|5/7/2015 10:28:00 AM|
Eye on Augusta: Legislature to Consider Gun Law Repeal & Cutting Renewable Energy Investment
by Andy OBrienCommittee Divided on Gun Permit Repeal
Last week, a legislative committee delivered a split vote on a bill that would allow Mainers 18 and over to carry a concealed handgun without a permit. On a party-line vote of 7-5, majority Democrats recommended against passage of LD 652, which is sponsored by Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Auburn). Gun rights groups like the Gun Owners of Maine and the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine have made repealing Maine's handgun permit law a priority this session and gathered nearly 100 co-sponsors on the bill. The Maine Republican Party also launched an online petition in support of the legislation.
Sen. Brakey called his bill a "moderate proposal" to allow "law-abiding citizens" who are already allowed to openly display guns in public to carry a gun hidden on their person.
"Under current Maine law, the simple action of putting on a jacket turns a law-abiding gun owner into a law breaker, unless they undergo a lengthy permitting process," said Brakey in a statement. "This legislation changes that, and in doing so restores our Second Amendment Rights."
He also pointed out that other states like Vermont, Arizona, Alaska, Arkansas, Wyoming and Oklahoma allow gun owners to carry concealed firearms without a permit. Under Brakey's proposal, individuals such as felons who are prohibited from possessing weapons would still be barred from carrying concealed firearms.
Under Maine law, a concealed-carry permit can be issued by the State Police, local law enforcement, and some municipal governments. Applicants must fill out a form stating that he/she is not prohibited from possessing a firearm along with his/her name, addresses for the past five years, birth date, a record of permit issuances, and answers to several criminal background and mental health questions. The applicant must also submit proof that he/she has taken a gun safety course.
Speaking against the permit repeal measure for the Maine Sheriffs' Association, Knox County Chief Deputy Tim Carroll argued that the handgun permitting system demands a level of safety training and allows law enforcement to do criminal background checks on permit applicants.
"Unfortunately, even in Maine, law enforcement has become vigilant and suspect of all to be carrying until proven otherwise," said Carroll. "That forces us to behave in such a way to suspect everyone to be on guard. The way the law is written [now] it at least affords the opportunity to know whether one should be carrying or not and those that are have had some level of training regarding handling of such a weapon."
The Maine State Police supported LD 652 and called the permit system "antiquated" and "inefficient." However, they also announced Wednesday that they had seized a large stash of firearms from two-time convicted felon Troy Babb of Gray after he applied for a concealed-carry permit and they performed a background check on him. The police seized seven rifles and shotguns and three handguns from his house and pickup.
The bill will be coming up for a vote in the Senate any day now. In related news, on April 30, Gov. LePage joined the governors of Mississippi, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas in an amicus brief in the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals calling for the repeal of California's handgun permit law.
Bill to Weaken Renewable Energy Standards
This week the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee will consider a bill sponsored by Sen. Mike Thibodeau (R-Waldo County) that would weaken state incentives to produce renewable power. LD 1339 would suspend the state's Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards if standard-offer electricity rates for residential customers hit 10 cents per kilowatt hour. Currently, the standard-offer rate for the residential and small business class is 6.5 cents per kilowatt hour.
Maine's RPS law requires that utilities purchase at least 30 percent of the state's energy from renewable sources, including wind, solar, biomass and hydro. In 2013, over half of the state's net electricity generation came from renewable energy resources - with 29 percent from hydro, 25 percent from biomass, and 7 percent from wind, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Thibodeau and Gov. LePage have made it a priority to cut state support for renewable energies because they believe they have led to higher energy costs.
"Electricity costs have long been identified as one of Maine's biggest economic problems," said Senator Thibodeau in a statement. "Last year, ratepayers saw huge spikes on their electric bills, and that didn't need to happen to the extent that it did. My bill aims to control costs that are unnecessarily inflated."
The total cost of RPS is about 35 cents a month for the average residential ratepayer. According to the Office of the Public Advocate, Maine residents pay about 62 cents a month on their bill for all of the state's renewable energy policies that help subsidize wind, solar, and biomass.
Environmental groups and the Public Advocate opposed Thibodeau's proposal on the grounds that the measure was not likely to lower rates in any meaningful way and would create uncertainty for businesses investing in local renewable power.
"If that uncertainty means less investment in renewables, it will leave Maine more dependent on the one source of power that we are already extremely dependent on: natural gas," said Dylan Voorhees of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. "If natural gas prices rise - and they will rise over time - to the point when electric prices reach 10 cents/kWh, we may be able to suspend the RPS but find ourselves with no reduction in prices because we hindered one of our key strategies to provide energy security: indigenous renewables that do not fluctuate due to fuel prices."
According to a recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, Maine is one of eight states that has been leading the way in the clean energy economy, with businesses investing over $900 billion in the renewable energy sector between 2009 and 2013. That investment is projected to rise to $2 billion by 2023, which the organization says is due to the state's highest-in-the-nation renewable energy portfolio standards (RPS), which were last updated in 2007 to require utilities to source at least 40 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2017.
