Leaders pledge restraint in allowing new bills

Posted Oct. 12, 2009, at 8:40 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — From defining chocolate candy to reforming health care and defining where a sex offender may live, legislative leaders will consider 372 bills this week that lawmakers want considered in the January session.

The lobbying effort is well under way to convince the 10 elected leaders why a measure is an emergency that must be considered in 2010.

“I have already been having conversations with many members of my party and the other party and senators about their bill requests,” said House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven. She said the good news is that many lawmakers recognize the state’s fiscal problems, and bill requests are down by about 200 over the average for a second session.

Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry, the GOP Senate floor leader, said the definition of what is an emergency certainly varies by lawmaker. He said some are truly local, such as fixing a local water district charter, but others are emerging issues that need to be addressed. Among those he counted his measure to roll back vital records fee increases that were implemented by agency rule, not by legislative action.

“I certainly think that is an emergency we need to address,” he said.

Raye said there are other proposals that are not clearly emergencies, and he will oppose their introduction. He agrees with Pingree that the session needs to be limited to issues that must be addressed, although he also is being lobbied by other lawmakers to support consideration of their proposals.

“A lot that put bills in are making a good case why it is an emergency,” Pingree said. “A lot of bills are in to fix mistakes from the last session that we have found.”

Or possible mistakes, in some cases, with several bills aimed at the uncertain tax reform measure that expanded the sales tax in order to lower the income tax rate.

That measure may be subject to a vote next June if opponents submitted enough signatures last month to trigger the vote. The prospect of that vote has led to the introduction of several “what if” bills.

“If the voters decide to keep the law, which I think they will, the petition process has delayed the effective date so nothing balances now,” said House Majority Leader John Piotti, D-Unity. He was the chief architect of the reform law and said delaying the measure would mean there is not enough additional sales tax revenue to pay for the income tax decrease.

“We have to fix that, maybe by just moving all the effective dates, but it is something we need to be ready to do and not wait until it happens,” he said.

But, if the petition effort fails, the new sales taxes kick in Jan. 1, 2010, with some uncertainties about what is taxed and how.

Senate Majority Leader Phil Bartlett, D-Gorham, said commercial chocolate makers in his district are furious with the definitions in the law that will tax different kinds of chocolate at different rates.

“It’s ludicrous,” he said. “We have created this multitiered taxing level for chocolate.”

Piotti defended the tax scheme saying it is based on definitions worked out by a national group to ease collection of sales taxes from state to state.

“I wished he had talked to me before putting that in,” Piotti said.

The tax issues go well beyond defining candy. The legislature’s Taxation Committee has been meeting on the new law, and members want to clarify exactly how the law is applied in some cases.

For example, admission fees for various forms of amusements and entertainment pose some questions. Minigolf is taxed, but regular golf is not. Paintball is taxable, but laser tag is not.

And lawmakers recently held a lengthy discussion of what is a park. Some are not considered places of entertainment or amusement so they are not taxed under the new law, but if a “historical site” is part of the park, that admission is taxable. Committee members rolled their eyes over how to resolve that issue, among others.

Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, said the definition of what is an emergency has always been subjective. She has served as speaker and as a floor leader in both the House and Senate. She said if lawmakers can make a good case, they will get the six votes they need to allow a bill into the session.

“We want to know why it is an emergency, why it can’t wait,” she said, “Everyone knows that state finances will totally dominate this session.”

There are several duplicate bill requests, such as proposals to ban texting while driving. Leaders say they will not allow all of the proposals in, but may allow a single measure to be considered.

In addition to the bills allowed into the session at Thursday’s meeting, 88 bills were carried over from the first regular session. There are also 75 measures proposed by state agencies under the authority of the governor to introduce legislation. And there are always bills allowed in after deadline.

“I think we are going to be pretty busy,” said Sen. Jonathan Courtney, R-Sanford, the assistant GOP floor leader.

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