Accusations fly between LePage and Democrats over $38 million in tax breaks

Good morning from Augusta, where it’s deja vu all over again.

Remember when a legislative committee and the LePage administration were at a stalemate with lawmakers accusing the administration of secrecy and the administration accusing lawmakers of playing politics at the expense of the Maine people?

I do, because it happened yesterday. Again.

One of the most important bills that has any chance of passage this session — and that’s a pretty short list — is the so-called tax conformity bill proposed by the LePage administration. It’s dry and boring but potentially worth some $38 million in tax reductions for Mainers, depending on to what extent LePage and the Legislature agree to conform to federal tax code changes enacted late last year by Congress. Those changes will benefit teachers, small businesses, homeowners and students if Maine decides to go along.

I tried to find a good song about tax code conformity for today’s soundtrack but came up with nothing. So here’s some awesome old Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground while I’m looking.

Anyway, the Legislature’s Taxation Committee tabled LePage’s bill yesterday and then the press releases started flying. Democrats, balking at $22 million in the bill that they say will benefit “large, out-of-state corporations,” are concerned about what cuts in state spending or revenue streams will have to be found in the coming weeks to pay for the bill, which will take a bite out of Maine state revenues.

I wasn’t at the hearing but according to Democrats, Finance Commissioner Richard Rosen told the committee that the administration would discuss funding sources once the bill is approved.

“Only in political la-la-land would a person support politicians who fund $22 million in kickbacks for big corporate filers headquartered out of state without knowing how to pay for it,” said Rep. Adam Goode, D-Bangor, House chairman of the committee.

This is rugged stuff, I know. Bear with me and throw on another Velvet Underground song to get you through. “Despite all the amputations you know you could just go out and dance to a rock ‘n roll station.” Sorry, I’ll stop singing now. (Note to self: FOCUS.)

Anyway, Gov. Paul LePage accused the committee of “abdicating its responsibility to make a timely decision on a topic of utmost importance to both Maine businesses and individuals.”

I asked the LePage administration Wednesday afternoon to respond to the “secrecy” allegation and to identify its plan to pay for the bill, if it has one. If I receive a response, you’ll read about it here. Meanwhile, the tax conformity bill is scheduled to come back up for debate next Wednesday.

Phew. Now on to other matters. — Christopher Cousins

Libertarians file injunction order

If you’ve been reading the Bangor Daily News lately, you know about the struggle by libertarians in Maine to form an official political party.

The potential party enrolled nearly 6,500 Mainers in 2015, which it thought exceeded the threshold required to take the first step toward creating a party. The Secretary of State’s office said it could verify only about 4,500 of those signatures and rejected the bid to create the party. All of those libertarian registrations were essentially rescinded and those voters were moved to “unenrolled” status. That’s what led to this lawsuit.

On Wednesday, the defendants in the lawsuit, which include a non-profit Brunswick organization called the Libertarian Party of Maine, Inc., asked the U.S. District Court to order the state to re-enroll the voters immediately, look into why so many registrations were not valid, and declare the Maine Libertarian Party valid in time for the June primary election.

The written opposition argument from the state is due Feb. 17, followed by a Feb. 28 deadline for the plaintiffs to respond. John Branson, the Portland-based attorney who represents the libertarians, said he hopes for a hearing in the first two weeks of March and a ruling by the end of March. — Christopher Cousins 

Legislature to mull marijuana DUI standard

The Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted Wednesday to consider a bill that would establish a legal blood limit standard for drivers impaired by marijuana.

That vote is procedural, but it inched lawmakers closer to action on strengthening laws around operating under the influence of marijuana, which is already illegal in Maine.

It’s hard for police to prove and it’s very controversial. Six states have set blood limits for tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient, but they’re challenged by experts who say the science around a uniform impairment level is inconclusive.

The majority of a working group convened by Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap agreed in December to recommend establishing a limit of 5 nanograms of THC per deciliter of blood as the standard for impairment, which is a common limit in other states.

But opposition looms, as other members of that group, including defense attorneys, wanted the state to use a higher limit and force police to show other evidence of impairment.

Wednesday’s move asks the Senate and House to print the majority’s version, however, which would send it back to the committee for a public hearing and work sessions. It’ll be a hot issue that could be settled this session. — Michael Shepherd

Quick hits

  • Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau of Winterport on Wednesday asked Maine Attorney Janet Mills to rule on the constitutionality of a ranked-choice voting bill created by a citizen-initiated referendum in November of 2015. Read Thibodeau’s letter by clicking here. Read Michael Shepherd’s story from last week when he reported this was going to happen by clicking here.
  • Senators Susan Collins and Angus King announced Wednesday that the Maine Department of Health and Human Services has received a nearly $1.2 million federal grant to help provide free immunizations for low-income children under the age of 18. The vaccines will be distributed at no charge to at private physicians’ offices and public health clinics.
  • The Legislative Council, a committee of legislative leaders from both parties, meets this afternoon at the State House to, among other things, decide whether to authorize a number of pending bills for consideration this year. One of the interesting bills being pushed by Democrats is the so-called “Peter Falk Bill,” names after the famous detective in the TV show “Columbo.” Sponsored by Rep. Archie Verow, D-Brewer, it would allow family members to visit sick or incapacitated loved ones and receive medical updates when family disputes arise. The measure follows several well-publicized cases of adult children alleging they have been denied access to an incapacitated parent by the parent’s spouse. This kind of bill became named after Falk nationally because Falk’s daughter had to take legal action to see her father at the end of his life.

Reading list

Watch the whole ‘vigilante’ video

Today’s Daily Brief ends on a serious note: On Wednesday, Gov. Paul LePage made news again with another comment that has, again, made national news. This time, he suggested to reporters outside Simones restaurant in Lewiston that Maine gun owners should “load up” and shoot Maine’s drug dealers.

“Everybody in Maine, we have constitutional carry,” he said, referring to last year’s enactment of a bill that allows for the carrying of concealed weapons. “Load up and get rid of the drug dealers because, folks, they’re killing our kids.”

He was joking. I think.

He wasn’t joking, I don’t think, about his support for enacting a death penalty in Maine for drug dealers whose products lead to deadly overdoses for addicts. The impromptu news conference lasted for about 10 minutes. I urge you to watch the whole video so you’re fully aware of the context behind these comments, which we’ll be hearing about for months or years. — 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.