Seniors, consumers affected by new Maine laws

Posted July 05, 2010, at 10:34 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Senior citizens will be in less danger of losing their homes because of unpaid taxes, consumers will gain more protection from scams, and motorists will have to be more careful when they approach emergency vehicles as of July 12.

That’s the day scores of laws enacted by the Legislature during this year’s January-April session take effect. Unless otherwise specified, the laws kick in 90 days after adjournment.

Among them is a health insurance reform that got the attention of President Barack Obama when he visited Maine in April. The law bars annual and lifetime caps on health insurance payments, protecting policy holders from having to go into debt because they have been denied payments for medical treatments.

While the law goes on the books July 12, it applies to policies taking effect on or after Jan. 1, 2011.

That’s also the case with a pair of other new health-related laws. One removes restrictions for when a child can be eligible for enrollment in dental coverage, and the other requires individual and group health insurance policies to provide early intervention services for children up to 36 months old who have developmental disabilities.

Some laws that kick in July 12 will help senior citizens. One authorizes property tax payment deferrals for eligible homeowners.

“If your goal in life is to stay in your home until you die and be happy there, it’s hard to pay taxes on a limited income,” said Rep. Kathleen Chase, R-Wells, a former tax assessor who saw such a strong need for such a law that she ran for state representative on the issue.

The law she sponsored authorizes towns and cities to allow property tax deferrals for homeowners who are at least 70 years old, have lived in their home for at least 10 years, and have a household income of less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level. After the homeowner dies or the home is sold, the taxes would have to be repaid with interest.

Another new law benefiting seniors is a “silver alert” measure that puts in place a highway and media notification system when a person with dementia goes missing. It establishes a mandatory orientation and training for police in such cases so there’s a consistent response across all local, regional and statewide law enforcement agencies.

“It’s particularly helpful for people with Alzheimer’s who have access to a vehicle and can travel great distances before they are gone,” said Kathryn Pears of the Alzheimer’s Association Maine Chapter.

In consumer matters, a law to prevent deceptive free trial offers, called the first law of its kind in the nation, requires companies offering free trial periods of goods or services to confirm billing information directly from the consumer, so the consumer doesn’t get stuck with unwanted credit card charges.

Another new law prohibits merchants from placing surcharges on purchases with debit cards, which the Federal Reserve Board says are now used more often than credit cards.

Maine’s century-old ballot initiative process becomes more secure thanks to a law making petition circulators more accountable. Prompted by a case of petition fraud that came to light last fall in the town of Greene, the law requires paid petition circulators to register with the state, and to initial and number each petition.

On the highways, motorists will have to drive at prudent speeds in sections of roads where there’s an emergency vehicle with emergency lights on. The law sets the minimum fine for a violation at $250.

New safeguards are to be placed on the deployment of automated license plate recognition systems. The law restricts use of the recognition systems to police, the state Department of Transportation, and Turnpike Authority. Data about law-abiding citizens will be purged every 21 days and databases will be confidential.

A new law starts a gradual process of lowering the sulfur content in fuel oil to reduce haze in Maine’s air. It phases in cleaner fuels in cooperation with other states in the region through 2018.

Applicants for wind energy developments built under streamlined regulations will be required to establish a benefits package, such as payments that reduce energy costs in host communities, amounting to no less than $4,000 per year per wind turbine.

Mainers who’ve lost their jobs stand to benefit from a new law creating an offset on unemployment benefits for laid-off workers who are owed vacation pay. Current state law requires workers who are laid off to wait the number of weeks for which they are owed vacation pay before they can collect unemployment, but the new law removes that restriction so they could collect benefits without delay.

A small film tax credit for companies that come to Maine to make films or other visual arts is established, and snowmobile clubs that are nonprofit corporations are eligible for sales tax exemptions for trail-grooming equipment.

Gun owners with concealed weapons permits can bring guns into Acadia National Park.

A law aimed at those who hoard and neglect animals provides an expedited schedule for court hearings when an animal is seized by a state humane agent or veterinarian. The law also enables the court to make the defendant pay the costs of relocating an animal, and reinstates probation for certain animal cruelty violations.

Public release of Mainers’ birth, marriage and death records is restricted to the person on the document and that person’s spouse or domestic partner, parents or guardians, descendants and designated agent or attorney. Supporters say the law will prevent fraud and identity theft based on those records.

Roller-skiers in Maine will have to follow the same rules of the road as bicyclists to protect their safety.

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