Good morning from Augusta, where Gov. Paul LePage is now two-thirds of the way through an agenda-driving media blitz after a long Thursday news conference on energy that yielded a vague plan that many in Augusta are still unraveling.
The biggest bit of news was that LePage told reporters that he wants to cap industrial electricity rates at 7 cents per kilowatt hour — down from Maine’s 2015 average of just over 9 cents — as part of an effort to attract more businesses and jobs to Maine.
“We have no choice,” he said, “or we’ll continue to lose our industrial base.”
However, this felt like a trial balloon: He said a bill to achieve that goal would be only introduced if legislative Republicans coalesced behind it and that utility companies in Maine have not indicated support of the proposal, with the governor rhetorically asking, “Why would they be on board?”
Judy Long, a spokeswoman for Emera Maine, said while the idea isn’t firm, the utility covering much of eastern and northern Maine wouldn’t “stand in the way” of a fair deal for ratepayers.
However, she noted that when large customers leave a system, costs are spread across other ratepayers. Now, Maine utilities offer a variety of industrial rates. History tells us that driving them down artificially would have a similar impact. Last year in Minnesota, a utility sought residential hikes after a cut for hard-pressed industrial customers, according to the Star Tribune.
Outgoing Maine Public Advocate Tim Schneider, Maine Public Utilities Commission spokesman Harry Lanphear and Central Maine Power spokeswoman Gail Rice declined comment on the idea, citing a lack of detail.
But Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, the co-chairman of the Legislature’s energy committee, said LePage’s idea “sounds more like a ‘Dear Santa’ letter than a plan” and that “there’s absolutely nothing that any of us can do with that idea” until it’s in writing and shows it won’t “jack up” rates on all other consumers.
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said those in his largely LePage-aligned caucus “look forward to working with the governor’s office in developing an initiative that can garner widespread support in the Legislature.”
This round of LePage news conferences — expected to end next week with one focused on Maine’s tax system — have been different than what we’re used to seeing from the governor. They resemble lectures, with the governor laying out principles more than ideas.
For example, he said when questioned on Thursday that in an ideal world, he’d like to see Maine leave ISO New England, the region’s transmission company, and further deregulate utilities. But he said that he hadn’t introduced proposals to do that because the Legislature wouldn’t agree.
Also, the cap he’s proposing on industrial rates is a pretty heavy regulation on utilities that he justified that by saying “I have to work off a monopoly” within Maine’s regulated system.
This press junket is a way for LePage to keep his ideas in the spotlight at the same time that his proposed two-year budget promises to be largely rewritten by the Legislature. But the more you push on this new idea, the more it seems difficult to build consensus on, unless it’s part of a bigger plan. — Michael Shepherd
- The VA’s watchdog said Togus has addressed issues raised in 2015 linking it to problems plaguing veterans’ hospitals nationwide. A follow-up report released Thursday by the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said that the VA Maine Healthcare System, based at the Togus campus near Augusta, has either fixed or plans to fix issues identified in a 2015 report finding that it mishandled scheduling for mental health treatment. However, the new report said some deficiencies have persisted, including a scheduling practice where patients are sent letters indicating scheduled appointments without anyone talking to them, which can lead to missed appointments and is against VA policy. Maine’s congressional delegation said they were “pleased” by new report overall in a joint statement. — Michael Shepherd
- LePage’s annual food drive will end on Saturday. The Blaine House will open for the second straight Saturday tomorrow from 9 a.m. to noon. The annual event usually happens during the holiday season, but it was delayed by construction around the governor’s mansion. — Michael Shepherd
- LePage will hold his next town hall meeting in Fort Kent. It’s scheduled for 6 p.m. April 24 at the University of Maine at Fort Kent’s Fox Auditorium. — Christopher Cousins
- Eastern Maine gets the state’s second band of socialists. Socialist Party USA added a local chapter in eastern Maine, following the one established last year in southern Maine. The common thread is Tom MacMillan, a former Portland mayoral candidate who led the Green Independent Party in the city, but left for the socialists in December after a Green leader went to Trump’s inauguration with the high school band that he leads. Now a graduate student at the University of Maine, he’s the treasurer of the new chapter. The party said in a news release that it plans hold a convention to unify the statewide party later this year. It isn’t on Maine’s ballot. — Michael Shepherd
- An organization that strives to elect more women Democrats has a new leader. Sarah Skillin Woodard will take the helm at Emerge Maine, one of 17 state affiliates of Emerge America, which offers six-month training programs for Democratic women who plan to run for elected office. Skillin Woodard has experience as a fundraiser, including as state finance director for Shenna Bellows’ unsuccessful 2014 challenge to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. Among notable Emerge Maine participants are House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and House Majority Leader Erin Herbig, D-Belfast. — Robert Long
Today in A-town
The House and Senate are not in today but some of the committees are.
