Flurry of bills hits State House; measures of growth provide focus for improvement

By Chris Hall, Portland Regional Chamber
Posted March 12, 2012, at 9:08 a.m.

Editor’s note: This report is compiled weekly for members of the Portland Regional Chamber. It provides a breakdown of recent news around state policy, as well as a heads-up on coming events. The Bangor Daily News is publishing this report in cooperation with the PRC.

PRC speaks out: 25 indicators of growth in Maine. 4 moved up, 6 moved down, 1 was new and 14 didn’t change from last year. 2 indicators showed exceptional performance but 5 indicators showed a special need for attention. If it was your report card, would you want your parents to see it? Well, maybe after dinner …

Last week the Maine Economic Growth Council released its 18th annual Measures of Growth in Focus 2012 ( BDN). The best news was a marked reduction in energy costs, and good growth in exports. The worst news was spread more widely – 3 of 4 prosperity indicators fell, 4th grade reading scores are slipping, business costs remain too high and we’re making insufficient progress on health and wellness.

Read the full report for a more nuanced and detailed discussion of what’s working, and what’s not, in Maine’s economy. The Growth Council does a great job explaining its indicators, along with alternative measurements and perspectives.

For me, two things set this work apart from other report cards on the Maine economy. First, with one exception these indicators have been measured for years, so the report isn’t just a snapshot in time, it’s also a window on long-term trends in the Maine economy. Second, the Growth Council is made up of a diverse group of Maine people who bring informed experience to the analysis – it’s a home-grown product created by folks we know, and trust.

The best news may be this: For a long time these reports were announced, then filed away and forgotten. That’s not the case anymore. The Governor, lawmakers in both parties and a host of folks around the state who care about Maine prosperity are using Measures of Growth on a year-round basis to understand what we need to do to make our state a better place to live, work and play. Today you can find an intense focus on the issues detailed by the report, not just at the state house, but all across Maine.

Finally we all ought to thank the Maine Development Foundation for their long support of Measures of Growth – without the financial and staff contributions MDF provides these valuable windows into Maine’s economy wouldn’t be available to us.

Senate watch: Last Monday former Governor Angus King made a splash by announcing his candidacy for Maine’s suddenly open U.S. Senate seat ( MPBN, PPH, LSJ, BDN) – 1st District Congresswoman Chellie Pingree made her own splash days later by announcing she would not run for the Senate ( PPH, BDN, LSJ, MPBN).

The BDN’s Seth Koenig interviewed King while the PPH’s Jonathan Riskind reported that Democrats might give King tacit support. Editors at the PPH and BDN commented on King’s entry. A poll showed King with an immediate lead ( BDN, MPBN), but Matt Gagnon wrote that there’d be ‘no coronation’ for King – and he was right, with negative ads against King starting on the internet last Friday ( BDN).

And if you missed it in the Washington Post, you might want to read Senator Susan Collins’ op-ed entitled “ Yes, the political center can be saved” re-printed in the BDN last week.

State Policy round-up: The BDN’s Eric Russell summarized how the remaining weeks of the legislative session are piled up with work. Last week the Law Court asked for briefs on questions about the State Treasurer’s business activities ( PPH). A new ethics disclosure law ( LD 1806) made it out of committee ( PPH). The administration and the state workers’ union are headed to court over labor contract negotiations ( PPH, BDN, MPBN). Mike Tipping commented on State Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster’s troubles ( BDN

Elsewhere:

