Editor’s Note: A new year means a new opportunity for our reporters and photographers to inform our readers of the issues affecting Maine. Here are some of the stories we’ll be following.
1. Governor’s race
As Gov. John Baldacci enters the final year of his second term, a slew of potential successors to the Blaine House is already gearing up for what is expected to be a lively governor’s race in 2010.
Twenty people already have filed with the Maine Ethics Commission the initial paperwork necessary to run for governor, with more anticipated.
The slate of major-party candidates — Democrats, Republicans and potentially Green Independents — will be narrowed to three by the time the votes from the June 8 primaries are tallied. As of late December, there were seven Democrats, six Republicans and one Green Independent indicating they planned to seek their party’s nomination.
Another six politically unaffiliated, or “unenrolled,” Mainers round out the field of early gubernatorial candidates. While unenrolled candidates will not have to survive a primary election, they must collect 4,000 petition signatures to qualify for the November ballot.
Republicans are hoping to capitalize on Baldacci’s sagging approval ratings and potential voter discontent with the Democrat-controlled Legislature, Congress and the Obama administration to give Maine its first GOP governor since 1995.
Most of the early Republican candidates come from the business sector. The field of Democratic contenders, meanwhile, includes some veteran lawmakers and state officials.
Republicans — State Sen. Peter Mills, of Cornville; Les Otten, of Greenwood; Matthew Jacobson, of Cumberland; Bruce Poloquin, of Georgetown; Waterville Mayor Paul LePage; Martin Vachon, of Mariaville.
Democrats — Steven Rowe, former Maine attorney general; Sen. Elizabeth Mitchell, of Vassalboro; former House Speaker John Richardson, of Brunswick; Rosa Scarcelli, of Portland; former Biddeford Mayor Donna Dion; Peter Truman and Eriq Manson, both of Old Orchard Beach.
Green Independent — Lynne Williams, of Bar Harbor.
Nonparty candidates include Samme Bailey, of Gorham; Beverly Cooper-Pete, of Portland; Eliot Cutler, of Cape Elizabeth; Augustus Edgerton, of Bangor; Alex Hammer, of Bangor; and John Whitcomb, of Sidney.
2. State budget woes
In 2009, state lawmakers spent months crafting a two-year budget that was roughly $500 million smaller than the previous one. Ultimately, however, those cuts weren’t deep enough.
This legislative session, lawmakers will have to find a way to reduce government spending by more than $400 million over the next 18 months as the recession continues to take a toll on income taxes and other revenue sources for the state.
Gov. Baldacci has prepared a budget blueprint cutting $438 million from the two-year budget. While cuts are spread across state government, public schools and programs that provide health and human services will take the largest hits because, together, they make up roughly 80 percent of the state budget.
The final product that emerges from the Legislature is also likely to look considerably different from the governor’s proposal.
Last year’s budget was a bipartisan effort. While members of the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee will attempt to maintain that spirit of cooperation, the scope of the additional cuts necessary in 2010 is likely to force some tough conversations as lawmakers scrutinize important but costly social services programs.
Baldacci’s plan does not include any tax increases.
Public hearings on the budget cuts will begin in Augusta on Jan. 7 and continue through Jan. 14.
3. Wind power expansion
Like the wind itself, the story of the fledgling wind power industry in Maine, and its increasing array of critics, flows in every direction and shows no sign of ceasing.
First Wind of Massachusetts and Calgary-based TransCanada will continue to in effect vie for the title of operator of Maine’s largest industrial wind site. TransCanada is expected to finish phase two of its 44 three-megawatt wind turbines on Kibby Mountain in western Maine in 2010, the state’s largest such development. The first 22 units went on line in November.
First Wind has at least four projects in development, including new or additional wind farms on Stetson Mountain, Rollins Mountain, in Oakfield and in Rumford.
Citizens groups such as the Friends of Lincoln Lakes, which are against virtually all land-based wind development, are becoming more ubiquitous. The state’s first citizens group to take a wind developer to court, the Friends could stop the Rollins Mountain project if it gets a favorable judgment on one of its two civil court appeals. Decisions are expected at any time.
Government officials and University of Maine researchers have begun exploring ocean-based wind and wave turbines in the Gulf of Maine, which would make Maine the first state in the nation to create offshore wind test and demonstration sites. More than 30 public and private partners are involved.
