|4/2/2015 9:31:00 AM|
Eye on Augusta: Budget Talks Continue, LePage Threatens to "Rip 'em a New One"
by Andy OBrienKeeping up with all of the hijinx that happen when you take a short break from Maine politics can be pretty overwhelming. Since I headed off to Taiwan a little over two weeks ago, I've missed:
The big feud between Governor LePage and horror writer Stephen King over the governor's false allegations that King doesn't pay taxes in Maine.
The governor's sudden firing of Brigadier General James Campbell on the day the National Guard chief was scheduled to address the Legislature.
LePage-appointed Public Utilities Commission members voting to strip $38 million in energy-efficiency funding for homes and businesses using a typo in the law (a missing "and") as a justification.
LePage's announcement that he will hold hostage roughly $6.5 million in voter-approved bonds for Land for Maine's Future until lawmakers approve his plan to increase timber harvesting on public lands.
Maine Human Rights Commission's decision to deny the governor's request to reconsider its ruling that Moody's Diner discriminated against a former employee on religious grounds. (The governor continues to deny $4,000 in funding to the commission to pay for temporary staffing in retribution for the decision.)
The governor's assertion to a town hall meeting in Presque Isle that mining does not pollute the environment. "Every single . . . fracking mine . . . every single fracking . . . operation in the country does not pollute," the governor declared.
Did I get it all?
And when I returned on Tuesday, "front-page LePage" was back at it again, blasting legislators at a press conference for not acting immediately on his $8.3-million plan to jail drug offenders.
"I haven't seen a Republican yet [who is opposed to my plan], and if he is, I'll get him in my office and I'll rip him a new one," the governor told a reporter.
It's good to be back.
Meanwhile, the Legislature's policy committees have been quietly working on the governor's $6.5-billion budget, which includes the biggest overhaul to the tax code in over 40 years. According to Democratic Taxation Committee member Rep. Diane Russell (D-Portland), Democrats are ready to negotiate on a tax package, but are still waiting for the Republicans to come to the table. It's been no secret that many Republicans are uncomfortable with a number of the governor's proposals, such as his plan to raise sales taxes and tax large nonprofit organizations. Democrats have expressed concerns that the governor's plan, which claims to create a nearly $300 million tax cut, would disproportionately benefit corporations and the wealthiest Mainers.
Two weeks ago, Maine Revenue Services released an analysis of the tax package, which found that those earning $400,000 a year would get a nearly $10,700 tax cut under the governor's proposal, but households taking in $40,000 a year would see $145 in tax reductions. However, the analysis does not include the impact of the governor's plan to eliminate $156 million in revenue sharing to municipalities, which is expected to shift even more of the tax burden onto towns, forcing them to raise property taxes and cut spending on education and other services.
HHS Committee Rejects Drugs for the Elderly Cuts
Several policy committees have reported their budget recommendations back to the Appropriations Committee, but only the 13-member budget panel has the power to negotiate a final deal. However, rank-and-file legislators can advise Appropriations on spending measures they're willing to accept, as they will have the final vote on the budget deal, which will need 2/3 of the House and Senate to pass.
On Monday, all of the Democrats and one Republican on the Health and Human Services Committee voted to reject the governor's proposal to cut $47 million from the Drugs for the Elderly (DEL) program and the Medicare Savings Program (MSP), which helps low-income seniors pay for medicine and health care. The governor has proposed to use the DEL and MSP money to increase funding to nursing homes and to provide home- and community-based services for people with serious mental and physical disabilities.
Democrats call that a false choice.
"The Governor's proposal gives tax breaks to the wealthy and corporations, while forcing seniors to choose between paying for their food or medicine," said Rep. Drew Gattine of Westbrook, House Chair of the HHS committee, in a written statement. "These priorities are wrong."
Voting for the governor's DEL and MSP cuts, Rep. Deb Sanderson (R-Chelsea), ranking House Republican on the committee, chided Democrats for not identifying how the programs will be funded.
