Eye on Augusta: Mining, Israel Boycotters, Family Leave, Water Rights & Many More Bills
Thursday, March 16, 2017 11:12 AM
Next Monday, March 20, the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee will take up the Le-Page administration’s third attempt to weaken regulations on open-pit mining in Maine. The bill, LD 395, is the result of a powerful lobbying effort by the Canadian firm J.D. Irving, which needs the rule revisions to allow it to begin extracting precious minerals on Bald Mountain in northwest Aroostook County.
Deposits of gold, silver, copper and zinc were discovered at Bald Mountain in 1977, but the Legislature passed strict environmental regulations for mining in 1991, making it “virtually impossible” to exploit the precious metals, according to J.D. Irving. The company argues that more advanced technologies have since made the process much safer. Open-pit mining requires the removal of soil and rock above the targeted mineral deposit, followed by blasting and excavating, and then crushing, grinding and processing the ore to remove the precious minerals.
Speaking to the Board of Environmental Protection, which ultimately recommended adopting the rule change, Department of Environmental Protection Deputy Commissioner Melanie Loyzim said last September that the rule revisions would improve safeguards against groundwater contamination and clarify regulations for potential mining companies.
The proposed mining rules include blasting standards, financial assurance that cleanup costs will be paid for by the company, a water-quality-monitoring plan and plans for the management of excavation and processing waste. The rules state that municipalities would also have the right to regulate and control mining activities. The proposal would prohibit the removal of ore “in, on or under great ponds, rivers, brooks and streams, and coastal wetlands.” Mining would also be prohibited within a certain distance of national and state parks; national wilderness areas; national wildlife refuges; the Allagash Wilderness Waterway; state-owned wildlife management areas; state or national historic sites; and rivers designated as critical habitat for Atlantic salmon.
However, environmental groups, including Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM), fear that the rule revisions will leave ground and surface water vulnerable to toxic mine run-off as the mine would contain high levels of arsenic and sulfuric acid.
“Once again, Maine people are speaking up in overwhelming numbers against mining rules that won’t protect Maine’s environment or taxpayers,” said NRCM staff scientist Nick Bennett in a statement. “Mainers are deeply concerned about mining pollution and about having to pay to clean up mining company disasters. These rules will not protect Maine’s clean water or its taxpayers.”
Also on March 20, the ENR Committee will hear a number of bills that would strengthen mining rules. LD 820, sponsored by former NRCM executive director-turned Senator Brownie Carson (D-Cumberland Cty.), would prohibit mining under lakes, rivers, streams, wetlands, floodplains, state historic sites, state parks, public reserved lands, submerged land or state-owned wildlife management areas and the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. The bill would also provide stricter regulations on mining discharges and would require mining companies to provide financial assurance for a “worst-case catastrophic mining event or failure.”
Sen. Tom Saviello (R-Franklin Cty.) will introduce a similar bill (LD 580) that would prohibit mining in sensitive areas; limit the allowance for groundwater contamination; and require financial assurance in case of a disaster. Saviello’s bill would also establish a total prohibition on metallic mineral mining if the DEP fails to adopt rules for mining before August 2018. LD 160, sponsored by Rep. Bob Duchesne (D-Hudson), would prohibit the DEP from issuing a mining permit to applicants seeking to mine metallic mineral ore deposit that contains a massive sulfide ore deposit of 1 million tons or more of metallic minerals. Longtime mining opponent Rep. Ralph Chapman (D-Brooksville) will present LD 253, which would repeal the 2012 law that directs the DEP to revise mining standards.
Sen. Dow’s Proposal to Repeal Question 2
Sen. Dana Dow (R-Lincoln Cty.) will lead the charge to repeal the new 3-percent surtax on households earning over $200,000 per year — the surtax is just on the part of the income that exceeds $200,000 — to be used to fund the cost of schools at 55 percent, at a hearing in the Taxation Committee on March 20. Dow has argued publicly that the new 3-percent tax would prevent businesses from expanding, hinder job growth and deter wealthier professionals like doctors from wanting to move to Maine. Dow’s bill, LD 571, would eliminate the 3-percent surcharge and replace it with other revenue sources, such as taxing short-term rentals like Airbnb, recreational marijuana, online sales from out-of-state companies like Amazon.com as well as any surplus revenue the state accrues as the economy improves.
