July 17, 2018
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What to expect from Maine politics in 2018

Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Ashley L. Conti | BDN
In this photo from June 2017, Rep. Dillon Bates (left), D-Westbrook, watches as votes come in during the House of Representatives vote on the state budget at the Maine State House in Augusta.
By Christopher Cousins and Michael Shepherd, BDN Staff
Updated:

The second year of any legislative session is shorter and, by design, more focused on emergencies and budget issues. However, the list of Maine political uncertainties that demand resolution in 2018 is long and comprehensive.

Here are the issues you can expect to dominate Maine’s political landscape this year.

Elections

Everyone is focused on the November elections, but Maine’s more interesting vote could come in June. Mainers will elect a successor to term-limited Gov. Paul LePage in November, but the party primaries are wide open and independents may help shape the race.

There’s no obvious front-runner among the five-person Republican field composed of House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, former Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew, businessman Shawn Moody and Senate President Mike Thibodeau. The three legislators must govern during the session.

Democrats have a messier field, with 12 candidates and counting, arguably led by Attorney General Janet Mills, former House Speaker Mark Eves and attorney Adam Cote. Party nominees who emerge from bruising primaries will likely compete against two or three of the five independents running. The most formidable is State Treasurer Terry Hayes with Green and Libertarian candidates also poised to appear on the November ballot.

In June, Democrats will decide who opposes U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican, in the 2nd District. Conservationist Lucas St. Clair, Assistant Maine House Majority Leader Jared Golden and former Maine Senate candidate Jonathan Fulford are best-known among six in that primary.

And independent U.S. Sen. Angus King will be favored for re-election in 2018, with Republican state Sen. Eric Brakey running an uphill bid from the right with no primary opposition so far. Two little-known Democrats are also running alongside a Libertarian.

Medicaid

Will last year’s successful referendum to expand Medicaid sway the Legislature? No issue has received more State House attention since the launch of the Affordable Care Act than expanding Medicaid, the taxpayer-funded health insurance program for low-income families.

Maine is one of the states that has not participated in the Obama-era expansion, largely because LePage vetoed five legislative attempts at expansion. In 2017, proponents took their case to voters, more than 59 percent of whom supported expansion. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump’s push to dismantle the ACA adds to the uncertainty.

LePage has already dug in his heels with a list of what amount to impractical demands related to funding expanded Medicaid eligibility. Democrats led by House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, vow to implement expansion on the schedule stipulated by the citizen initiative, despite LePage’s resistance.

Meanwhile, a legislative task force that emerged as a watered-down response to calls for universal health care just started work on a study, which will again place health care at the forefront of 2018 State House bickering and campaigning.

Susan Collins

Maine’s senior senator spent most of 2017 in the spotlight and set herself up for more this year. Collins’ year has been highlighted by two votes — one in July against fellow Republicans’ bid to repeal the Affordable Care Act and the other last month for their tax overhaul package. The two votes draw outrage from different Maine political corners.

LePage heavily criticized her for the Obamacare vote, and Republicans who previously have backed her said Collins would have a hard time winning the 2018 gubernatorial primary that she ruled out in October. Collins faced protests from progressives at her Maine offices over her tax stance, around which some drama will stretch into next year.

She hoped to pass bills aimed at offsetting the tax bill’s repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate by year’s end, but debate on that will stretch into 2018 and Collins is opposed by some conservatives. Soon after the New Year, we’ll find out if she can get it done.

Pot sales

Lawmakers have yet to agree on a way to regulate retail sales of marijuana for recreational use, as approved by voters in 2016. One of the Legislature’s final acts of 2017 was upholding a veto of an omnibus bill to set up a sales, regulation and taxation system for recreational marijuana, leaving an impossible February deadline in place for the executive branch to implement the program.

On Friday, according to Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, LePage and several of his commissioners met with lawmakers to discuss how to move forward. Katz, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Marijuana Legalization and Implementation Committee, said the meeting yielded some progress, with LePage asking for provisions he has long sought, such as having the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations oversee the pot program and altering the distribution of tax revenue from pot sales.