  1. Budget: A newly disclosed problem with DHHS’s computer systems threatened to upend current and future budget work at the state house ( PPH, BDN, LSJ, MPBN). With 19,000 people improperly on the rolls, recent elimination of eligibility for 14,000 others was called into question. Maine may be forced to repay the federal government for improper payments ( BDN). Commissioner Mayhew apologized for the mess ( LSJ, MPBN). The PPH editors, David Farmer and Bill Nemitz took aim. In the meantime lawmakers prepared to close a smaller budget hole later this week ( PPH).
  2. Ballot watch: LD 1774 looked to fix the Maine Clear Elections Act after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed matching funds ( LSJ). Rep. Andre Cushing commented on the bill and its prospects, as did Doug Rooks. Last week the Maine Senate rejected several changes to the law, and voted to remove matching funds from the system ( BDN, MPBN).
  3. Bonds: Former State Senator Karl Turner urged the Governor to identify, and then support, priority infrastructure investments.
  4. Economic Development: Sen. John Martin wrote about his bill ( LD 1853) to revise state mining regulations in ways that promote the mining industry. Charles Lawton wrote about connecting younger workers to the economy.
  5. Education: The debate over the Governor’s K-12 education reforms got going before the bills were printed ( LSJ, MPBN, PPH editors). A national report found that high school is not sufficiently rigorous ( BDN). Charter schools are gearing up for opening this fall ( PPH, Forecaster), but a slow regulatory process may delay some schools’ plans ( PPH).
  6. Energy: The Governor unveiled a set of energy initiatives aimed at lowering energy costs to Maine consumers ( BDN, MPBN). The University of Maine has teamed up with a Blue Hill company to study the potential for cost savings from dynamic pricing of electricity ( BDN). Timothy Rich wrote about downsides of natural gas conversion, and Doug Rooks discussed gas pipelines in Maine. A propane storage facility approved in Searsport Saturday will impact the state’s energy profile ( LSJ).
  7. Environmental: The BDN editors, Commissioner Bill Beardsley, Sandra Neily and Peter Triandafillou all wrote about proposed changes to the Maine Land Use Regulatory Commission. George Smith commented on the pending merger of the Agriculture and Conservation agencies. Millinocket town Councilors tangled with Governor LePage over landfill costs ( BDN) – the AG’s been asked to referee ( BDN).
  8. Health Care: The Governor may submit a bill to restructure DHHS next week ( BDN, PPH). A forum on dental needs in Maine pointed out the pros and cons of new services ( KJ).
  9. Labor: Debate continued last week on proposed changes to Maine’s workers comp laws and another work session in the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee is planned for this week ( BDN). LD 1725 proposed to reduce unemployment insurance fraud and tighten work search standards – the bill moved out of committee last week on a divided vote ( LSJ, BDN).
  10. Pension reform: John Richardson at the PPH looked into ‘double dipping’ by government employees – collecting a paycheck and a pension at the same time. He also covered the prospects of reform for the state retirement system ( PPH).
  11. Real estate: Changes to the governance structure of the Maine State Housing Authority ( LD 1778) passed out of committee last week ( BDN). The LSJ featured an investigative report on MSHA spending.
  12. Regulatory reform: The bill to expand landowner compensation for state regulatory takings ( LD 1810) received a majority ‘ought not to pass’ report last week ( LSJ). The full House and Senate have yet to vote on the bill.
  13. Transportation: Sen. Ron Collins and Rep. Rich Cebra wrote to defend the pending east/west highway study proposal.
  14. Welfare reform: Rep. Jon McKane wrote about the need to reduce MaineCare spending.

Reports: The Maine Economic Growth Council wasn’t the only one issuing a report last week with Maine-specific economic information – the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston also released its quarterly New England Community Outlook Survey. Matt Wickenheiser at the BDN summarized the highlights.

Bills to Watch: As legislation is printed we highlight some of the bills you may want to know more about, or participate in. Need to investigate a bill? Just click the LD number below and off you go! (Please remember this isn’t legal advice – for that you must contact your own councilors).

Last week we saw a burst of last minute legislation, including important education and energy initiatives from the administration. Be sure to take a close look at the following:

These 4 bills are the long-awaited Governor’s K-12 education reform package. Public hearings on the bills will be held this week as noted:

  1. LD 1854, An Act To Expand Educational Opportunities for Maine Students – the ‘school choice’ bill allowing students to attend school outside their district or residence. Public hearing on Thursday 3/15 at 1 pm before the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee in room 202 of the Cross Office Building.
  2. LD 1858, An Act To Ensure Effective Teaching and School Leadership – proposes new teacher and principal evaluation systems, and a new alternative certification system for non-traditional teachers. Public hearing on Wednesday 3/14 at 1 pm before the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee in room 202 of the Cross Office Building.
  3. LD 1865, An Act To Enhance Career and Technical Education – coordinates and enhances CTE and high school programming. Public hearing on Tuesday 3/12 at 1 pm before the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee in room 202 of the Cross Office Building.
  4. LD 1866, An Act To Remove Inequity in Student Access to Certain Schools – permits public tuition funding of religious schools. Public hearing on Thursday 3/15 at 1 pm before the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee in room 202 of the Cross Office Building.

