|5/15/2014 9:34:00 AM|
Eye on Augusta: Midcoast Legislators Reflect on Successes and Disappointments
At least we didn't shut down the government
|Sen. Ed Mazurek of Rockland chats with Sen. Geoff Gratwick of Bangor during a break on May 1. - Photo by Andi Parkinson|
by Andy OBrienDuring this past session the bitter partisanship hung so thick in the halls of the State House, it was like swimming through mud. And with another election on the horizon, voters probably won't be able to turn on a TV without hearing about welfare cheats, the "war on women" and "job-killing liberal politicians." With divided government and the state's political environment as toxic as it is, several local lawmakers interviewed recently struggled to come up with any major accomplishments that emerged out of this session. But all of them, Republicans and Democrats, said the greatest achievement of the 126th Legislature was passing a budget without a state shutdown.
"We came into this session thinking we were going to have a government shutdown, and we might not be able to reach an agreement because the governor never presented a budget," said Rep. Joan Welsh (D-Rockport). "We thought that was going to be a really heavy lift, and that went exceedingly well."
During the past year, Gov. Paul LePage vetoed two bipartisan budget compromises, and both times Republicans and Democrats overrode the governor.
Rep. Deb Sanderson (R-Chelsea) said the most important part of the budget process was finding funding to reduce and eliminate some waiting lists for people with severe disabilities in need of care. During the Medicaid expansion debate, Sanderson argued that "those are really the folks who we really should be focusing on, and they've kind of been left behind in the past, unfortunately."
"The number-one thing that we need to get done is expanding MaineCare," said Sen. Chris Johnson (D-Lincoln County). "That would be a $250 million a year impact on the economy, 4,400 health care jobs, and preventive care for 70,000 Mainers, including 3,000 veterans. It's really disappointing, because with our low average incomes in Maine, we've got a lot of people who fall into needing the care."
Sanderson, who led the charge in the Legislature against Medicaid expansion, says her greatest achievement was preventing the state from taking the federal money. Recognizing that that leaves 24,000 people in the state with no access to even subsidized private health insurance, she said, "That is not to say that we don't acknowledge that there is a population under 100 percent of poverty level that we still need to keep working on a solution for."
Last-Minute Funding for Nursing Homes Fails
Sanderson said her biggest frustration was that the Democratic leadership did not accept the governor's last-minute proposal to provide funding for nursing homes, which he submitted on the last day of session.
One of those bills would have increased reimbursements to nursing homes by using $5 million in unallocated funds from the Fund for a Healthy Maine, which are tobacco settlement funds dedicated to smoking cessation, substance abuse and anti-obesity programs. Sanderson cited figures from the Legislature's Long Term Care Commission, which estimated that the state is underfunding nursing homes by about $30 million a year. Republicans say the measure would be matched with $8 million in federal funds. Sanderson argued that while the Fund for Healthy Maine had some good programs, the nursing home situation is more urgent.
"When you look out into the rural communities where you have a higher MaineCare population and MaineCare only reimburses 70 to 75 percent of actual costs, we have some real folks who are actually struggling out there," said Sanderson. According to the Maine Health Care Association, on average, about 70 percent of the nursing home funding comes from MaineCare, the state's Medicaid program, while 30 percent is split between Medicare and private-paying residents.
With MaineCare reimbursements not keeping up with the cost of service, long-term care facilities have relied on shifting costs to private-paying residents, who pay an average of 45 percent higher than the MaineCare rate. LePage threatened to veto any change to his last-minute proposal, so the bipartisan committee voted unanimously to reject his bill. Governor LePage has since threatened to call the Legislature back into session to take up his bill again.
Democrats have dismissed the governor's plan as political posturing, pointing out that the governor vetoed the supplemental budget, which did increase funding to nursing homes by up to $26 million with a federal match. And, in the Democrats' weekly address on May 9, Sen. Colleen Lachowicz of Waterville pointed out that the governor's 2011 budget proposed to cut $60 million to assisted living facilities while giving over $400 million in income and estate tax cuts that mostly benefit the wealthiest in the state.
