|5/15/2014 9:55:00 AM|
Eye on Augusta: A Few Notable Bills Made It Through This Session to Become Law
by Andy OBrienWith all of the attention on governor's vetoes and political gridlock in Augusta during the final weeks of the legislative session, it was easy to overlook that a number of initiatives did become law. The following are a few bills that made it through the gauntlet.
Property Tax Credit Strengthened
Last month Gov. LePage signed a bill to double the amount of property tax credits available to low- and middle-income residents under 65 from $300 to $600 and increased property tax relief for filers over 65 years of age from $400 to $900. The new law, sponsored by House Speaker Mark Eves (D-North Berwick), also expands eligibility for the credit to more residents. Last year's budget eliminated the popular "Circuit Breaker" property tax relief program and replaced it with the refundable Property Tax Fairness Credit. In order to receive the credit, property owners and renters have to file a Maine Income Tax return, even if their income is such that they are not required to file one.
Prior to last year's changes, the maximum benefit under the Circuit Breaker Program was $2,000; but this year the maximum benefit for those who qualified for the new credit was $300 for those under 70 years of age and $400 for people over 70. The eligibility requirements for a refund were also more stringent, which resulted in fewer residents receiving property tax relief.
Solar Power Study Becomes Law
Although solar energy supporters faced a major setback with the governor's veto of a bill to reinstate a rebate for rooftop solar photovoltaic installations, the governor did let a measure to set broad solar policy goals become law without his signature. LD 1652, sponsored by Sen. Eloise Vitelli (D-Sagadahoc), directs the Public Utility Commission to study the costs and benefits of solar technology, including the role solar can play in minimizing peak electrical load on transmission and distribution systems. The law also sets goals to increase the number of businesses and residences using solar, increase manufacturing and installation of solar systems, and to ensure that solar energy provides benefits to all ratepayers regardless of income level.
Overdose Prevention Drug Bill Passes
Following a highly publicized debate, law enforcement, firefighters, and family members will now be allowed to administer intranasal naloxone to revive victims of opiate overdoses. Prior to the law, naloxone was only available to medical personnel. In April, LePage told an NBC reporter that he was against expanding access to the drug because "it's an escape to stay addicted," but the governor reversed his decision and let the bill go into law without his signature.
The Maine Attorney General's Office reported in January that the number of opiate overdose deaths in Maine rose from 156 in 2011 to 163 in 2012, which is almost the same number of people who died in traffic accidents. With stricter regulations on prescription opioids, heroin use has surged, and the number of heroin overdose deaths more than quadrupled between 2011 and 2012. According to data gathered by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, naloxone reversed 10,171 overdoses nationwide between 1996 and 2012.
Transparency in Hospital Billing
A new law will require health care practitioners to provide an estimate of the total price of a single medical visit to uninsured patients upon request. If the health care practitioner is unable to give an accurate estimate of the total price because it is unknown at the time, they must now provide a "brief description" of the basis for determining the total price. Sen. Geoff Gratwick (D-Bangor), a practicing physician, said he was inspired to submit the bill in part after reading a 2013 investigative report in Time magazine, which revealed excessively high costs hidden in medical bills. As the report documented, one cancer patient was charged $77 for a box of gauze and another patient was charged $134 for a $5 bag of saline.
Start Funding for Pre-K to Become Available
Gov. LePage also allowed a bill to expand early childhood education go into law without his signature. The new law would use revenue from casino table games to provide start-up funds to school districts for children 4 years of age by the 2018-2019 school year. Under the law, the program will be voluntary, and districts would not be required to expend any local revenues on the program. Currently, 60 percent of school administrative units with elementary schools offer some form of pre-K.
Testifying in support of the measure, Mark Westrum, the Correctional Administrator for the Two Bridges Regional Correctional Authority in Wiscasset, cited a study by the Chicago Child-Parents Centers that concluded that at-risk youth not involved in a pre-K program were 70 percent more likely to commit violent crimes by the age of 18. Supporters also cited a 2011 report by national business group America's Edge, which stated that for every $1 invested in early care and education in Maine, an additional 78 cents is generated for a total of $1.78 in new spending in the state. Maine currently spends about $161 million on prisons to incarcerate 2,000 adults.
"Know Before You Go to College" Bill and College Affordability Commission Established
A new law will also require Maine colleges and universities to publish employment and earnings data of graduates on the Internet. Rep. Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham), the bill's sponsor, said that given the high cost of college, it's important that graduates will be able to get a job that will pay enough to survive on.
The governor also allowed in a measure to set up a special college affordability task force. The commission was proposed after the Education Committee considered two proposals modeled on Oregon's "Pay It Forward" pilot project, which would make students eligible to attend Oregon's public colleges tuition-free under the condition that they agree to pay back a small percentage of their income to the state over a couple of decades. The commission is charged with developing a strategic plan to consider whether to implement the "Pay It Forward" model, tuition guarantees, and/or increased funding for the Maine Grant Program for college students.
In 2013, outstanding student debt exceeded $1 trillion, while the share of student loans delinquent longer than 90 days rose to 11.8 percent, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. At the same time, the cost of higher education has surged higher than inflation, with the average loan balance rising 91 percent, from $10,649 in 2003 to $20,326 today. The average Maine graduate finishes school with over $29,000 in student loans - that is now the seventh-highest student debt load in the country.
Meanwhile, according to a 2013 report from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, higher education spending has declined by 28 percent, or $2,353 less per student, since 2008 when the recession hit. In Maine, the organization estimates spending has been cut by nearly 16 percent, or $1,306 per student, since 2008. At the same time, the College Board estimates that average tuition at Maine's public universities went up 17.4 percent per student (adjusted for inflation) between 2008 and 2013. According to the CBPP, even with the increased availability of scholarships and grants, between 1991 and 2011, the cost of a four-year college education grew 58 percent in real terms.
College Assistance for Foster Children Signed Into Law
Gov. LePage has signed a "first-in-the-nation" bill to assist former foster children with higher education until the age of 26. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Seth Berry, will allow young adults to receive financial help with college expenses for up to $5,000 per year until they turn 27. Maine's current college assistance program for foster children only provides support and guidance up to the age of 20. The new law makes available transition grant funding for individuals exiting the state foster care system and actively pursuing a postsecondary education. Private foundations will pick up one-third of the total projected costs of the program.
A 2011 study of young adults transitioning out of foster care published by the University of Chicago found that by age 26, only 11 percent of the young women and 5 percent of the young men had graduated from a 2- or 4-year secondary school. The researchers also concluded that nearly 40 percent of the young adults studied had been homeless or "couch-surfed" since leaving foster care, three-quarters of the young women were receiving public assistance, and nearly 60 percent of the young men had been convicted of a crime at some point in their lives.
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