Statehouse Report: Lawmakers have much to do as end of session looms

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To say this year’s Maine legislative session has been a struggle would be an understatement.

When lawmakers returned to the Statehouse June 2 for the first time in 15 months, there was little joy and continued institutional angst. After eight lawmakers, including seven Republican House members, had been temporarily removed from committees the previous week by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau for disregarding a continuing mask mandate, the GOP pulled back.

On “reopening day,” all House members were wearing masks – except the lone Libertarian, Rep. John Andrews of Paris, claiming an act of “civil disobedience.” Two hours and a House Ethics Committee meeting later, Andrews was reprimanded and banished to the outdoors – maskless, and non-voting.

The next day, Republicans held a news conference on the Statehouse balcony – the one place where masks are not required.

The delays have piled up even as lawmakers try to conclude their work by June 16 – the last paid day – and an outcome no one was yet willing to predict.

The calendars, of almost phone directory thickness, told the story: 154 pages in the House, 176 in the Senate. Hundreds of bills still await floor action, but after two session days, some educated guesses can be ventured about their ultimate fate, with five-day-a-week sessions beginning.

Fecteau has had some notable successes, including a landmark expansion of dental care through the MaineCare program.

Just 10 states now authorize only “emergency care,” mostly surgery, through Medicaid programs, but advocates have been at this for two decades, with no success. This year, however, with support from the Mills administration, Fecteau’s bill, LD 996, seems primed for enactment.

It will cost $23 million a year, two-thirds in federal funds, compared with the $21 million cost of emergency care. For young Mainers, it will save countless millions and dramatically improve teeth, supporters say.

Fecteau maneuvered another long-neglected need toward passage with a bill providing $20 million in capital spending for secondary career and technical education centers, which last saw a general fund bond issue in 1998. With LD 144, Fecteau avoids what has become a dead-end by using the Governmental Facilities Authority, which usually funds courthouses and prisons.

Supporters of increased testing of the South Portland oil tanks, which they say emit noxious odors, scored a modest success, with LD 163 (Rep. Ralph Tucker, D-Brunswick) headed toward enactment. It requires improved data gathering.

The data could be useful as the Legislature considers LD 1532 (Rep. Victoria Morales, D-South Portland), mandating tighter inspection requirements; it’s been carried over to the 2022 session.

The outlook for criminal justice reform is mixed. A bill decriminalizing possession of hypodermic needles and a host of other drug paraphernalia (LD 994, Rep. Genevieve McDonald, D-Stonington) got favorable floor votes, but most other measures still hover in committees.

A sweeping reduction of drug possession penalties was recommitted to the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on June 3; sponsored by Rep. Anne Perry, D-Calais, it tracks Oregon’s similar experiment, enacted in 2020.

A more targeted bill, LD 1675, from Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, would remove weights used to trigger drug trafficking offenses, and received an 8-4, party-line “ought to pass” recommendation.

Two bills targeting law enforcement from House Chair Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, have dimmer prospects.

LD 1278, disbanding the Information and Analysis Center, established in 2006 by Gov. John Baldacci by executive order, got only four votes in committee. The other, LD 1298, would cut funding for the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency budget in half and reallocate $3.2 million to fund treatment programs; it got a 6-5 “ought not to pass” recommendation.

LD 1306, from Morales, now calls on the Public Utilities Commission to study adding a “crisis response” team to field 911 calls. Instead of directing mental health emergencies solely to police, the crisis teams would respond; legislation could be enacted in 2022.

An attempt to restore the possibility of parole for prison inmates, LD 842, may also be headed for study. The sponsor, Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, I-Friendship, said he’ll first present the minority “ought to pass” report, so the bill is debated.

Evangelos said he’d accept a study, but remains concerned about the group’s makeup, saying Maine’s legal establishment is unduly committed to current “determinate sentencing.”

Finally, prospects for the eventual closure of the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland are improving. Although the administration remains opposed, the Criminal Justice Committee mustered a solid 12-1 majority behind LD 546 (Rep. Mike Brennan, D-Portland), calling for small secure facilities to replace Long Creek.

It would reduce the current population to zero within two years, Brennan said, but doesn’t actually specify closing. The only committee dissenter, Rep. Grayson Lookner, D-Portland, prefers his own bill, LD 1668, which does require closure. It remains alive, with a tied 6-6 committee vote.

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, commentator, reporter, and author since 1984. His new book is “First Franco: Albert Beliveau in Law, Politics and Love.” Visit  douglasrooks.weebly.com/#/ or e-mail [email protected].