Statehouse Report: Little evidence of bipartisanship on the floor

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After a month-long gap between sessions, the Maine Legislature creaked back into action at the Augusta Civic Center April 28, in a now-familiar scenario where lawmakers share the building with a vaccine clinic and the enormous parking lot with a variety of protesters.

Of the latter, the most numerous were lobstering interests which, along with a few Republican House members, insist the Gulf of Maine isn’t large enough to share with proposed floating offshore wind towers.

They were flanked for strategic position near the doors, however, by medical marijuana licensees, who claim new state rules for recreational sales could turn the burgeoning cannabis business over to out-of-state interests.

The day preceding the session featured a rare bit of bipartisan harmony, as Democratic Gov. Janet Mills joined the Energy Utilities and Technology Committee to tout a partnership with Republicans, using an amended version of a bill sponsored by Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Norway, LD 1484, as a vehicle to launch the Maine Connectivity Authority.

The new authority would be tasked with deploying $129 million in dedicated federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, which is separate from the $1 billion in discretionary state funding the Legislature will also divvy up.

Mills was vague on how the authority would be structured, focusing instead on what it would not be: “Not an expansion of government bureaucracy, not a tax authority, an adjudicative authority or a regulatory authority.”

It seems instead to be an ad hoc body pulled together to administer federal grants and other revenue streams. Bennett said he views it as a “quasi-governmental independent authority,” similar to the Maine Technology Institute, but “more task-oriented.”

It was Bennett who had insisted the state needs a larger body to coordinate and administer suddenly mushrooming plans for rural broadband. The existing ConnectME Authority has a staff of two, and a budget of $1 million; it would be folded into the new agency, according to Bennett.

When lawmakers gathered, there were heaps of procedural matters piled up since the end of the regular session – adjourned by Democrats so a majority-passed biennial budget could take effect July 1 – and the first day of the special session. The daily Senate calendar weighed in at 100 pages; the House calendar, 126.

State Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland.

Floor debates showed little further evidence of bipartisan spirit, and 20 House members, most of them Republicans, were absent in the 151-member chamber.

A proposed constitutional amendment by Sen. Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro, to guarantee a “clean and healthy environment” passed the Senate by voice vote, but fell short of the required two-thirds in the House, 82-49, with no Republicans in favor.

The outlook is better for a bill by Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland. LD 183 would establish Juneteenth as a paid state holiday. It was approved by a House voice vote, and a party line, 22-12, tally in the Senate; it will face enactment votes when there’s another session day, not likely until May 10.

Texas was until recently the only state offering paid time off for Juneteenth, recognizing the surrender of Confederate forces in Galveston on June 19, 1865. Massachusetts’ Republican governor, Charlie Baker, signed a paid holiday bill last year, and other states are likely to follow.

The results were similar for LD 440, introduced by Maxmin, which conserves the Frances Perkins Homestead National Historic Landmark in Damariscotta with a $100,000 state appropriation. It honors the first female Cabinet secretary (under President Franklin Roosevelt) and passed in the House, 81-49, and the Senate, 24-11, where it picked up one GOP vote from Bennett.

Democrats in both the House and Senate advanced measures to provide $250,000 for free health-care clinics (LD 47 by Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland) and to allocate $200,000 to the Health Insurance Consumer Assistance Program (LD 631 by Sen. Stacy Brenner, D-Scarborough.) 

Senate Democrats approved public employee payroll deductions for disability and life insurance (LD 189, Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash) and to establish a prescription drug manufacturer “take-back” program (LD 8, Sen. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth.)

Democrats combined to defeat Republican-sponsored measures that would have allowed tax increment financing for municipal buildings (LD 412, Rep. Nathan Carlow, R-Buxton), short-term health insurance plans (LD 424, Bennett), to repeal the plastic bag ban (LD 39, Sen. Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn) and impose a 16-year lifetime limit on legislative service (LD 321, Rep. Justin Fecteau, R-Augusta.)

State Sen. Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro.

Lawmakers have been awaiting new budget proposals from Mills: the $1 billion in discretionary federal funding, and a supplemental budget reflecting $461 million in additional revenue just forecast for the biennium. Mills unveiled her plan for the $1 billion on May 4, to be followed by the supplemental budget plan and a revised bond package.

Legislators are meanwhile staking a claim to some of the money.

They overwhelmingly approved a bill by Rep. Thom Harnett, D-Gardiner, LD 328, to restore municipal revenue sharing from the current 3.75 percent to the statutory 5 percent of sales and income taxes, by 144-1 in the House and 33-1 in the Senate. That would cost $22.3 million for the current fiscal year.

A similar push to meet the statutory 55 percent for state aid to school districts may also be in the offing. Unlike revenue sharing, which was largely stable until it was cut to 2 percent at former Gov. Paul LePage’s behest, the state has never fully funded school aid.

Hundreds of bills still await hearings in committees, and hundreds more are expected to emerge for the Legislature’s May sessions.

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].

Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash.

Jackson: Promises made should be kept, especially on health care

Now serving his third year as Senate president, Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, hasn’t changed his priorities. But he is worried that his biggest concern, health care, is not getting the attention it deserves.

His bill LD 1, which guarantees free testing and vaccinations for COVID-19, co-sponsored by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau was enacted on March 11 but hasn’t been followed by decisive federal action, Jackson said in an interview.

And even LD 1 became law without Gov. Janet Mills’ signature – apparently because of its overlap with her emergency powers. Jackson said he isn’t concerned with such nuances.

“I’m just trying to make sure we keep the promises we’ve made to our constituents,” he said. 

So Jackson has sponsored or is promoting another half dozen bills filed by Democratic legislators to push the boundaries on various health issues, especially prescription drug prices. One would establish an independent review process; another would cap the price of insulin, which has soared in recent years.

Jackson acknowledged it’s difficult for states to take the lead. The Food and Drug Administration approves all medications, and so far Congress has been unwilling to negotiate prices paid by Medicare, as almost every other nation does.

He thinks the choice is simple: “Either do something about the prices charged by Big Pharma or allow states to import drugs from countries where prices are reasonable, and we know they’re safe.”

Jackson has long been involved in efforts to import drugs from Canada, dating to when former Republican U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe was still leading the charge.

He said price negotiations won’t limit the availability of new prescription drugs: “They’ll still make profits, just not obscene profits.”

Although he’s concerned with President Biden’s lack of proposals to expand Medicare – Congressional Democrats are pushing lowering the age of eligibility to 60 – he’s impressed by Biden’s willingness to support labor organizing drives. Before he was a legislator, Jackson worked to organize his fellow Aroostook County loggers.

“Democrats have run from these issues for a long time,” he said, “and it’s going to take time to bring them back.”

Jackson is not optimistic that Republicans will provide votes when needed to achieve two-thirds majorities for bond issues. Previous GOP support for bond-supported programs such as the Land for Maine’s Future has withered.

Since Republicans have only been willing to support an annual $100 million in borrowing for transportation, he wondered if using their enthusiasm against them may work.

“Maybe we should try something really big,” he said, “not just keep the roads from falling apart, but to really fix them up.”

— Douglas Rooks