Session winds toward a close, with some big bills still on tap

Posted April 02, 2012, at 9:13 a.m.
Last modified April 02, 2012, at 11:03 a.m.
Chris Hall, Portland Regional Chamber
Chris Hall, 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

The legislative session is drawing to its normal hectic conclusion – and your voice still matters. Here are three issues that lawmakers need to hear your views on:

  • LD 849 puts tax relief into the list of state spending priorities when extra revenues become available. That’s a big change, and it’s raised a spirited discussion: Sen. Jon Courtney defended his bill, Rep. Bob Duchesne lampooned an earlier version that the House rejected ( PPH, BDN), but a new version passed the Senate and may be voted in the House as early as today ( BDN, MPBN).
  • Cuts to municipal general assistance contained in LD 1903, the Governor’s second supplemental budget, continue to pose real problems for property tax payers and everyone concerned about the quality of life in Maine’s service center communities. Discussions continued through the weekend in the Appropriations Committee – it remains unclear whether lawmakers will adopt the Governor’s cuts or work with Portland and other communities to find better alternatives.
  • Finally LD 1422, the bill that establishes standards-based high school diplomas for all Maine students starting in 2017, is waiting for final votes in the House and the Senate. Like any proposal that changes the status quo there are concerns. But we’re urging lawmakers to support this bill because it will re-make K-12 education into the strong foundation that all our students need to succeed in careers, in post-secondary education, and in life.

These three bills will go a long way toward defining the 2012 legislative session. Lawmakers are having intense discussions this morning on whether income tax cuts will be a part of Maine’s budget strategy in the future; whether municipal welfare programs will be improved, or just reduced; and whether our K-12 education system will make the leap into the 21st century with a new focus on ensuring that students are really learning.

In all of this – and much more – your voice matters more than you may realize. Lawmakers don’t hear from their constituents as much as you think, and when they do, they listen. See if I’m right – find your lawmakers here and drop them an email sharing your views on whatever is most important to you. Thanks!

Reports: Not really a report but … The U.S. Census Bureau released data last week that showed Maine was the most rural state in the nation in 2010 – meaning a greater percentage of our total population (61%) lived in non-urban settings than any other state in the country. Matt Wickenheiser’s article in the BDN covered many of the implications for Maine. The BDN editors commented on how the data suggests the need to maintain the economic health of the state’s urban centers.

Which leads directly to the next Census data released last week – information about Maine in-migration and out-migration. This BDN article has an interesting interactive map – see if you can find your own community. And did you know that Androscoggin and Penobscot Counties grew the fastest over the last five years?

Finally the U. S. Bureau of Economic Analysis released data last week on 2011 income growth in all 50 states – Maine finished last (that’s right, 50th) ( BDN), compared to our 2010 ranking of 28th. It’s serious news, and combined with the other data it ought to reinforce the first priority for local and state policy makers – a relentless focus on creating and retaining jobs.

State Policy round-up: The Supreme Judicial Court decided not to rule on questions about State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin’s business dealings ( LSJ, BDN, PPH) – the PPH editors and Elliott Epstein commented. Elimination of the State Planning Office and creation of the Office of Policy and Management raised concerns ( BDN, MPBN) – some revisions to the original proposal were offered ( LSJ), and the BDN editors wrote to oppose OPM. The Governor vetoed LD 145, a bill dealing with original mortgage documents ( PPH, BDN). The Maine State Chamber’s Business Day at the State House was a big hit ( BDN).

Elsewhere:

