 127th Second Regular Session convened on Wednesday, January 6, and adjourned after a Marathon Veto Day, on April 29. After dealing with bills carried over from the first session and emergency measures, lawmakers got down to the real focus of their efforts — positioning for the fall campaigns; it’s an election year! In the final analysis, the 2016 legislative session focused more on politics than on policy.
What a difference a year makes.
It’s been a long five months since the Legislature was in session in July 2015 to determine the fate of 65 vetoes from Governor LePage after the Maine Supreme Judicial court ruled against him on the status of the “adjournment” date. Since then, the rancor between Republicans and Democrats — and between Gov. Paul LePage and the Legislature has increased. The friction was not isolated to LePage. There was political chaos between House Republicans and the rest of the Legislature. It started with the state budget and a possible government shutdown and then moved into how to address the state’s drug addiction crisis.
The Legislature has been investigating LePage’s role in forcing Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves out of a job at Good Will-Hinckley, which has only aggravated relations. Governor LePage now also faces a lawsuit accusing him of violating Speaker Eves’ First Amendment rights and of oppression by intimidation. The court case is expected to last at least two years.
The atmosphere of mutual distrust did little to subside over the summer and has carried over into this year’s session. During the first week of January, Democrats held a vote on the impeachment of the Governor. The move went nowhere, but the debate surrounding the impeachment was enough to convince LePage to forgo a personal appearance to the House Chamber to deliver his State of the State address. Here is the link to the Governor’s message: www.maine.gov/tools/whatsnew/attach.php?id=669201&an=1
As the 127th second session concluded, here’s an overview of the high priority issues:
As a test of cooperation, the first bill signed into law in early January by Gov. LePage during the second session was unanimously approved in both the House and Senate and sponsored by a bi-partisan group of legislative leaders. The measure is considered a down payment on the state’s plan to fight the growing drug crisis. The law allocated additional resources to law enforcement efforts and substance abuse treatment programs. This two-pronged approach will help police get more traffickers off the streets and assist more suffering Mainers get on the path to recovery.
Continuing their efforts to fight against drug addiction, the Legislature agreed to LePage’s bid to put heavy new restrictions on the prescription of opioids and benzodiazepine-class drugs, including a requirement that prescribers check every prescription against the Controlled Substances Prescription Monitoring Program.
The House and Senate went against LePage veto on LD 1547. This bill would make naloxone, an opiate overdose reversing drug, available at pharmacies without prescription. It also would give police and fire departments a supply of narcan, a lifesaving antidote to opioid overdoses. LePage’s veto message stated that he opposed the bill because it is being overused and allows addicts to prolong their addictions without seeking treatment. Despite all the controversy, the bill had an easy time to enactment on Veto Day, with a 29-5 vote in the Senate and a 132-14 vote in the House.
That was a last-minute compromise among LePage, Republican Sen. Eric Brakey and Democratic Sen. Nate Libby on a welfare reform bill, LD 1097, which puts new restrictions on the use of cash benefits.
Democrats wanted a policy victory at the State House. They proposed a reform package called “Welfare that Works.” The plan included new protections for taxpayer dollars, and targeted reforms to help welfare recipients get back on their feet.
On the last day of session, the Governor signed LD 1097 into law, which prohibits the use of welfare cash to buy products such as alcohol, tobacco, lottery tickets and other goods and services that don’t help Maine families escape poverty. The measure also calls for the use of existing technology at the cash register to prevent the use of EBT cards to buy those products in the first place. Republicans and Democrats were divided on penalties for those who knowingly buy prohibited items. But the compromise version would impose a maximum three-month penalty for first-time violators, one year for a second violation and two years for subsequent offenses.
Governor LePage has been saying for more than five years that Maine’s electricity prices are not competitive. The high cost of electricity in the manufacturing and industrial sectors continues to kill good jobs for Mainers.
Now, another domino in line to fall is the biomass industry, which is being threatened by changing energy policy in states where the industry sells their output. The biomass plants create a market for Maine’s forest products; wood chips, sawdust and tree trimmings.
LD 1676 was a hotly contested bailout of the state’s six biomass electricity generation plants — two of which, in West Enfield and Jonesboro, closed this year. The bill would provide $13.5 million to the power plants through two-year contracts that would have to be approved by the Maine Public Utilities Commission. LePage signed this energy emergency bill into law.
LePage took a different stand on the landmark solar energy bill which the Legislature had been debating for months. After several attempts to negotiate with Democrats on changes to the proposal, Governor LePage vetoed LD 1649.
The bill sought to add 196 megawatts of solar energy to the state’s energy portfolio over the next four years. It also would replace net metering for new solar customers with a complicated, alternative system involving hourly metering and the Public Utilities Commission entering into long-term contracts.
Net metering requires power companies to credit those who generate solar electricity and send it to the power grid. Much like the biomass energy debate, the solar power issue focuses on state energy policy — clean energy goals and jobs. Should there be incentives for solar generators and does it make financial sense to other ratepayers?
The measure was passed by the Legislature after changes were made to better insulate utility customers from rate increases but LePage’s veto was upheld in the House by a vote of 93-50, which fell short of the necessary two-thirds majority.
Tax Conformity & Education
After the Governor proposed tax conformity in January, a political impasse between Democrats and Republicans developed. Democrats wanted $23 million in education funding and a phase in of the Maine Capital Investment Credit. Republicans and Gov. LePage wanted "full” conformity, or a permanent alignment with the recent changes to the federal tax code.
