Last week, legislative leadership announced the committee assignments for new and returning members of the 128th Maine Legislature. The next session promises to be yet another year of partisan warfare as our bitterly divided, increasingly dysfunctional government muddles along. 

Gov. Paul LePage has given the public a taste of what’s to come with his constant calls on the Legislature to roll back provisions in the ballot referendums — including portions of the minimum-wage increase and the new 3-percent tax of the state’s wealthiest households — that were passed by Maine voters last month. The governor has also called for more tax cuts and has said he is considering some “severe cuts” to some “really good programs.”

In 2017, the House and Senate will be much more closely divided than they were last term. In the Maine House there are now 77 Democrats, 72 Republicans, one left-leaning independent, and centrist independent Owen Casas of Rockport. Republicans hold the Senate by just one vote, but both chambers still need a 2/3 majority to overturn LePage’s vetoes, which is highly unlikely given the partisan climate in Augusta. In an interview on WGAN radio on December 8, the governor also signaled that he’s not over his earlier feuds with Senate President Mike Thibodeau (R-Waldo Cty.) and Senate Republicans, which could impact how far he gets with his agenda.

“It’s not up to me. My door has been open,” said LePage in response to a question about whether he will be able to work with the Legislature this year. “With the House I think we’ve had a good relationship, I think it’s going to continue. With the Senate it’s not up to me. I’m not the one with the closed door.”

Generally, in order for any piece of legislation to have a chance of passage, it must first receive a strong recommendation from the committee that hears it. Unlike in other states that have separate policy committees for the Senate and House, Maine has what are called “joint standing committees,” which include members of both chambers and are co-chaired by one senator and one representative. When a legislator submits a bill, he or she will present it to the committee at a public hearing, lobbyists and members of the public weigh in and then the committee chairs will schedule a vote. During that time, a lot can happen behind the scenes as various interested parties email, call or lobby members of the committee in person. 

But just one or two effective legislators on the committee can make a tremendous difference in whether a piece of legislation passes or fails. A legislator’s job is not just to vote, but to ask the right questions and request enough information to properly inform committee members. And even if a bill doesn’t get a favorable vote from the committee, legislators who have a good rapport with their colleagues can greatly influence other members of the Legislature. Politics is all about relationships, as they say. But if LePage doesn’t like the bill, the chances of it ever passing are slim to none. 

Midcoast Well Represented on Marine Resources

This year, the midcoast is well represented on the Marine Resources Committee, which oversees the management of   harvesting, licensing and processing in commercial marine fisheries including diadromous fish, mollusks, crustaceans, seaweed, sea urchins and sea cucumbers. Rep. Walter Kumiega (D-Deer Isle) will return as the House co-chair of the committee and Rep. Stephanie Hawke (R-Boothbay Harbor) is now the ranking Republican. Rep. Mick Devin (D-Newcastle) as well as freshman Reps. Paula Sutton (R-Warren) and Abden Simmons (R-Waldoboro) have also recently been appointed to the committee. 

Miramant & Gillway Appointed to Transportation

Senator David Miramant (Knox Cty.) and Rep. James Gillway (R-Searsport) will be serving on the Transportation Committee, which oversees the Bureau of Motor Vehicles; motor vehicle registration and license plates; driver licenses; funding for roads, the Maine Turnpike Authority; aeronautics; highway and bridge construction and maintenance; highway safety; waterways; railroads and motor carriers; and general transportation policy. 

The Transportation Committee will probably have to deal with the perennial issue of how to fund roads as gas tax revenue has declined in recent years due in part to the prevalence of more fuel-efficient cars. Currently the state charges about 30 cents a gallon, while the federal gas tax is 18.4 cents per gallon. LePage has opposed raising the gas tax in the past, but back in August he complained that hybrid vehicles are getting a “free ride on our roads” because they don’t use as much gas. The governor did not offer any specific proposal, but a new tax on hybrids and EVs would certainly be controversial.