“We have heard the people’s message loud and clear in Augusta; funding our schools will continue to be a top priority,” said Dow. “But we can’t reach this goal off the backs of Maine’s employers and small businesses. That’s why I’ve proposed a bill to eliminate this new income tax and instead use other forms of tax revenue to achieve our 55% funding goal for education.”
It’s not known yet how much Dow’s alternative revenue sources will generate and if they will equal the estimated $142 million in additional revenue that Question 2 will bring in. On the Democratic side, Sen. Bill Diamond’s (D-Cumberland Cty.) bill (LD 829) would increase the income threshhold for the 3-percent tax from $200,000 to households earning over $300,000 per year for taxpayers filing as heads of households and to $400,000 for taxpayers filing married joint returns or surviving spouses permitted to file a joint return. Under Diamond’s bill, the 3-percent tax would still apply to single individuals and married people filing separate returns.
Boycotting Israel Boycotters
In recent years, a global movement known as Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) has been gaining momentum in its efforts to mobilize the international community against the state of Israel for its occupation of Palestinian land and discrimination against Palestinian people. Modeled on the South African anti-apartheid movement, BDS aims to pressure Israel to comply with international law through boycott and divestment strategies. However, according to the Jerusalem Post, one fundamentalist Christian lawmaker from South Carolina has managed to inspire 12 states to pass bills that prohibit companies who boycott Israel from getting government contracts.
On March 22, Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason (R-Androscoggin Cty.) will present to the State and Local Committee LD 882, which would prohibit all public entities from boycotting the State of Israel. The bill would require recipients of all state contracts and grants to certify that they will not boycott Israel for the duration of the grant or contract. However, under Mason’s proposal, if they bid 20 percent below the lowest bidder for a state contract, they can get the job and still boycott Israel.
HHS Welfare Surplus
Last year, a Bangor Daily News investigation revealed that the Maine Department of Health and Human Services illegally diverted millions of dollars of unspent federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds.After the story broke, the LePage administration reversed the diversion. On March 20, the Health and Human Services Committee will hear LD 567, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Parker (D-South Berwick), which would require DHHS to spend federal funds within one year of receiving the money except when the time frame for expenditure is specified otherwise by the federal government.
The committee will also hear LD 262, sponsored by Rep. Ralph Chapman (D-Brookville), which would allow the transfer of public assistance and other benefits to a family’s relative who takes care of a child when the child’s parent or guardian is unable to provide care for the child. And Catherine Nadeau (D-Winslow) will introduce a bill (LD 335) that would require DHHS to cover 100 percent of child-care expenses incurred by an adult relative guardian of a child if the guardian is 60 years or older and has an annual income of $50,000 or less. The bill would also prohibit the department from requiring that the guardian be employed a minimum number of hours per week in order to receive the reimbursement.
Community Water Rights
Last year, Maine’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of the bottled water manufacturer Poland Spring in a suit alleging that the company’s 25-year contract with Fryeburg Water Co. went beyond the authority of the water district’s charter and deprived the district of future oversight, according to the Portland Press Herald. The newspaper reported that the contract gives the Nestle subsidiary leasing rights to extract up to 603,000 gallons of water per day at the same rate as Fryeburg residents. At the time, Nisha Swinton of the group Food and Water Watch, which brought the suit, told the Portland Press Herald that the decision “paves the way for a private corporation to profit from a vital public resource for decades to come.”
