Statehouse Report: Hits, misses in the Maine Legislature

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After another slow pandemic start, the 2022 legislative session picked up steam in its final weeks with extensive debate on issues including Native American tribal affairs and a sustained push for affordable housing.

And while a $1.2 billion surplus fueled hopes for a variety of new spending, in the end, numerous bills were axed on the Appropriations table.

Although it emerged in slimmed-down form, House Speaker Ryan Fecteau’s bill to remove zoning impediments to affordable housing, LD 2003, passed muster and was ceremonially signed into law on April 27 by Gov. Janet Mills at an Augusta middle school recently redeveloped as affordable housing.

The proposal, produced by a commission studying financial and regulatory barriers, lost two of its most contentious features: a state review board that could have overturned municipal rejections of affordable housing plans, and a ban on residential growth caps, such as one maintained for nearly two decades by Scarborough.

Nonetheless, the amended version was also opposed, unsuccessfully, by the Maine Municipal Association, which insisted it violated “home rule” principles.

Rep. Thom Harnett, D-Gardiner, a former Gardiner mayor, said he felt municipal concerns were adequately addressed and was comfortable voting for the final version, which contains funding for technical assistance to municipal boards – although some housing advocates hope more can be provided regionally in the future.

Two other housing-related bills stalled. A bill from Sen. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, LD 484, would have reallocated an estimated $23 million annually to Maine Housing’s HOME fund, which subsidizes new and existing housing. It passed but wasn’t funded in the supplemental budget. A provision to reserve 25 percent of the fund for new affordable units, however, did become law.

And Chipman said he’ll continue to work to increase funding next year. “The governor’s office was intrigued by the idea,” he said of late negotiations.

A bill from Rep. Victoria Morales, D-South Portland, LD 473, to create a state program parallel to federal Section 8 housing vouchers, which have multiple-year waiting lists, failed to advance.

Ben Collings
Maine state Rep. Ben Collings, D-Portland.

Maine’s four Indian tribes won some significant victories but still fell short of the comprehensive rewrite of the 1980 Lands Claim Act they were seeking.

An initially negative response from the administration about a bill allowing the Passamaquoddy tribe to drill wells on its Pleasant Point reservation without triggering Land Claims Act review turned around after the House passed LD 906 by a veto-proof margin. After being amended at the governor’s request, it was signed into law on April 21.

An offer by Mills to allow the tribes exclusive access to online sports betting proceeds, LD 585, is near enactment but was held up pending negotiations over LD 1626, the “sovereignty bill” that would allow tribes to benefit from all federal legislation passed since 1980, something now requiring state approval.

Mills said she would veto LD 1626 if it reached her desk, and asked lawmakers not to send it. Subsequently, tribal leaders said they wouldn’t continue to push the proposal, since it might jeopardize LD 585, which also included state concessions on tribal taxes; the governor signed it May 2.

That means when lawmakers return on May 9 for “veto day” to consider overrides, they’re likely to desist on sovereignty. Rep. Ben Collings, D-Portland, who has worked with the tribes for nearly two decades, said “it’s always been the approach of legislators to defer to the tribes.”

Still, he said just bringing the sovereignty bill to a vote, first recommended by a 2020 legislative commission, was a major development. “Ten years ago, we wouldn’t have seen anything like this,” Collings said. “It’s now a major priority for the Democratic caucus, and some Republicans, too.”

The administration suggested a scaled-down version might work, but “we ran out of time to get that done,” he said, predicting a new bill will emerge for the 2023 session.

Elsewhere, a proposal to fulfill a contingent 1967 constitutional amendment to replace 16 elected county probate judges with nine appointed state judges passed both houses but failed for lack of funding. LD 1950 was the latest in a series of proposals over the decades to repeal provisions for the only judges Maine voters have ever elected. Now, as they have since statehood in 1820, probate candidates will appear on the ballot this November.

A bill to return a parole system to Maine for the first time since 1976 was finally enacted as a legislative study committee, which will do its work this summer and fall and report to lawmakers for the 2023 session. Sponsored by Rep. Jeff Evangelos, I-Friendship, LD 842 steered a tortuous path after multiple amendments brought it to fruition on the 2021 session’s final day. Mills, a long-time opponent of parole, held the bill, then allowed it to become law without her signature in January.

Finally, an effort by Sen. Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro, to add a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing a “healthy environment” was defeated. LD 489 failed to gain the required two-thirds majorities, despite the success of a “right-to-food” amendment the previous year, ratified by voters in November 2021.

“There were a lot of speeches on the floor pledging to support a healthy environment, but predicting all sorts of dire consequences if it passed,” Gardiner lawmaker Harnett said. “In the end, we didn’t have the votes.” 

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator, and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books. His first, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now in paperback. He welcomes comments at [email protected].