Eye on Augusta: Legislative Leaders Set Priorities: Drugs, Guns & Bonds
Wednesday, November 25, 2015 1:02 PM
The Legislative Council met on Nov. 19 to consider appeals of bills it rejected last month. (Photo by Andi Parkinson)
After another round of bill vetting in Augusta last week, it appears that drugs, guns and bonds will top the agenda when the Legislature returns in January. Due to the short length of the upcoming four-month session, legislative leaders typically only accept “emergency bills” and so far they have agreed to allow in 82 new bills of the 400 submitted this year. There are also 176 bills that have been carried over from last session and 20 bills submitted by state agencies.
Last week, the 10-member Legislative Council, which is evenly split between Democratic and Republican leaders, killed several appeals to reconsider bills on 5-5 party-line votes. With an election year brewing, a number of the initiatives were partisan “messaging bills” that had no chance of passing. Others likely died as a result of the rank polarization that has infected Augusta in recent years.
Calling Up National Guard Troops on December 10
Nevertheless, legislative leaders found some common ground on five prevention, treatment and drug enforcement bills to address the opiate epidemic. One bill sponsored by Sen. Scott Cyrway (R-Kennebec) would increase sentences for interstate drug trafficking. Another, sponsored by Sen. David Woodsome (R-York County) and submitted in response to two clinics having recently closed after citing Maine’s low reimbursement rates, would increase the level of MaineCare reimbursement for outpatient methadone treatment.
But the bills may not arrive soon enough for the governor, who has given the Legislature until December 10 to provide him with additional funding to hire more drug enforcement agents. If legislative leaders don’t call a special session in the next few weeks to meet his demand, LePage has said he will call out the National Guard. It’s not clear what the governor would do with the Guard, as the soldiers are not allowed to act in a police capacity, and it’s also not known where the governor would get the money to pay them.
The governor still has not met with Senate President Mike Thibodeau (R-Waldo County) since Thibodeau came out in opposition to LePage’s tax reform plan last spring. However, last week, Thibodeau and Speaker Mark Eves (D-North Berwick) met with Public Safety Commissioner John Morris and Drug Enforcement Agency Director Roy McKinney to discuss the governor’s proposal.
“I think that the agents are justified,” said Thibodeau. “But the reality is, in order to get buy-in, we need to have a package that also deals with more funding for treatment.”
Thibodeau added that while leaders are unlikely to call a special session to vote on a drug enforcement bill, he believed that the governor is just looking for a commitment from legislative leaders before the December deadline. He said he also had no idea what the governor has in mind for the National Guard to do.
LePage has said he already has members of the Guard providing analytical support at the state’s secretive Maine Information and Analysis Center (MIAC) in its drug enforcement efforts. Civil liberties groups have criticized the “fusion centers” for their secrecy, lack of government oversight, potential violations of privacy, targeting of various activist groups and unrestrained ability to data mine. Republicans on the Legislative Council rejected a bill sponsored by Rep. Charlotte Warren (D-Hallowell) that would have authorized an oversight committee to access information concerning MIAC’s work.
Midcoast Cases Inspire Gun Bills
The Legislative Council voted 6-4 to accept a bill to prohibit a landlord who receives public funds for rent from prohibiting a tenant from possessing a firearm. The bill’s sponsor, Assistant Senate Majority Leader Andre Cushing (R-Penobscot), said he submitted the bill after reading about 67-year-old retired lobsterman Harvey Lembo who shot an intruder who was attempting to steal his prescription drugs at his subsidized Park Street apartment in Rockland. According to press reports, Lembo ordered the burglar to sit on the coffee table, but while he was calling 911, the intruder bolted for the door. Lembo shot him in the shoulder as he was getting away.
Lembo was forced to give up his gun because the management company that operates his housing complex prohibits firearms. He is currently seeking a permanent injunction against the apartment companies Park Place Associates and Stanford Management LLC prohibiting the complex from evicting him for owning a firearm.