On March 22, Rep. Mike Sylvester (D-Portland) will present a bill (LD 422) that would impose a two-year moratorium on new contracts by a consumer-owned utility, municipality or other governmental entity involving the extraction of more than 75,000 gallons of groundwater during any week or more than 50,000 gallons of groundwater on any day. The measure — which will be heard by the Energy, Utilities & Technology Committee — also calls for the creation of the “Maine Water Trust,” an agency that would be responsible for ensuring Mainers have access to a “safe and plentiful drinking water supply” by regulating the use of groundwater for commercial purposes “under laws that establish the absolute control and dominion of the state over all groundwater supplies in the state.”
“As municipality after municipality struggles with the issue of commercial extraction of water, it was time to ask what the state’s role is in bringing all the people to the table to make sure that we maintain plentiful, clean water that’s brought to us through clean pipes,” said Sylvester. “Needing clean water crosses county lines and party lines. To vote against this bill means abdicating the state’s role in setting good economic and environmental policy.”
More GOP Referendum Bills
Another week and another flurry of Republican bills to revise the citizen referendum process.
On March 20, the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will hear a constitutional amendment (LD 796), sponsored by Rep. Harold Stewart (R-Presque Isle), which would require that the number of signatures required to put a direct initiative on the ballot be at least 10 percent of the total vote for governor in each county in the last election, rather than 10 percent, or 61,000 signatures, in the entire state, as it is under current law.
The committee will also hear LD 883, sponsored by Sen. Tom Saviello (R-Franklin Cty.), which would require petition gatherers for direct initiatives be paid at least $25 per signature. Maine once had a law banning paid signature gatherers, but it was struck down in a 1999 court decision. According to the Portland Press Herald, referendum campaigns generally pay $1 to $2 per signature, but last year’s controversial York County casino campaign paid $10 per signature. Either Saviello is concerned about the plight of signature gatherers, or he’s trying to make it more expensive to launch a referendum campaign.
Then the committee will hear LD 906, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Timberlake (R-Turner), which would require referendum petition circulators to provide a paper copy of the full text of a proposed referendum along with the cost of the measure. The bill would require circulators to give voters time to read the full text before signing the petition rather than just the bill’s summary, as is required by current law. Timberlake will also present a separate bill to require the full text of a direct initiative to be printed on the ballot. Gov. Paul LePage has argued that voters didn’t understand the referendums when they voted on bills to legalize recreational marijuana, increase the minimum wage and tax the wealthy because the actual bills attached to the ballot questions were so long.
Finally, Sen. Geoff Gratwick (D-Penobscot Cty.) will introduce a measure (LD 813) that would require that election clerks in towns be selected in a way that 33 percent of them are Republicans, 33 percent are Democrats and the other 34 percent are unaffiliated with either major party.
Under Maine law, when a child is taken away from a parent and put into foster care, the low-income parent can lose his/her MaineCare eligibility. Sen. Ben Chipman (D-Cumberland Cty.) has sponsored LD 451, which would require DHHS to continue to provide MaineCare coverage to a parent who is a MaineCare member and who is participating in rehabilitation and reunification efforts with the child. The bill, which will be heard on March 20, requires the department to continue coverage until the discontinuance of reunification efforts or parental rights are terminated.
Student Drivers & Texting Behind the Wheel
Under current law, drivers under 18 are first issued intermediary licenses which limit young drivers to only transport immediate family members and prohibits the use of cell phones while driving and driving between midnight and 5 a.m. for at least 270 days. On March 21, the Transportation Committee will hear a number of bills attempting to revise the intermediary license law. LD 436, sponsored by Rep. Dean Rykerson (D-Kittery), would allow high school students under 18 who hold an intermediary driver’s license to drive between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m. if it’s for a school-sanctioned activity.
Rep. Harold Stewart (R-Presque Isle) will present LD 709, which would allow the Secretary of State to waive up to 90 days of the 270-day period of intermediary license restrictions if the waiver application is signed by a parent or guardian or signed by the spouse of the minor if the spouse is over 18.
