AUGUSTA, Maine — From cutting back MaineCare benefits to rolling back collective bargaining rights, Gov. Paul LePage and Maine’s Republican-majority Legislature have left their mark on the 2012 election-year session.
Lawmakers made eligibility changes to MaineCare that will remove thousands from a social service system the governor says the state can’t afford, passed portions of his education-reform bills and revamped oversight of the state housing authority amid GOP scrutiny of the agency.
“This session was a shift certainly in policy and attitude here in Augusta,” Assistant Majority Leader Andre Cushing III, R-Hampden, said as the session lurched toward recess last week.
Republicans, who won majorities in both houses in 2010 for the first time in 36 years, pushed through an agenda they hope will earn them another opportunity in this fall’s elections to call the shots next term.
“People didn’t fall in love with Republicans in 2010, they were dissatisfied with Democrats. I’ve used the analogy of a library book: We don’t own this. This majority’s been granted to us to take out for two years. How we treat it determines this fall [whether] we get to take it out for another two years. So we need to tread carefully.”
A number of high-profile bills made it most of the way through the process but await final funding decisions when the Legislature returns in May to complete budget work for the two years ending in mid-2013 and close the session.
Among them is a measure to lop the state’s income tax rate in half over time to 4 percent, depending initially on surpluses.
Also in limbo are bills to overhaul the Land Use Regulation Commission, which regulates development in Maine’s 10 million-acre Unorganized Territory, a bill to tighten the law to prevent welfare cheating and a measure allowing charitable nonprofits, including veterans’ organizations, to operate up to five slot machines each.
In other action reflecting sharp partisan differences, lawmakers voted to eliminate workers’ rights to unionize at a Turner-based egg farm, formerly known as DeCoster, and its subsidiaries. They enacted a bill that eliminates collective bargaining rights for private child-care providers who receive state subsidies.
They enacted a workers compensation overhaul which Republicans said reforms in a program that’s too generous and subject to abuse, but Democrats said peels back worker protections.
They also removed the so-called “matching funds” provision of Maine’s public campaign financing, or Clean Elections law. What started out as a bill to require voters to show picture identification in order to cast ballots was watered down to a study of the broader issue of voter participation.
“It’s the Republicans who have exercised the majority, and quite frankly I think they’ve made some poor choices where to exercise that majority, particularly when it comes to working people and labor policy in Maine,” said the House Democratic leader, Rep. Emily Cain of Orono.
“The attacks on working people have been solutions in search of problems; they have not made anything better for businesses or for working people. It really just has been part of the national Republican playbook time and time again,” said Cain.
Following a LePage theme begun a year earlier, lawmakers continued to snip red tape. Regulatory burdens for telecommunication providers were eased, and some financial penalties removed, in legislation designed to bring requirements for all telecommunications providers closer to parity.
Lawmakers enacted a LePage-backed bill to allow students to move at their own pace to graduate and earn diplomas, and he signed a bill requiring school districts to adopt teacher and principal evaluation systems that make it clear what’s expected of them.
In other laws passed this session:
• The Crossroads Landfill in Norridgewock won the Legislature’s authorization to pursue expanding onto 175 to 200 acres contiguous to the landfill site.
• State workers will be allowed to store concealed weapons in their locked vehicles while at work. The law extends to state workers the same rights that a law passed last year gives workers who are employed by private companies.
• Lawmakers from both parties pushed into gear an effort to build an east-west toll highway connecting New Brunswick and Quebec via Maine, by approving a $300,000 feasibility study into the long-discussed idea.
• Lawmakers also strengthened a law that outlaws the hallucinogen bath salts. The law targets five more similar drugs, which have been sold at local stores and on the streets.
• Domestic abuse prevention, one of the governor’s priority issues, won bipartisan enactment. The law restricts bail in domestic violence cases for defendants accused of violating a protection order. And judges can no longer waive $25 fees that offenders in violent crimes must pay to compensate victims.
Two bridges in Harmony will be renamed in memory of domestic violence victims. One is named the Amy, Coty and Monica Bridge after Amy Lake and her two children were shot to death last year in Dexter by her estranged husband, Steven Lake, who also killed himself. The other bridge will be named the Remember Me Bridge.