|4/9/2015 10:16:00 AM|
Eye on Augusta: In Augusta: bills being considered - OUIs, E-Cigs, Pot on School Grounds, Waste-to-Energy & More
|In last week's Eye on Augusta column titled "Budget Talks Continue, LePage Threatens to Rip 'em a New One," we named Rep. Larry Dunphy (R-Emden) as the sponsor of LD 1084 "RESOLUTION, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine To Exclude Wildlife Issues from Citizen Initiatives." In fact, Rep. Michelle Dunphy (D-Old Town) is the sponsor of LD 1084.|
by Andy OBrienCutting Off Emergency Food & Shelter for the Needy
Republican Sen. Eric Brakey, who is also co-chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, has submitted several bills to make it as difficult as possible to get General Assistance. GA is a municipally administered program that provides emergency assistance to individuals with little or no income to meet basic needs like food and shelter. The program has become a last resort for many low-income Mainers.
After the LePage administration implemented a 60-month lifetime cap on receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) in 2011, many municipal officials complained that former TANF recipients have been going to towns for GA after their TANF benefits are cut off. LD 368, sponsored by Sen. Brakey, would prohibit former TANF recipients who hit the 60-month cap from ever receiving GA, even if they have children to feed.
LD 368 would prohibit legal non-citizens, such as asylum seekers, from receiving GA. LD 722, also sponsored by Sen. Brakey, would only allow indigent people to receive GA for a maximum of 275 days every five years. Finally, Brakey's LD 1037 would require that low-income people be Maine residents for at least 180 days before receiving MaineCare, state food assistance, or GA benefits.
GA already has several restrictions including mandated work requirements, time limits to receive benefits and caps on the maximum eligibility amounts. All of Brakey's GA bills will be heard in the Health and Human Services Committee on April 15.
OUIs and Fatigued Driving Bills
On April 13, the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Com-mittee will hear LD 944, sponsored by Sen. Mike Thibodeau (R-Waldo County), which would require intoxicated drivers who cause an accident to pay the costs for the emergency response. The committee will also hear LD 944, sponsored by Rep. Stacey Guerin (R-Glenburn), which would create a new crime for sleepy drivers. The measure would criminalize those who operate a motor vehicle while having been without sleep for 24 consecutive hours. and would apply the same penalties for fatigued driving as driving while intoxicated.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drowsy driving has contributed to 100,000 car crashes per year, which leave 71,000 people injured and 1,500 dead. Currently, seven states have drowsy driving laws, according to the National Council of State Legislatures (NCSL).
Phantom Ballot Controversy Spurs Legislation
The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will hear a bill on April 13 that aims to address problems related to a controversial recount of the Senate District 25 election last fall. On election day, Democratic Sen. Cathy Breen of Falmouth was the apparent winner by just 32 votes. However, a recount days later reversed the results, when 21 ballots for the Republican Cathy Manchester mysteriously appeared. After weeks of unfounded accusations of ballot stuffing, an investigation by a bipartisan Senate panel revealed that the recounters had mistakenly double counted the 21 ballots for Manchester. Cathy Breen was in fact the winner.
The whole ordeal could have been avoided if election officials were allowed to investigate the matter before it reached the Senate. But according to state election law, once the Secretary of State's office signs off on the recount, it is not Constitutionally authorized to independently investigate election irregularities. LD 1127, sponsored by Rep Janice Cooper (D-Yarmouth), would give the Secretary of State and the Attorney General the authority to conduct investigations during a recount. It would also allow the two offices to initiate a second recount of ballots if there are inconsistencies compared to the original ballot count.
More Attempts to Rein in Virtual Schools
The Education Committee will consider several measures to regulate the operation and funding of charter schools. There are currently six charter schools operating in the state, including the Maine Virtual Academy, an online "virtual school" that allows students to attend school from their home computers.
In recent years, virtual schools across the country have come under scrutiny for problems including lack of quality and accountability. A 2013 study of 311 virtual schools by the National Education Policy Center at University of Colorado found "serious and systemic problems" with the schools in the study and recommended more research and better regulatory oversight before states consider expanding them.
"Despite virtual schools' track record of students falling behind their peers academically or dropping-out at higher rates, states and districts continue to expand virtual schools and online offerings to students, at high cost to taxpayers," the authors of the study concluded. "The advocates of full-time virtual schools are several years ahead of policymakers and researchers, and new opportunities are being developed and promoted largely by for-profit entities accountable to stockholders rather than to any public constituency."