In addition there were several other bills, including two energy-related bills from the Governor:

  1. LD 1844, An Act To Amend the Laws Governing the Governor’s Training Initiative Program – partially revives a popular jobs program, pending funding.
  2. LD 1851, An Act To Amend the Laws Concerning Municipal Inspections of Establishments – removes language that prohibits a municipality from licensing eating establishments.
  3. LD 1862, An Act To Limit Eligibility under the Municipal General Assistance Program – denies municipal general assistance to anyone who has exhausted their 60-month lifetime limit on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program benefits.
  4. LD 1863, An Act To Lower the Price of Electricity for Maine Consumers – removes the 100-megawatt limit to qualify as a renewable resource and prioritizes lower costs of electricity to ratepayers over the life of long term supply contracts.
  5. LD 1864, An Act To Improve Efficiency Maine Trust Programs To Reduce Heating Costs and Provide Energy Efficient Heating Options for Maine’s Consumers – changes the governance and budget structure of Efficiency Maine; places an equal emphasis on programs regarding alternative heating energy sources and energy efficiency; establishes cost-effective heating rebates and loan programs; and expands a voluntary renewable resource fund to include energy efficiency.

What’s happening this week at the State House: In every Update we highlight a wide variety of bills that will affect you, your business and your community. To keep track of the bills that are most important to you, you can find the entire state house schedule right here including public hearings, work sessions and all the other legislative activity around any bill you’re interested in. Make sure to use the navigation buttons on the left to find all the information you need.

Here’s another handy resource – this link takes you to a list of all the legislative committee activities scheduled for the next 5 days.

Around the Region: The Governor announced a new program last week to certify municipalities as ‘business friendly’ ( BDN, MPBN). Here’s his announcement, and here’s the link to the application. The Portland Regional Chamber will be working through our Community Chamber partners to make sure all the municipalities in our region get the recognition they deserve. Elsewhere:

Cape Elizabeth & South Portland: In Cape Elizabeth reductions in state aid are likely to drive up local school budget costs ( Current). In South Portland debate continued over signage for the Farmer’s Market ( Forecaster, Current).

Cumberland and Falmouth: In Cumberland check out the proposed FY 2013 municipal budget and tonight’s Council agenda on the Town website. In Falmouth take a look at tonight’s Council meeting agenda on the Town website.

Portland: The Portland School Board’s first annual State of the Schools report was released last week ( BDN). If you have an interest in the City’s school system take a look at the information in the report, and the goals that system leaders have established. Elsewhere:

  1. Superintendent Morse unveiled a $94.9 million dollar proposed school budget for FY 2013 ( PPH, BDN, PDS, Forecaster);
  2. A plan to pay for (expensive) federally required sewer upgrades in Portland will be presented in a public meeting tonight at 6:30 pm at City Hall ( PPH, PDS, BDN) – the PPH editors supported the plan;
  3. The 2013 Creative Communities Exchange is coming to Portland next year ( MaineBiz, Forecaster);
  4. Deputy Fire Chief Stephen Smith was named acting Fire Chief beginning April 1st ( Forecaster, BDN);
  5. Final permits for dredging near the mega-berth were approved last week ( PPH); and
  6. For the latest check out Chris O’Neil’s Inside City Hall. Chris serves as a consultant to the Portland Community Chamber, working closely with members and staff to represent the Chamber before Portland City officials. Inside City Hall covers a host of Portland related issues. It’s something that everyone with an interest in Portland affairs will want to read.

Scarborough: Changes to the zoning for the Haigis Parkway were the subject of a public meeting last week ( Current). Officials expect to keep Wentworth High construction costs within the voter-approved budget ( Current).

Westbrook and Gorham: In Westbrook municipal charter changes have been proposed for the November ballot ( Current). The newly proposed municipal budget may result in job cuts ( Current). The Council moved ahead with plans to re-develop the old Maine Rubber site ( Current). In Gorham the school budget may increase by $1.2 million ( Current).

Want to speak out? It’s easy to do, and believe it or not, it can really work. Notice that all the legislative committees mentioned above are linked – just click on them and you’ll get emails, phone numbers and everything you need to make your voice heard in the state house. If you need help, just email me!

Feedback: So what do you think? We’d love to have your thoughts on anything you’ve read here, or on other topics that are important to you. The more you talk to us, the better we’ll represent your views. Send an email if you’d like to share your feedback with me – and thank you!

Partners for Progress Policy Updates from the Portland Regional Chamber are supported by the generous contributions from our Partners for Progress. If you’d like to become a Partner, please contact Chamber CEO Godfrey Wood. And for more information about joining the Portland Regional Chamber – businesses building a better community - just click here.

Chris Hall is senior vice president for government relations at the Portland Regional Chamber. He can be contacted at chall@portlandregion.com. Partners for Progress Policy Updates are supported by contributions from Partners for Progress.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/03/12/business/flurry-of-bills-hits-state-house-measures-of-growth-provide-focus-for-improvement/ printed on July 25, 2014