Public hearings scheduled next week Vaccines & Testing Opt-Outs, Common Core Conspiracies, Abortion, Right to Die & More
In recent years, conservative talk radio DJs and right-wing conspiracy websites have stoked mass hysteria over the new national Common Core English language arts and math standards by making false claims that the tests used to assess the standards are being used to collect personal student information. Maine students in grades 3-8 and high school juniors are currently taking the Common Core-aligned Smarter Balanced tests this spring. On his website, talk radio host Glenn Beck contends the federal government is engaged in a Common Core data-mining operation using "biowristbands" and "1984 tight monitoring systems."
"This is the progressive movement coming in for the kill," said Beck "And believe me, if we don't stop it, this will be the kill. But we can't and we won't allow it."
On May 11, there will be a hearing on LD 1276, sponsored by Rep. Michael McClellan (R-Raymond), a bill that would, perhaps in response to Beck's assertions, prohibit state assessments from being aligned with the Common Core standards. The measure would also require the Maine DOE to adopt a new assessment that complies with mandatory federal testing requirements, but does not collect or disseminate personal attributes of students such as "attitudes, values, motivations, stereotypes or feelings." The bill would also require that "personally identifying data of a student derived from a state assessment ... be disseminated only with the express written permission of each of the student's parents or guardians." The measure would also require that any state assessment be developed with direct input from teachers, parents and school boards and "specifically addresses the needs of students and citizens of the State."
However, according to a DOE spokesperson, none of that type of information is actually collected. In fact, federal law prohibits the creation of any federal database with personally identifiable student information, such as Social Security numbers, and is only permitted to report aggregate-level student data. But, facts aside, in September 2013, Gov. LePage signed an executive order "prohibiting the influence of the federal government into Maine's education policy" after "parents and educators have raised concerns about the Obama Administration's attempts to hijack successful state-led education reforms" such as the adoption of the Common Core. It did not elaborate on how the Common Core standards have been "hijacked."
The executive order also asserted the state's "constitutional right to state sovereignty over education" and prohibited the collection and storing of "personally identifiable data on students and/or their families' religion, political party affiliation, psychometric data, biometric information, and/or voting history."
Rep. McClellan did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Opting Out of Standardized Tests
The growing opposition to standardized testing on the part of parents, however, can be attributed to many reasons, not necessarily Common Core conspiracy. This spring, as record numbers of parents have been opting out of the new Common Core tests, a number of parents and teachers have been complaining on the Facebook group "Opt Out of State Standardized Tests - Maine" that administrators have been actively discouraging them from opting their children out of tests. In Maine, students already have the right to opt out, but Assistant Majority Leader Rep. Sara Gideon (D-Freeport) has submitted LD 695, which aims to "codify those rights in state statute and eliminate any confusion on the matter."
"As the mother of three kids, I know how much time these tests now take and about the stress and anxiety high-stakes testing causes for teachers, educators, parents and students," said Gideon in a statement. "I really want Maine to have a conversation about the sheer number of tests our kids are taking, the effectiveness of these tests and whether we're using these tests in the best way to improve education for our kids."
However, if fewer than 95 percent of students participate in the tests, the federal government has threatened to withhold Title 1 funding. The Maine DOE has also stated that next year schools will receive an automatic "F" grade on the state report card if fewer than 90 percent of students in a school take the test. The Education Committee will hear LD 695 on May 11.
The contentious debate over the future of metallic mineral mining in Maine will continue next week with a measure sponsored by Rep. Ralph Chapman (D-Brooksville). Chapman's bill, LD 750, would put a moratorium on mineral mining in Maine until 2017, so that the Department of Environmental Protection can develop rules that adequately protect public health and the environment and require that all mining areas be left in or returned to a geologically stable condition following remediation and closure. The bill would also mandate that all remediation costs related to cleaning up a mining area be paid for by the company and not by the state. The Environment and Natural Resources Committee will hear the bill on May 11.
Vaccines Opt-Out Legislation Gets a Hearing
As the national debate over parents opting their children out of vaccines rages on, the Health and Human Services Committee will be considering a number of vaccine-related bills on May 11. At 5.2 percent, Maine has the fifth-highest vaccine opt-out rate in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The committee will hear LD 606, sponsored by Rep. Ralph Tucker (D-Brunswick), which would eliminate the philosophical exemption from vaccine requirements for students in elementary and secondary schools and postsecondary schools and employees of nursery schools and health-care facilities.
Rep. Linda Sanborn (D-Gorham), a retired primary care physician, has submitted LD 471, which would require parents seeking a philosophical exemption to routine childhood vaccinations when enrolling a child in school or a licensed day care facility to present written documentation signed by a health-care practitioner stating that the practitioner has reviewed with the parent information about the risks and benefits of immunization.
