Now that the 125th Maine Legislature has ended, let’s take a step back. Between Gov. Paul LePage’s vetoes, such as for research and development funding, and debate surrounding Medicaid cuts in the Department of Health and Human Services budget, some decent legislation deserves more attention.
Though the new laws may address different topics — such as domestic violence, access to public information, unemployment — the underlying theme is that they shift power, just a little, from those with more power to those with less.
First, the state took steps to strengthen laws surrounding domestic violence. On April 17, LePage signed LD 1867, sponsored by House Minority Leader Emily Cain of Orono. It requires judges instead of bail commissioners to set bail conditions in certain instances when domestic violence is involved.
A separate bill, LD 1711, presented by Cain, was signed by LePage on May 21 and requires law enforcement to complete an assessment of a suspected domestic violence offender to determine the likelihood of a repeat crime. The results may be shared with the bail commissioner and district attorney to help determine appropriate bail conditions and sentencing.
Both new laws realign power between domestic violence suspects and victims by better identifying potential repeat offenders and hopefully preventing them from being abusive again.
Another bill, LD 1465, shifts more power to people seeking information about their government. Sponsored by Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, and signed by LePage on May 21, it amends Maine’s Freedom of Access Act to encourage more openness by state agencies, county and municipal governments and school districts.
It requires public agencies to designate an existing employee to field freedom-of-access questions and it provides funding for a public access ombudsman in the attorney general’s office. It also requires government agencies to consider maximizing access to public records when they purchase or contract for computer software and other technology.
Parts of the law require what many towns and agencies are already doing on their own, but the law makes clear that public access is a priority. It hands a little more power to residents seeking to learn more about their government’s operations.
Finally, a bill passed last session — and left unsigned by LePage — took effect this week. LD 269 was introduced by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, and created a WorkShare program that provides an alternative to layoffs during a temporary slowdown in business. It allows workers to remain employed with reduced hours and still collect a modified unemployment benefit.
For this program to work well, businesses will have to take advantage of it. If they qualify, they won’t lose their employees to other jobs when they have to temporarily cut workers’ hours. And employees get to maintain their salary, benefits and seniority and won’t have to show a gap in employment on their resumes.
More flexibility and choice gives business owners and workers a little more power.
The 125th Legislature saw many changes, including pension and health care reform and sweeping education legislation. We didn’t always agree with some actions by LePage or some cuts to services, and we said so at the time, but the Legislature deserves credit for waking Mainers up with its debate about the state’s fiscal health, paying a portion of the money owed to hospitals and maintaining a moderate general obligation debt level.
It also deserves credit for these laws that will redistribute power the correct way — by providing Mainers with greater legal protections, streamlined access to public information and options that can help businesses remain competitive.