AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Legislature will return to Augusta on Wednesday for the 2016 session, and many of the battle lines have been drawn in headlines during the past three months.
Those major issues include legislative leaders’ $4.8 million plan to fight Maine’s drug crisis, whether to reauthorize voter-approved conservation bonds and an uphill effort to expand Medicaid over the objections of Gov. Paul LePage, who has vetoed proposals to do so five times.
Several important issues to be considered in 2016, however, have flown under the radar of some Maine political observers. Legislators will consider axing Common Core educational standards, allowing a casino in southern Maine and making other structural governmental changes.
An interesting coalition of conservatives and educational interests want to kill Common Core, highlighting a priority shift since the start of the LePage era.
What a difference five years makes.
In 2011, LePage, a Republican, made Maine the 42nd state to adopt Common Core standards, a state-by-state initiative to establish consistent math and language arts standards, and his first education commissioner, Stephen Bowen, left in 2013 to work for a national group that helps states implement them.
But in 2013, LePage disavowed support for Common Core, a possible reflection of growing animosity toward it from conservative activists pushing a return to state and local standards. The National Education Association, a teachers union, has criticized its implementation.
A national movement between tea party-type activists and the liberal unions led to a bid in the Maine Legislature to repeal the standards in 2015. It failed, but Rep. William Tuell, R-East Machias, got a similar bill past a panel of legislative leaders for consideration in 2016.
Tuell’s bill would repeal and replace Common Core standards by 2017, and it’s being supported by the Maine Education Association. While the demise of a similar bill in 2015 may not bode well, the Legislature dumped assessments developed by a consortium of states earlier in 2015, so the timing could be right.
Another bill would allow a casino in southern Maine, coinciding with a petition drive to hand the rights to a casino in York County to a controversial figure.
Legislators again will consider a bill sponsored by Rep. Wayne Parry, R-Arundel, last session that would allow for a casino in either Cumberland or York counties and use some of the revenue to lower income taxes.
Expanding gaming in Maine has been a hard sell in recent years: There are just two casinos — in Bangor and Oxford — and opponents of the bill in 2015, including LePage, said a new one could erode their business.
That bill passed a preliminary vote in the House, but it failed in the Senate and was sent back to a committee. Another bill that would have established a tribal casino in Aroostook County failed, so the climate may not be right for more gaming establishments in Maine.
Parry’s bill coincides with a proposal asking voters to approve a York County casino on the 2016 ballot. But that effectively would limit the license to one person, according to the Portland Press Herald: controversial Las Vegas developer Shawn Scott.
Scott bought the Bangor Raceway, then bankrolled a 2003 referendum to allow slot machines there and at Scarborough Downs, then sold his operation to the developer of Hollywood Casino, after which Scarborough Downs sued him for allegedly undermining local support for slots there.
Even if it doesn’t pass, that context makes Parry’s bill all the more worth watching.
Creation of a public defender system and government contract reform will be considered.
It would give a new public defender the authority to contract with lawyers throughout the state to defend indigent clients, replacing the current system that pays lawyers an hourly rate to defend them.
LePage has said it could save money and serve clients better, but some lawyers have expressed concern about the changes.
Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, told MPBN in September that while a defender system may be too bureaucratic, the state could use a hybrid system that contracts with certain lawyers, such as in Somerset County. His committee will consider it in 2016.
A bill from Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, would give preference for state contracts to Maine companies whose bids are within 5 percent of the lowest bid by a similarly qualified out-of-state company. It passed the panel of leaders in a 9-1 vote, indicating strong support.