Daily Brief: Public health advocates headed to Augusta in force

March is coming in a bit like a lion in Augusta, where a public health care practitioners and activists are coming from across Maine to oppose Gov. Paul LePage’s budget proposals around public health and anti-smoking programs. 

The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee is now weeks into holding public hearings about the governor’s budget and nearly every weekday brings a new group of constituents to the State House to decry the portion of the budget that bothers them most. It sets up a tough situation for lawmakers, who have to maintain a view of the forest while everyone points out their favorite tree. Which tree is more important than the next? Those are decisions that are still weeks away. 

Today, the Maine Public Health Association, which represents more than 400 health professionals, is coming from every corner of the state to hold a noon press conference followed by hours of testimony to the Appropriations Committee. At issue: $10 million in cuts to community public health programs and school-based tobacco prevention programs. LePage proposes shifting some of that funding to the Medicaid program in order to maintain current reimbursement levels for primary care physicians. 

Heath care and community officials are coming from Bangor, Portland, Franklin, Kennebec and Aroostook Counties and students are traveling in from Readfield and Belfast. 

Meanwhile, there’s a heavy committee schedule today. The Criminal Justice Committee will consider a bill that would allow convicted felons — maybe some of them with non-violent crimes in their pasts — to request a pardon from the governor that would restore their gun rights. The Education Committee is considering a bill that would require public school students to demonstrate their knowledge of personal finances and is scheduled to possibly make a recommendation on an emergency bill that would allow schools to make up snow days by extending each school day, as opposed to adding days to the school year in June. 

The Labor Committee has a handful of bills on its docket that related to wages and benefits for certain public employees and the State and Local government will collect testimony on a bill to prohibit towns and cities from holding votes on the legalization of recreational marijuana. In the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, campaign rules are on the docket. 

If you want to see the State & Capitol Daily Brief in your email inbox every weekday, click here. — Christopher Cousins

Keeping kids fed

Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, a Democrat from Portland, has carved out childhood hunger as one of his major initiatives this session. In January, an Alfond-led bipartisan Task Force to End Student Hunger in Maine released a lengthy report on the issue that included several recommendations. The task force was created by the previous legislative session, when Alfond was the president of the Senate.

The panel recommended bolstering school breakfast and lunch programs by ensuring that every student who qualifies registers for both. The panel also recommends expansion of after-school, summer and community meals programs within 5 years.

Last year, Alfond found himself in the middle of a veto fight over his bill to expand summer food programs in Maine, but it showed that there are a number of lawmakers who support his goals. The bill was vetoed by LePage, who called it an unfunded mandate, but the veto was overridden.

It is estimated that there are some 86,000 school-aged children in Maine who go hungry on a daily basis. A full 46 percent of children qualify for free and reduced-price meals, which makes Maine first in New England and third in the United States for food insecurity. — Christopher Cousins

Augusta courthouse opens today

The new Augusta courthouse is open for business as of this morning. For regulars in Augusta, it might seem as if the courthouse has been open longer than your average felony jail sentence. The building, located at 1 Court St. in Augusta, will house approximately 85 court staff and consolidate superior court, district court, family court and other functions.

The building, completed for about $58 million since August 2012, includes seven courtrooms. Renovations on the “old” Kennebec County Courthouse, located next door to the new, are scheduled to begin this summer. — Christopher Cousins

The NFL needs a lobbyist?

Yes, apparently. And an expensive one.

The Hill reports that the NFL has hired an operative named Nicole Gustafson, who has a history of working for the GOP, as its “chief Republican lobbyist,” according to an article in Slate.

For those of you who think football is just a game, you’re right, though there are a number of serious issues surrounding the professional football league, including the fact that the blockbuster league has non-profit tax status.

The NFL has spent more than $10 million on lobbying since 2007, including more than $1 million last year.

That’s enough money to get the New England Patriots started on another Superbowl run. — Christopher Cousins

Reading list

‘We are going to be #1!’

Maine’s Queen City has a new top ranking to celebrate.

Best place to vacation? Nope. Best place to start a business? No. Best place to fall in love? No. Home of the best sushi? Sorry, no.

According to Corey Bogel, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Caribou, Bangor had the lowest average temperature in its recorded history in February 6.1 degrees. That delightful news came just a few days after Bangor also broke its annual snowfall record with more than 117 inches having fallen so far.

Most Mainers — even the skiers and plow drivers — are looking forward to some relief from Old Man Winter. As the BDN’s Evan Belanger reported, a look further back in history might put the news in some comforting perspective, if records went back that far.

“National Weather Service records Bangor go back to 1926, so it’s possible there was a colder month that’s not on record,” he wrote.

That’s really comforting, Evan. — Christopher Cousins

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.