Maine House chews through bills as end of session looms

Nine days before the Maine Legislature’s scheduled adjournment date, June 19, the House and Senate settled in Monday for morning, afternoon and evening sessions. It’s not as grueling as sweat-boiling double sessions at National Football League training camps — or the Appropriations Committee’s budget-balancing stretch run — but lawmakers, legislative staff and State House observers face daunting agendas and long hours during the days leading to adjournment.

The biggest issues — votes on Medicaid expansion, repaying the hospital debt and the two-year budget that must be in place by July 1 to avoid a state government shutdown — remain to be decided as lawmakers chew through other pieces of legislation at an accelerated pace.

The packed schedule didn’t stifle debate or requests for roll-call votes, as decisions made now will become the foundation for legislative campaigns in 2014.

Here are some of Monday’s key House actions:

– For the second time in a week, the House rejected a proposal to allow Maine voters to elect the attorney general. Last week, the House and Senate both voted down a bill that would have triggered a statewide referendum on whether to elect the attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer by popular vote. On Monday, the House voted 84-53 against a separate bill, LD 740, which calls for Maine to elect its attorney general to a four-year term in a nonpartisan statewide election.

Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, again argued vociferously to change Maine’s current system, in which the Legislature elects constitutional officers to two-year terms to one in which the state’s voters elect the attorney general. Noting that 43 states let voters elect their attorneys general, Chenette described Maine as an “outlier” on the issue.

“I think we all agree the attorney general should be an apolitical or nonpartisan position,” Rep. Brian Jones, D-Freedom, said in support of Chenette’s position.

Lawmakers who spoke against the change said that the absence of Maine Clean Election Act financing would increase the likelihood that lobbyists would spend heavily to fund and influence candidates for Maine’s top legal position.

The Senate voted 18-17 against the bill last week.

– The House on Monday killed a bill that would have allowed trained employees to carry concealed weapons in Maine schools as a way to promote public safety. House members voted 86-54 Monday to accept the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee’s “ought not to pass” recommendation on LD 1429. The Senate voted 19-14 against the bill on June 4.

– The House supported a measure that would exempt from public disclosure laws the email addresses of people who receive meeting cancellations, payment notifications and other non-interactive electronic transmissions from government entities. After overwhelmingly rejecting an amendment that would add newsletters to the list of documents for which recipients’ emails would be shielded, the House passed an amended version of LD 104 without a roll-call vote. The amendment removes a section of the bill that would have allowed government entities to base fees for processing Maine Freedom of Access Act records requests on the wages of employees who would prepare those records.

– After lengthy debate in which Aroostook County lawmakers asked their peers from other parts of the state to let stand changes to the state’s mining laws passed last year, primarily to accommodate Canada-based Irving Corp.’s potential interest in pursuing a 600-acre open-pit copper and zinc mine on Aroostook County’s Bald Mountain, the House voted 105-34 to accept the Environmental and Natural Resource’s Committee’s “ought not to pass” recommendation on LD 1059. The bill, sponsored by independent Rep. Ben Chipman of Portland, would repeal the changes made last year, effective June 1, 2014.

Other lawmakers who opposed LD 1059 suggested that another bill that won House approval last week, LD 1302, would better address environmental concerns.

– The House voted 86-54 against LD 162, a bill that called for the repeal of the Maine Certificate of Need Act of 2002, a program that requires hospitals to gain state approval for major projects.

– After a long debate Monday afternoon, the House endorsed LD 1409, a bill that would provide a refundable income tax credit as an incentive for film making in Maine. The tax would be in effect through 2017. The bill now moves to the Senate.

– Without a roll-call vote, the House passed LD 1143, an amended bill that would require school districts to offer all-day kindergarten by the 2017-18 academic year.

– Robert Long