LePage will take his fight against North Woods monument to DC

Good morning from Augusta, where Gov. Paul LePage is planning another trip to Washington, D.C. This time, it’s about the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

The Republican governor told WGAN on Thursday he’s going in April or May to testify before a congressional committee that former President Barack Obama “overstepped” the U.S. Antiquities Act when he designated the monument in August 2016.

Last month, LePage called on President Donald Trump to reconsider the designation of the nearly 88,000-acre park near Millinocket “before economic damage occurs and traditional recreational pursuits are diminished,” but it’s unclear whether or not Trump can because the statute only provides authority for presidents to create monuments and not withdraw them.

The monument was pushed by the family of millionaire entrepreneur Roxanne Quimby. Her son, Lucas St. Clair, said after LePage’s February letter to Trump that the federal government would lose a $40 million endowment on the land, calling it “a terrible, terrible idea.” Other proponents said it would stall a chance at economic growth.

The governor agreed with one of the radio hosts on Thursday that he thinks Trump may not have the authority to withdraw it, but he made a tenuous legal argument that he said would be the anchor of his testimony — the Antiquities Act “requires” that a president “work with the state” to establish a monument.

But the act doesn’t say that. The word “state” doesn’t appear in it except in the context of “the United States” and it allows the president to designate monuments “at his discretion” on land controlled by the federal government.

Republicans have long pushed to add congressional or state approval to the act, but those changes haven’t made it into law. That national battle last year figured into a hearing of the House Committee on Natural Resources in East Millinocket last year.

The committee’s chairman, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, has been leading voice of opposition to the act. Committee spokeswoman Molly Block said Thursday that no hearing has been set, but Bishop may hold one this spring — perhaps in May — to quickly advance a bill to rein in the act. She didn’t know if LePage had been asked to testify, but she said he would likely be considered given his history of opposition to the Maine monument.

LePage’s argument seems more political than legal: He noted that the Maine Legislature made a symbolic vote against it and communities around the monument voted against it in non-binding elections, blamed Obama and U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, for pushing it through anyway.

Of course, it wasn’t King’s decision to make. He co-signed a letter to Obama with U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and Rep. Bruce Poliquin, the Republican members of Maine’s delegation, to express “serious reservations” about a designation. But he supported it after Obama’s decision, saying it “will be a significant benefit to Maine and the region.”

And LePage has long toyed with the idea of running against King in 2018, saying on Thursday that he still needs his wife’s permission. Keep all of that in mind when he heads to D.C. later this spring. — Michael Shepherd

Agreement on state aid for schools lasted 48 hours

On Monday, the Legislature’s Education Committee voted unanimously to recommend that the state pay 55 percent of the cost of public school education in Maine, but that was effectively undone on Wednesday when House Republicans added items to the funding calculation that have not previously been considered part of it.

Even though the 55 percent mark has been in law since a citizen-initiated referendum put it there in 2004, the state has never reached that funding threshold. Monday’s vote, which constituted nothing more than a recommendation on LePage’s biennial budget proposal, now under consideration by the Legislature, was seen by some as a milestone.

Then on Wednesday, the vote was reconsidered. Rep. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, offered what amounted to an amendment that added a range of costs to the 55 percent calculation.

Here’s where this veers a little bit into the weeds: Monday’s vote was to recommend the state pay 55 percent of the the “total cost” of K-12 education. That involves a calculation of total state and local expenditures on virtually everything but didn’t include a few select items such as future unfunded liabilities in the teacher retirement and insurance system.

The vote caused some tension within the GOP on Tuesday and according to several accounts, Republican members of the Education Committee were lobbied hard by their leadership and the governor’s office. On Wednesday, Stewart presented a letter that added several components to the 55 percent calculation which are not included in the 55 percent statute.

The big one was the unfunded liability in the teacher retirement, health and life insurance program at a cost of nearly $173 million. Also included in Stewart’s new calculation was an aspirations program usually funded in the higher education budget ($2 million), LePage’s proposed fund for the efficient delivery of education ($5 million), and the cost to run the Department of Education ($12.2 million).

