January 17, 2019
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The first big Maine State House fight of 2018 could pit politicians against petitioners

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
The State House in Augusta

Maine lawmakers return to Augusta on Wednesday for the second session of the 128th Legislature.

Ahead of their arrival, legislative staff have been printing new bills during the past few weeks that will form the basis of some of the biggest fights of the short 2018 session. Some are old, some are new and some are yet to be aired in full.

The day may be dominated by a long public hearing over one controversial item in an election housekeeping bill. That bill, sponsored by Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, makes a host of minor changes to election law. But activists are up in arms over one proposed change that would force people gathering signatures on Election Day to be at least 50 feet from a polling place.

Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, a Democrat who backs the change, said it aims to address concerns from clerks who say voters must often “run the gauntlet” past people soliciting signatures for ballot initiatives before they can vote.

But Election Day is a massive boon to these drives. Backers of ranked-choice voting said they got 33,000 signatures — more than half of what they need — on Election Day 2017 in their effort to get a people’s veto initiative on this year’s June ballot. The Legislature has already booked overflow space for the expected crowd at Wednesday’s hearing before their voting committee.

Lawmakers are also just looking to keep the wheels of government churning. Rep. William Tuell, R-East Machias, is continuing his fight to keep the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport open after it won a one-year reprieve from closure in the budget passed last year. His 2018 bill would fund the jail beyond next year and bar the administration of Gov. Paul LePage from closing it without legislative approval.

Rep. James Handy, D-Lewiston, wants to restore funding for school-based health centers. Rep. Dale Denno, D-Cumberland, wants to re-establish the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Advocacy, which closed in 2011.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about other key bills. Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, has submitted a much-ballyhooed bill that aims to protect electric consumers from rate spikes due to outage costs like those resulting from Maine’s massive October windstorm. But the bill is only in concept form now and would create a task force to study the issue.

The Republican governor also said in a radio address last week that he will try to pass student debt relief again after his own party blocked a different effort last year. House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, has offered a compromise measure since then, but LePage’s office shed little light on the governor’s plan, with spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz saying only that he’ll offer “new proposals.”

For a roundup of Maine political news, click here for the Daily Brief. Click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

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