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home : • politics : • government
January 27, 2020

1/8/2015 9:01:00 AM
Eye on Augusta: Midcoast Legislators Throw Their Ideas into the Hat for 2015
Midcoast Legislators’ Committee Assignments—
Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry
MaryAnn Kinney (R-Knox)

Environment & Natural Resources
Joan Welsh (D-Rockport), co-chair
Jeff Hanley (R-Pittston)

Government Oversight Committee
Chuck Kruger (D-Thomaston), co-chair
Deb Sanderson (R-Chelsea)
Chris Johnson (D-Lincoln County)

Health & Human Services
Deb Sanderson (R-Chelsea)
Christine Burstein (D-Lincolnville)

Chris Johnson (D-Lincoln County)
Jeff Evangelos (I-Friendship)

Labor, Commerce, Research & Economic Development
Erin Herbig (D-Belfast), co-chair
Karl Ward (R-Dedham)

Marine Resources
Walter Kumiega (D-Deer Isle), co-chair
Dave Miramant (D-Knox County)
Mick Devin (D-Newcastle)
Stephanie Hawke (R-Boothbay Harbor)

State and Local Government
Jeff Evangelos (I-Friendship)
Lizzie Dickerson (D-Rockland)

James Gillway (R-Searsport)

by Andy O’Brien

Now that the holidays are behind us, a new Legislature is off and running, with a whole boatload of bills to consider. With power divided between majority Republicans in the Senate and Democrats in the House, it's not likely that many progressive bills will make it to the governor's desk, but the divided power could also mean more compromise and fewer vetoes. But that doesn't mean legislators won't try to at least "send a message." Following is a rundown of the notable bills legislators in Waldo, Knox and Lincoln counties are submitting this session. Reps. Erin Herbig (D-Belfast), MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox) and Rep. Deb Sanderson (R-Chelsea) did not respond to requests for information about legislation they are sponsoring.

Minimum Wage & Legislator Salaries

In recent years, with record levels of income inequality and stagnant wages, policy makers have directed more attention to increasing the minimum wage. Maine's current minimum wage is $7.50 per hour, which is 25 cents higher than the federal minimum wage and lower than the minimum in 24 other states. Adjusted for inflation, Maine's minimum wage would be $10.50 per hour. Nevertheless, Republicans and Governor LePage have repeatedly blocked attempts by Democrats to increase the minimum wage, even modestly, such as a proposal last year to raise it incrementally to $9.50 over three years.

This year, Sen. Dave Miramant (D-Knox County) and Rep. Jeff Evangelos (I-Friendship) are both sponsoring minimum-wage legislation. Miramant's bill would raise it to $9.75 per hour, while Evangelos' proposal would raise it to $9 the first year, $10 the year after that and then adjust it to inflation. While it's highly unlikely Republicans will support either measure unless it's tied to anti-union "right-to-work" legislation, the liberal activist group Maine People's Alliance has said it will pursue a voter referendum on the minimum wage if the Legislature fails to act. Despite huge GOP wins in November, voters in the Republican strongholds of Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota all approved ballot initiatives to increase the minimum wage.

Another bill that will certainly generate spirited debate is a proposal by Rep. Chuck Kruger (D-Thomaston) to raise the salaries of the governor and legislators. Currently, Representatives and Senators make $13,852 for the first year and $9,661 for the second year of their terms, plus health coverage and a maximum of $70 per diem for food, mileage and lodging (depending on how far they live from Augusta). At $70,000 per year, the governor's salary is the lowest of all 50 states. Kruger, who will not run for the Legislature again due to term limits, says the legislation would not take effect until LePage finishes his term.

"I believe that raising the salaries for the Legislature will lead to more good Maine people being able to afford to serve," said Kruger. "And the salary for the Chief Executive is simply way out of line with the responsibilities that job entails. Let the discussions begin!"

Rep. Mick Devin has submitted a bill that attempts to better quantify the value of local labor when the state considers contracts for various projects. The current criteria evaluates proposals based on the overall cost of a project, but Devin says that in addition to the impact local jobs have on the local economy, Maine workers return about 5 percent of the cost of their labor to the state in the form of state income tax. Devin's new criteria would also take local suppliers into account when considering bids.

Sen. Chris Johnson (D-Lincoln County) has resubmitted a bill to qualify first responders, like volunteer firemen and emergency medical providers, for workers' compensation if they suffer an accident in their own home on their way to an emergency. The measure was opposed last year by municipalities and insurers, who said the bill would open the system up to frivolous claims.

