Local sales tax, solar energy, casino expansion all on deck today in Augusta

Good Thursday morning, readers.

The governor’s new tax calculator is live online, while the Taxation Committee takes up a plan today that would allow municipalities to enact their own local sales tax.

LD 594 by Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Portland, would allow municipalities to adopt a local sales tax of not more than 1 percent, subject to local referendum. The local option sales tax has long held appeal for service center communities, such as Bangor, Portland, Lewiston and Ellsworth.

Those cities and others like them feel they shoulder an unequal burden from smaller towns and suburbs, whose residents flock to them work and for fun, sticking the service centers with the bills for economic development and emergency services. Sales tax currently all goes to the state, and advocates say a local option sales tax allows service centers to share in the bounty they create.

A public hearing is scheduled on Valentino’s bill at 1 p.m. For a full list of committee hearings and work sessions, click here. And if you haven’t yet, please sign up to receive this Daily Brief in your email inbox every weekday morning, so you’ll never miss what’s coming up in the wide world of #mepolitics. — Mario Moretto.

Solar advocates back on deck at State House

Environmentalists, industry members and other advocates of solar energy will gather in the State House to speak with lawmakers and testify in favor of a bill by the Democratic House Whip, Sara Gideon.

Gideon’s bill, LD 1263, would encourage the installation of solar energy panels by requiring utilities to raise the percentage of solar in their renewable energy portfolios and by creating a marketplace for solar energy such that solar farms could sell their energy to power suppliers to meet the higher requirement. It would establish a solar policy similar to those in Vermont and Massachusetts.

The bill is co-sponsored by both Republicans and Democrats, and environmental groups including the Natural Resources Council of Maine have identified LD 1263 as a top legislative priority this year.

Expect opponents to include Maine’s electric utilities and Gov. Paul LePage, who has decried efforts to increase the requirements for renewable energy, saying the technology does no yet make it affordable or sensible for businesses or ratepayers.

NRCM will host a press conference on its solar energy agenda in the Hall of Flags at 10:30 a.m. The public hearing on Gideon’s bill will take place at 1:30 p.m. in the Energy Committee. — Mario Moretto.

Gambling review overhaul still necessary, says Portland rep

Remember the report from September that indicated Maine could handle a couple more casinos?

On Thursday, three lawmakers and two advocates for Maine’s harness racing industry will bring that report back to the fore, rekindling the conversation about Maine’s complete lack of comprehensive gaming policy.

The report came after a legislative task force failed in 2013 to agree on how to expand casino gaming in Maine, prompting lawmakers to commission WhiteSand Gaming, an industry group, to develop a plan for them.

Lawmakers struggled last year to address the state’s complete lack of a comprehensive gaming policy. The state has no law to spell out the size and scope of new casinos and — more importantly for lawmakers — where the revenues should flow. Of more than $1.1 billion that was gambled in Maine’s two casinos in 2013, about $51 million flowed to the state’s general funds, schools and a dozen other groups.

That has meant scatter-shot, ad hoc review of individual gaming proposals, all of which have been subject to contentious public referendum. Last year, lawmakers considered six separate bills to establish new gaming facilities, none for which were successful. At least part of the opposition to the proposals came from lawmakers frustrated by the lack of a clear vision for Maine’s future gaming landscape.

Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, said in a news release Wednesday that the competitive bid process outlined in the WhiteSand report would “eliminate the need for the kind of corporate-funded citizen’s initiatives that have led to a mismatched gaming laws, often written by the industry being regulated.”

Russell and others will hold a press conference Thursday morning to call for a comprehensive solution to provide a clear system for would-be casino operators to bid on the right to open for business in Maine. Russell said there are several bills pending in the Legislature that could become vehicles for the kind of reform the group seeks.

The state is already home to two casinos — in Bangor and Oxford — both of which said the addition of new gaming facilities would “cannibalize” the industry. — Mario Moretto.

Reading list

Motivation in pictures

StGeorge040415 018.JPGIf you’re like me, you haven’t been able to think about much other than the fact that sub-freezing temperatures and ceaseless snow seem to — finally — be behind us.

I’ve already seen more Mainers out in the world running, kayaking, hiking, playing ball or even just walking the dogs than I think is all winter. Photos like the one above by BDN photojournalist Ashley Conti, showing Hannah Rubin and Lowell Ruck during the St. George River Race in Searsmont last week, provide all the more motivation to get out there and have fun.

Check out more photos from the St. George River Race here. If you’re feeling inspired, maybe I’ll see you in Bangor for the Kunduskeag Stream Canoe Race on April 25. — Mario Moretto.

Mario Moretto

About Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and, now, in the State House. Mario left the BDN in 2015.