PRC SPEAKS OUT

At the State House: budget woes lead to reorganization proposals

Posted March 19, 2012, at 9:09 a.m.
Chris Hall, senior vice president for government relations, Portland Regional Chamber
Chris Hall, senior vice president for government relations, Portland Regional Chamber

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: 

Late last month lawmakers easily passed a supplemental budget for state fiscal year 2012, but they left the harder 2013 budget questions for another day.

That day arrived last week, at least for non-MaineCare budget items, with the release of LD 1870 which offers a series of human service and higher education spending cuts, some additional funding for certain programs, and new tax initiatives (more details in the PPH and the BDN), all intended to balance the state’s FY 2013 budget.  Commissioner Sawin Millet, the Governor’s Budget Chief, went on WGAN to explain the philosophy behind the Governor’s mix of new spending and new cuts.

There was plenty of budget coverage (PPH, BDN, LSJ, MPBN), and lots of ideas to ponder (like the elimination of the State Planning Office and redistribution of its functions – see below for more), but in larger cities the focus was on one thing:  substantial cuts to and restructuring of municipal general assistance.

Tom Bell in the PPH captured the voices of urban mayors all across the state:  less state funding of municipal general assistance will inevitably increase local property taxes.  New restrictions on the use of general assistance funding, like a 90-days-per-year cap on general assistance-funded housing, will increase homelessness and hurt landlords.  The PPH editors agreed.

As the budget was presented to lawmakers last week Commissioner Mary Mayhew said the administration is developing a general assistance block grant for municipalities, allowing communities to set their own eligibility standards for assistance  – but municipal reaction wasn’t good (PPH).

Some things seem obvious from here:  Increased homelessness and higher property taxes aren’t going to improve our economy.  Neither will unsustainable social spending.  What’s needed most is the time to redesign programs in ways that are more affordable and more effective in moving people from dependence to independence.

But whether such a tall order can be accomplished in the few remaining weeks of this legislative session remains to be seen.

Senate watch:  On Thursday the 24-hour cycle of speculation on who’s running, and who’s not running, in Maine’s open U.S. Senate race ended when 10 candidates filed their signatures to appear on this June’s Republican and Democratic primary ballots.  John Richardson at the PPH and Eric Russell at the BDN both sorted out the candidates and their chances, and the PPH editors commented on the field.  Matt Gagnon, Doug Rooks, Kay Rand and M.D. Harmon all talked about the 11th candidate’s place in the race, and the PPH’s Jonathan Riskind got advice for Angus King from the U. S. Senate’s two other independents.

State Policy round-up:   State workers will be able to bring their guns to the workplace parking lot, just like their private sector colleagues, once LD 1603 is finally enacted in the Senate this week (PPH, LSJ, BDN, MPBN).  The Governor held Capitol-for-a-day in Oxford County (PPH).  LD 1805, protecting the Governor’s working papers, was passed in committee (BDN).  LD 1843, seeking greater oversight of quasi-public agencies, had its hearing (BDN).  Groups submitted legal briefs to the Law Court as it prepared to take up questions about State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin’s business dealings (KJ).

Elsewhere:

