Pot bills, welfare reform suffer setbacks as Legislature heats up

Good morning from Augusta, where lawmakers are preparing for their first Friday session this year.

The arrival of Friday votes in the House and Senate — and, starting next week, an additional afternoon session — indicate what we’ve known for a while: It’s crunch time.

For legislators, that means longer hours as they try not only to nail down a budget, but take some kind of action on the more controversial or meaningful bills that we’ve seen delayed. For you, it means more State House news than you or we ever thought we wanted. As our cup runneth over, check the Daily Brief for stories that may not have made the cut the day before.

So today, let’s get right down to it. — Mario Moretto.

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Committee takes a pass on marijuana legalization efforts

Efforts to legalize recreational marijuana for adults suffered a setback yesterday when the last remaining bill — LD 1380 by Portland Democratic Rep. Diane Russell — was given an “ought not to pass” report by a majority of the Criminal Justice Committee.

A similar bill, LD 1401 by Rep. Mark Dion, also a Portland Democrat, was rejected by the committee the day before.

Both bills still advance to the House.

Normally I’d tell you here that their rejection at the committee level is a good indication of the vote they’ll receive in the House. But Diane Russell has surprised us before: Two years ago, she breathed new life into a legalization effort after it went down in flames at the committee level. By the time the House took up the bill, she had won over two more members of the criminal justice committee and many other lawmakers. The final vote was just 4 members short of passage.

Now it’s a different Legislature today than two years ago, and I’m not saying Russell’s magic is strong enough to win the day. But with competing legalization efforts working their way toward the ballot regardless of what the Legislature does, she’ll continue to argue that lawmakers should weigh in before they lose their chance to have a say in what legal marijuana looks like in Maine.

Many legislators just may listen. — Mario Moretto.

Hearing over PUC nominee get testy

According to Alanna Durkin of the Associated Press, a committee hearing on Gov. Paul LePage’s latest nomination to the Public Utilities Commission became a heated event yesterday as lawmakers grilled the governor’s pick and majority Democrats delayed a vote on whether to approve his appointment.

The nomination comes at a time of increased political attention on the commission, specifically in relation to a decision about energy efficiency funding (which the House has voted to reverse) and about two long-term wind power contracts.

Bruce Williamson, a Tennessee economist, is LePage’s choice to replace Commissioner David Littell. When Littell, the last remaining commissioner appointed by Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, is gone, the entire commission will be stacked with LePage appointees.

The committee voted 7-6 yesterday on party lines to take the unusual step of delaying a vote on Williamson, according to AP, who reported that Rep. Larry Dunphy, R-Embden, “called the move ‘dirty, rotten, nasty politics.'” — Mario Moretto.

Welfare cliff bill advances, other reform bills stalled in committee

After a sometimes fiery debate, the Health and Human Services Committee advanced a bill by Gov. Paul LePage to address the “welfare cliff.”

LePage and lawmakers have lamented the unintended consequence of TANF recipients who abruptly lose all state assistance the moment they make $1 over the eligibility threshold.

The sudden loss of benefits can sometimes mean recipients end up with fewer resources after taking a new job or a pay raise than they had before, essentially punishing them for taking steps up the economic ladder.

LePage and committee chairman Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, have both proposed plans to level the cliff by ensuring TANF recipients wouldn’t be punished digging their way out of poverty.

But disparities over the bills became too much for the committee to overcome, with Democrats on Thursday supporting an amended version of LePage’s bill that worked in many of Gattine’s provisions, which they said were necessary to fix problems in the governor’s bill that would punish people who could not find a job that gave them at least 20 hours of work per week.

Republicans supported a version that more closely resembled the governor’s original proposal, which they said was the only plan on the table that adequately met federal TANF guidelines.

The committee also rejected two other welfare reform bills, including one by  LePage, and delayed action on another until next year.

  • LD 1375, a governor’s bill to add a job-search requirement for TANF applicants, was voted “ought not pass” along party lines, with Democrats opposing the measure.
  • LD 1144, by House Democratic Leader Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan, would have banned the use of EBT cards at tobacco shops, required the state to develop training for TANF recipients about proper use of the program, and research the illegal use of TANF benefits to purchase tobacco products, lottery tickets and alcohol. The committee voted 8-3 to reject the bill.
  • LD 1097, by Sen. Nathan Libby, D-Lewiston, would have limited the amount of TANF cash that a recipient could withdraw from an ATM. The committee voted to carry over the bill until next year.

All the bills that received votes in committee yesterday face further action in the House and Senate. — Mario Moretto.

Veto watch

The House voted 102-64 to override LePages veto of LD 464, “An Act to Improve Science and Engineering Education for Maine’s Students,” which would replace Maine’s science education standards with new ones that increase a focus on engineering and using the scientific method to solve problems.

As noted in this story by the BDN’s Christopher Cousins, the Senate joined the House in overriding LePage’s veto of LD 737, known as “Taylor’s Law.” Supporters say the bill strengthens the enforcement of an existing law that bars drivers with intermediate licenses from carrying passengers except under certain circumstances. The law would provide decals that could be posted on vehicles of intermediate drivers. The bill will now become law.

The Senate also overrode LePage’s veto of LD 682, “An Act to Ensure the Administration of Written Driving Tests,” with a 30-4 vote. The House rejected LePage’s veto of the bill on Wednesday. The bill, which clarifies the Secretary of State’s authority to delegate learning permit testing to drivers schools, will become law. — Mario Moretto.

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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.