Condoms, Opiates, Krabbe Disease & Service Animals

First-year Rep. Christine Burstein (D-Lincolnville) is proposing a bill to study the feasibility of making condoms available to sexually active teens in all Maine high schools for pregnancy and disease prevention. Burstein said often teens in rural areas don't have access to health care and are afraid to buy condoms in small towns where everyone knows each other. Burstein, who is also a family nurse practitioner, is also proposing to study ways of preventing and treating opioid abuse, as well as a measure to provide more funding for HIV and hepatitis C treatment and prevention.

Freshman Rep. Karl Ward (R-Dedham) has sponsored a bill to permit patients with terminal illnesses who have six or fewer months to live to attempt treatment with experimental non-FDA-approved drugs. So-called "right-to-try" laws have been passed in five states. Ward has also submitted a bill to study whether to require prenatal screening for Krabbe disease, an often fatal, genetic disease that attacks the nervous system of infants under six months of age. According to the Mayo Clinic, while there is no known cure, stem cell transplants have shown some success in infants who are treated before the onset of symptoms.

Ward also has a bill to tighten up the certification requirements regulating the use of service animals. While the language of the bill has not been hashed out, he said he has heard a number of complaints from people about unruly dogs in public places.

"We've had dogs chase diners out of restaurants, growl at people and pee on displays in the mall," said Ward. "Truly trained dogs are not like this."

Hunting, Fireworks, Prisons & Car Inspections

Ward is also submitting an amendment to the Maine Constitution that would enshrine the right to hunt and fish. If approved by the voters, the legislation would prohibit any citizen referendum from ever regulating that right, but would leave open the option to expand hunting and fishing opportunities. Last year, the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine submitted a similar bill in response to the citizen referendum to ban bear baiting, hounding and trapping. SAM's bill passed the Senate, but failed in the House. Ward has also sponsored legislation that would set up a special cold case homicide squad for unsolved murders. A similar bill was considered last year, but no money was found to fund it.

Sen. Chris Johnson has resubmitted his bill to put stricter regulations on the use of consumer fireworks, which was vetoed by Governor LePage last year. The bill would clarify that fireworks can constitute "loud and unreasonable noise" under the disorderly conduct law. It would also restrict the use of fireworks whenever the governor issues a proclamation prohibiting outdoor fires.

Rep. Jeff Evangelos is hoping the Legislature will reconsider a bill to set up a special pension fund for volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers, which was vetoed by the governor last year. It would be funded with a 5-percent surcharge on fireworks.

Sen. Dave Miramant is proposing legislation to exempt new cars from mandatory inspection for four years and then switch to biennial inspections after that.

Rep. Lizzie Dickerson (D-Rockland) says she's working on legislation to address concerns from inmates about living conditions at Maine State Prison in Warren. She said the bill has not been fully fleshed out, but she is meeting with interested parties to develop language for the bill.

Telecommunications Reform & Geomagnetic Storms

Sen. Mike Thibodeau says telecommunications reform will be one of the biggest issues the Legislature will tackle this year.

"The business model for our telephone providers has changed dramatically," said Thibodeau. "Young people don't even have landlines anymore, yet our incumbent telephone providers, whether they're large or small, are regulated as if they're a monopoly because they don't have competition."

Thibodeau said landlines are rapidly losing customers in urban areas where delivery of service is less expensive, but they still have a responsibility to be the "provider of last resort" for rural areas that can't get cell reception. While he said the details of his bill are not complete, he said the question would be whether cell phones could be considered the provider of last resort for rural areas.

Sen. Dave Miramant is concerned about the potential  of a geomagnetic storm, caused by solar flares, that could knock out the electrical grid and cause blackouts. Miramant is proposing a bill to consider investing in devices to protect transformers from the phenomenon, which would be paid for by a 50-cent-a-month surcharge on electric bills for five years. Maine would be the first state to adopt such a measure.

Rep. Walter Kumiega (D-Deer Isle) is proposing legislation to give the Public Utilities Commission some authority over Internet and cell phone service. He said he gets frequent calls from constituents about lousy cell and Internet service, but since cell and Internet providers don't have the same level of regulation as electric utilities, there's little the PUC can do to force them to improve service. Rep. Jeff Evangelos also has a bill to require cable TV providers to provide the option of à la carte pricing to allow subscribers a choice of what channels they want rather than standard packages.

Searsport Magnet School, Science Standards & Virtuals

Rep. James Gillway (R-Searsport) is resubmitting legislation to set up a magnet high school in Searsport that would concentrate on marine-related industries like boatbuilding and oceanography. Searsport is one of two towns that has not withdrawn from the eight-town RSU 20, but school officials are still working on a plan to set up the new district and determining what the financial impact will be on taxpayers.