"I am not going to question Governor LePage's new-found interest in protecting our seniors. It's the right thing do," said Lachowicz. "But I am going to ask all of us to question what the best approach should be: refusing to work with others to get something done by yelling, screaming, and berating your colleagues? Or putting your head down, showing up, and problem solving what our seniors need."
Republican Welfare Bills
Republicans expressed disappointment that none of the governor's bills targeting the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program found support with the majority of Democrats.
Among several provisions, the bills would have banned out-of-state purchases with TANF and would have eliminated the Parents as Scholars program, which allows TANF recipients to go to college while still receiving cash benefits. Rep. James Gillway (R-Searsport), who submitted the latter bill on behalf of Gov. LePage, said he was concerned that the state will have to pay $7 million in fines for non-compliance with federal work requirements. Democrats and advocates of the poor say the state will not face fines as long as it properly files its corrective action plans with the federal government. Gillway says welfare will be a major campaign issue.
"Let's face it. We didn't get it done. It was a mission of the governor. It was a hope for Republican leadership from the very beginning," said Gillway.
But Rep. Lizzie Dickerson (D-Rockland) says one of her biggest complaints is that the Legislature spent too much time on the governor's welfare initiatives while computer technology classes are getting cut in the schools. Dickerson noted that Kennebec Community College has recently eliminated its computer science program and that the University of Maine has also cut out its master's degree in computer technology integration.
"We should have been able to focus more on the budget, economic development, and education," said Dickerson, who is also a high school computer science teacher. "There's one segment of economic development that the demand is far going to outstrip supply, and yet here we are in the Legislature, spending all of our time arguing about whether somebody is at a Smoke Shop with an EBT card."
The Gun Bills
Last year, following the horrific shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, dozens of bills were submitted to regulate firearms. However, no substantial piece of gun legislation was signed into law, other than a measure to shield the names of concealed handgun permit holders from public access requests.
For Rep. Jethro Pease (R-Morrill), a self-described pro-gun legislator who will be retiring from the House this year, one of his big disappointments was that the governor vetoed LD 222, which would have created a centralized system for concealed handgun permits to be administered by the State Police.
Currently, gun owners can apply for permits through local city councils or select boards, but, as the bill's sponsor Rep. Tim Marks (D-Pittston) noted, 44 percent of 55 municipalities surveyed by the Maine State Police failed to perform the required mental health background checks. Marks, a retired state trooper, said that currently law enforcement has no way to know how many gun permits are issued, and that the lack of uniformity in the system prevents Maine from getting reciprocity from other states.
In his veto letter Gov. LePage said he opposed the bill because he believes that gun owners should not have to apply for concealed gun permits at all. Last year, LD 660, which would have abolished the handgun permit requirement, narrowly passed the House and Senate, but was ultimately defeated 21-14 in another round of votes in the Senate.
"I totally support right to carry, but it failed last year, and I don't think it should have been brought back and tied onto this bill," said Pease.
Local Food and Renewable Energy
Sen. Johnson said he was also discouraged that several bills promoting renewable energy and local food were rejected by the governor and minority Republicans. The governor vetoed a measure to reinstate a rebate for the installation of solar photovoltaic arrays, arguing that its funding, which came from an average 60 cents a year charge to ratepayers, posed too much of a financial burden.
Johnson sponsored a bill to enact a feed-in tariff program, which would require utilities to purchase power from renewable power producers, such as homeowners with solar arrays. The bill never made it out of committee.
Johnson also submitted a bill that would promote farm product aggregation facilities, known as food hubs, to assist farmers with washing, processing, storing and distributing food products. LD 1431 would have directed the Department of Agriculture to administer competitive grants to assist food hubs in developing their business models as well as to create school food-service training programs to help connect schools to local food hubs. In his veto message, Gov. LePage argued that if people really wanted to buy local food, there would be no need for the bill. Although LD 1431 had unanimous support in the Senate and passed 120-19 in the House, several Republican legislators flipped their votes to support the governor's veto, including Reps. Deb Sanderson and Jethro Pease and Sen. Mike Thibodeau (R-Waldo County).
