Democrats seek to put ‘good jobs, strong wages’ atop the agenda

Happy Monday from Augusta, where days of the week may soon begin blending together for lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee as they shift into high gear on budget and tax reform negotiations.

The committee’s leaders, Sen. Jim Hamper, R-Oxford, and Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, have marked the end of this week as its deadline for voting out a two-year budget deal for fiscal years 2016 and 2017. The chief sticking point — a comprehensive tax reform package submitted by Republican Gov. Paul LePage — has been the main holdup so far. But now, with the GOP finally revealing its initial tax reform offer, negotiations between the two parties can begin in earnest.

The committee is expecting meetings to last into the evenings — both in and out of public view — and committee members have been told to clear their weekend in case Saturday and Sunday negotiations are needed. We’ll keep you updated as things progress.

Elsewhere in the capitol complex, two of the governor’s welfare reform proposals are scheduled for public hearings in the Health and Human Services Committee today at 9:30 a.m.: LD 1407 would require TANF applicants to submit to drug screening and testing, and allow the state to deny benefits to those convicted of serious drug crimes. LD 1402 is Gov. Paul LePage’s bill meant to address the “welfare cliff.”

Crunch time in the Education Committee means the group will hold work sessions today on more than a dozen bills, including one that would allow parents to opt out of standardized testing for their children, and several others related to testing and learning standards.

In the State and Local Government Committee, Senate President Michael Thibodeau’s bill to study unfunded mandates on Maine’s towns and cities could face a vote in a work session scheduled for 1:30 p.m.

As statutory adjournment for the Legislature fast approaches — there’s less than a month left, now! — things at the State House will become much more fluid. To stay in the know, subscribe to receive the BDN’s Daily Brief in your inbox every morning. — Mario Moretto.

Eves to present Democrats’ signature ‘Put ME to Work’ program

Earlier in the session, Democrats in the Legislature put their flag in the sand for “good jobs and strong wages,” their top goals for this year. Since then, thanks to Gov. Paul LePage and his Republicans, the conversation in Augusta has shifted to tax and welfare reform, prompting Democrats to counter or parry with each new press conference or bill title toward those ends.

Today, House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, will present his proposed ‘Put ME to Work” program at the Labor Committee, and in doing so, hope to put “good jobs and strong wages” back at the top of lawmakers’ agendas.

The bill, LD 1373, would invest $5 million in the state’s community colleges over five years to create job-training programs “to prepare workers for jobs in high-demand fields.” The mechanism of the program would be public-private partnerships between the state’s colleges and businesses in Maine that would ideally benefit from the newly skilled workforce.

Eves and other Democrats embarked on a “jobs tour” earlier this year, visiting Maine businesses across the state, including Pratt & Whitney in Eves’ hometown, which has partnered with the state, other local businesses and York County Community College.  The state invested $330,000 to create a precision machinist training program at the school, which is hoped to churn out trained workers for 1,200 new jobs.

“We’ve heard from employers and workers across the state about the best way to improve our economy. The message is the same from North Berwick to Frenchville: invest in our workers and businesses,” Eves said in a news release. “A skilled and well-trained workforce is key to success for both workers and businesses in our state.”

Eves’ bill has bipartisan backing, including the support of Assistant Senate Majority Leader Andre Cushing, R-Hampden. — Mario Moretto.

Veto watch

Gov. Paul LePage vetoed three bills on Friday evening last week. They were:

  • LD 373, “An Act to Allow a Moose Permit to be Transferred to a Family Member.” The bill would have done just as the title suggests. In issuing his veto, LePage wrote that the bill would have unintended consequences. “I often hear complaints that Maine’s hunting and fishing laws are too complicated and this bill simply compounds this problem by adding yet another wrinkle to our hunting laws.” LePage also said many Mainers have been frustrated by never winning the moose permit lottery, and said this bill would only exacerbate their frustration.
  • LD 377, “An Act to Continue the Visual and Digital Media Loan Program and the Visual and Digital Media Loan Fund.” The program has been unused since its creation in 2011, LePage wrote in his veto letter. “This piece of legislation is simply a ‘feel good’ bill,” he wrote.
  • LD 824, “An Act Regarding Ethanol Motor Fuel.” LePage said he agreed with the goals of the bill — prohibiting fuel distributors, franchisors and refiners from limiting the sale of ethanol-free fuel. However, he said he had constitutional concerns about the bill’s application to “existing contracts.” The federal and Maine constitutions include language barring government from passing any laws that impair contractual obligations. “While I understand the interpretation of the constitutional prohibitions will be left to the courts, I do not support inviting litigation and its attendant costs to determine the validity of this law,” LePage wrote.

The House and Senate will consider whether to override or sustain LePage’s vetoes in a coming session. — Mario Moretto.

10 questions with Bruce Poliquin

U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin was featured in a “10 questions with …” video by the House GOP Conference last week.

In it, Poliquin discusses why he’s a Republican and his policy work, but also some more lighthearted fare, such as his thoughts on DeflateGate and his favorite movie (the answer to which, frankly, surprised me). You can watch the video here. — 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.