Last week, the HHS Committee also voted to reject the governor's plan to divert $20 million in tobacco settlement funds from cancer prevention and smoking-cessation programs to help pay MaineCare reimbursements to primary care physicians.
Majority Democrats and one Republican Senator on the Education Committee have also voted to increase K-12 education funding by $49 million to prevent property tax increases. Republican committee members supported a measure to increase funding by $25 million. Democrats also rejected the governor's plan to cut $4 million to pre-kindergarten programs, and they increased funding for the community college system. During the budget hearings, Interim Maine Community College System President Derek Langhauser testified that the governor's current proposal to flat-fund community colleges would force the system to make either $10 million in cuts or raise tuition fees. Finally Democrats voted to add an additional $22 million to the Finance Authority of Maine's state grant program, which provides financial support for college students. Republicans stuck with the governor's proposed $5 million increase.
However, policy committees have yet to weigh in on many of the most controversial budget proposals, such as his tax plan, the cuts to General Assistance for destitute people, cuts to methadone treatment for people with opiate addictions, and spending for drug enforcement. In the meantime, voters can still contact their local legislator and voice their opinions on the budget.
Public Hearings for the Week of April 6
Addressing UMaine's Budget Crisis
In the past year, the University of Southern Maine has been in a state of financial turmoil due to what administrators say is declining enrollment, tuition freezes and decreased state funding. Last year, USM eliminated 51 faculty positions and five academic programs to close a $16 million budget gap. And UMaine officials have warned that more is to come, with over 206 positions set to be eliminated throughout the university system this year alone.
But many faculty members and students, including USM economics Professor Susan Feiner, have disputed the administration's position that declining student enrollment must force the university to "right-size" its campus. In a series of columns Feiner has argued that the university is spending too much on highly paid administrators who don't teach, while cutting programs that could attract more enrollment. According to Feiner's analysis, the UMaine system does not show actual revenues and expenses of each campus, but rather the aggregate results for the system as a whole. Using data from the federal government, Feiner argues that USM has actually had budget surpluses every year from 2010 to 2013, for a cumulative surplus of $26.8 million.
"Year after year, USM trots out budgets that fail to reveal their true reserve position," wrote Feiner in an October op-ed in the Bangor Daily News. "There is only one reason to do that: They want their budgets to scare the public into believing their draconian policies of cutting public higher education are credible. But the full budgetary picture contradicts their group-think inspired hallucination. It is only because the system's financial officers don't include all revenue - and, hence, all reserves - in their budgets that they can assert system expenses exceed system revenues."
On April 6, the Education Committee will consider several bills to address the University of Maine system's ongoing financial troubles. LD 768, sponsored by Rep. Diane Russell (D-Portland), would direct the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA) to review and audit UMaine's finances and governance practices and report back to the Legislature. Russell said she is concerned that USM and Feiner have conflicting reports on the university's finances and she would like to see an independent assessment.
"I just feel like we should have a common set of facts," said Russell, who is a USM alumna.
The committee will also hear Russell's bill LD 17, which would increase funding to UMaine by about $30 million over the next two years. Russell's third bill, LD 45, would require that any state increase in funding to the UMaine system must be dedicated to instruction and not used for other purposes, like administration costs. LD 794, sponsored by Rep. Ben Chipman (I-Portland), would require that the UMaine system allocate a certain percentage of annual funding to faculty salaries, classroom technology and supplies directly related to student learning in the classroom. Sen. Justin Alfond (D-Portland) has also submitted a bill, LD 99, that would dedicate $2 million to USM to develop a recruitment and marketing program to stabilize student enrollment.
Taking on Air BnB
In the past few years, innkeepers and bed-and-breakfast owners have expressed concerns about the growth of companies like Air BnB, which allow homeowners to rent out rooms online without adhering to the same rules and regulations that lodging places have to follow. On Monday, April 6, the Health and Human Services Committee will consider a bill to require renters providing overnight lodging to be licensed by the state. LD 436, sponsored by Sen. John Patrick (D-Oxford), would also mandate that property rented as a vacation rental must be rented for a minimum of seven days. Rockland City Council has been considering a similar proposal.