LD 306, sponsored by Sen. Chris Johnson (D-Lincoln County), would require the state Department of Education and the Maine Education Policy Research Institute to develop a funding model for virtual schools that reflects the appropriate costs, in order to "reduce the current overpayment made to virtual public charter schools for services, teachers and facilities that are not actually provided by the virtual public charter schools." A similar bill was vetoed by Governor LePage last session.
LD 696, sponsored by Rep. Mick Devin (D-Newcastle), would put a moratorium on the authorization of any new virtual schools until the state passes a law "expressly authorizing" the operation of virtual public charter schools. The bill would also require that virtual schools only enroll students in grades 9 to 12 on a part-time basis.
LD 218, sponsored by Rep. John Picchiotti (R-Fairfield), would require that tuition paid by a public school district to a privately run charter school be returned to the district if the student drops out of the charter school and returns to the public school. LD 1047, sponsored by Matt Pouliot (R-Augusta), would allow charter schools to enroll students from outside the state if there is space available.
Tax Incentives to Attract Seniors to Maine
Although Maine is the oldest state in the country and is facing serious economic challenges due to lack of young families moving into the state, several state policymakers have submitted legislation to provide incentives to attract and retain older, retired people. LD 1070, sponsored by Sen. Tom Saviello (R-Franklin), would reduce taxes for retirees by phasing out the income tax on retirement benefit plans and individual retirement account benefits. The bill would also eliminate the state's inheritance tax on estates worth over $2 million. LD 27, sponsored by Rep. Ellie Espling (R-New Gloucester), would exempt residents over 67 years old from the state income tax.
The committee will also hear a number of measures similar to proposals in Gov. LePage's budget to exempt pensions from the income tax. A bill sponsored by Rep. Wayne Parry (R-Arundel), would create a Constitutional Amendment that would freeze property taxes for residents over 65. Another bill, LD 76 sponsored by Sen. Nate Libby (D-Lewiston), would increase the maximum property tax fairness credit to $900 for anyone under 65 and increase it to $1,200 for anyone over 65.
House Speaker Mark Eves (D-North Berwick) is also proposing LD 1095, which would increase the maximum property fairness tax credit to $2,000 (from the current $900) for residents over 65 and from $600 to $1,500 for residents under 65. Eves' bill would also increase property tax credits for renters. The Taxation Committee will hear all of the bills on April 13.
Drug Company Kickbacks to Doctors
Last fall, the federal government unveiled an expansive online database detailing the payments doctors around the country receive from drug and medical device makers for services like promotional talks, consulting, and research. Critics say the practice can present a conflict of interest for the doctors, who might be incentivized to put consideration of the products of certain drug companies before the financial and medical well-being of their patients.
Under the federal Physician Payment Sunshine Act, all pharmaceutical and medical device companies must publicly report payments to doctors over $10, which are then compiled into a searchable online database, www.cms.gov/openpayments. The investigative news organization ProPublica has also developed its own more comprehensive database called "Dollars for Docs" at: http://projects.propublica.org/docdollars.
On April 13, the Health and Human Services Committee will consider LD 928, sponsored by Rep. Charlotte Warren (D-Hallowell), which would require the state to develop a fact sheet that provides information to the public about accessing the government database.
Banning E-Cigarettes, Allowing Pot on School Grounds
Democratic Majority Leader Rep. Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan is hoping to ban the use of electronic cigarettes in public places. In recent years, e-cigarette usage has increased as a way for smokers to consume nicotine without inhaling smoke. The e-cig includes a cartridge that is filled with liquid nicotine and turned into vapor with a small battery at the end of the device. Like jelly beans, e-cig juice comes in several different flavors, which critics worry might entice minors to begin "vaping." While "vapers" and some health professionals have touted e-cigs as a way to quit the deadly habit of smoking, research on the health effects of e-cigarettes has been inconclusive. McCabe's proposed ban, LD 1108, will be heard in the HHS Committee on April 13.
On April 16, the committee will also hear Rep. Deb Sanderson's LD 557, which would prohibit school boards from banning possession of medical marijuana on school grounds. The bill allows the parents of children with disabilities who have had medical marijuana recommended to them by a health care provider to possess pot in nonsmokeable form. The bill would also prohibit schools from denying medical marijuana patients the right to attend school solely because the child requires medical marijuana as a "reasonable accommodation."
