AUGUSTA, Maine — With just over 60 days left before the statutory end of this year’s legislative session, there’s a $6.8 billion problem to solve and lots of other work to do.
Of the 1,410 bills that have been sent to committees, only about 22 percent have been sent back to the full Legislature for consideration. Of those, only 239 have reached final disposition.
There are still hundreds of bills that aren’t yet written and probably dozens that haven’t even been conceived. Gov. Paul LePage, for example, can introduce new bills whenever he wants, and he is known for doing so up until the very last hours of the legislative session.
The crushing number of bills still to consider is nothing new at this juncture of the first year of the legislative session. Neither is the fact that virtually all of the most contentious floor debates in the House and Senate lie ahead.
From today’s vantage point, the next two months look like a marathon, but seasoned political observers know it will be a sprint. Still, that breeds frustration.
“We’ve had a very slow run up here, and we are clearly at the point where we need to be working much more than we are,” said House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, who is notorious for his annual complaints about the Legislature’s slow startup. “We’re just a little over 60 days from statutory adjournment. I think we’re up against the wall.”
What’s taking so long?
The Legislature’s rules make it this way. New lawmakers were elected in November 2016 and convened to elect their leaders in early December. The 186 lawmakers then had until the end of December to file their bill requests with the Legislature’s Revisor of Statutes, kicking off what can only be called a mad rush to write all those bills. As they are written and printed, which means they enter the deliberative process, the Legislature has to refer them all to a committee. That constitutes the overwhelming majority of what the Legislature has accomplished thus far, much to the chagrin of some who look with envy at other states where the workload is limited in any of a number of ways.
Suzanne Gresser, who directs the revisor’s office, said she and her staff have already written and sent more than 1,475 bills to the Legislature for consideration.
“There’s an incredibly beautiful instinct and tradition in this state and among the legislators where almost every bill, in their minds, deserves to be fully heard,” she said.
Experts, lobbyists and regular folks create a vast daily parade through the State House. Part of the committee process involves public hearings and on the more complex measures, often several work sessions in which lawmakers deliberate for weeks before finally voting on recommendations. A prime example of that is a handful of bills related to Maine’s large-scale mining rules. The Environment and Natural Resources Committee has already dedicated several days and dozens of hours to the issue, on top of vast time spent on the issue during the last three legislative sessions.
Why can’t the Legislature speed up the process?
Legislative leaders are strategizing about how to move their favored bills to enactment. The black hole of the Legislature every two years is the biennial state budget. That bill exceeds 800 pages by itself, but there are hundreds of other bills that are in some way associated. Democrats, for example, recently produced an outline of budget priorities they call the Opportunity Agenda, which are under consideration as either amendments to the budget bills or separate bills with fiscal impacts.
The Democrats’ plan includes a number of initiatives that will be tough sells, politically and financially. That state revenues are exceeding spending more than they have in recent years means the debate will revolve around ideology and decisions won’t be forced by fiscal shortages.
“We’re not dealing with austere times. We’re not dealing with an austere economy,” Assistant Senate Minority Leader Nathan Libby, D-Lewiston, said. “Now is the time for us to be making the investments in the Maine people that we have not been making in the past six to eight years.”
There’s a lot of work that hasn’t even started yet. Fredette said several committees, such as energy, education and the health and human services committees, have massive workloads ahead of them and that LePage will be adding to the load imminently.
“I had a meeting with the governor [Thursday,] and he has a significant number of bills still in the revisor’s office,” Fredette said Friday. “There is a lot of heavy lifting left to do.”
Lines of political division are already hard and numerous. Many bills are coming out of committees with divided reports, which usually means Democrats vote one way and Republicans vote the other. With Democrats in control of the House and Republicans controlling the Senate, that means many of those bills will be the subject of full debates even though they’re going to die in the end. In the past 20 years, the Legislature hasn’t enacted more than 48 percent of proposed bills, and usually the percentage has been much lower.
Divided, partisan recommendations have already been made throughout LePage’s budget proposal, which some say could lead to one of the most difficult budget negotiations since he has been in office. Some say difficulty is normal.
“The scenario this session is pretty much the same as it has been,” Libby said. “Every budget negotiation is very difficult.”
Where are the friction points?
The state budget is the mother of all friction points, but there are plenty of other issues that will cause robust debate. Here’s a sampling of some other high-profile bills that will be at the forefront of debate in the coming weeks:
— Democratic Sen. Shenna Bellows of Manchester has sponsored two bills, LD 140 and LD 1399, which aim to increase the availability of broadband internet service in rural Maine. There is bipartisan support for the concept but the price tag is yet to be settled. The fiscal note on LD 1399 has not been established and LD 140 proposes a $10 million General Fund bond that Maine voters would have to approve by referendum.
— Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, has presented a workforce training bill, LD 1467, which hasn’t yet been brought into the legislative process. The bill aims to expand and improve the Competitive Skills Scholarship Program administered by the Department of Labor, in part by increasing allocations to the program by $3 million and doubling what employers involved in the program contribute. With a low unemployment rate and worker shortages increasing across several sectors, there is a lot of interest in training more workers in the Legislature, though there is disagreement about how to do it.
— There are a number of bills aimed at making the citizen-initiated referendum process more difficult following several election cycles with multiple petition-driven questions on the ballots. These concepts have not gained a lot of traction in recent legislative sessions but the ongoing battle over Questions 2, 4 and 5 from November 2016 could add enough heat to the debate to result in changes. Meanwhile, questions about how to implement those initiatives endorsed by Maine voters in 2016 — as well as the legalization of recreational marijuana — continue to generate major conflicts, with the tip credit, income surtax to boost school aid and jurisdiction over retail marijuana sales looming large before adjournment.
— Energy issues, which have emerged as priorities in recent years, will again keep lawmakers awake at night in June. A redux of last year’s bruising solar energy battle is brewing, as is a debate over Maine’s place in the regional energy infrastructure, particularly whether a transmission line for Quebec hydro-electric power to the south will come through Maine.
Also expected to come to the fore is the issue of offshore wind turbines. Republican Sen. Dana Dow of Waldoboro has his eye on that issue with LD 1262, which would prohibit the permitting of an offshore wind energy project with 10 nautical miles of the Monhegan Lobster Conservation area. A University of Maine turbine test site is already located there, though Dow’s bill, which would be retroactive to 2009, could unravel that.
— It is not a bill or a fiscal note, but one matter currently outside the Legislature’s control casts an imposing shadow on this year’s session. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Thursday heard arguments prompted by Senate Republicans’ request for a “solemn occasion” that could determine the constitutionality of a ranked-choice voting system approved by voters in 2016. A likely court ruling in May or June could send lawmakers scurrying to work out the details of how they, as well as candidates for governor and federal office will be elected in 2018. That prospect is something completely different that no previous Legislature has encountered.
Soon, the crush of pending legislation will force long hours at the State House. The Legislature will increase from meeting two days per week to four or five, and come June sessions will be going late into the night or even around the clock. There will be inevitable complaints about why some of the work couldn’t have been accomplished earlier in the year. But with Easter already come and gone, it’s much too late for that now.