  • Budget:  Hearings on LD 1870, the Governor’s proposed FY 2013 supplemental budget, begin tomorrow before the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee and are expected to continue on Wednesday and Thursday – click here for an up-to-date detailed schedule.  Work continued on the MaineCare data gap – essential information needed to address the FY 2013 MaineCare budget shortfall (PPH).
  • Ballot watch:  The House followed the Senate and voted along party lines to remove matching funds from the Maine Clean Election Act (LSJ, BDN) – the PPH editors saw damage to the system.  Gay marriage will go to the voters in November (PPH).  Senate President Kevin Raye proposed to replace Maine’s caucus system with a presidential primary (PPH, BDN, LSJ).
  • Economic Development:  There were two big growth stories in northern Maine last week:  Plum Creek’s permits were upheld by the Law Court (BDN, MPBN, PPH editors comment), and a bill to allow mining operations in Aroostook County received its public hearing (BDN, MPBN).  Later this year Governor LePage will lead a trade delegation to China (BDN).
  • Education:  The Governor’s education reform bills generated hours of controversy in public hearings before the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee last week. Hearings were held on LD 1858, setting up new teacher and principal evaluation systems (BDN, KJ), and LD 1854 and LD 1866, allowing school choice and public tuition for private religious schools (KJ, BDN, LSJ, MPBN, BDN editors and Heather Perry commented).  You might be interested in the Governor’s view of how students ought to approach post-secondary education (KJ).
  • Energy:  Office of Energy Independence and Security Director Ken Fletcher wrote to defend the Governor’s energy policy package, but editors at the PPH and LSJ both rejected the effort.  Hearings last week on the Governor’s energy reform bills produced opposition too (BDN, MPBN).  Propane prices are down (PPH).
  • Environmental: Testimony was heard last week on the proposed merger of the Agriculture and Conservation Departments (LSJ, MPBN).  Ken Lamond wrote about changes to LURC.
  • Health Care:   State House Republicans decided last week to postpone formation of a state-level health insurance exchange pending legal challenges to the federal health care reform (ACA) law (BDN).  The BDN editors and Rep. Adam Goode panned the move, but Joel Allumbaugh panned the BDN editors’ position.  A bill (LD 1887) to streamline DHHS was introduced (PPH, BDN).  The LSJ’s Lindsay Tice looked at small hospital CEO compensation.
  • Labor:  A new effort was started to find out-of-state unemployment insurance fraud (BDN).  Maine’s unemployment rate remained flat from June 2010 through June 2011 (BDN).  Dan Tremble commented on proposed changes to Maine’s Workforce Investment Boards.
  • Pension reform:  Susan Cover at the PPH provided more information about state and local workers earning a salary and simultaneously drawing a pension.
  • Small Business:  MPBN took a look at the alternative financing option of ‘crowd-funding,’ something start-up companies may find particularly useful.
  • State Planning Office redistributed:  The Governor’s supplemental budget (LD 1870) contains over 100 pages devoted to closing the State Planning Office and moving its functions to other parts of state government.  Maine Municipal Association provided a good summary.
  • Taxation:  LD 849 received little attention last session, and again this year, mostly because it directs the disposition of surplus tax revenues that the state doesn’t have right now.  But when the economy rebounds, as it will, lawmakers will find a provision in law that requires extra revenues must be used to cut the state’s personal income tax rate in half (PPH).  While today’s legislature can’t bind the actions of a future legislature, it will be interesting to hear the debate when LD 849 finally kicks in.
  • Transportation:  The Maine Senate gave approval to the east/west highway study bill on a party-line vote last week (PPH, BDN, LSJ, MPBN).

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 another group of significant bills presented, notwithstanding efforts to adjourn the session by early April.  Here are some of the new bills that could directly affect you:

  • LD 1867, An Act To Protect Victims of Domestic Violence – as discussed by the Governor during his State of the State speech.  The BDN editors commented.
  • LD 1870, An Act To Make Supplemental Appropriations and Allocations for the Expenditures of State Government – a $37 million dollar set of budget changes that includes FY 2013 cuts together with new spending proposals.
  • LD 1874, An Act To Rename the Maine Jobs Council as the State Workforce Investment Board and Make Changes to Its Structure – does what it says in the title.
  • LD 1875, An Act To Provide Transparency in Electricity Pricing for Maine Ratepayers – another component of the Governor’s energy policy package.
  • LD 1882, An Act To Establish a Presidential Primary in the State – replacing the current party caucus system.
  • LD 1887, An Act To Restructure the Department of Health and Human Services – consolidates internal administrative structures within DHHS and sets the stage for additional changes.
  • LD 1888, An Act To Strengthen the State’s Ability To Investigate and Prosecute Misuse of Public Benefits – tightens up enforcement and penalties for many forms of welfare fraud.
  • LD 1891, An Act To Streamline the Process for Minors To Obtain a Work Permit – creates a new general work permit for minors.

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 Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System (PACTS) has assembled its list of proposed priority infrastructure investments called ’22 by 22’ (Forecaster).  The Governor’s ‘Certified Business Friendly Communities’ initiative received a lot of positive attention last week (BDN).  Elsewhere:

  • Cape Elizabeth & South Portland:  In Cape Elizabeth the proposed municipal budget is smaller than last year (Forecaster), but school budget increases could produce a tax hike (Current).

In South Portland the debate continued over changes to Ocean Street parking (PPH, Forecaster, Current).  A ‘no-tax-increase’ school budget was offered as a starting point for further discussion (Forecaster).

  • Cumberland and Falmouth:  In Cumberland the Council will be busy tonight with budget hearings and ordinance changes (Forecaster).

In Falmouth while the proposed municipal budget increases by 3%, no tax increase is expected as a result (Forecaster, PPH).  The school budget is up almost 12% (PPH).

  • Portland:   A public meeting on new proposed fees for storm water management drew mixed public comment (PPH, BDN, Forecaster, PDS).   Elsewhere:
  • The first public meeting on the City’s proposed FY 2013 school budget drew little comment (Forecaster);
  • Superintendent James Morse, Kim Lipp from Maine Graduates, and Joel Russ from LearningWorks appeared on WGAN to discuss Portland Schools’ recent $5.1 million dollar Nellie Mae grant;
  • 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:  Municipal leaders are looking at new options for their aging boilers (Current).
  • Westbrook and Gorham:  In Westbrook a tax increase may be in the cards as municipal and school budgets are finalized (Current).
  • In Gorham officials are exploring options to address the abandoned gas station on Main Street (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.

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