What’s next for ranked-choice voting in Maine?

Good morning from Augusta, where the implementation of ranked-choice voting hangs in limbo. The system, which election reform advocates have called a “better way to vote,” could be headed back to voters or could die at the hands of the Legislature, depending on what happens with two 11th-hour bills allowed into the legislative process on Thursday.

Maine voters approved a change to ranked-choice voting last year after supporters gathered enough signatures to place it on the November ballot. But that law was ransacked this week in an advisory decision by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which said the voting method would be in violation of the Maine Constitution. The Constitution states that Maine elections can be won by plurality. That means in a contest with more than two candidates, whoever receives the most votes wins even if that person doesn’t receive a majority of all votes cast.

In a ranked-choice system, voters choose multiple candidates and rank them in order of preference. A winner is declared if a majority picks a candidate as their first choice. But if not, the candidate with the lowest share of first-place votes is eliminated and second-place votes for that candidate are reallocated, a process that will be repeated until a majority is won.

Senate Republicans and Democrats are approaching the issue from different angles. Legislative leaders on Thursday unanimously approved the introduction of two after-deadline bills from Sen. Catherine Breen, D-Falmouth and Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls.

Neither is written yet, but Breen’s bill would seek an amendment to the Maine Constitution that would bring it into compliance with the citizen-initiated bill from last year. That would require two-thirds approval by the Legislature and a win during another statewide referendum. Mason’s bill would repeal ranked-choice voting altogether.

Because of split majorities in the Legislature, either bill will need bipartisan support to move forward.

The introduction of both bills received unanimous support Thursday by the Legislative Council, which is made up of 10 legislative leaders from both chambers, but that says nothing about where the votes will fall when the bills come into the process. There was consensus that on an issue as important as this, both bills deserve public hearings and consideration.

With the statutory deadline for adjournment just a few weeks away, they’ll have to be on the fast track. Expect committee hearings next week or the week after at the latest and for ranked-choice voting to be another contentious issue as we move toward the end of June. And stay tuned to the Daily Brief. — Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

  • LePage’s top health policy aide is headed to Washington to be a speechwriter for President Donald Trump’s executive office. Senior Policy Adviser David Sorensen said on Facebook he’s moving to the nation’s capital on Sunday for his new job in the Republican administration. The attorney has held a number of political jobs in Maine over the past six years. He served in prominent roles as a spokesman before joining LePage’s staff, including as a hard-charging campaign mouthpiece for the Maine Republican Party and later for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. — Michael Shepherd
  • The Legislature took a big, yet perfunctory step toward implementing marijuana legalization on Thursday. With a final vote in the Senate, a bill sponsored by House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, went to LePage’s desk. It would move regulatory control of recreational marijuana from the Department of Agriculture — as the 2016 ballot initiative prescribed — to the Department of Administrative and Financial Services. It also would allocate $1.4 million to implement the law. The Legislature’s Marijuana Legalization Implementation Committee would get $200,000 for “covering the costs of consultant services and necessary travel and expenses.” Lawmakers have already delayed much of the legalization law until 2018, so regulators and lawmakers will be busy working on the issue until then. — Michael Shepherd
  • A bill to block Internet service providers from selling Mainers’ personal information will be considered next year by the Legislature. The proposal from Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, was a response to the federal government’s April repeal of rules that kept providers from selling or sharing personal information without a customer’s consent. Bellows’ bill was co-sponsored by Republicans including Mason, but the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee voted to carry it over to the 2018 legislative session to allow Bellows to negotiate with large providers who opposed it, including AT&T and Charter Communications, who say they won’t sell data. Bellows called it “a win,” though “we do need statutory protection and I think we’ll get that next year.” — Michael Shepherd
  • A legislative committee smothered LePage’s proposal to kill the Maine Turnpike Authority of Thursday. The governor’s objection to tolls led him to submit a late bill that would phase out the turnpike authority by 2027, but it was killed in the cradle on Thursday, when the Legislature’s Transportation Committee voted unanimously against it. Keep the change in your car and here’s your soundtrack. — Michael Shepherd
  • State Treasurer Terry Hayes scored the first endorsement (at least that we’ve gotten) in Maine’s 2018 gubernatorial race. The campaign can’t get started early enough for The Centrist Project, whose executive director called Hayes, an independent from Buckfield, “a public servant and a problem solver who has a proven capacity to bring people together and get things done.” The group boosts centrist candidates across the country and also highlighted 2014 independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, who backs Hayes’ candidacy. She’s one of two notable candidates in Maine’s 2018 open-seat race so far, alongside Democrat Adam Cote with many, many more to come.  — Michael Shepherd

Today (and the holiday weekend) in A-town

The governor is changing his two-year budget proposal during budget crunch time. The word of the day is jails. The House and Senate are out until Tuesday, but the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee will be in this morning to hear Finance Commissioner Richard Rosen present proposed changes to LePage’s two-year budget proposal that were released on Thursday. You can listen in by clicking here

This is a normal, unsexy part of the budget process, but LePage is floating a few notable initiatives. He’s expected to propose funding the Downeast Correctional Facility into February 2018. That about-face comes a week after his corrections department recommended its closure. He’d also fund county jails until then while giving the department leeway to restructure them.

Also, there are a handful of massive education changes in the package, including a voluntary framework for regionalization like he has proposed in the past and a statewide teacher contract proposal that Democrats have already rejected. There’s also another $2 million to cover legal costs in cases where Attorney General Janet Mills refuses to represent the governor — a phenomenon that prompted LePage’s recent lawsuit against the Democratic attorney general.

The budget-writing committee is where all the pressure will be between now and the end of the session as they try to hammer out a budget agreement, which by all accounts is still far from happening. But you knew that already.

And appropriators are planning to spend Memorial Day weekend working on that aforementioned budget. Friday was a tentative deadline for a committee recommendation on the budget, but impasses remain between Republicans and Democrats — the biggest being education funding. Spokespeople for Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, and Gideon said the committee will work at least behind closed doors for much of the weekend. Public sessions to vote on elements of the budget are possible.

Whatever happens, a deal won’t happen before next week. That’s just a prediction, but we at the Daily Brief say bank on it. Here’s your soundtrack. — Michael Shepherd and Christopher Cousins

Reading list

Why I’m not a teacher

As with many marriages these days, my wife and I don’t see enough of each other during the work week, leaving us with text messages for communicating. She’s a preschool teacher and even though she’s known me and how unhelpful I can be since 1992, texted me for advice. Here’s what she wrote:

“Next time you get frustrated with your job and the people you have to write about daily, just know that some of us have conversations that go something like this all day at our jobs:

Me: What is in your mouth? What are you chewing on?

Child: Nothing.

Me: What is in your mouth? (I was worried it was some object to be swallowed and choked on.)

Child: I didn’t tell you cuz I thought you would get mad at me. There was a piece of bagel on the floor under the table and I ate it.

Me: You shouldn’t eat food off the floor.

Child: I was trying to chew it fast but it was sticking to the booger that was on my tooth and I couldn’t chew it up.”

“How does one respond to that?” asked my wife.

“Let them eat off the floor,” I wrote. “Natural selection will make your job easier in the long run.”

Thank goodness, for the kids’ sake, my wife listens to very little of what I say. Here’s her kids’ soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins

Programming note

There will be no Daily Brief on Monday so we can all celebrate Memorial Day. Don’t think about politics and most importantly, don’t make any news or a grand bargain on the budget, politicians.

With tips, pitches, questions or feedback, email us at politics@bangordailynews.com. If you’re reading The Daily Brief on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics and policy delivered via email every weekday morning.

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.