Daily Brief: Richard Rosen confirmation hearings begin and dissing Dunkin’ Donuts

Good morning from Augusta. The House and Senate return to the State House today for the first time in a week after having their absence extended by two days because of the weather. It’s going to be a busy day. 

Some of the more than 1,500 bills proposed by lawmakers and several dozen bills forwarded by state agencies are beginning to be published by the Revisor of Statutes’ office and as of Wednesday, more than 200 had been written. The two legislative chambers are busy accepting the written versions of the bills and referring them to committees. It’s about time for some debate to erupt around some early-season proposals. 

One way to monitor the goings-on in Augusta, other than the Daily Brief, is setting your alarm and checking out the House and Senate calendars, which are published every morning. In general, those daily agendas mirror what the two chambers do though legislative leaders can and do choose which items go forward and which are tabled on a minute-by-minute basis. The calendars also include notices you won’t hear about anywhere else. 

For example, this morning’s House calendar says that with Feb. 1 around the corner, a number of state agencies have submitted annual reports to the Legislature that are required by law and in some cases, barely read. They include the Washington County Development Authority, the Maine Public Employees Retirement System, the Maine Educational Loan Authority, the Small Enterprise Growth Board, the Maine Port Authority and the Efficiency Maine Trust. 

Richard Rosen in the hot seat

In May 2014, Gov. Paul LePage appointed former Republican Sen. Richard Rosen of Bucksport as the acting commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, which among a slew of other things is where LePage’s controversial biennial budget proposal was built. In January, LePage officially nominated Rosen for the position.

Today beginning at about 1 p.m., Rosen will sit before the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee for an extended interview that constitutes the beginning of his official confirmation process, which will end sometime in the coming days with a vote in the Senate.

Rosen, the former owner of a long-time department store in Bucksport that bore his family name, served seven terms in the House and Senate, including two years chairing the Appropriations Committee. He replaces Sawin Millett, who retired last year as one of the most respected Maine politicians and bureaucrats in recent Maine history. Rosen’s nomination is unlikely to meet much resistance unless lawmakers choose to make the conversation about the pending budget proposal and not the confirmation.

A close look at education funding

Many lawmakers, agencies and organizations have been slow to react to LePage’s biennial budget proposal, partially because of the complexity of the sprawling document and partially because they are reluctant to fire the first volleys in what for the most part has so far been a cordial 127th Maine Legislature.

LePage and his surrogates have said clearly that his budget essentially flat-funds K-12 public schools, but the Maine School Management Association says that’s not telling the entire story. In a bulletin posted on its website this week, the association details how expenses in the education sector are outpacing the money the state is spending on it. Furthermore, it details how the state is shifting education costs to towns and cities by requiring them to pick up more of the cost of education — they will pay an estimated $8.44 for every $1,000 of a town’s valuation, compared to the current $8.10 per $1,000 — in order to receive full state subsidy. That translates to tens of millions of dollars more on the backs of property taxpayers, though LePage has made it clear that it doesn’t have to be that way if municipalities instead choose to tighten their belts and make cuts.

The bare-bones increase in the cost of education in the coming two years is going up by about $68 million, according to the association, whereas the governor’s proposal increases aid by about $20 million. However, the governor has earmarked some of that money for special projects such as instituting a teacher and principal evaluation system and offering competitive grants to struggling schools.

Some of the projected, built-in cost increases for public schools include $10 million for special education (which is an estimate that could vary considerably); $38 million for operating costs, which includes salaries; more than $16 million in contributions to teachers’ retirements; and $6 million to support charter schools.

If this level of funding and the elimination of municipal revenue sharing go through as proposed by LePage, it’s going to be a tough budget year for many municipalities that could force some tough financial decisions, but that’s exactly what the governor wants.

The nonprofits are coming to Augusta

The Maine Association of Non-Profits is scheduled to hold an event in the first half of the day in the State House Hall of Flags. Various groups populate the Hall of Flags on a nearly daily basis during the legislative session, and use it as an opportunity to network with lawmakers, state staff and the public.

Given that one of the LePage budget’s most controversial proposals is for municipalities to levy property taxes on large nonprofit organizations, you can be sure that there will be some lobbying going on today.

Reading list

He said WHAT?

LePage went on the Maine Public Broadcasting’s “Maine Calling” on Wednesday to defend his budget proposal and take questions from callers. He said something that would make most New Englanders cringe, but the question is could it have made a difference in the election if he’d said it a year ago?

“I don’t go to Dunkin’ Donuts,” said the governor. “I go to Tim Horton’s.”

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.