Good morning from Augusta, where procedural politics are starting to take hold as we careen toward the end of another legislative session. When one side or the other doesn’t get what it wants on marquee bills, parliamentary procedure rules become the playbook.
A case in point is what happened Thursday on a bill that would have prohibited gross metering. That allows electricity utility companies to tax people who generate certain amounts of energy on their own from devices like windmills or solar panels. The bill was drastically pared down from the way it was originally proposed and garnered heavy support in the Legislature — until it came to overriding a veto by Gov. Paul LePage.
The Senate veto override vote was 26-7 but the veto was sustained Thursday in the House on a 97-52 vote — about four votes short of the necessary two-thirds needed to squish the veto. Normally, that would be the end of it.
But House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and House Majority Leader Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, conspired to keep the bill alive a little longer by tabling it, presumably to twist some arms in an attempt to move this bill to enactment.
Another example: Democrats opposed LePage’s tax conformity bill in a committee on Thursday and it’s unclear where things will land. The governor’s plan, which would overhaul Maine’s tax code by handing back $88 million in taxes to Mainers on net by next year, faces a difficult road after Democrats on the tax committee voted against it on Thursday.
Democrats’ alternative plan would reject estate and corporate tax cuts while boosting earned income and property tax credits and creating a new credit for businesses that offer paid family leave.
The LePage administration has said not conforming to federal tax changes would make pieces of tax law hard to administer, so while a deal may have to be worked out at some point, it’s hard to see exactly how the Legislature will get there with a scheduled adjournment date of April 18.
Expect more procedural karate when it comes to Medicaid. Now that the LePage administration has refused to submit an expansion plan to the federal government by the April 3 deadline defined in a citizen-initiated bill, Democrats are spearheading hearings about the cost.
Experts laid out the range of estimates to pay for the new enrollees Thursday to the Legislature’s budget committee, which convenes again on Monday to discuss the potential cost of hiring new people in the Department of Health and Human Services to handle some 70,000 or more new applications.
LePage has made clear he will not be the one coming forward with funding proposals and it now appears that lawmakers will do it for him. Attorney General Janet Mills, who is also vying for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, announced this week that the state has won $35 million in tobacco settlement money that could fund expansion start-up costs.
That’ll probably require legislative action and an attempt to force Medicaid expansion past Republicans who oppose it — and hold a majority in the Senate. Let the procedural posturing begin.
Democrats’ bid to force the Legislature to put out another bill on ranked-choice voting failed. Whether or not ranked-choice voting will be used in the June election will likely have to be settled in court after an effort from Sen. Michael Carpenter, D-Houlton, failed on Thursday.
It would have forced a legislative committee to report out a bill funding the voter-approved system and fixing legal conflicts that may prevent it from being used. Somewhat remarkably, Democrats lost in a 17-17 vote after wooing Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, to join them. But Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick, wasn’t present for the vote and the effort is dead for now.
Another maneuver by House Democrats could be viewed as a bit of political trickery. A citizen-initiated bill that would create a new 3.8 percent employment tax to fund a universal home health care system, which was spearheaded by the Maine People’s Alliance, looks like it’s headed straight to the ballot without a public hearing.
The Legislature has the choice to send initiatives like that directly to the ballot or just enacting it. Normally, the former happens without the kind of public hearing that almost all bills get in Augusta. But last year, a legislative committee held a hearing on a York County casino question that disclosed key information about its funders.
Advocates say a hearing is crucial even for initiated bills because a public airing and review by committee analysts help uncover issues ranging from technical flaws to constitutional uncertainties that could be addressed before final wording of ballot questions is written. The Republican-led Senate voted to send the bill to the Legislature’s Taxation Committee, but the Democratic-led House disagreed.
There were hours of testimony last week from House Republicans who opposed the bill, which prompted a partial walk-out by Democrats. In the end, Democrats used their slim majority to indefinitely postpone the bill, which sends it to the ballot without any hearing.
Following last year’s fierce battle over another Maine People’s Alliance initiative that would have created a 3 percent tax in support of public schools, which passed at the ballot box but was repealed by Republicans in the Legislature, the timing of this proposal in an election year is troublesome and putting the bill through the legislative process could have forced votes that would have been potent campaign fodder for candidates in both parties.
Today in A-town
The House and Senate are off after working the past four days. Floor sessions resume Monday and lawmakers were warned to expect two or three sessions per day by midweek as the Legislature approaches adjournment.
Three committees plan to meet today. The Health and Human Services Committee will pore over a late governor’s bill to change MaineCare eligibility standards related to retirement and education accounts. The judiciary and energy committees also will meet this morning.
- The secretary of state has ruled for the defendants in two ballot access skirmishes. Max Linn, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, and Cody Blackburn, a Libertarian running for a Bangor seat in the Maine House of Representatives, will appear on the June 12 primary election ballot following unsuccessful challenges by their opponents. Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap ruled Thursday that enough of their signatures qualified — despite several signatures from dead people on Linn’s petition.
- Whether prisoners should have addiction treatment medication is the focus of a federal probe that could have ramifications in Maine. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating whether the Massachusetts Department of Corrections is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by not providing the medication to prisoners who were taking it on the outside. The outcome could be important in Maine, where prisons and jails generally prevent inmates from continuing the treatment.
- LePage has signed $45 million in tax breaks for Bath Iron Works into law, prompting complaints from the company’s union. The bill, which was under development for months, will provide up to that amount of breaks over the next 15 years, providing the shipyard maintains certain employment levels and invests $200 million in its physical infrastructure. However, union leaders distributed leaflets Thursday blasting the company for 31 layoffs announced last week and 27 people still out of work for a previous round of layoffs.
- A Pittsfield high school is suffering the effects of fewer foreign students enrolling. Maine Central Institute, a semi-private town academy that serves as the local high school, typically has 25 percent to 30 percent boarding students who are mostly international. This year, only about 16 percent are boarders. That has prompted the school to reduce faculty and staff levels and cut programs such as freshman basketball and cheerleading.
Fame, not fortune
Daily Brief fans have rare opportunities to see Christopher Cousins and Michael Shepherd in living color on their televisions or personal viewing devices. Mike helped moderate the April 3 Republican gubernatorial debate on WGME, which you can watch over and over again by clicking here.
Chris will play the same role for the April 10 debate among Democratic Blaine House hopefuls. The BDN will stream that at 8 p.m. Tuesday. Our dynamic duo also will appear on The Maine Event at 6 p.m. Sunday on your local Maine Public channel.
Their fame may be growing but their bank accounts are not. The Daily Brief accountant told me that raises are out of the question this year, given the fact that we have obliterated our budget for makeup and hair gel. Sorry, guys. Here’s our soundtrack. –– Robert Long
We clearly do this job for the adoration. Here’s our soundtrack. –– Michael Shepherd
Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins, Michael Shepherd and Robert Long. If you’re reading this 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.
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