There has long been debate about what the 55 percent should include, but the law itself is not ambiguous: It doesn’t include the items listed by Stewart.

Here’s the rub: Moving to 55 percent state funding as defined in the law would cost more than $180 million more next year than it cost this year — nearly $1.19 billion — according to a financial analysis prepared by Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, a member of the Appropriations Committee who has long been the Democrats’ leader on education issues. Stewart’s calculation totals about $1.18 billion. The vote on his recommendation went 7-4 with Republican Sens. Brian Langley of Ellsworth and Joyce Maker of Calais voting with the Democrats. (An earlier version of this post stated incorrectly that the vote was on party lines.)

Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth and Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby-Chesley called the Republicans’ vote on Wednesday a reversal of what they supported on Monday. The pressure to ramp up to 55 percent funding is more intense this year, following the passage of a citizen-initiated referendum last year that created a 3 percent surtax on income above $200,000, which had the stated intention of moving the state to 55 percent funding.

“It was good for the Republicans to recognize that the citizens have spoken twice, saying ‘we want legislators to fund 55 percent of the cost of education,’” said Millett on Wednesday, before Stewart’s motion and the party-line vote later in the day.

Kilby-Chesley said she and others were “ecstatic” following Monday’s vote.

“House Republican Education Committee members are recalculating the cost of education,” she said in a written statement to the BDN. “One has to wonder why there has been a flip-flop and why suddenly new items are added to what has been paid historically.”

Neither Stewart nor a spokesman for House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, responded to requests for comment Wednesday evening and early this morning. The Education Committee will continue deliberations over LePage’s biennial budget proposal later today. Its final recommendations are due to the Appropriations Committee on Wednesday. — Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

  • The U.S. House of Representatives will vote on the Republican health care reform bill tonight. As of Thursday morning, national media was reporting that conservative opposition continues to stand in the way of passage. U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine’s 1st District, staunchly opposes the bill and all GOP efforts to gut the Affordable Care Act. Poliquin, of Maine’s 2nd District, has yet to indicate how he will vote. On Tuesday, Trump said he would “come after” Republican House members who opposed the party’s health care overhaul. We’ll have all the reaction from Maine’s delegation later tonight. — Robert Long
  • Susan Collins questioned an FDA official on drug price increases on Wednesday. The Republican senator from Maine introduced a bill earlier this year to prioritize the review of generic drug applications. On Wednesday, Dr. Carol Woodcock, the director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, told Collins that current law has “delayed availability of generics a very long time in some cases” and “that’s something we can’t do too much about under current law.” — Michael Shepherd

Today in A-town

The House and Senate are in this morning, then committees will continue their work this afternoon. The volume of bills moving through the process is increasing. For example, 20 bills came to the House from committees with “ought not to pass” recommendations today alone.

Of note in the House calendar is a joint resolution honoring former House Clerk Edwin Pert, who died in October 2016 at age 83. Pert was universally loved and disclosure: that includes us here at the Daily Brief. We published this tribute obituary for him after his death.

The Senate calendar includes several Senate-confirmable nominations to boards and commissions by LePage.

We’ve heard several times that Daily Brief readers prefer their email as soon as possible so with time running short before deadline, we’ll leave this link to the committee schedule with you to peruse at your leisure. — Christopher Cousins

Reading list

Pushback on horse-sized ducks

On Wednesday, the Daily Brief offered scathing criticism of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, who on Tuesday was unable to answer the question “would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?”

In a carefully constructed argument, the Daily Brief brain trust said it would be worse to fight a horse-sized duck. It was an easy choice. However, we were in doubt through most of the day after receiving an email from a reader with the subject line, “that’s quackers.”

“Gulliver’s Travels, anyone?” said the reader. “It’s definitely tougher to defeat a multitude than a single enemy.”

She had a point until we remembered one important fact: Horses don’t have thumbs so they can’t tie knots like the tiny soldiers who brought down Gulliver.

So there. Here’s your soundtrack. — 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.