Budget is focus of new session for Legislature

Posted Jan. 03, 2010, at 7:25 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers return to the State House this week for an election-year session featuring considerably fewer bills but no shortage of financial challenges and other major issues likely to test legislators.

Without doubt, the dominant issue facing the Legislature once again this year is how to deal with a sizeable revenue shortfall at a time when many residents continue to struggle economically, placing additional strain on Maine’s social services programs.

“Everything we do this session has to be considered in the context of the budget; there is no way around that,” said Senate President Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell, D-Vassalboro.

But lawmakers also will grapple with a host of other issues, from energy tensions with Canada and road maintenance funding to school consolidation, the ethics of solitary confinement, and potential links between cell phones and cancer.

At the same time, legislative leaders have set a goal of wrapping up the already-short session at least one week early as part of their own cost-saving measures.

“We are trying to keep the session as short and productive as possible because if the session goes long, it costs money and we want to do the opposite,” said Rep. John Piotti, D-Unity, the House majority leader.

Gov. John Baldacci has proposed cuts across state government to close an estimated $438 million hole in the state’s $5.8 billion, two-year budget.

But Baldacci’s supplemental budget does not include tax increases to generate additional revenue or program eliminations. While a few groups have been calling for a tax increase, the lack of program cuts is likely to draw the attention of fiscally conservative lawmakers on the budget-writing committee, which begins delving into the issue later this week.

“I can’t predict what the mood will be, but I think the Legislature is going to take a much more critical view and demand a budget fix that helps confront the major problems we are facing, not just fills a short-term gap,” said Sen. Richard Rosen, a Bucksport Republican and a member of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.

Baldacci said last week he believes the first priority should be eliminating unnecessary administrative functions and making programs more efficient. He once again is proposing additional coordination within the state’s four natural resource agencies, including exploring — but not mandating — possible consolidation of departments.

“If people want to go after particular programs, raise them up and tell me what programs they are,” Baldacci said of the budget generally. “I think there is too much administrative waste.”

Near the end of the 2009 legislative session, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly in support of a two-year spending plan that was roughly $500 million smaller than the previous biennium’s budget. But within months, it became clear that the revenue projections on which the budget was based had underestimated the severity of the recession, leading to another budget gap.

Piotti said he hopes the spirit of bipartisanship on budget issues will persist this year. But he also acknowledged that political realities have changed since the 2009 session. The federal dollars that helped prop up state budgets last year may not be as widely available, and the likelihood of political gamesmanship increases during election years.

“I think in some ways it’s going to be a harder challenge than last year,” Piotti said.

Lawmakers will consider approximately 160 new bills — compared with about 1,500 bills last year — as well as more than 80 measures carried over from 2009.

Senate Minority Leader Kevin Raye, R-Perry, predicted that school consolidation will be a major issue again during the 2010 session, despite voters’ rejection of an attempt to roll back Maine’s consolidation law.

Raye noted that voters in more urban areas affected less by the consolidation law opposed the repeal, while more rural voters — including the majority of voters in seven counties — voted to scrap the consolidation law. Passed by the Legislature in 2007, the law aimed to lower the number of school districts from 290 to 80. There are now roughly 215 districts.

“That is very indicative of the divisive nature of this law,” Raye said. “So I think the Legislature has the responsibility to acknowledge that this does not work well” in many of the more rural areas.

Lawmakers also will consider competing recommendations for how the state should regulate the “energy corridors” that could one day be built alongside Interstate 95 or on other rights of way.

Late last year, a 13-member commission reached agreement on most major issues surrounding energy corridors that would carry electricity, gas, oil or other energy infrastructure to southern New England. In return, the state would receive lease payments potentially worth tens of millions of dollars annually.

But the group deadlocked over whether to extend a moratorium on such projects in response to Canadian officials’ opposition to LNG tankers in Passamaquoddy Bay. Supporters of the LNG projects want to use the moratorium as a bargaining chip because the energy corridors primarily would benefit Canadian companies.

Concerns about the deteriorating condition of Maine’s highways and bridges in the face of declining fuel tax revenues — an issue left hanging as the 2009 session ended — will come up again, Transportation Committee co-chairman Sen. Dennis Damon told The Associated Press.

Lawmakers likely will focus their discussion on higher fuel taxes, said Damon, D-Trenton. But given the election-year reluctance of lawmakers to vote for tax increases and Baldacci’s opposition to tax increases in general, Damon believes chances of raising gasoline and diesel fuel levies are slim at best.

Other bills that will come before lawmakers include:

· A proposal to require cell phones to carry warnings that they may cause brain cancer.

· A possible ban on the use of solitary confinement in Maine’s prisons on humanitarian grounds.

· Several wind power-related bills, including one to address wind turbine noise and another requiring ratepayer discounts for wind farms built in so-called “expedited areas.”

· An attempt to restore longevity pay that was stripped from veteran state employees in last year’s budget.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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