Eye on Augusta: A New Legislative Session, Some Old Bills
Thursday, December 31, 2015 10:58 AM
On January 6, the Maine Legislature will return to Augusta for another session of partisan wrangling. With the workload lighter, the biennial budget in the can, and legislators eager to hit the campaign trail, lawmakers could easily finish their work by the second week of April. Of course, that depends on how feisty the governor is this coming year.
In addition to a bipartisan bill to fund drug treatment, two Republican senators have announced that they will once again push to accept millions of dollars in federal funding to expand health care coverage to 70,000 low-income Mainers. Although LePage has already vetoed Medicaid expansion five times, Sen. Roger Katz (R-Augusta) and Sen. Tom Saviello (R-Frankin County) say they believe that the opiate epidemic has changed the conversation, because so many uninsured people with addictions can’t afford to get treatment.
“The landscape has changed,” Katz told the Portland Press Herald last week. “Everyone realizes that we need to be putting more money into treatment resources. Why not have the federal government pay for most of it?”
However, both LePage and Senate President Mike Thibodeau (R-Waldo County) remain stubbornly opposed to accepting the money despite recent moves by other Republican governors to take it. In his weekly address, LePage slammed the proposal, calling Katz and Saviello “two liberal politicians” who are “shamelessly tying [Medicaid expansion] to more treatment programs for addicts.”
“We have vetoed Medicaid expansion five times, and we will veto it every time electioneering politicians try to bring it up,” he said. “It was the wrong thing to do then, and it’s the wrong thing to do now. It’s time to send dishonest and deceptive politicians home for good.”
Maine is one of 19 states, most of which are in the South or out West, that still have refused to expand Medicaid.
Of course, Medicaid expansion isn’t the only repeat the Legislature will consider in January. Below are a few of the other bills that midcoast legislators submitted last year but will be voted on during the coming session.
Measure to Weaken Renewable Energy Incentives
The Energy Utilities and Technology Committee will once again consider Sen. Mike Thibodeau’s bill to weaken state incentives to produce renewable power. LD 1339 would suspend the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards (RPS) if standard-offer electricity rates for residential customers hits 10 cents per kilowatt hour. Currently, the standard-offer rate for the residential and small-business class is 6.5 cents per kilowatt hour. Maine’s RPS law requires that utilities purchase at least 30 percent of the state’s energy from renewable sources, including wind, solar, biomass and hydro. In 2014, three-fifths of the state’s net electricity generation came from renewable energy resources — with 27 percent from biomass, 25 percent from hydro, and 8 percent from wind, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Thibodeau and Gov. LePage have made it a priority to scale back the RPS law because they claim it has led to higher energy costs. The total cost of RPS is about 35 cents a month for the average residential ratepayer. According to the Office of the Public Advocate, Maine residents pay about 62 cents a month on their bill for all of the state’s renewable energy policies that help subsidize wind, solar and biomass. Environmental groups and the Public Advocate oppose Thibodeau’s proposal on the grounds that the measure is not likely to lower rates in any meaningful way and would create uncertainty for businesses investing in local renewable power.
Using Maine Yankee Funds to Lower Energy Costs
The EUT Committee will also take up LD 1382, sponsored by Sen. Chris Johnson (D-Lincoln County), which would divert settlement funds from the former Maine Yankee nuclear power plant to a special fund to reduce heating costs for low-income electricity ratepayers. The Wiscasset facility ceased producing power in 1996, but it continues to store 550 metric tons of spent fuel in dry casks at the facility because the federal government has failed to live up to its obligation to remove it. The company estimates that ratepayers pay about $9 million per year through their electric bills to cover the costs of storing the toxic waste.
In 2013, the company was awarded nearly $119 million after successfully suing the federal Department of Energy in an effort to recoup the storage costs. Because CMP owns 38 percent of the company, CMP customers are receiving 38 percent of the awards, which come in gradual installments over several years.