Baldacci has made the creation of a renewable-energy industry one of his administration’s hallmark issues and continues to lobby the federal government for more wind-power funding, while municipalities such as Dixmont have enacted ordinances increasingly restrictive to industrial wind sites.
Other towns, such as Millinocket and Jackson, have begun researching their own wind power ordinances.
4. Health care reform
Congress continues to grapple with the historic effort to reform the nation’s health care system. In the early weeks of 2010, expect more politicized wrangling in the House and Senate as bills from each chamber are merged into a single piece of legislation.
The primary goal of the legislation is to expand health insurance coverage to the majority of Americans. Thanks in large part to its generous Medicaid eligibility guidelines, a relatively low percentage of Maine’s population is uninsured — about 125,000 individuals. Many insured Mainers are covered only by high-deductible “catastrophic” plans.
Through measures such as regulating the private insurance industry, providing premium subsidies for middle- and low-income families and individuals, and requiring most people to have some kind of coverage, reform supporters say more Americans will have access to essential health care services.
Opponents say a rash of new taxes, cuts in the Medicare program for the elderly, and a move to “socialize” health care mark the proposals for failure.
Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe has played a pivotal role in developing the Senate bill — the only Republican in either house to vote in favor of the legislation in committee. Sen. Susan Collins has maintained a lower profile on the issue. Both senators ultimately voted with their Republican colleagues against the Senate measure just before Christmas.
Democratic U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud both voted in favor of the House bill.
5. Medical marijuana
Voters in the November referendum approved an expansion of access to marijuana for medical purposes. The new law permits the growing, selling, buying and possession of marijuana through a statewide patient registry and a system of state-regulated dispensaries.
Proponents argued successfully that patients with certain medical conditions benefit from the use of marijuana under the supervision of a doctor, and that existing laws made it too difficult for many people to obtain the drug. Opponents, including several state officials, argued that expanding access to marijuana would lead to in-creased recreational use, neighborhood disruption and other problems.
Voters approved the measure by 2 to 1.
In 2010, the Legislature will review the recommendations of a task force charged with implementing the new law and making it work. Issues include patient confidentiality, dispensary regulation and limitations on the number of pot-using patients a doctor may supervise. Some communities are already exploring the implications: Brewer, for example, recently enacted a six-month moratorium on marijuana clinics opening within the city limits.
6. Bangor’s new direction
When Bangor city councilors made their decision in late October to part ways with longtime City Manager Ed Barrett, they spoke of a new direction and vision for Bangor.
Councilors have met multiple times since to define and articulate their vision, but so far it hasn’t been conveyed to the public. The Barrett decision and the unclear vision prompted one resident to take out petitions to recall five of the nine councilors. Those petitions, which need to gather 2,286 signatures by March 1, have not generated as much interest as petitioner Jim Elmore had hoped.
From the councilors’ perspectives, they recognize that they need to move on from Barrett and are confident the recall petition will blow over. As for their vision, council Chairman Richard Stone had said that he and his fellow councilors know that saying something is one thing, but doing something typically carries more clout.
So as 2010 progresses, Bangor has an opportunity to make significant strides in some key areas, specifically: hiring a new city manager, finally green-lighting a new arena, and more aggressively developing the downtown and the waterfront.
However, the area that could take up most of the council’s time is likely to be the municipal budget, and all other decisions likely could hinge on those talks. Already, the city faces a potential revenue shortfall of $1.3 million over the previous year and that number could grow to more than $3 million for the 2011 fiscal year.
Whatever Bangor looks to do in 2010, each proposal will have to answer two critical questions: How much will it cost and how will we pay for it?
7. Folk Festival future
For five years, the American Folk Festival on the Bangor Waterfront has delighted residents of Greater Bangor every August with music and culture that is unmatched in Maine.
During that time, the nonprofit festival also has accrued significant debt, most of which has been absorbed by the city of Bangor through a symbiotic but undefined partnership.
Now that details of the city’s financial stake in the American Folk Festival have emerged, the city has closed off its line of credit, and councilors have communicated with the festival’s staff and board that changes are essential.
With the next folk festival only eight months away, board members have been working feverishly to trim its budget and come up with ways to increase revenue in order for the event to survive.