On the other side of the debate, Rep. Beth O'Connor (R-Berwick) will introduce a bill to establish the "Vaccine Consumer Protection Program," which would "provide information about vaccine injuries and immunizations to health-care providers and the public." The program would also be charged with telling patients about the "potentially adverse side effects" of vaccines and inform patients about "their right to opt out of vaccine requirements based on religious and philosophical grounds and offer a step-by-step explanation about how to pursue legal recourse if an individual suspects a vaccine injury has occurred." O'Connor's bill would also require the Department of Health and Human Services to investigate and evaluate alleged vaccine injuries.
Welfare Restriction Bills: Round 3
The Health and Human Services Committee will be considering another round of bills to restrict access to state welfare programs for the poor on May 12.
LD 1375, sponsored by Sen. Mike Thibodeau, is essentially a rehash of several bills submitted by Gov. Paul LePage last session that were rejected by the Democratic-led Legislature. However, Thibodeau says after the governor won election last November on a platform of attacking programs for the needy, he believes the measures will be more politically palatable to Democrats.
The bill would require that applicants for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program show proof that they applied for at least three jobs before receiving benefits. It would also prohibit the use of electronic benefits (EBT) cards outside of the state for 15 percent of monthly benefits and prohibit the use of benefits for tobacco, liquor, gambling, lottery, tattoos, and bail. It would also terminate benefits for repeat violations of the new rules and would limit the amount of time TANF recipients can go to school full-time. Under current law, recipients can attend college while receiving benefits for up to 24 months. Although the program does not pay tuition, it assists with transportation costs and child care needs. Thibodeau's bill would drop the time a recipient can spend in school to the federal minimum of 12 months.
And Democrats have also submitted their own welfare restriction bills. Sen. Nate Libby (D-Androscoggin) has put in LD 1097, which would prohibit recipients from using EBT cards in every state except New Hampshire and would also prohibit the cash withdrawals from being used for several items like tobacco, liquor and lottery tickets. Libby proposes to hire another five welfare fraud investigators in addition to the eight that were hired in 2011 at a cost of $700,000. Democratic Majority Leader Rep. Jeff McCabe has also submitted a bill to prohibit TANF cash withdrawals on tobacco and to develop a special education program for TANF recipients to educate them that the benefits are not to be used for tobacco products, liquor products, gambling activities or lotteries.
There are currently about 6,100 households in Maine receiving TANF. The total state spending on the program is about $30 million, or less than .007 percent of the state budget. Currently, one in five Maine children under 5 are living in poverty, which is defined as $11,700 for an individual and $20,900 for a family of three. The average TANF benefit is $485 per month for a family of three, which is the lowest level in New England.
Abortion Bills Get a Hearing
Pro-life and pro-choice activists will be gearing up for a big hearing on bills concerning access to abortions. The Judiciary Committee will hear LD 1312, sponsored by Rep. Deb Sanderson (R-Chelsea), which would require the Department of Health and Human Services to write rules for abortion clinics. Sanderson says her bill is an attempt to simply "standardize" all medical facilities.
"It's not an anti-abortion bill," said Sanderson, who has been endorsed by the Christian Civic League as a pro-life legislator. "Because they do receive state funding, I think they ought to follow the same level of oversight and standardize across like all other facilities and clinics that offer day surgeries."
However, the pro-choice Planned Parenthood of Maine Action Fund has called Sanderson's proposal a "Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers" or TRAP. Opponents of the bill say it could give DHHS the authority to write rules that could restrict access to abortions.
"The bill falsely claims to improve women's health, but in reality, it is just another attempt to restrict access to safe, legal abortion," Planned Parenthood wrote in a statement. While the organization does receive state funding, it says it does not receive public money for abortions.
The HHS Committee will also hear LD 83, sponsored by Sen. Paul Davis (R-Piscataquis), which would repeal Maine's parental consent law to place more restrictions on abortion procedures for minors. Current law requires that any girl under 17 must get consent from a parent, guardian, adult family member or judge before getting an abortion. Davis' bill would require the girl to get written consent from a parent or guardian, a brother or sister over 21, or from a stepparent or a grandparent, except in the case of a medical emergency.
Domestic Violence & Death in Police Custody
On May 14, Sen. Bill Diamond (D-Cumberland) will present LD 861, which would prohibit a landlord from evicting a tenant because of an instance of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. The measure, which will be heard by the Judiciary Committee, would also render the perpetrator liable for certain damages. The committee will also hear LD 962, sponsored by Rep. Dillon Bates (D-Westbrook), which would require the Attorney General to conduct criminal investigations of deaths of people at correctional facilities or in police custody.
Physician-Assisted End-of-Life Decisions
Sen. Roger Katz (R-Augusta) is sponsoring LD 1270, a bill that would allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients to self-administer. The bill would allow these patients to have a right to information surrounding their options for end-of-life decisions and it would provide legal immunity from criminal and civil prosecutions for physicians, health-care facilities and health-care providers. LD 1270 would also prohibit insurance companies from denying life insurance claims to family members of the terminally ill patient.
To listen to committee hearings, visit www.maine.gov/legis/audio/committee_frameset.html. For a full schedule of hearings and events in Augusta, visit http://legislature.maine.gov/committee/#Calendar
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