Rep. MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox) will present LD 711, which would increase from 6 to 12 months the amount of time a driver under 21 must hold a learner’s permit. The bill would only allow intermediary driver’s license holders to transport parents and siblings and would prohibit them from driving after 9 p.m. rather than midnight.
Other bills include LD 649, which would allow charitable nonprofit organizations to stop traffic to solicit a contribution on a town way, and LD 120, which would increase the penalty for text messaging while driving to a 90-day license suspension. Under current law, the penalty is a $100 fine, which is increased with each subsequent offense.
Credit Card Fees & Interest Rates
Over in the Insurance and Financial Affairs Committee on March 21, Sen. Rodney Whittemore (R-Somerset Cty.) will introduce LD 660, which would repeal the law that prohibits retailers from imposing a surcharge on credit or debit card transactions. Assistant House Republican Leader Ellie Espling (R-New Gloucester) will also present a bill (LD 920) that would cap credit card interest rates at 18 percent. While Maine does not have explicit usury laws, Maine’s Consumer Credit Statute caps interest rates at 30 percent per year for unpaid balances of less than $1,000, 21 percent for unpaid balances between $1,000 and $2,800 and 15 percent per year for unpaid balances of more than $2,800.
Jury Duty Exemption Bills
Current law exempts a number of individuals from having to serve on juries, including the governor, judges, physicians and dentists providing active patient care, veterinarians with or in an active veterinary medicine practice, sheriffs, attorneys at law and members of the armed forces on active duty. On March 21, the Judiciary Committee will hear LD 111, sponsored by Rep. Stephen Stanley (D-Medway), which would allow people over 70 years of age to opt out of jury duty. The committee will also hear LD 11, sponsored by Rep. BettyAnn Sheats (D-Auburn), which would exempt nurse practitioners providing active care from jury duty.
Exempting Lawyers from State Requirements
The Judiciary Committee will also hear a measure that will allow attorneys who have practiced law in other states to be allowed to practice law in Maine without complying with the qualifications for admission to practice law. LD 644, sponsored by Rep. Stedman Seavey (R-Kennebunkport), would require attorneys who haven’t met state qualifications to disclose in writing to clients that they have not met state qualifications to practice law. And Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Androscoggin Cty.) will present LD 663, which would allow attorneys employed by the state to take on pro-bono legal work that doesn’t create a conflict of interest with the attorney’s work for the state. The proposal retains provisions in current law that prohibit the Attorney General and family law magistrates from engaging in the private practice of law.
Funding for Homeless Women Veterans Shelter
On March 22, the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will hear a measure (LD 792) sponsored by Rep. BettyAnne Sheats (D-Auburn) that would provide a one-time allotment of funds to the Betsy Ann Ross House of Hope to provide suitable housing for women veterans in transition and their families. The shelter in Augusta is scheduled to open this year and aims to provide support for women suffering from PTSD and military sexual trauma as wells as job readiness training, assistance in getting services and finding opportunities for education and employment.
(Likely) Unconstitutional Campaign Finance Bill
On the same day, VLA will also hear LD 794, sponsored by Rep. Kathleen Dillingham (R-Oxford), that would limit political spending by independent groups in local campaigns to $7,500 for governor, $5,000 for state senator and $2,500 for state representative. According to the Legislature’s Office of Fiscal and Program Review, the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices has indicated that there would likely be a lawsuit filed challenging the constitutionality of the bill if it’s passed. A number of Supreme Court decisions, including the controversial 2010 Citizens United case, have ruled that money is protected free speech and cannot be limited in campaigns.
New Tribal Rep & Indigenous Peoples’ Day
Maine currently has four federally recognized Native American tribes — the Penobscots, the Passamaquoddy, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and the Aroostook Band of Mic Macs. However, only the Penobscots, Passamaquoddies and Maliseets have a tribal representative in the Maine Legislature. On March 22, Sen. Michael Carpenter (D-Aroostook Cty.) will present a measure (LD 890) to allow the Aroostook Band of Mic Macs to send a tribal representative to the Legislature. Tribal reps serve in an advisory manner and cannot vote. Rep. Scott Haman (D-South Portland) will also introduce a bill (LD 914) that would rename Columbus Day “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.” Currently, that day is celebrated in Alaska and South Dakota as well as 22 cities, including Belfast, Maine.
