It’s crunch time on Maine’s budget, but lawmakers are arguing about everything else

The Legislature will breeze past its scheduled adjournment on Wednesday because of the two-year budget impasse, but things got testy on Tuesday about what seemed like everything but the budget.

In the House of Representatives, Republicans attacked Democrats for supposedly not backing police. In the Senate, Democrats hit Republicans who backed what they called an anti-abortion bill. Even Maine’s uncontroversial $1.4 billion highway budget is caught up in squabbling.

The most heated debate was around the two police bills, which would make people carrying hypodermic needles disclose that to police and make it a crime to expose first responders to blood-borne pathogens.

Both look poised to die between the chambers after House Democrats voted largely along party lines to kill them. House Republicans have messaged against Democrats heavily for that, saying in a statement earlier this week that they have chosen to “side with criminals.”

However, both bills carry concerns about civil liberties. For example, the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has said the needle bill would make people admit to committing a crime and that if a person lies about not having a needle and an officer is stuck during a search, it could be considered assault on an officer.

At one point during debate on that bill, Rep. Michael Perkins, R-Oakland, who said he’d been stuck with a needle as a policeman, shouted from the House floor, “If we are not going to support our police officers, let’s not call them.”

That led House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, to stop him, demand that members not “question each other’s integrity” or “yell at each other” during floor debate and say that she’ll be enforcing rules of decorum in the chamber.

Gideon and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, also had a tense few moments squabbling over how long members have to register roll-call votes.

In the Senate, there was a back-and-forth on a bill passed the chamber along party lines by one vote to allow a wrongful death lawsuit for the death of a viable fetus. While supporters say it’s not aimed at abortion, opponents including the American Civil Liberties Union say it would erode a woman’s autonomy and open the door to fetal personhood.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, and Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, had a brief back-and-forth over it, with Bellows saying later on Twitter that Katz “just led (an) effort to pass an anti-abortion bill.” The House has voted the bill down once, so it’s still in limbo.

Back in the House, Rep. Richard Cebra, R-Naples, stood up at the end of Tuesday’s session to hit Gideon implicitly for leaving the highway budget — which would provide $1.4 billion over two years, including federal funds, to the Maine Department of Transportation — tabled in the chamber.

In an interview later, Cebra, a member of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, said the budget, which passed unanimously in the committee, could be passed as an example of bipartisanship — especially given the budget impasse.

However, he said it is “being held up for political reasons and there are no political reasons to hold it up,” saying it shouldn’t be “a pawn” in budget negotiations or be risked in any shutdown.

A Gideon spokeswoman declined comment on that. Here’s your morose soundtrack. — Michael Shepherd

Quick hits

  • The Maine Senate plans to honor former state finance chief Richard Rosen on Wednesday after his sudden resignation last week. A resolution in the Maine Senate honoring Rosen’s service to the state will be our first sighting of the former legislator from Bucksport since he resigned as Department of Administrative and Financial Services commissioner last week. He and Gov. Paul LePage haven’t said why he left in the midst of state budget negotiations, but he wrote a resignation letter lauding the governor. State House gossip has been that the governor forced Rosen out for giving information about possible state budget funding sources to Senate Republican negotiators. When asked about it on Monday, Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said he doesn’t know why Rosen left, but Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said some funding sources identified by Senate Republicans “had to come from Rosen” because they required internal knowledge. One example is a proposed $24 million sweep of accounts in the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, but Jackson mad clear that he couldn’t confirm rumors concerning Rosen’s departure. — Michael Shepherd and Christopher Cousins
  • A bid for a statewide teacher contract — a Republican budget bargaining chip — was voted down by the House on Tuesday. This can’t be good for budget negotiations. One of the marquee proposals this year from LePage, amid an ambitious education reform package, is to move all of Maine’s teachers to a statewide labor contract, as opposed to the current system of every school district negotiating contracts with public school staff on their own. The bill has been under consideration for month and, for a time, appeared to have buy-in from both Republicans and Democrats. That buy-in ended Tuesday when the House voted 80-68 against it, with every Republican for and the Democrats and independents against. The Senate later voted for it, on party lines, 18-16 but the bill is likely dead. Republicans are still trying to insert the proposal into the biennial state budget bill — education reforms like this one have become an ultimatum for Republicans if they are going to support more education funding — but Tuesday’s votes make that tougher. — Christopher Cousins
  • A bill that guarantees equal pay for men and women has gone to LePage for consideration. This is another proposal that has come back session after session but so far has not found its way to enactment. LD 1259 would amend the Maine Human Rights Act so that prospective employers would be barred from asking an applicant about his or her prior salary history and would allow employees to legally discuss each other’s wages. Studies say that women in Maine are paid an average of 78 cents for every dollar made by men, according to a news release. The bill prevailed 22-13 in the Senate and 79-68 in the House. If LePage vetoes it, that level of support won’t be enough for an override. — Christopher Cousins

Today in A-town

Today is the day we’ve been waiting for, even though we knew it wouldn’t be. It’s statutory adjournment day and though it seems possible that the Legislature could finish most of its work today, it won’t. There’s still the biennial budget bill to untangle from partisan discord, which means the session will have to be extended.

There’s an order in today’s Senate calendar that seeks to extend the session by five days, which will require a two-thirds vote in each chamber. In past years, that has caused a bit of controversy — particularly because of Fredette’s objections — but has found its way to enactment. In 2015, 21 House members voted against extending the session, even though at the time the biennial state budget was still outstanding and the prospect of a government shutdown loomed. There might be another debate about it today but there’s no way the order won’t pass. Gideon has already said she supports it, which is no surprise.

In the light-ish Senate calendar, many bills are probably destined to fail because of committee recommendations against them or the fact they have already been voted down in the House. At this point, they amount to little more than housekeeping items. One bill that could garner some debate is LD 956, which would establish the Maine Buy America and Build Maine Act. With a number of exceptions, the bill would require that all state contracts use goods made in the United States and that in the instance of two bids on a contract coming in “substantially similar,” preference must be given to the in-state company. The bill, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, comes out of committee with a partisan split on the recommendation.

The House calendar is also full of non-concurrent matters and divided reports. Also in the mix are several votes on gubernatorial vetoes. LePage issued nine new vetoes on Tuesday alone. Also coming up on today’s House calendar is a last-minute bill that has been garnering some attention. LD 1640 would reverse a state action that barred private online services from issuing burn permits. The measure has had strong support so far.

Not scheduled but possible is another meeting of the committee of conference for the biennial budget bill. Legislative leaders were in meetings about it Tuesday afternoon but we haven’t heard there was any major progress. When (and if) that happens, there likely won’t be much notice, but we’ll keep you posted. Here’s your soundtrack. (Those hammers always scared me and they should scare you too.) — Christopher Cousins

Reading list

Crucial follow-up question answered

On Tuesday, as maybe you’ve read, the House followed the Senate in its approval of a bill that would ban the use of cellphones and other handheld devices while driving. Naturally, the issue of distracted driving came up and Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, said this about his (presumably) early days behind the wheel:

“We played with an 8-track tape player and a bench seat with your girlfriend sitting beside you,” said Timberlake. “That was distracted driving back then.”

Other than that example making talking on a cellphone while driving seem so safe, there was a crucial question to be asked, which I did: “Which 8-tracks?”

Timberlake responded in a text: “Deep Purple, BTO, Zeppelin.”

Those choices have the full endorsement of the Daily Brief staff, who had Timberlake pegged (incorrectly, as it turns out) as more of a Merle Haggard guy. Here’s his soundtrack.

I didn’t ask why the girlfriend was so distracting. — Christopher Cousins

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.