Rep. Mick Devin (D-Newcastle) has put in a measure to direct the state to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards as part of the Maine Learning Results for schools. The NGSS was developed by a consortium of science teachers, university researchers and businesses like Boeing and DuPont. Devin, a scientist himself, said that the NGSS will help "ensure that Maine students are competitive in national and international circles for economic development, for scientific and engineering research." So far the standards have been adopted in 13 states, but have faced opposition from conservative and religious groups that are opposed to the teaching of evolution and climate change.

Sen. Chris Johnson is sponsoring a measure to revise the funding formula for virtual charter schools, which are publicly funded, privately managed online schools that allow students in grades K-12 to go to school online from home. Currently virtual schools receive the same amount of funding as brick-and-mortar schools, despite the fact that their costs differ. Johnson's bill would come up with a separate funding model for virtuals. A similar bill was vetoed by Governor LePage last session.

Rep. Jeff Evangelos has sponsored a bill to study what needs to be done for the state to honor its obligation to pay 55 percent of  local K-12 education costs. In 2004, the state passed the 55-percent mandate by voter referendum, but the Legislature has never lived up it. Currently the state is only funding 46 percent of the cost of essential educational programs and services.

Toxic Chemicals & Climate Adaptation

Rep. Joan Welsh is submitting a bill based on an Illinois law that bans the sale and manufacture of exfoliating microbeads used in cosmetic products. Welsh says the tiny plastic beads don't break down and eventually end up polluting water systems and oceans where marine life consumes them. Welsh is also asking the Department of Environmental Protection to study the potential effects of cross-linked polyethylene tubing, or "PEX," on the environment. The tubing is often used by plumbers as a replacement for copper piping, but some environmentalists have expressed concerns that the product may leach volatile organic compounds into water sources.

Rep. Christine Burstein has a bill to prohibit the use of Styrofoam in all food service containers, because she says polystyrene is unheathy when heated and never biodegrades. Rep. Mick Devin is submitting legislation to direct the Department of Health and Human Services to update the information it provides on "How to Protect Your Family from BPA (Bisphenol A)" to reflect the latest scientific findings about the chemical and develop educational outreach materials to educate members of the public. BPA is an endocrine-disrupting chemical found in plastics that some research suggests may be particularly harmful to infants and young children.

Devin is also submitting a bill to impose a 5-cent fee on plastic retail bags, which would be used to set up county-by-county bag recycling programs. Devin also has a bill to mitigate the effects of marine debris. He said the proposal is still in its concept form, but he hopes to address the problem of plastic micro-debris that is harming marine organisms.

Devin is also proposing a series of bills addressing the impact of sea level rise on coastal communities. With damage to properties and infrastructure, as well as potential loss of clam flats and marsh areas from rising waters due to climate change, Devin says he would like the state to invest in educating the public about the problem. A second bill would require that any structure built in a coastal zone in which at least 10 percent of the costs are supported by the state must take into account sea level rise prediction models. It would also mandate that any state-owned land and infrastructure development, such as roads, bridges, culverts and piers, in the coastal zone must also take into account predicted changes in sea level. Finally, Devin has proposed a bond to support the cost of more detailed mapping of coastal zones and monitoring of sea level changes.

Elections & Assorted Odds & Ends

Sen. Mike Thibodeau is still not ready to talk about what is in his "comprehensive election reform" bill, except to say it would likely require campaign disclosure provisions to identify who exactly is spending money on campaign ads.

Rep. Mick Devin has a bill to ban clean elections candidates from having so-called "leadership PACs," which allow legislators to collect and spend as much money as they want to elect other candidates even when they receive public financing for their own elections through the clean elections program. Critics have called leadership PACs a loophole that defeats the purpose of keeping the influence of big money out of politics. Supporters say leadership PACs are a necessary evil because they help offset the unlimited amount of outside money that's allowed to flow freely into political campaigns.

Finally, Rep. James Gillway has once again submitted "An Act to Reimburse Phillip Wolley for Litigation Expenses Incurred in Connection with His Termination and Reinstatement as a State Employee." Wolley is a former Bureau of Lottery employee who lost his job in the 1980s due to a criminal charge, for which he was later found not guilty. The bill is an attempt to recoup $28,000 in legal expenses accrued during the trial. It has been submitted 14 times by both Democrats and Republicans since 1990.

"The state should have just paid him," said Gillway. "It would have been cheaper than going through this every two years."

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