Bonds, budget still ahead for lawmakers

Posted March 19, 2010, at 9:17 p.m.

Earlier this year, legislative leaders sharply limited the number of new bills allowed into the hopper and set an ambitious goal of wrapping up the 2010 session early in order to save the state money.

As of Friday, committees had completed their work on all but a few big-ticket items — the biggest of which is a plan to close a budget hole in excess of $300 million. But many of the most contentious issues have yet to be debated on the floors of the House and Senate.

So what’s still left on lawmakers’ plates as they enter the final weeks of the session? Here’s a sampling:

The budget: The Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee is hoping to complete its list of recommendations for closing an estimated $310 million budget gap this weekend. The depth of those cuts has been softened by higher tax revenues and additional federal money, but schools and service providers are still bracing for significant reductions.

Solitary confinement: A committee split three ways on a bill proposing additional restrictions on the use of long-term isolation in state prisons. It is unclear which of the three committee reports will find the most favor with the rest of the Legislature.

Bonds: Gov. John Baldacci has proposed a $79 million bond package, mostly for transportation, infrastructure and energy projects. The Legislature’s Democratic leadership has proposed a $99 million package. Republicans, who successfully negotiated down a bond package last year, have been cool thus far to either idea.

Wind energy: There are a number of wind energy-related bills pending. They include a significantly weakened proposal to require minimum payments to towns that have turbines plus a large and complicated bill — presented just last week — to streamline the review process for offshore wind projects.

Cell phone cancer: A committee recommended rejection of a bill requiring that new cell phones sold in Maine carry warning labels suggesting a possible link between phone use and cancer. But the committee report was not unanimous, all but guaranteeing floor debate.

Gambling: Voters will decide in November whether to allow a resort casino in Oxford County. But some lawmakers support an alternative ballot measure — endorsed by the Oxford developers — that also would authorize a casino on Passamaquoddy tribal land in Washington County and table games at Hollywood Slots in Bangor. A lengthy debate on the issue is expected.

The Legislature’s statutory adjournment isn’t until April 21. House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, said Thursday that legislative leaders are aiming to finish up sometime between April 2 and April 9.

Irish versus French

Every year, lawmakers celebrate Maine’s French connections with Franco-American Day. But the timing of this year’s observances — Wednesday, March 17 — prompted a few smirks and grumbles from the sizable Irish-American contingent in Augusta.

Organizers insisted they were not attempting to encroach on St. Patrick’s Day. Sen. Lisa Marrache, D-Waterville, explained in a release that Maine’s Franco-American Day was timed with a worldwide celebration of International Francophone Week.

“This year, the two days happen to coincide, so we decided to have a celebration of both cultures,” said Marrache.

So on Wednesday, Rep. Benjamin Marriner Pratt, D-Eddington, conducted part of the day’s floor session in French while standing in front of a sea of lawmakers sporting green shirts, ties, sweaters and jackets. Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, then offered a performance of her own: a rendition of the Irish classic “Danny Boy.”

A floor below in the Hall of Flags, an Irish dance demonstration by schoolchildren was quickly followed by a Franco-American news conference. The State House complex’s cafeteria served up both Irish and French fare.

Sen. Troy Jackson, meanwhile, got some laughs from his Senate colleagues when the Allagash Democrat offered this thought on the culture clash: “My grandfather is an O’Leary and my grandmother a Pelletier, so they were more than happy to celebrate — obviously.”

Maine race

Maine’s recent congressional match-ups haven’t exactly been close calls. But according to the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, they were closer than most.

The center’s blog, Smart Politics, said the average margin of victory in congressional races nationwide was 39.2 percent between 2002 and 2008. The average margin of victory here was 23 percent, making Maine the seventh most-competitive state for that time period.

Wyoming had the most competitive House races, with an average margin of victory of 12 percent. Massachusetts was the least-competitive state, with an average spread of 73 percent.

Interestingly, the Smart Politics analysis found that the margins of victory were lowest in the seven states with only one House member. Those with two representatives, which includes Maine, had the second-lowest average spread per contest, according to the blog.

Maine’s two sitting U.S. House representatives, Democrats Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree, plan to seek re-election this November. Their two respective Republican competitors — Jason Levesque and Dean Scontras — already have filed the signatures needed to get on the ballot.