The first big State House fight of 2018 could pit politicians against petitioners

Happy New Year from Augusta. We previewed the political year ahead over the long weekend as lawmakers prepared to return to Augusta on Wednesday for the second session of the 128th Legislature.

Ahead of their arrival, legislative staff have been printing new bills during the past few weeks that will form the basis of some of the biggest fights of the short 2018 session. Some are old, some are new and some are yet to be aired in full.

The day may be dominated by a long public hearing over one controversial item in an election housekeeping bill. That bill, sponsored by Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, makes a host of minor changes to election law. But activists are up in arms over one proposed change that would force people gathering signatures on Election Day to be at least 50 feet from a polling place. Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, a Democrat who backs the change, said it aims to address concerns from clerks who say voters must often “run the gauntlet” past people soliciting signatures for ballot initiatives before they can vote. But Election Day is a massive boon to these drives. Backers of ranked-choice voting said they got 33,000 signatures — more than half of what they need — on Election Day 2017 in their effort to get a people’s veto initiative on this year’s June ballot. The Legislature has already booked overflow space for the expected crowd at Wednesday’s hearing before the elections oversight committee.

Lawmakers are also just looking to keep the wheels of government churning. Rep. William Tuell, R-East Machias, is continuing his fight to keep the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport open after it won a one-year reprieve from closure in the budget passed last year. His 2018 bill would fund the jail beyond next year and bar the administration of Gov. Paul LePage from closing it without legislative approval. Rep. James Handy, D-Lewiston, wants to restore funding for school-based health centers. Rep. Dale Denno, D-Cumberland, wants to re-establish the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Advocacy, which closed in 2011.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about other key bills. Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, has submitted a much-ballyhooed bill that aims to protect electric consumers from rate spikes due to outage costs like those resulting from Maine’s massive October windstorm. But the bill is only in concept form now and would create a task force to study the issue. The Republican governor also said in a radio address last week that he will try to pass student debt relief again after his own party blocked a different effort last year. House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, has offered a compromise measure since then, but LePage’s office shed little light on the governor’s plan, with spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz saying only that he’ll offer “new proposals.”

The attorney general is launching a probe into police-involved shootings

Attorney General Janet Mills is putting together a committee to look at the causes of police shootings and contributing factors such as mental illness, domestic violence, gun ownership and substance abuse. Mills says the probe will go beyond the most common determinations — self-defense or defense of others — her office makes after investigating a shooting. The attorney general’s office has never found that a Maine law enforcement officer was not justified in the use of deadly force. Mills, a Democrat who is running for governor, sent a letter inviting participants last week and said she expects the work to be done over a few months.

Trump talks Maine

President Donald Trump invoked his visits to Maine while boasting about his 2016 campaign. It happened during the Republican’s impromptu interview with The New York Times last week, when he criticized Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and said the Electoral College necessitates going to “places you might not go to” in a popular campaign, citing his five trips to Maine. Did it help? It’s hard to tell, but Trump won Maine’s 2nd Congressional District convincingly. We asked Twitter to weigh in and Maine Democratic operative David Farmer replied that the visits could have been “part of the complex inputs that made that happen.”

Reading list

The company that got $16 million in public money in a failed restart of a paper mill is backing a new insect-fueled project. Cate Street Capital — of the much-maligned Great Northern Paper Co. deal — is behind a new company with a headquarters in Florida and a laboratory at St. Joseph’s College in Standish that will grow farm-raised fish fed with insects and use fish waste to grow produce in nutrient-rich water. Here’s your soundtrack.

Experts are saying 2018 is shaping up to be a decent year for Maine’s economy. The state economist says the new Republican tax bill could spur more economic activity in Maine and a top Bangor Savings Bank official says the state’s housing market looks like it will remain strong in 2018, though fuel prices are trending upward.

A Maine-based pulp company wants the state to take over maintenance of an expensive dam. The dam near East Grand Lake on the U.S.-Canada border is costing Woodland Pulp LLC too much, according to the company. The dam is used to help generate electricity but doesn’t generate it directly, leaving the company to argue that it shouldn’t be licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Maine’s minimum wage went up again on Jan. 1. It’s now $10 per hour and it’ll be $12 by 2020. An estimated 59,000 Mainers will get raises because of it, according to Maine Public.

Paul Revere was better at making bells than decisions

He’s remembered as a silversmith and the guy who alerted other colonists that the British were about to attack — though that story was sensationalized beyond reality by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

As the BDN’s Nick McCrea wrote, Revere’s military career almost changed the course of his life, and the most perilous incident happened in Maine. In 1779, about 700 British troops landed near what today is the town of Castine and began to build a fort. The colonists sent 44 ships to “captivate, kill and destroy” the intruders. (“Captivate” must have meant something close to “capture” back then; We doubt the colonists performed a magic show or displayed optical illusions.)

The battle dissolved into a weeks-long siege before the Brits started to gain the upper hand and the colonists fled up the Penobscot River and began to burn their ships so they wouldn’t fall into enemy hands. Revere, who was reportedly anything but a model soldier, was aboard one of them.

You’ll have to read McCrea’s fascinating account to learn how it all turned out — though we think you know the colonists won the war despite this battle. While you’re reading, here’s your soundtrack.

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins and Michael Shepherd and edited by Robert Long. If you’re reading it on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.