More Head Start Funding
Also on March 22, the Education Committee will consider a measure sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Millett (D-Cumberland Cty.) that would appropriate nearly $2.6 million more per year for Head Start, a state and federally funded program that provides education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to income-eligible children under 5 and their families. There are currently about 3,243 Maine children enrolled in Head Start, according to the federal office of the Administration for Children and Families.
Lysosomal Storage Disorder Screenings
The Health and Human Services Committee will hear LD 265, sponsored by Rep. Chris Johansen (R-Monticello), which would require newborns to be screened for lysosomal storage disorders, known as Krabbe, Pompe, Gaucher, Fabry and Niemann-Pick diseases. The bill also directs the state to explore options to contract with other states to test samples collected for lysosomal storage disorders. According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, there is currently no approved treatment for many lysosomal storage diseases.
Testing Breast Density
Rep. Heidi Brooks (D-Lewiston) will present a bill (LD 550) that would require mammography reports to include information regarding breast density. Pre-menopausal women generally have denser breasts than older women, but according to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, women with dense breasts are four to five times more likely to develop breast cancer than women with low breast density.
Decriminalizing Prostitution for Minors
Sen. Amy Volk (R-Cumberland Cty.) will present LD 512, which would effectively decriminalize prostitution for people under age 18, to the Criminal Justice Committee on March 22. California passed a similar law last year in an effort to treat young sex workers as victims rather than criminals. Volk has introduced a number of past bills on curbing sex trafficking of women. The committee will also hear a bill sponsored by Rep. Harold Stewart (R-Presque Isle) that would require a mandatory minimum of 25 years to life sentence for the crime of sex trafficking. Sen. Joyce Maker (R-Washington Cty.) will also present LD 515, which would require a mandatory 20-year sentence for people convicted of gross sexual assault of a victim under 12 years old.
Family Leave Bills
On March 22, the Labor, Commerce and Economic Development Committee will consider a couple of bills aiming to create a system to provide leave for families with children. LD 554, sponsored by Rep. Owen Casás (I-Rockport), would require employers to create a parental leave policy to provide certain full-time employees with “additional flexibility and time to be with their new children, adjust to new family situations and balance professional obligations.”
LD 701, sponsored by Rep. Mattie Daughtry (D-Brunswick), would create a state insurance program that would provide paid leave for persons who qualify for family medical leave. The program would be funded by employee contributions and would provide two-thirds of a person’s average weekly wage or 100 percent of the state average weekly wage for up to six weeks in any 12-month period. Under the proposal, employee contributions would be collected on a sliding scale.
The United States is the only country among 41 nations that does not mandate paid parental leave, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Currently, California, New Jersey and Rhode Island offer paid family and medical leave, which are based on temporary disability insurance programs paid for through a payroll tax.
Addressing the Workforce Shortage
LCRED will also hear a measure sponsored by Sen. Roger Katz (R-Kennebec Cty.) which has a long list of proposals aimed at tackling the impending workforce shortage, including creating a clearinghouse to connect businesses with workers; allowing military training to count towards required training for certain certifications and licenses; establishing workforce training programs for people receiving public assistance; aligning Maine’s system of learning results with technical skills for current employment needs; supporting technical courses in high schools; identifying for middle school and secondary school students career paths that include alternatives that do not require college educations; promoting education programs for seniors to acquire new work skills; eliminating taxes on retirement income and pensions; and getting rid of tax policies that discourage older citizens and retirees from returning to the workforce.
Diverting More Tax Revenue to Towns
For years, Maine towns and cities have been fighting the state for their rightful share of tax revenue. Although the state is required to provide 5 percent of the revenue to municipalities, the LePage administration has cut that amount down to 2 percent. As a result, many towns have been forced to raise property taxes to pay for schools and essential services. On March 22, the Taxation Committee will hear a number of bills to address the state’s obligation to fully fund revenue sharing.
