Daily Brief: LePage preparing 20 budget bills; clean elections headed back to the ballot

Good morning, folks. We’re still in orientation mode at the State House. 

The Legislature’s policy committees are ramping up to full speed this week with a long list of introductory and informational meetings scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday. Despite the attention that the House and Senate garner when bills finally make their way there, the committees are where most of the real work in the Legislature is done, and where unsung heroes are born. 

Of note is what looks like a lengthy day for the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee on Wednesday, which has a full day of overview meetings scheduled in which lawmakers will continue to drill into Gov. Paul LePage’s biennial budget proposal. Votes and decisions are still months away. This stuff takes time. 

The House and Senate reconvene on Thursday.

About the supplemental budget(s)

Last week, State & Capitol reported in the Daily Brief that some lawmakers were speculating that Gov. Paul LePage was preparing a number of bills to submit to the Legislature as a supplemental budget package. According to a document provided to lawmakers on Tuesday, there are 20 bills coming from the LePage administration which would allocate $23.6 million more for the 2015 fiscal year — which ends on June 30 of this year — across a range of state departments and agencies.

The content of the 20 bills has not yet been written and released to the public, but judging by the bill titles, the Department of Health and Human services is in line for a more than $20 million adjustment. That’s the amount that the state stood to lose in annual federal funding as a result of the federal decertification of the state-run Riverview Psychiatric Center in September 2013.

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew told the BDN in August 2014 that she hoped the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services would conduct another surprise audit of the Augusta hospital by the end of 2014 and re-certify the institution. A spokesman for the department confirmed this week that CMS has not audited Riverview since May of 2014.

Last year, the Legislature set aside $20 million in the event that the loss of the federal funding became reality.

It should be noted that I’m doing a little connecting of the dots here and that we won’t be sure about the content of LePage’s bills until they’re written and we can see them. Stay tuned.

Women voice policy priorities at the State House

Members of the Coalition for Maine Women and the Maine Choice Coalition gathered Wednesday at the State House to identify their priorities for 2015 through the lens of a range of legislation that has been proposed by lawmakers. In broad strokes, and not unlike the past, the coalition supports the expansion of access to women’s health care services, stronger funding for early childhood programming and more protection for victims of domestic and sexual assault. They stand opposed to measures that would in any way block access to abortion.

Two bills singled out by the coalitions as good policy included An Act to Prevent the Shackling of Pregnant Women, sponsored by Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, which involves incarcerated women; and An Act to Protect the Existing Right of a Victim of Sexual Assault or Domestic Violence to take Necessary Leave from Employment, sponsored by Rep. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick.

The coalitions said they would oppose An Act to Strengthen the Consent Laws for Abortions Performed on Minors and Incapacitates persons, sponsored by Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville.

“Women are vital to our society and economy and when women thrive, Maine thrives,” said Ruth Lockhart of the Mabel Wadsworth Women’s Health Center in Bangor, in a written statement. “For these reasons, we will oppose wrong-headed bills that take us backwards.”

Tuesday’s event was part of the annual Women’s Day at the State House, which includes training for Maine women around participating in the Democratic process.

Voters will be asked to bolster the clean elections system, again

Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, a group intent on cleansing Maine’s election process of corporate and special-interest money, is expected to submit tens of thousands of signatures it has gathered since May of 2014 to the Secretary of State’s office on Wednesday.

If the signatures are verified as authentic, voters later this year will be asked to strengthen the state’s clean elections program, which allows candidates who so choose to conduct their campaigns with taxpayer money. The system was put in place in a 1996 statewide referendum but in recent years has seen extensive funding cuts.

Specifically, the group seeks to increase public funds available to gubernatorial candidates from $1.2 million to $3.2 million; increase funding for House of Representatives candidates from $5,000 to $16,500; and increase funding for Senate candidates from $21,455 to $65,000. Those increases would be funded with a 15-percent surcharge on all fines and penalties levied by the state. The initiative would also impose stricter financial disclosure laws on recently elected governors and reduce the limit on private donations to gubernatorial candidates.

One of the problems with the system as it exists today is a growing perception among politicians that a clean election candidate is at a monetary disadvantage against a privately funded candidate. Democrat Elizabeth Mitchell was the most recent gubernatorial candidate to use the system, from which she drew $1.9 million from in a losing 2010 bid. She was outspent by independent Eliot Cutler’s $2.2 million, but spent more than victorious LePage, who spent $1.4 million in 2010.

Since a cut in funding to the system in 2013, gubernatorial candidates are no longer funded.

Maine Citizens for Clean Elections announced on its website that it had collected more than 85,000 signatures, some 98 percent of which have already been verified by municipal clerks across Maine. In order to force a ballot question, a citizen’s petition must gather at least 61,123 valid signatures, which equals 10 percent of the voter turnout in last year’s gubernatorial election.

Reading list

No job too big or small

Brent Littlefield, the senior Washington-based campaign consultant who guided both LePage and 2nd Congressional District Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin to victory in November, pre-empted President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday evening with a press release criticizing Obama’s call for increasing taxes on the upper classes.

“This was not the message voters sent last November,” wrote Littlefield, who concluded his message apparently with his eye already cast toward a future campaign:

“I hope you are having a great start to the new year. If we can assist in any way, please give me a call.”

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.