The settlements help to reimburse storage costs by lowering electric rates and allowing investment in energy-efficiency measures. However, Johnson insists the funds should be diverted to specifically reduce heating costs for homes. In testimony last May, CMP noted that 16,383 CMP customers were more than $3 million behind in their electric payments. It recommended that the settlement funds continue to be used to bring down electric costs, perhaps targeted to low-income ratepayers. Last July, Maine Yankee and two other nuclear power companies filed a third round of litigation to recoup storage costs for the years 2009-2012. A decision is expected in February. The EUT Committee carried over Johnson’s bill to this coming session because it was unknown at the time how much in settlement funds would be available pending the court decision.
The Farm Bonds
The Legislature will also take up about 25 different bond proposals that would borrow millions of dollars for a myriad of projects including everything from road repairs, affordable housing and high-speed Internet to expanding rail service, reducing student debt and increasing research and development funding. Sen. Chris Johnson has submitted two bond proposals that aim to boost the state’s agricultural sector. LD 386 would provide $5 million for farmland restoration. LD 387 would borrow $6 million for the Agricultural Marketing Loan Fund to provide financing for agricultural enterprises as well as for the Local Produce Fund to encourage the use of local farm products in public schools.
Sanderson’s Patient Compensation System Act
The Judiciary Committee is expected to again take up Rep. Deb Sanderson’s (R-Chelsea) bill to establish a state “Patient Compensation System” that would allow a person who has suffered a medical injury to receive compensation outside of the court system. Under LD 1311, the plan would be modeled after the worker’s compensation system and would be governed by a board of medical, legal, patient and business representatives. It would establish three offices within the system to review medical claims and award compensation, as well as two committees to provide guidance in the selection of medical review panelists and the design of compensation schedules. It would be funded by fees paid by physicians participating in the system.
Power of Attorney Over Minors Having an Abortion
Under Maine law, a parent or guardian of a minor or incapacitated person may delegate to another person the power of attorney regarding care, custody or property of the minor child for up to a year. The Judiciary Committee will likely reconsider 1065, sponsored by Rep. Deb Sanderson, which would limit the power of attorney in providing consent for abortion procedures for the child or incapacitated person. The bill would clarify that executing power of attorney does not deprive the parent or guardian of any legal authority regarding care or custody of the child. It would also provide that the agent with the power of attorney may not receive compensation.
“The fear of losing their children prevents many families from coming out of the shadows to ask for help until it is too late,” said Sanderson in testimony last April. “LD 1065 removes this fear and gives families a resource to ask for help BEFORE their problems get out of control and OCFS has to step in.”
However, Susan Lamb of the National Association of Social Workers said her organization opposes the bill because “it denies the parent or guardian the right to act in the best interest of the minor or incapacitated person as that parent or guardian sees fit with regard to the need for an abortion.” She said the proposal would favor the state making an assumption that in such cases the minor or incapacitated person is always best served by carrying the pregnancy to full term. Said Lamb, “We believe that this law, if passed, would put the state where it does not belong: in the middle of family decision-making with absolutely no plan for the consequences of such an action.”
Making Drunk Drivers Pay
The Insurance and Financial Affairs Committee will vote on a measure sponsored by Sen. Mike Thibodeau that would require drunk drivers who cause an accident to be liable up to $2,500 for the costs of the emergency response. In support of LD 944 last April, Thibodeau said it was appropriate to charge drivers for the emergency services because drunk driving accidents are avoidable. He noted that other states, including California, Illinois, Michigan, Texas and Virginia, have adopted similar legislation.
Environmentally Friendly Insulation Materials
The Environment and Natural Resources Committee will again take up LD 1286, sponsored by Sen. Chris Johnson, that would require the the use of insulation with a low global-warming potential for all state-funded new building construction and substantial renovations of existing buildings. Supporters of the bill noted that blowing agents commonly used in spray foam insulation can emit global-warming pollutants for up to 60 years. Jonathan Fulford, owner of the Monroe-based construction company Artisan Builders, told the committee that his company has been building energy-efficient homes for many years using cleaner insulation alternatives that cost about the same as insulation with higher global-warming potential.
For a schedule of committee hearings and votes, go to www.mainelegislature.org/legis/calendar/.