Maine lawmakers have 280 bills to clear by April 20

As the Legislature nears its supposed adjournment date, there are signs that the tension is mounting as numerous bills create a bottleneck headed into consideration by the full Legislature.

This week marks scheduling changes for the House and Senate, which met only twice weekly for most of the session and then moved to three times a week earlier this month. Now, legislative leaders have told lawmakers to expect to meet every weekday — possibly two or three times a day.

Monday was the first day of five-day-a-week sessions and there are signs that the pressure is building.

Delaying action

As is commonplace this time of session, the minority party in the House is starting to complain. Republican Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, the House minority leader, spoke up on Monday morning as the House was considering tabling the fourth bill of the morning.

“We’re tabling yet another matter that would seem to me to be a fairly simple matter,” said Fredette “We’re going to, yet again, put ourselves into a posture that in the last three of four days we’re going to have a long list of unfinished business on the calendar with no time to deal with them.”

Unfinished business refers to any bill that has gone through the committee process and come to the Legislature for consideration. Though there are many paths to a bill’s resolution of the legislative process, in general they all need at least two votes in each chamber.

“The people on this side of the aisle are concerned about time management and management of the docket so we can deal with these issues today and not 2 o’clock in the morning,” said Fredette.

Most years, the adjournment of the legislative session does involve marathon days at the end — often lasting past midnight.

Locking horns

On March 15, Democratic House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan used a rare procedural move — “tabled unassigned” — to effectively kill LD 1652, which was proposed by Gov. Paul LePage and has to do with limiting state funding to any Maine town or city that resists the exchange of information about any individual’s immigration status.

Since then, Rep. Larry Lockman, R-Amherst, who sponsored the bill for LePage, has twice risen while the House is in session, to ask McCabe if he intends to revive the bill because, according to Lockman, every bill should have its chance to go through the process. House rules dictate that lawmakers can’t address other lawmakers directly, so questions have to be asked “through the chair,” who then asks if any members want to answer the question.

So far, McCabe has ignored Lockman’s questions, though on Monday McCabe used Lockman’s argument in favor of a House resolution by House Speaker Mark Eves that seeks to force LePage to release voter-approved senior housing bonds. In the face of staunch Republican opposition, McCabe argued that every bill should be allowed to go through the process.

Speaking of that resolution and locking horns, it is sure to cause more debate in the Republican-controlled Senate, where it is likely to die unless some Republican senators agrees with Eves. However, the bill would then be vetoed and sent back to the House, where the 80 votes it attracted on Monday aren’t nearly enough to keep it alive.

Making progress

At the State House, progress can be measured in multiple ways. One measure is what has been accomplished to benefit the Maine people. Another measure — more prevalent this year because of the largely gridlocked split majorities in the Legislature — is simply working through the list of bills. Here’s a rundown of some of the progress made on Monday.

  • LD 1447, proposed by LePage, would authorize a $150 million revenue bond to pay for major upgrades at the Maine Correctional Facility in South Windham and a facility owned by the Department of Corrections in Washington County. The House gave the measure unanimous approval on Monday; all that’s left is approval in the Senate.
  • LD 1465 would increase reimbursement rates for ambulance services paid by MaineCare, which is Maine’s version of Medicaid. The bill passed Monday in the House with a 121-21 vote and now moves to the Senate. The vote tally in the House would be veto-proof if it holds up but that means little. The real challenge is its $443,000 cost, which makes its prognosis at the hands of the Appropriations Committee grim.
  • LD 1622, which is LePage’s attempt to eliminate Maine’s estate tax, was killed on Monday because House Democrats didn’t support it. That left the House and Senate in disagreement and the bill dead, which is the way it’s going for a lot of legislation this year.
  • LD 1280 would have made way for a casino in southern Maine if it hadn’t died between the chambers on Monday when the Senate voted 18-16 against an ought to pass committee recommendation.
  • LD 1605, which would lift the statute of limitations for families of homicide victims who want to file civil suits against perpetrators, was sent to LePage on Monday for consideration with unanimous support. LePage has 10 days to sign it, veto it, or let it go into law without his signature.

Not yet half finished

The Office of Policy and Legal Analysis reports that with only a few weeks left before statutory adjournment on April 20 — that’s the day after which lawmakers stop being paid — there are far more bills left to deal with than have already been dealt with. These numbers were generated over the weekend so don’t reflect what happened Monday:

  • There were 398 printed bills this year.
  • 117 bills have reached final disposition.
  • 281 bills await final disposition and are broken down as follows:
    • 50 bills on the appropriations, highway and study tables. That means they need funding.
    • 30 bills have been sent to LePage and await his action.
    • 104 bills remain in committee.
    • 97 bills are active on the House or Senate floors.

Looks like the tradition of late nights at the State House will continue this year.

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.