Although details of those changes have not been announced, festival director Heather McCarthy and board chairwoman Maria Baeza have said everything is on the table.
That means the event could be smaller, shorter or scaled down on the talent side. Everyone agrees, though, that the show will go on in some fashion.
8. Tax reform referendum
It has been called everything from the “Maine miracle” to “an outright attack” on working people.
And on June 8, Maine voters will have the chance to decide whether a historic tax reform measure passed by lawmakers in 2009 should go into effect or be tossed to the curb.
For years, Maine has been labeled a high-tax state due, in part, to a top income tax rate of 8.5 percent that kicks in for individuals earning more than $16,500 a year.
A bill passed by the Legislature, largely along party lines, would lower the top tax rate to 6.5 percent for most Mainers while imposing a rate of 6.85 percent for those earning more than $250,000. Coming in the middle of a recession, the tax cuts were dubbed “the Maine miracle” by the conservative editorial writers of the Wall Street Journal.
Of course, those lost income taxes will have to be recouped somehow. So the bill applies Maine’s sales tax to additional goods and services — such as car repair bills or movie tickets — and raises the meals and lodging tax from 7 percent to 8.5 percent.
Supporters insist that nearly 90 percent of Mainers will see their total tax burden drop under the changes while tourists and out-of-state visitors pay more in taxes. But opponents, led by GOP lawmakers and Maine Republican Party officials, say the broadened sales tax will hurt the poor and the elderly. Higher meals and lodging taxes also will harm Maine’s tourism industry, they predict.
Opponents managed to collect enough petition signatures to force a people’s veto referendum on the issue this June. A District Court judge recently denied a case seeking to invalidate more than 9,000 signatures. Those who brought the case say they will not appeal the judge’s ruling.
9. Maine’s deer herd
The state’s wildlife biologists had been dealing with localized population declines of Maine’s white-tailed deer herd for years — Washington and Aroostook counties were particularly hard hit — when two straight years of harsh winters took an even harsher toll.
After the second straight winter of unusually deep snow in 2008-09, the predictions became dire.
Biologist Lee Kantar of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife released the agency’s preseason estimate that hunters would tag only 19,500 deer in 2009 — far below the 10-year average of 30,353 and approaching the 1971 total of 18,903.
Anecdotal reports from hunters across the state after the recently completed hunting season suggest that it’s not just the eastern and northern tiers of the state that are facing deer woes now.
The state faces plenty of challenges in reinvigorating the deer herd, and has struggled to address those challenges. Limiting the number of deer that are shot by reducing the allotment of any-deer permits is one way the DIF&W is able to manage the herd according to its goals.
Forest cutting practices have eliminated many productive wintering areas, and predators including coyotes and bears kill many deer each year. A snaring program on coyotes has been discontinued because of concerns about how it affects the endangered Canada lynx population, and many consider a potential spring bear hunt — bears are hunted in late summer and fall — a program that would face widespread criticism.
Improving wintering habitat and reducing the effect of predators, while viewed by many as essential, are not necessarily quick-fix options.
The best-case scenario for deer during the winter in the year ahead: a moderate or mild winter that gives them (and their spring offspring) a chance to survive.
10. Fisheries regulations
New regulatory changes in several fisheries this year have raised concerns about how productive they might be in 2010.
A new federal law that went into effect in April requires lobstermen to use sinking rope on their multitrap trawls if they set traps outside an exemption line that runs roughly parallel to the coast approximately 3 miles offshore. The new law is meant to reduce the threat of entanglement to endangered whales that likely come into contact with lobster gear when they dive for food.
But the sinking rope is more costly and wears out faster, which will result in higher expenses for fishermen at the same time that the weak economy has greatly reduced the price of lobster.
Regulators also have reduced the catch limit for herring, which is the bait of choice for the lobster industry, because of unknowns in the official statistical model that is used to estimate the amount of herring in the ocean. Fishermen are concerned about the availability and cost of herring in the coming year.
The scallop fishery also has been affected. After nearly canceling the second half of last winter’s scallop season because of declining stocks, state officials decided to enact significant area closures for this winter’s scallop season.
BDN reporters Kevin Miller, Meg Haskell, Bill Trotter, John Holyoke, Eric Russell and Nick Sambides Jr. contributed to this summary.