LD 133, sponsored by Sen. Shenna Bellows (D-Kennebec Cty.), would incrementally restore revenue sharing year by year until it reaches the full 5 percent after 2019. LD 875, sponsored by Rep. Rich Cebra (R-Naples), would change the formula for distributing revenue sharing so that it is only provided to municipalities with mill rates exceeding 10 mills. Cebra’s proposal would also provide greater reimbursements to municipalities that have a lower mill rate than their average mill rate for the preceding five years than to municipalities that do not. LD 887, sponsored by Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Androscoggin Cty.), would eliminate revenue sharing and replace it with tax credits delivered to individuals and businesses.
Corrections Officers & Heart Disease
On March 22, Rep. Ralph Tucker (D-Brunswick) will present a bill (LD 614) to the Labor, Commerce and Economic Development Committee that would amend the workers’ compensation law to add a presumption that if a corrections officer suffers from heart disease or hypertension, it was caused due to their employment, similar to the current presumption that cancer contracted by a firefighter was caused by exposure to carcinogens in the line of duty. LD 848, sponsored by Rep. Jared Golden (D-Lewiston), would add a presumption that if a law enforcement officer, firefighter, corrections officer or emergency medical services worker is diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, it was a result of the individual’s employment.
A Bunch of Child Custody Bills
Rep. John Picchiotti (R-Fairfield) has submitted a slew of child custody bills that will be heard by the Judiciary Committee on March 22. Picchiotti’s bill LD 282 attempts to address concerns of relatives who are taking care of a child when the parents have “essentially abandoned the child” to the relatives’ custody. The bill would allow the relatives to be considered the “de facto guardian” without a formal guardianship appointment and without a power of attorney executed by the parent. The bill would allow the de facto guardian to petition the court to be appointed as the official guardian when the parent does not consent to the appointment if the court “finds a demonstrated lack of consistent participation by the parent.”
LD 282 also states that if the parent petitions the court to terminate the de facto guardian’s guardianship, the burden is on the opposing side to prove that the parent seeking to terminate the guardianship is currently unfit to regain custody of the child. However, the bill requires that if the “guardian was appointed because of a demonstrated lack of consistent participation by the parent,” the court must require that the parent is “willing and able to comply with the duties imposed upon a parent by the parent-child relationship.”
LD 147, sponsored by Picchiotti, would prohibit a child support order from requiring payment of child support from a de facto parent to another parent of the child if the de facto parent became a de facto parent due to the unwillingness or inability of the other parent to provide care for the child. Another Picchiotti bill, LD 363, would provide that a child who is the subject of a child protection proceeding and who is living with a relative has a right to legal counsel at state expense during the child protection proceeding.
LD 429, also sponsored by Picchiotti, would allow family members to petition for standing in a proceeding involving parental rights and responsibilities in certain circumstances. It would also require that guardian ad litems, who are appointed by the court to act in the best interest of children in child custody cases, issue their written report on a standard form with check boxes for each mandatory and optional duty of the guardian ad litem and to describe the results and to provide an explanation with respect to each duty that was not performed.
It should be a fascinating hearing.
Charging Overdose Victims for Saving Their Lives
On Friday, March 23, Health and Human Services Committee will consider LD 108, which would require overdose victims to pay a fee to law enforcement agencies or fire departments that administer the overdose antidote naloxone to them. As the opiate addiction epidemic continues, some local law enforcement departments have been complaining about the cost of administering the drug, particularly to people who have overdosed multiple times. The committee will also consider LD 153, sponsored by Rep. Peter Lyford (R-Eddington), which would prohibit people receiving methadone for opioid dependency or pain from driving a vehicle. Finally, Rep. Ryan Tipping-Spitz will present LD 324, which would add corrections officers to the list of people authorized to administer naloxone.