School Grading Repeal
In 2013, the LePage administration began its controversial school grading system, which issued letter grades to Maine schools based largely on students' standardized test scores. While supporters of the policy say it increases school accountability, teachers and administrators have complained that the system shames poorer school districts, which disproportionately do worse on tests than wealthier ones.
On April 16, the Education Committee will hear LD 392, Rep. Justin Chenette (D-Saco). which would prohibit the Department of Education from using the single-letter grading system.
PERC Fights for Waste-to-Energy Subsidies
In the past year, a debate has erupted over where our solid waste will go after lucrative energy contracts between Emera Maine and the Penobscot Energy Recovery Company (PERC) in Orrington end in 2018. Recently, the Municipal Review Committee (MRC) - which represents 187 municipalities that co-own the PERC facility - voted to pursue a partnership with Maryland-based Fiberight for the construction of a $60 million solid waste processing facility to turn waste into biofuels and other marketable commodities (see "Plan for New Municipal Waste Processing Plant Moves Forward," Free Press: 2/19/2015). MRC officials argue that the PERC facility is using outdated technology and it will no longer be cost-effective to run it when it loses its government-mandated, above-market electricity rates in three years.
However, Minnesota-based USA Energy, the general manager and majority shareholder of the nearly 30-year-old PERC plant, insists it will keep running for years to come, provided that it continues to get government support. There are currently three waste-to-energy plants in Maine, and Craig Nelson, a lawyer for USA Energy, argues that they are in danger of closing.
"The reality is that if those facilities close, the state would have to figure out how to dispose of another 500,000 to 800,000 tons of waste every year that's incinerated now, and the only alternative is to put it in landfills," said Nelson.
Nelson and his clients have written LD 1107, sponsored by Sen. Kim Rosen (R-Hancock), which would make waste-to-energy plants - like PERC, EcoMaine in Portland, and Mid-Maine Waste in Auburn - eligible for the state's net energy billing program. Under the state's net energy billing law, homes and businesses with small solar or wind generators can receive credits from the utility companies for excess energy sold back to the grid. They can then redeem the credits for grid power when they are not generating electricity. LD 1107 would make waste-to-energy companies like PERC eligible for the net energy billing program. The utility company would then be required to apply net energy billing credits to the monthly bills of each municipal government customer using the facility.
The measure will likely face stiff opposition from CMP and Emera Maine, as both have been critical of the net energy billing program. The MRC has also fought USA Energy on a previous attempt to create a waste-to-energy subsidy through a landfill tax. After USA Energy billed the MRC for a portion of the $750,000 the company spent on lobbying for the bill, the organization sued its partner to contest the charges.
The Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee will take up LD 1107 on April 14.
A Thorium Refinery in Maine?
Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Androscoggin) has submitted legislation to allow the operation of a thorium refinery or a liquid fluoride thorium reactor in Maine. Thorium is a radioactive element that has the capacity to fuel nuclear reactors and is considered by some, like the World Nuclear Association, to be a cleaner, safer and more abundant alternative to uranium. However, it is expensive and still largely in the experimental stage. Brakey's bill, LD 1116, would also allow the energy produced by liquid thorium reactors to qualify as a renewable resource under the state's renewable portfolio standards.
Brakey said he submitted the bill on behalf of a "national organization that is trying to revive interest in [thorium] technology." Brakey will present the bill to the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee on April 14.
Hunting Critters with Silencers
Under Maine law, it is illegal to hunt with a gun equipped with a silencer. However, Sen. Garrett Mason (R-Androscoggin) has submitted LD 952, which would legalize the use of silencers when hunting. Proponents of the measure have argued that silencers can help reduce recoil, improve accuracy and help conceal the hunter's location from the target animal for long-range shots. They also allow people to shoot varmints in the backyard without alarming the neighbors. Opponents argue that the national movement to deregulate the use of silencers is motivated more by gun-industry money and ideology than common sense. LD 952 will be heard in the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee on April 14.
Compensating Beekeepers for Pesticide Poisoning
On April 16, the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee will hear a bill - LD 1106, sponsored by Rep. Jeff McCabe (D-Skowhegan) - that would require pesticide applicators to compensate beekeepers for honeybee deaths due to pesticide contamination. The bill states that if honeybee deaths are proved to be caused by pesticides, the pesticide applicator may be forced to compensate the honeybee owner for the fair market value of the bees. If the applicator cannot be identified, the state may be required to compensate the honeybee owner.
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