Maine lawmakers face final weeks with big workload

Posted April 24, 2011, at 10:05 a.m.
Last modified April 24, 2011, at 2:57 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The novelty of having a new Republican-led government is wearing off and the governor has said it’s time to get down to business. With the 2011 session now half over, lawmakers returning from a week off face a mountain of work before a mid-June adjournment.

Regulatory reform, a major tax overhaul, thorny labor issues, and proposals dealing with abortion, product safety and gambling are still on the table. Not to mention a $6.1 billion state budget that’s loaded with explosive policy issues, notably concessions in state pensions and benefits and changes in welfare.

Leaders of both parties are pledging a spirit of cooperation as the tougher issues come forward. Despite the heavy workload, they feel they’ve made notable progress already.

“We’re ahead of where we were two years ago,” said Senate Majority Leader Jon Courtney, R-Springvale. “But we’re trying to move forward and build consensus” on what remains.

Lawmakers have an opportunity to benefit from progress they’ve already made on one of the biggies: regulatory reform, one of Gov. Paul LePage’s priorities. Democrats joined with Republicans to embrace a bill that incorporates a number of the less-contentious issues, such as creation of an ombudsman to help guide small businesses through the rigors of state permitting.

By overwhelming majorities, they also passed a bill to phase out the use of the toxic chemical bisphenol-A in sippy cups and other reusable food and beverage containers as of 2012.

“We’ve handled the low-hanging fruit very well,” said Senate Democratic Leader Barry Hobbins of Saco. Hobbins said action on those and other less-prominent issues “set a good tone for the rest of the session.”

But more divisive proposals, such as deregulation of vernal pool areas and easing pesticide application rules, await resolution. Other unresolved issues include easing of the state’s bottle redemption law and scaling back the law requiring a listing of priority chemicals in consumer products.

Still facing debate are bills to allow teens to work more hours during the school day, and allow those under age 20 to be paid a subminimum wage. A separate bill would free the DeCoster egg farm in Turner, which relies heavily on migrant workers, from having to pay overtime and keep its employees from organizing for better wages and working conditions.

Even though LePage has still not unveiled his own health reform agenda, some health issues that have dogged legislators in the past are back without immediate settlement in sight. Lawmakers must decide whether to allow out-of-state health insurers to sell in Maine, phase out Dirigo health and conform state health policy to last year’s federal health care overhaul.

Republicans and Democrats are divided on major provisions in a GOP-blessed proposal to lower state income taxes and eliminate income tax liability for 70,000 low-income filers starting in 2012. Republicans say it keeps faith with LePage’s goal to reduce taxes by $203 million, but Democrats question how the state will pay for the cut.

Democrats see a direct link to other lines in the governor’s budget, which seek to make workers pay more into the state retirement plan, reduce the pension’s cost-of-living increases and raise the retirement age. The governor sees it as a necessary way to curtail the state’s unsustainable costs in future years.

Other parts of the budget seek to freeze enrollment in MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, impose time limits, job search and work requirements for Temporary Aid for Needy Families, and impose new MaineCare premiums and eliminate Medicare premium assistance for many seniors and disabled people.

The future of Maine’s decade-old system of hitching fuel tax increases to the rate of inflation is also to be decided in the weeks ahead. Fuel taxes are the main revenue source for Maine’s highways, but LePage doesn’t believe in putting increases on “automatic pilot.” Lawmakers must give their OK to indexed increases before they can take effect.

Aside from the weighty budget matters, a minefield of other bills awaits final disposition. Bills to require doctors to educate women on the risks and alternatives to abortion and require a 24-hour waiting period before a woman can have an abortion remain in committee.

Also awaiting action is a bill to allow Hollywood Slots in Bangor to ramp up its operation with table games. Separate, initiated legislation — if approved by voters — would open the door to racinos in Biddeford and Washington County.

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