Pensions & Protections for Domestic Violence Victims
On Monday, April 6, Rep. Diane Russell will also present a proposal to the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee to set up a "public option" pension system that would allow all Maine workers to contribute a portion of their pay into a state-held defined benefits program, similar to the state pension system public employees pay into. LD 768 would establish a trust that would be administered by the Department of Labor. Last session the committee rejected a similar measure, which was opposed by the DOL. Department spokesperson Susan Wasserott argued that there is no "public outcry" for a public pension system and that the department was not equipped to handle such a complex program.
The LCRED committee will also consider LD 921, sponsored by Rep. Matthea Daughtry (D-Brunswick), which would require employers to provide a leave of absence for victims of domestic violence.
Sales Tax Holiday Returns
The Taxation Committee will once again be considering measures to create a so-called "sales tax holiday," which would enact a statewide exemption on retail items for one day a year. LD 759, sponsored by Rep. MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox) would exempt sales of clothing and school supplies from the sales tax on the second Saturday of August. LD 932, sponsored by Sen. Roger Katz (R-Augusta) would exempt sales of clothing with a price of $100 or less, school supplies with a price of $100 or less and individual computers (not including those used in a trade or business) with a price of $1,500 or less on the second Saturday of August.
Proponents of sales tax holidays argue that the policy provides an incentive for consumers to spend and stimulate the economy. However, critics, including the conservative Tax Foundation, have called it a "gimmick" that merely shifts sales to certain times without delivering much benefit. The sales tax holiday bills will be heard on April 6.
Clamping Down on Hunting Referendums
Last November a citizen initiative to ban the baiting, trapping and hounding of bears lost on a vote of of 53 to 47 percent, but its leading proponent, the Humane Society of the United States, has vowed to continue the fight to prohibit what it calls unethical hunting practices. This session, legislators have sponsored bills to make it as difficult as possible for the national organization to put the measure back on the ballot.
On April 6, the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will consider LD 1084, sponsored by Rep. Michelle Dunphy (D-Old Town), that would create a Constitutional Amendment to exclude wildlife issues from citizen initiatives. Another bill, sponsored by Sen. Tom Saviello (R-Franklin County), would require at least 5 percent of the number of signatures required on a citizen petition to be voters from each of the 16 counties. Presumedly, this would ensure that supporters of the referendum have a presence in both urban areas and rural Maine.
Rep. Steve Wood (R-Sabbattus) and Rep. Karl Ward
(R-Dedham) have also proposed Constitutional Amendments that would prohibit any new regulations on hunting and fishing. A similar bill was proposed last session to pre-empt the HSUS referendum, but failed to garner the three-fifths support necessary for approval. Both proposals will be heard by the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee on April 9.
During the emotional bear-baiting referendum campaign, the LePage administration came under criticism for allowing game wardens in uniform to appear in commercials opposing the measure. LD 990, sponsored by Rep. Ralph Chapman (D-Brooksville), would prohibit state agencies from expending public resources to influence the outcome of a citizen initiative like the bear referendum. That bill will be heard by the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on April 6.
Right to Try Experimental Drugs
Recently several states have been considering legislation to allow terminally ill patients to access experimental drugs not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration. According to the National Council of State Legislatures (NCSL), 36 states including Maine are considering the controversial legislation, reflecting the desperation of many patients and frustration with the slow federal approval process. LD 180, sponsored by Rep. Tom Longstaff (D-Waterville), would authorize drug and medical-device manufacturers that have completed the first phase of FDA-approved clinical trials to make their product available to terminally ill patients. It would also prohibit state officials from blocking an eligible patient access to such a drug, biological product or device.
As the NCSL writes, critics of the legislation worry that it may create a "false sense of hope" for patients. However, it also notes that supporters of the policy say that "any hope is better than the alternative of no hope, which is inevitable when no treatments are made available for terminal patients." The HHS committee will hear the bill on April 6.