- The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee is taking testimony first thing this morning on a number of bills having to do with elections, including a bid to change the process for writing ballot questions that result from citizen petitions, another to change funding distributions in the Maine Clean Election Act, and an amendment to the Maine Constitution regarding citizen initiatives that would violate the Constitution.
- The Transportation Committee will see a bill this morning that seeks new sources of revenue to support the Highway Fund. They include new annual registration fees for hybrid ($250) and electric vehicles ($350). The bill also would require municipalities to spend excise tax revenues on transportation projects and for them to send excise taxes collected on trucks and truck tractors to the state. Eroding funding for transportation infrastructure is a problem that has been building for years since vehicles have become more efficient and burned less fuel. The Transportation Committee also has work sessions scheduled for today on some other bills that have to do with transportation funding.
- The Health and Human Services Committee is taking testimony on a number of bills related to at-home care and nursing facilities, including a bid to increase reimbursements for private non-medical institutions and adult family care homes.
- The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee will consider a bill that would equalize wages between Department of Corrections officers and other law enforcement officers as well as a bid to expand the use of electronic monitoring devices in domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking cases.
- It looks like the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee will be taking recommendation votes on as many as nine proposed bills, including one that would provide public charter schools with state funds for capital expenses and another that would force “the timely nomination of the commissioner of education and to discourage repeated appointments of acting commissioners.” The latter, which exists as only a concept draft at the moment, is aimed at avoiding what LePage did in 2016: refuse to appoint an education commissioner because his choice encountered resistance from Democrats.
- The Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee will take a break from its marathon deliberations over the biennial state budget to consider a bill that would divest Maine from all investments that support the Dakota Access Pipeline.
- The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will hold work sessions on a number of bills related to the sale of liquor as well as a bill that would establish a recall procedure for elected officials.
There’s a lot to absorb in today’s committee schedule and we’ve given you just a sample. Check out the full list by clicking here. — Christopher Cousins
- Former prosecutor ‘absolutely’ convinced of Sanborn’s guilt — Jake Bleiberg, Bangor Daily News
- Despite fears over Clifton wind farm, no one has complained since it went up — Nok-Noi Ricker, BDN
- Hundreds gather at State House to protest bill punishing sanctuary cities — Steve Mistler, Maine Public
- Free marijuana draws hundreds to downtown Portland — Troy R. Bennett, BDN
- Audit rips board for Camden Snow Bowl’s ‘terribly mismanaged’ redevelopment — Alex Acquisto, BDN
- Trump making new push for health care bill, even as House votes remain elusive — Tribune Washington Bureau
- Trump isn’t a do-nothing president — FiveThirtyEight
- Deadly Paris shooting could influence voters on eve of key French election — The Washington Post
- ‘Pivotal moment’ for Democrats? Gerrymandering heads to Supreme Court — The New York Times
That time Scott Brown told me to keep my hands off my girlfriend
When news broke Thursday that President Donald Trump nominated Scott Brown to serve as the next U.S. ambassador to New Zealand, it brought back the awkward, if amusing, memory of my only interaction with the former senator and model from Massachusetts.
I attended a dinner in Boston in 2013, some sort of Christmas gala involving former NFL quarterback Doug Flutie’s band (they’re pretty good). I tagged along with my girlfriend and her parents, who had received invites. I felt a bit out of my element, surrounded by important looking people.
As we waited for food and chatted among ourselves, I had my hand on my girlfriend’s back, just below shoulder level.
“Hey, hands on the table,” a stern voice said behind me.
I turned to find Brown looking down on me. He’d been making rounds, chatting with people he knew at each table. I recall not having much to say, as it took me a moment or two to determine whether or not he was kidding. I’m still not sure I’ve figured that out.
We shook hands and introduced ourselves, he asked people around the table if they were having fun, and went off to the next table.
I still think public displays of affection are acceptable within appropriate limits, and that Scott Brown would be a huge buzzkill as a school dance chaperone. He may make a fine ambassador.
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