  • Budget: In order to finish work on the Governor’s second supplemental budget ( LD 1903) and wrap up the session (which includes a third supplemental budget dealing with MaineCare in FY 2013) the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee needs good information about DHHS MaineCare spending. Last week lawmakers had questions surrounding who knew what, and when, regarding 19,000 ineligible MaineCare recipients ( PPH, MPBN) – Doug Rooks and David Farmer commented, Sen. Justin Alfond went on WGAN to discuss his concerns, and the LSJ editors wrote about how quickly the lessons learned from Sen. Snowe’s retirement have been forgotten.
  • Ballot watch: George Smith and Alison Smith commented on changes in the Maine Clean Elections Act.
  • Economic Development: Ronald Nykiel shared his thoughts on new approaches to economic development. The BDN editors discussed transportation strategies as an economic development opportunity.
  • Education: The Governor’s bill proposing the use of public tuition money for private religious schools went down to defeat in the House ( BDN) and the Senate ( BDN). A conference on standards-based learning highlighted the way the new approach can work in the classroom ( BDN).
  • Energy: Ken Fletcher, the Governor’s point-man on energy issues, wrote to explain the administration’s efforts to restructure Efficiency Maine. The BDN’s Kevin Miller took an in-depth look at wind power’s history and future prospects in Maine, and the PPH’s Tux Turkel examined the administration’s push for new electric heating policies. Naomi Schalit and John Christie reported on the likelihood that Maine would not meet its goals for land-based wind power ( LSJ).
  • Environmental: LD 1853, re-writing mining regulations in Maine, headed toward a public hearing last week ( BDN). Dana Connors and Pete Vigue wrote in support of the bill’s economic growth promise – Landis Hudson had a different take. The public hearing on Friday brought out both views too ( BDN, MPBN, PPH). Leaders of Maine’s paper industry wrote to defend Sen. Susan Collins’ position on clean air issues ( PPH).
  • Health Care: Debate continued around the decision by Republican lawmakers to postpone action on a state-level health insurance exchange under the federal ACA ( PPH, LSJ) – Rep. Jon McKane went on WGAN to explain the Republicans’ position. LD 1887, which restructures DHHS, advanced to the full House and Senate ( BDN, LSJ, MPBN). Commissioner Anne Head wrote to clarify state regulatory oversight of small business health insurance rates.
  • Labor: Maine’s efforts to fight unemployment fraud received some national recognition ( BDN). LD 309, the public sector ‘right to work’ bill, remains in limbo ( BDN). Sherry Nadeau wrote about proposed changes to the workers comp laws.
  • Regulatory Reform: LD 1546 proposes to lower the degree of deference that courts give to administrative agency findings – the bill was moving along through the legislature, but it has run into some unusual opposition ( BDN).
  • Small Business: Do you have a family-run business? Governor LePage is giving the opening address on Thursday at a forum sponsored by the Institute for Family-Owned Business – learn more here.
  • Taxation: LD 1138 reworks Maine’s Tree Growth tax law – the bill has everyone grumbling ( LSJ, MPBN) – and on Friday a second measure advanced ( LSJ). Garrett Martin wrote about tax inequality in Maine.
  • Transportation: The legislature gave final approval to a bill setting up an east-west highway study ( LSJ, BDN) – Richard Bronson commented, while Cianbro’s Pete Vigue sold the opportunity the proposed highway offers to an SRO crowd in St. Stephen New Brunswick ( BDN).

U. S. Senate watch: The primary debate season kicked off last week for Democratic candidates ( PPH). Angus King discussed his wind power loan ( PPH). Jonathan Riskind commented on developments in the race last week.

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).

So far just one bill to look at this week – but it’s a big one:

LD 1903, An Act To Make Additional Supplemental Appropriations and Allocations and To Change Certain Provisions of the Law for the Fiscal Years Ending June 30, 2012 and June 30, 2013– here’s the Governor’s second supplemental budget in print.

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 Veterans Network launch was a success ( PPH, MPBN) – pass the word to any unemployed vets that you know, and thanks!

Elsewhere:

  • Cape Elizabeth & South Portland: In Cape Elizabeth a 3% school budget increase has been sent to the Council for action later this month ( Forecaster).

In South Portland the school budget is set for a 2.2% increase ( Forecaster), and municipal taxes are expected to rise ( Forecaster, Current).

  • Cumberland and Falmouth: In Cumberland the Council will take another look at changes to the Town’s impact fees ( Forecaster).

In Falmouth the Council sent proposed water view zoning regulations back for more work ( Forecaster).

  • Portland: Mayor Michael Brennan got good marks for his first three months in office ( PPH) – the PPH editors agreed. Elsewhere:
  • Business leaders liked the new Forbes ranking showing the Portland region as a good place to find a job ( Forecaster);
  • A federal grant will help save equipment at the Fish Pier from obsolescence ( BDN);
  • The BDN’s Seth Koenig looked at the combination of historic preservation efforts and tax credits used to save and re-purpose older buildings in Portland;
  • 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: A property tax hike – and maybe a big one – is looming for the Town ( Current). SEDCO budget cuts ( Forecaster) and outsourcing school custodial services ( Current) are only some of the budget choices facing the School Board and Council.
  • Westbrook and Gorham: In Westbrook foodies are finding out about Westbrook’s restaurant scene ( Current).
  • In Gorham the Gorham Marketplace, a program hosted by the Gorham Business exchange, was held Saturday ( 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.

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