Aging in Place & Lengthening Terms for Senators
In recent years, policymakers have been struggling with how to accommodate the housing needs of Maine's aging baby-boomer population. In a November 2013 speech, former USM economist Charlie Colgan recalled meeting a Damariscotta woman who lived alone in a large Victorian house and wanted to keep it, so she decided to subdivide it into smaller units. The town ordinance treated her plan as a 30-unit subdivision.
"This is typical of the way in which the zoning, planning, and related policies of most of our communities are ill-prepared for the world that we are moving into," said Colgan.
On April 6, the State and Local Committee will consider LD 909, which would encourage municipalities to develop policies that assist older adults with aging in place and that create "age-friendly communities." The measure, sponsored by Rep. Christopher Babbidge (D-Kennebunk), would amend the law governing comprehensive plans by encouraging municipalities to plan for the needs of older adults in their communities.
The S&L Committee will also hear LD 1015, sponsored by Sen. Amy Volk (R-Cumberland), which would increase the length of terms of state senators from 2 to 4 years.
Emergency Overdose Drug Bill
Last session, the Legislature overrode a veto by Governor LePage of a bill to allow first responders and family members of opiate addicts access to the prescription drug naloxone, which can reverse an opiate overdose. At the time, the governor condemned use of the lifesaving drug as "an escape" and "an excuse to stay addicted." On April 7, the HHS Committee will hear LD 140, sponsored by Rep. Henry Beck (D-Waterville), which would allow friends of opiate users access to naloxone. It would also provide immunity from criminal liability for those who administer the drug to victims of opiate overdoses and create limited immunity from criminal prosecution for those who seek medical assistance when a person is experiencing an opioid-related drug overdose.
Sunday Hunting Bill Returns for the Billionth Time
Sunday hunting in Maine was banned on February 28, 1883, and many hunters have been trying to get rid of the law ever since.
Supporters of the law's repeal believe that hunters should at least have access to hunting opportunities on their own land. However, other outdoors enthusiasts, including many hunters, believe that there should be at least one day a week when they can walk freely in the woods without worry.
As outdoors writer and former Sportsman's Alliance of Maine executive director George Smith wrote in his online blog, he spent 28 years lobbying the Legislature to get rid of the law, but 40 percent of SAM's own members opposed the repeal.
On April 7, the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee will consider several bills to repeal or scale back the law. LD 296, sponsored by Sen. David Burns (R-Washington County), would allow hunting on Sundays in November on land parcels greater than 10 acres. LD 479, sponsored by Rep. Randall Greenwood (R-Wales), would allow Sunday hunting on private property with a landowner's written consent. LD 799, sponsored by Rep. Paul Chace (R-Durham), would create a year-long pilot program to allow Sunday hunting in certain wildlife management districts around the state. Finally, LD 691, sponsored by Sen. Amy Volk, would permit Sunday hunting of coyotes in northern Maine.
Bills to Repeal Gun Laws
Gun rights activists have been mobilizing for a big push to weaken firearms laws. On April 8, the Criminal Justice Committee will hear LD 652, sponsored by Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Androscoggin), that would repeal the law requiring gun owners to have a permit to carry concealed handguns. Dubbed the "Constitutional Carry" bill, the measure would authorize a person to possess a loaded pistol or revolver while in a motor vehicle, trailer or other vehicle being hauled by a motor vehicle.
The committee will also consider LD 515, sponsored by Rep. Mark Dion (D-Portland), which would increase penalties for gun dealers selling firearms to individuals, such as felons, who are prohibited from owning a gun. LD 600, sponsored by Rep. Richard Pickett (R-Dixfield), would prohibit fugitives from justice, drug users, undocumented immigrants, servicemen who have been dishonorably discharged from the military, persons who have renounced their US citizenship, and domestic-violence perpetrators from owning firearms.
Solar Energy Incentives for Farmers
On April 9, the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee will hear LD 1073, sponsored by Sen. Tom Saviello (R-Franklin County), which would provide rebates for solar photovoltaic and solar thermal technologies to agricultural businesses. Last year, Gov. LePage vetoed legislation to restore the solar rebate program for all solar users, which would have cost electricity users 5 cents on their monthly electric bills.
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