Lot of governing left for Legislature in short window of time

AUGUSTA, Maine — There is a growing concern among lawmakers, especially Democrats, about the amount of work left to be done this legislative session and whether there will be enough time to adequately debate certain bills.

The session began with about 125 new pieces of legislation, less than half the original number submitted by lawmakers. Additionally, there were about 120 bills that had been carried over from the first session last year.

Since the session started in January, many more bills have been introduced, including several from Gov. Paul LePage and some that haven’t seen a public hearing yet.

The governor can submit legislation at any point in the session and LePage has talked about a number of initiatives, including four controversial education reform bills, several pieces of domestic violence legislation and an energy reform package that hasn’t been unveiled yet.

There also is at least one supplemental budget from the governor that has yet to reach lawmakers’ desks.

Many bills have worked their way through their respective committees but others have not. A memo sent last week from legislative leaders advised all committee chairs to vote out remaining bills by Friday. Many committees already have asked for an extension, but leaders stressed they want all committee business done by next Friday.

That memo also said bills that are referred to committee after March 2 would not have to publish a public hearing notice in the state’s daily newspapers. Notice would still be given on the state’s website.

House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, has said repeatedly that he wants to adjourn on time and doesn’t want to waste time dealing with bills that don’t fit the definition of emergency. But, he said he isn’t worried.

As of Monday, Nutting said, 80 percent of bills had been voted out of their respective committees.

So far, though, few votes have been taken on the floors of the House and Senate. In some cases — such as will a bill on changes to the Maine Clean Election Act and a bill to fund a study for an East/West highway — have been sitting in the Senate for days and even weeks.

Some Democrats believe the Republican majorities in the House and Senate are deliberately stalling legislation so that a bunch of bills get taken up at the end. The thought is: some bills will not get the debate and scrutiny they might have if time is a factor.

Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said bills already had been stacked up this session because lawmakers were focusing on addressing a shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services budget.

“This is an issue for the public,” he said. “The public isn’t getting a chance to weigh in on some pretty important stuff. It’s not good government. It’s not efficient.”

Jackson said the Republican majority used the same strategy last year when controversial bills came up, including a bill to create charter schools in Maine and a health insurance reform bill.

Nutting, however, said during his time in the Legislature, the tendency always has been to put off legislation until the last possible moment, particularly if its controversial legislation. He said Democrats did the same thing when they were in charge.

The speaker said one common strategy is to cluster related bills together for floor debate so lawmakers can address questions and concerns about specific topics all at once. For instance, he said there are a number of health insurance related bills ready for floor debate that could come up as early as Thursday.

Nutting also said the Legislature will begin hosting double (and triple) session days as needed until the session ends in April.

Among the bills that have yet to see public hearing are a controversial quartet of education reform bills related to teacher evaluation, expanding school choice and allowing public funds to be used for religious schools.

Maine Education Association President Chris Galgay told the Sun Journal on Tuesday that he believes the silence on the governor’s bills in a calculated move because they are expected to be unpopular.

“I think it’s a strategy,” Galgay said. “They’re saying: ‘Let’s hold the bills until the end and let’s ram them through.’”

The governor’s office said those bills are still being drafted by the revisor of statutes.