The Legislative Council also voted 6-4 to reject a measure that would require criminal history background checks for all private sales and transfers of handguns. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bobbi Beavers (D-South Berwick), called her bill a “common sense” reform that could have prevented the death of 22-year-old Chelsea Jones of Thomaston, who died after being shot in the head by her fiancé during a private gun sale in a Shaw’s parking lot in Bath. Her boyfriend Dylan Grubbs, 23, claimed the gun accidentally discharged as he was showing the gun to a potential buyer.
Last month, the council also voted 7-3 to block a measure sponsored by Sen. Dave Miramant (D-Knox) that would require anyone purchasing a firearm to present proof that they had taken a firearm safety course. The panel also rejected a similar bill submitted by Rep. Mick Devin (D-Newcastle) and blocked Rep. Anne Beebe-Center’s (D-Rockland) bill to allow towns to prohibit firearms in areas frequented by minors.
“Release the Bonds” Bills Return
Earlier this month, $6.5 million in voter-approved Land for Maine’s Future bonds expired because the governor refused to release them. The Legislative Council voted to accept a bill to reauthorize the issuance of those bonds and another one sponsored by Sen. Roger Katz (R-Augusta) that would also ensure that those bonds are issued and funds are transferred. House Republican Leader Ken Fredette (R-Newport) indicated that he would support reauthorizing the bonds, but last session House Republicans defeated a Katz-sponsored bill that would have forced the governor to release them. LePage has said he won’t release the bonds until the Legislature approves his proposal to use revenue from timber harvesting on public reserve lands for low-income heating assistance.
Roads & Schools or Tax Cuts for the Wealthy?
Democrats submitted a number of bills that would open a surplus account created by the Republicans to lower the income tax, and use it for road repairs, schools, low-income heating assistance and to reduce the waiting lists for non-medical services for 1,000 seniors and people with mental and physical disabilities. LePage and Republicans have often used the waiting list as a justification for not accepting $300 million from the federal government to expand Medicaid for 70,000 low-income Mainers.
All of the Democratic bills were swiftly axed by Republican leaders in party-line 5-5 votes. In a statement, House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe noted that Gov. LePage wants to use timber harvesting revenue from public lands to fund low-income heating assistance. McCabe argued that his bill would accomplish the same goal by using the surplus revenues that are being set aside to reduce taxes for the wealthy.
“Do Mainers want to use these funds to provide a tax break to the wealthiest Mainers that will mean higher property and sales for the rest of us?” said McCabe. “How can we justify that when there are so many other pressing needs, like the ones addressed by each of these bills? I agree with the governor that heating assistance for needy families is a top priority. Here was a way to provide that without harming public lands as his unsustainable and possibly unconstitutional timber harvesting plan would do.”
Republicans also killed a bill that would have dedicated surplus revenue from the state liquor contract to fund local schools. Recently, the state announced that liquor revenues had far exceeded projections. While $450 million of the revenues was earmarked to pay off the state’s hospital debt, the state now has an additional $9.7 million in the first year of its new contract.
“The governor and the GOP have hatched a scheme to provide a windfall to the wealthy. The budget hole they would create would be so big that it would swallow up all state funding for local schools, higher education and more,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. John Martin (D-Eagle Lake). “Instead of shifting the tax burden to everyday Mainers and their communities, it would be better to put money in classrooms to benefit our kids and our state’s economy.”
In response to the comments, Thibodeau said, “That account has been set up to lower the tax burden on all Mainers and to simply go in and take that money to fund programs is something that I’m hesitant to do, and I’m not sure that these bills rise to the level of an emergency.”