The debate and division grew deep as the tax filing deadline approached. LePage, unlike in previous sessions, recognized the severity of impasse and changed tone in mid-March, saying he would not be opposed to additional spending requested by the Democrats as it was “the only way” to pass conformity and help businesses.
This was a big test for political players and a necessary compromise. As is often the case with political negotiations, neither side got all they wanted in the end over tax conformity, but the deal put to rest one of the most contested issues of this year’s session.
The deal provides $38 million in tax credits and deductions for Maine businesses and residents, gives $15 million more to schools and establishes a commission to study education spending and performance.
Republicans have heralded the Blue Ribbon Commission set up under the funding measure, which will make recommendations next year to reform education spending and improve student performance. The Commission has already made front page headlines by having the first meeting at the Blaine House and not being in compliance with public meeting requirements. We will have to wait to see how the rest of the Commission meetings are held and whether or not any real education reforms will be offered for consideration in the future.
Another sign of difference between this year and previous sessions, LePage has supported and signed into law several bond measures. In late April, the governor signed two bills to authorize $145 million worth of bonds to pay for investments in the state's transportation infrastructure and research and development sector.
Roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure don't just help Mainers get where they need to go, they also form the backbone of our state's economy. The transportation bond, worth $100 million, would pay for repairs, maintenance or construction of roads, bridges and more. This bond would create jobs for Maine people, and fund investments that help make our state more competitive. Voters will be asked whether to approve the transportation bond on this November's ballot.
The second bond would provide $45 million to the Maine Technology Institute to invest in research, development and commercialization within targeted technology sectors, as well as $5 million in new funding for the Maine Venture Fund. Maine lags sorely behind the rest of New England in R&D, and this bond would help the state prepare for the jobs of the future. Voters will be asked whether to approve the R&D Bond in summer 2017.
The Legislature and LePage enacted a separate $150 million spending package for the Department of Corrections, most of it for the Windham Correctional Facility, though there also is money for a jail project in Washington County. That bond does not require voter approval.
Other bills that received support from the Executive Branch include a measure sponsored by Sen. Justin Alfond to revamp the election process. Presidential elections in Maine could take on a drastically new face because of an enacted bill that swaps Maine’s caucus system for a presidential primary. LePage signed that bill into law though it can’t be implemented unless the next Legislature finds a way to fund it.
One major issue that remained outstanding till the final hours on Veto Day, was a bid by LePage and Republicans to raise the state’s minimum wage in advance of a referendum on November’s ballot that would raise the wage to $12 per hour by 2020. The bill needed two-thirds majority support as an emergency measure, which it failed to garner.
There were seven bills introduced in the short session all proposing to raise the minimum wage, ranging from a one-time, immediate 50 cent per hour increase to a gradual, $4.50 an hour raise LD 1695, An Act to Raise the Minimum Wage Incrementally to $10 in 2020, was supported by Governor LePage and a business coalition. The passage of this measure would raise the minimum wage to $8.50 and then increase it 50 cents each year for the subsequent three years.
The coalition asked the Legislature to put a competing measure that would offer a smaller minimum wage increase. The bill died in the House where Republicans were hopeful they could find more support and enact the bill on Veto Day.
The citizen initiative question already on the November statewide ballot is a proposal to raise the minimum wage from $7.50 to $9.00 in 2017, then $1 every year until it hits $12 in 2020 where the wage will be indexed to inflation. The proposal would also raise the tipped minimum wage earned by restaurant servers from $3.75 to $5 in 2017, the increase it every year until it is equal to the minimum wage for all workers.
Heading into a presidential election year, there are many key decisions to be made by voters. The entire 186 seats of the Legislature are up for re-election. In addition there are a number of citizen initiatives to be decided on. Let’s start with the review on the legislators — as all politics is local.
Here’s the link for the list of candidates slated for the upcoming election:
NOVEMBER 2016 BALLOT
In addition to the candidates for President and the Maine Legislative, there are several high profile issues on the fall ballot. Among them are several citizen referendum issues on a wide variety of topics. These ballot questions may motive certain voters to the polls, and that might have an impact on the elections across the state; who has the majority in the Legislature.
Regardless of turnout, these ballot issues will increase debate and might get new people involved in politics. Citizen initiatives, whether successful or not, often raise the important questions that need to be discussed. Here’s the link to the list of certified ballot measures for November 2016:
- An Act to Raise the Minimum Wage
- An Act to Establish Ranked-Choice Voting
- An Act to Require Background Checks for Gun Sales
- An Act To Establish The Fund to Advance Public Kindergarten to Grade 12 Education
- An Act to Tax and Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol
The short session is focused on carry-over bills and measures approved the Legislative Council for introduction. The policy committee, Veterans and Legal Affairs, got off to an early start by scheduling all the alcohol bills for hearing in January, as soon as the bills were printed. Here’s a list of the alcohol issues that became law.
Workers Compensation is a perennial issue at the Legislature. This session was no different. There were two bills on the topic. One was a carry-over measure that failed between the bodies.
LD 1384 An Act to Improve Workplace Safety by Simplifying and Improving Employer’s Substance Abuse Policy Requirements was a high priority bill for the Labor, Commerce, Research, and Economic Development Committee. It requires an employer to adopt a uniform policy for substance abuse testing as developed by the Department of Labor.
The second bill was LD 1553, An Act to Improve the Worker’s Compensation System. This law will require the Workers Comp Board to study the current system of independent contractor predetermination provisions and report back any recommended legislative changes.
Most of the laws passed during the four month session will take effect on July 29, 2016, ninety days after the Legislature adjourned. Those laws with an Emergency Preamble will take effect on the day the Governor signed the measure. Other bills take effect on specific dates referenced in the law.
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