“The governor was quite definitive in his points,” Katz said. “The goal is to hopefully have the governor’s support. If we can’t, then it’s to at least make enough intelligent changes to the bill to get enough votes to overcome a potential veto.”

In the meantime, Katz hopes to fast-track his bill to extend the current moratorium on recreational pot sales until May.

Miscellaneous hot topics

Citizen-initiated referendums. Frustrated by partisan gridlock in the Legislature, advocacy groups, especially progressives, have increasingly used the citizen initiative process to advance their agendas. Lawmakers, especially Republicans, have complained that placing questions on the ballot is too easy, but so far the Legislature has done little about it.

After lawmakers in 2017 blocked or altered all four citizen initiatives passed in 2016, the time for changes may be right.

One proposal for 2018 comes from Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap and would push signature gatherers at least 50 feet away from polling places — which is where groups usually collect the most signatures.

Groups who back the referendum process, including Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, oppose that. Dunlap, a Democrat, said it’s “not part of a concerted effort to keep things off the ballot,” but that it has been proposed before and came back after conversations with municipal clerks who want “order in the polling place.”

Meanwhile, more signature-gathering efforts are underway, such as a Maine People’s Alliance push to tax upper income earners to fund universal home care services, and a people’s veto of the Legislature’s bill scuttling of the ranked-choice voting system.

Bonds. Public borrowing requires voter approval, but the first step is legislative agreement on how much and for what. That didn’t happen in 2017, putting the issue in focus in 2018.

Unfunded programs. Brutal budget negotiations in 2017 led to a state budget bill that left some programs unfunded in the 2019 fiscal year or afterward. Those include money for indigent legal services, nursing homes, county jails and home care workers. LePage has vowed he won’t support additional funding in 2018. Fredette said House Republicans would stand with the governor, as they mostly have on spending issues.

“We’re going to be talking a lot this session about how we reduce people’s’ tax burden?” Fredette said.

Tax conformity. Following the implementation of a sweeping tax code restructuring at the federal level, Maine and other states need to decide whether they will revamp their taxation systems to align with federal changes. It’s a debate that will be fueled by recent events in Washington but countered by the impact on revenues to support government programs.

This could be the dark horse issue that ends up consuming most of the Legislature’s time in 2018, and legislative leaders know it. Two years ago, a much less significant tax conformity debate dragged on for more than two months.

Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said Democrats want relief for property tax payers before they’ll support reducing other taxes.

“We’re not interested in giving more huge tax breaks to people who are already prospering in this economy,” Jackson said.

Thibodeau, the Republican Maine Senate president, has another priority.

“Maine needs a constitutional amendment that would keep the activists at the Maine People’s Alliance and other organizations from raising their taxes,” Thibodeau said. “There will be lots of discussion around what kind of investments we should be making before the 128th Legislature finishes this spring.”

“Unspent” taxpayer funds. The LePage administration came under increased scrutiny in 2017 for leaving money, particularly federal grant funds, on the table instead of spending it on public health and job-training programs. Some of those decisions have been challenged in the courts and in the media, but the challenges in 2018 will also come from the Legislature. Gideon will propose a revised version of her 2017 “LIFT” bill with the intention of allocating unused TANF funding for educational and job training programs.

The new normal

Maine enters 2018 with revenues flush and no major state budget crisis. Many of the problems facing politicians will be the same ones they struggled with last year — and very little has changed in the power dynamics in Washington and Augusta.

By statute, the Legislature has fewer than four months to achieve detente on all of the issues listed above, most notably Medicaid expansion, legal marijuana and how Maine will count primary and federal election ballots in 2018. But as the specter of brutal campaigns for control of the Blaine House and Legislature colors every debate and deliberation in Augusta this year, the 2017 partisan gridlock that produced Maine’s first government shutdown in 26 years can only be expected to deepen.

Welcome to the new year, same as the old year.

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