Rep. Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford) also submitted a bill to put stricter oversight on the controversial New Markets Tax Credit program that the investment group Cate Street Capital manipulated with the promise of investing it in the ailing Great Northern Paper mill in Millinocket. Long after the mill went defunct, the complex scheme left taxpayers on the hook to pay the investors $16 million in tax refunds, none of which was ever invested in the bankrupt mill. Fecteau’s bill would have directed the governor and tax assessor to recapture tax credits associated with “sham” transactions. It would also designate the Finance Authority of Maine as the owner of the tax credits, rather than community development entities, which Fecteau said would help ensure that New Markets projects actually create jobs. Republicans unanimously voted against allowing the measure to be heard.
Paid Sick Leave Bill Blocked
Approximately 200,000 Maine workers can’t earn one paid sick day a year, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families. Last week, Republicans blocked a bill sponsored by Sen. Anne Haskell (D-Portland) that would require employers of 11 or more employees to allow employees to earn 56 hours of paid sick time.
“This bill is desperately needed by the thousands of Maine people who are working full-time and playing by the rules, but can be set back for months or even years because of an unexpected illness or injury,” Haskell said in a statement. “Without paid sick leave, workers not only lose pay, but face potential disciplinary action or even firing for calling in sick.”
Planned Parenthood Defunding Bill Dies
On a 5-5 vote, Democrats blocked a bill to eliminate funding for the women’s health organization Planned Parenthood. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox), said she submitted the bill in response to the release of a heavily edited online video produced by an anti-abortion group that implies Planned Parenthood is profiting from abortions. The secret video showed Deborah Nucatola, the senior director of medical services at PP, discussing how to procure fetal tissue from abortions for medical research. However, the parts of the video in which Nucatola points out that fetal tissue donations are not a profit-making venture and that the fees its clinics charge only cover costs were excised from the version circulated online.
The Mack Point Bills
Thibodeau and the Republican leaders also successfully blocked a measure that would have required the Army Corps of Engineers to submit an environmental impact statement before any dredging is done in Searsport Harbor at Mack Point. It also would have required that dredging be done in the least environmentally and economically damaging manner possible. In September the proposal to deepen and widen Searsport Harbor to increase shipping, then dispose of the 892,000 cubic yards of dredge spoils in pockmarks at the bottom of Belfast Bay, was put officially on hold.
Rep. Chuck Kruger (D-Thomaston), the bill’s sponsor, said the impact assessment is needed because he is concerned that mercury from the former HoltraChem site in Orrington and other manufacturing industries on the Penobscot River will be dredged up and dumped in lobster breeding grounds.
“The handful of jobs that the dredging project would support are not worth risking the lobster fishery — the only thriving fishery resource that remains in Penobscot Bay and the Gulf of Maine,” said Kruger. “We must protect the livelihoods and coastal economies that rely on our lobster fishery by making sure dredging takes place in the most careful manner possible.”
Thibodeau said the bill was not needed because he believed the Department of Transportation and the Army Corps of Engineers are already addressing environmental concerns.
Meanwhile, Rep. Ken Fredette’s bill to authorize a $15 million bond to invest in marine transportation and port infrastructure at Mack Point remains tabled in the Legislative Council. Thibodeau said the measure would allow the port to transport offshore wind turbines that are being developed by the University of Maine-led consortium Maine Aqua Ventus.
Marine Resources & Fisheries Bills
Rep. Mick Devin (D-Newcastle) was unsuccessful in gaining approval for his bill to require the Department of Marine Resources to adopt rules to regulate the harvest of periwinkles. The measure would have included limits on the size and volume of periwinkles harvested and the time and location of the harvest. Devin told the council that periwinkles are in danger of being overharvested by the hundreds of mostly poor fishermen who pick them at low tide.
“They’re being overharvested at an alarming rate,” said Devin, who is also a marine biologist. “Their reproduction is such that you need to have a minimum of adults in order for them to reproduce successfully. There is very little management of them now and we need to get involved, we need to get ahead of the game, or we’re going to have a situation like sea urchins which started to collapse back in 1994.”
Devin said that in 1994, the sea urchin fishery supported 5,000 jobs, but now supports less than 500 jobs.