AUGUSTA, Maine — When the Legislature adjourned Aug. 2, it did so “sine die,” which essentially means “without another day scheduled,” closing the books on the longest legislative session in Maine history.
But it was only a rest stop on a much longer journey.
Lawmakers punted some major issues to whenever the House and Senate return to the State House, meaning the history of the 128th Legislature still has major chapters left unwritten. Whether the work continues later this year during a special session or waits until this Legislature’s second session in January, momentous decisions must be made. With Gov. Paul LePage finishing his tenure, those decisions will unquestionably come amid intense political infighting.
A river of bills remains in the queue. According to the Legislative Information Office, lawmakers carried over more than 340 bills until January. Legislative leaders also can allow new bills if they have budget implications or if lawmakers convince leaders that they’re emergencies. And LePage, who can offer new proposals any time he wants to, has already vowed new legislation in 2018.
Among the carried-over bills are a proposal to better deal with dangerous dogs, measures to crack down on human trafficking, a number of would-be amendments to the Maine Constitution, sweeping energy proposals, bills to address Maine’s drug addiction crisis, and further work on preventing abuse of senior citizens.
Ranked-choice voting is the elephant in the room. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled in May that parts of the voting scheme enacted by referendum in 2016 are unconstitutional, virtually guaranteeing a legal challenge if Maine follows through with a ranked-choice election in 2018. After the court’s unanimous opinion, lawmakers acknowledged something had to be done, but ended up doing nothing. The debate boiled down to two bills: one to repeal ranked-choice voting altogether and one to hold another referendum to make it constitutional. Neither found the support needed for enactment, leaving the issue as a dark cloud over the State House — with thunder and lightning.
If you want to buy weed at a store next February, contact your representative. Recreational marijuana is legal in Maine after the November 2016 referendum, but that was just the start along a long and tedious road that (we’re told) might be more fun if you were high. Among a slate of outstanding issues is setting up a retail market, implementing testing procedures, taxation and implementing rules for personal and commercial cultivation. As one of its first acts, the Legislature in January made some technical fixes and delayed implementation of the sales and regulatory system three months beyond what the referendum called for to February 2018.
A special committee working on the issue has been meeting for months and is one of the few committees still working now that the Legislature has adjourned. There have been a few preliminary decisions, including the committee voting recently to cap the number of mature plants that can be possessed legally, but no decisions are final until votes in the full Legislature. Debate on major issues around pot legalization could open the floodgates for more proposals, including a push to overturn the law completely. In the meantime, there are still 31 bills in the committee’s possession, many of which could end up in a single omnibus proposal.
Because of timing constraints — upcoming elections for ranked-choice voting and that February 2018 deadline for marijuana — these are the two most important issues demanding legislative action. If there is a special session this fall, these will likely be the reasons why.
There were lots of calls to stiffen the process for citizen-initiated referendums, but we’re still waiting to see if that happens. There were five referendum questions on the November 2016 ballot, some of which resulted from heavy spending by special interest groups that focused their efforts in cities, where the 61,123 signatures that are necessary under current law come easier.
That prompted widespread calls to set the bar higher for ballot questions, which is a chorus that intensified when Maine Equal Justice Partners announced just two months after Election Day that they had collected enough signatures for a referendum about whether to expand Maine’s Medicaid program. Almost all of the signatures were collected on Election Day. Partisan divides in the Legislature have made big changes harder, fueling efforts to legislate by referendum and deepening concerns that citizen-contrived laws can lead to costly mistakes.
Lawmakers considered a number of proposals to change the process, and one of the bills debated during the waning days of the session would have proposed a constitutional amendment to require minimum thresholds for the number of signatures gathered in each congressional district, which proponents say would force referendum drives to include rural areas. However, disagreement reigned between the House and Senate and the bill was carried over until next year.
The Legislature still needs to decide whether to send bond questions to voters. Lawmakers received more than $1 billion worth of requests for new borrowing this year. But according to how much money is in the budget to make the payments, the state can afford a maximum of around $150 million. A $105 million transportation bond cruised through the Legislature last month and is en route to voters, but two others — $40 million for student debt relief and $55 million for investments in Maine’s biomedical industry — faltered. Both of those bonds, as well as most of the other bond bills proposed this year, were carried over for further consideration.
Lawmakers made a deal with LePage to end the state shutdown, but promises must be kept. Late on July 3, the state shutdown looked as if it could go on for weeks, but Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon and LePage made a deal: eliminate a proposed increase in the lodging tax in exchange for routing more federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families money toward early childhood education programs. The LePage administration also agreed to a two-year moratorium on changes the Maine Department of Health and Human Services wants to make to its care reimbursement structure that service providers say would be devastating. The moratorium delays the cuts but doesn’t cancel them, which means negotiations will have to continue.
Another funding promise involved two bills proposed by House Majority Leader Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, and Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, which sought to increase funding for workers who care one-on-one for people with developmental disabilities. Those bills were funded at $14 million in the current, month-old fiscal year but not in the future, meaning the funding would disappear unless LePage and the Legislature appropriate more for the second year of the biennial budget.
The second year of each legislative session is designed to be less intense and busy than the first, but with so many issues outstanding, legislative elections looming and LePage with just a year left to cement his legacy, the rest of 2017 and 2018 promise to produce a memorable stretch in Maine politics, with deadlines on the calendar driving whatever progress is made.