Johnson said his plan would be more effective than the governor's so-called "Open for Business Zones," which would have provided tax breaks and set up barriers to labor union organizing in certain parts of Maine in hopes of attracting large employers.
"We need to build on our natural strengths instead of just trying to make us attractive to some big company to come in and exploit workers and think that's going to contribute to a better economy," said Johnson
Hospital Repayment Success
One of the proudest achievements for Republicans and the LePage administration was paying off the state's $484 million Medicaid debt to 39 hospitals. Due largely to rising health care costs, a $96 million settlement the state paid to 21 hospitals in 2006 and strained state budgets, Maine's hospital debt had risen sharply over the past decade, peaking at $546.4 million in 2008, before finally ceasing to accrue debt. Democrats agreed to the governor's plan to finance the hospital repayment by issuing a revenue bond secured by future liquor sales.
"That was the biggest and best thing that could have come out of the 126th," said Rep. James Gillway. "It was a brilliant stroke for the administration to think of the liquor contract."
Roads Still in Rough Shape
Sen. Ed Mazurek (D-Knox County), who will be retiring this year after 10 years in the Legislature, said he was proud of his work as the chair of the Transporation Committtee and maintaining the ferry service. He said he recognized that a lot more work needs to be done on Maine's roads, which have earned a C minus from the American Society of Civil Engineers.
"I think the recognition is that we need federal help," said Mazurek. "And we have to recognize that if people need good roads, they're going to have to pay for them. And you pay for them through bonding and bond for at least the life of the road. That way you're getting your dollar's worth."
Minimum Wage & Standing Up to the Big Guy
Rep. Jeff Evangelos of Friendship, who is one of the Legislature's five independent legislators, said he was proud to have not caucused with either party during his first term, although, admittedly, he votes more often with Democrats than Republicans.
"The part about the caucus that I don't like is the pressure to vote a certain way," said Evangelos. "I don't think anybody in this chamber should be instructing anyone how to vote."
Evangelos said one of his top priorities has been to raise the minimum wage, even though Gov. LePage vetoed it last year. "If we want to get people off of welfare and food stamps, we need to stop subsidizing these low-wage-paying businesses," he said.
He added that he had no regrets about a meeting he and three other independent House reps had with Gov. LePage early in the session that ended with the governor reportedly calling them "idiots" and then storming out of the room.
"I was one of the few legislators who had the guts to take on Paul LePage when he attempted to bully me, and he found out that it wasn't going to happen," said Evangelos. "Not only did I stand up to him, but I did more than hold my own."
Rep. Ellen Winchenbach said she was proud of her record of bipartisanship, even though she often found herself on the other side of her GOP colleagues on issues like Medicaid expansion and charter schools. Winchenbach also voted to override 16 of Gov. LePage's vetoes on May 1 - more than any of her local Republican colleagues.
"I have to do what is right for the people first, and I don't want to get caught up in this party stuff," said Winchenbach. "That's hard, because you get a little pressure and get shunned by some in your party. I don't want to lose control of who I am."
Ocean Acidification Study
Winchenbach, Pease and Johnson all expressed strong support for Rep. Mick Devin's (D-Newcastle) LD 1602, which will set up a special commission of fishermen, aquaculturists, scientists and legislators to study the effects of ocean acidification on the ecosystem and shellfisheries.
Many researchers believe that carbon dioxide from fossil fuel use has been captured by seawater to form carbonic acid, causing damage to the shells of shellfish like clams, oysters, lobsters, shrimp and sea urchins. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the acidity of the ocean has increased by 30 percent since the Industrial Revolution. Island Institute President Rob Snyder, who helped write LD 1602, said he was pleased Maine is leading on studying the issue.
"The industries that will be affected by ocean acidification employ thousands of Mainers - especially in island and coastal communities - and they contribute $1 billion to our state's economy," wrote Snyder in a statement. "It's critical to learn more about the solutions to ocean acidification that will protect those jobs."
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