The Legislature’s to-do list when it returns to the State House on Monday for a special session is short but that doesn’t mean the decisions — or politics — will be easy.
They are returning to Augusta ostensibly to fix two problems. They all seem to agree that one problem — federal objections to Maine’s first-in-the-nation food sovereignty law passed earlier this year — is pressing. There has been disagreement between some legislators, notably Senate President Mike Thibodeau, and Gov. Paul LePage over the urgency of the other — funding a state data agency. But the Senate chairman of the Appropriations Committee has introduced a bill to address LePage’s concerns, and his committee was scheduled to discuss the proposal Thursday in hopes of having a recommendation for the full Legislature on Monday.
But there will be elephants in the room. And they will not just be Republicans. Perhaps the largest is the ranked-choice voting law enacted last year during a statewide referendum. An advisory opinion by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court found the law at odds with the Maine Constitution, which specifically states that a plurality wins legislative and gubernatorial elections. Republicans and Democrats have been unable to agree whether to repeal the law or try to fix it. One proposal that has surfaced recently would apply ranked-choice voting to primaries and federal elections. Leaving the situation unresolved until the next regular session starts in January would push Maine closer to chaos and the threat of legal challenges after the June primaries.
And there are people waiting for their legal marijuana. Pot is already legal to possess in Maine, but we’re still waiting for the system to tax and regulate it. A special legislative committee has been working on a comprehensive bill for most of this year and hopes to see it enacted Monday so state agencies can begin a rulemaking process that could put marijuana on store shelves sometime in 2018. There could be problems. Some legalization advocates have already said they oppose the law and lawmakers on the pot committee say they have heard nothing about whether LePage supports the bill or not.
The political tension will be palpable. The last time the Legislature met in early July, it was during a state government shutdown caused by the body’s inability to pass a state budget bill. It wasn’t pretty, with lawmakers of all stripes saying the budget had something in it that “everyone can hate.” That and other largely partisan battles have caused a handful of lawmakers to leave their parties to become independents.
Oh yeah, and there’s the governor’s race. Three of the four Republican floor leaders — Senate President Mike Thibodeau, Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette — have all declared runs for governor in recent weeks. There will be a lot of eyes on them as they eye strengths and vulnerabilities in each other in the run-up to the June primary.
And, it’s awfully nice outside to be stuck inside legislating. The Legislature does not normally meet this time of year, meaning some lawmakers and legislative staff are upending their normal routines and postponing the consumption of pumpkin-flavored goods to be at the State House. The to-do list is long for just a single day’s work and with the tension this high, expect Monday to be either a marathon or the first of a multiday session.
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Correction: LD 1646, a proposal to address constitutional questions about ranked-choice voting, would apply to federal elections, not just to primaries.