Kinney Back on ACF

Rep. MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox) will return to serve on the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee. Not along ago the ACF Committee was known as a backwater, but in recent years it has been overwhelmed with a number of hot issues involving the regulation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and pesticides as well as milk subsidies and timber harvesting on public lands. The ACF Committee oversees the Department of Agriculture, which handles animal control and welfare; food safety; inspection and labeling; the dairy industry; pesticides regulation; nutrient management and farmland preservation. It also makes policies for the Department of Conservation, which includes state parks, historic sites, public lands, submerged lands, planning for the Unorganized Territories, forest management, health and fire control, the Land for Maine’s Future Program and Baxter State Park. 

The recently passed marijuana legalization referendum puts pot regulation under the purview of ACF, but LePage is proposing to put it under the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations (BABLO). It will be up to legislative leadership to decide under which committee responsibility for the new rules for marijuana sales, cultivation and production will land, but they could end up in the Veterans & Legal Affairs Committee, which oversees BABLO.

Casas Appointed to Veterans & Legal Affairs

Rep. Owen D. Casas (I-Rockport) will serve on the Veterans & Legal Affairs Committee. VLA oversees liquor laws, gambling, election and campaign finance laws, harness racing, voter registration; initiatives and referenda; governmental ethics; lobbyist registration; landlord-tenant laws; veterans’ programs; Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management Services; BABLO and Maine National Guard. 

VLA will likely hear a proposal by the governor to make it more difficult to collect signatures for citizen referendums by forcing petition gatherers to collect a certain number of signatures from every county in the state. With the governor vetoing every progressive reform that comes across his desk, citizen referendums have become the only way to pass politically popular legislation, such as the minimum-wage increases, public campaign financing, taxing the wealthy and legalizing marijuana.  

Zeigler Goes to Environment & Natural Resources

Freshman Rep. Stanley Paige Zeigler (D-Montville) has been appointed to the Environment and Natural Resources Committee. ENR oversees the Department of Environmental Protection and makes policies governing air and water quality; natural resource protection; site location of development laws, shoreland zoning, subdivisions and growth management; management and disposal of solid, hazardous, biomedical and special wastes; hydropower and dams; waste-to-energy facilities; mining; recycling and most other environmental policies. One of the most important issues ENR will consider this year is the DEP’s controversial set of proposed rules to make it easier for companies to mine for metallic minerals. 

Sanderson Back on Health and Human Services

Rep. Deb Sanderson (R-Chelsea) will once again be the ranking House Republican on the Health and Human Services Committee. One of the most powerful committees, HHS oversees the largest part of the budget, which includes MaineCare, Medicaid, and Medicare Part D; children’s welfare and mental health services; childcare; public health and disease control; tobacco addiction prevention and control; sale of tobacco; prescription drugs; hospitals and clinics; social and rehabilitation services; substance abuse; mental health; developmental and other disabilities; poverty, homelessness and public assistance; home and community-based long-term care; aging, elderly and disability issues; medical use of marijuana; maternal and infant health; and nursing facilities and residential care.

The committee will likely consider several more Republican measures to cut assistance to the poor and asylum seekers as well as new proposals to change the medical marijuana program. Democrats and the LePage administration are also likely to clash over the administration’s proposed lower-rate reimbursements to nonprofit organizations that provide services to adults with various developmental disabilities. With the ongoing opiate addiction crisis, funding for drug treatment will probably also be on the agenda.

Beebe-Center & Spear on State & Local Government

Reps. Pinny Beebe-Center (D-Rockland) and John Spear (D-South Thomaston) have been appointed to the State and Local Government Committee, which makes policies governing state contracts and fiscal procedures; state government organization; oversight of state officials, state employees and property; administrative procedures; boards and commissions; notaries public;  county and regional government; county budget process; Legislature; municipal and local government; and public services. In the old days, leadership would exile legislators to the State and Local Committee as a form of punishment for various infractions, but that doesn’t appear to happen as much these days. 

Sutton Appointed to Government Oversight Committee

Rep. Paula G. Sutton (R-Warren) has also been appointed to the Government Oversight Committee, which oversees independent reviews of state programs and governmental ethics issues. Last year, the GOC Committee made headlines for several months after it ordered an investigation into Gov. LePage’s decision to withhold funding to Good Will-Hinckley in order to force the firing of former House Speaker Mark Eves as its president.