November 12, 2019
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Zombie legislation: Why many passed bills never become law in Maine

AUGUSTA, Maine — It’s not even a real table, but there’s $65 million on it.

Actually, that’s not true. There’s negative $65 million on the Special Appropriations Table, if you can picture that.

Still having trouble?

In the cost estimates on bills passed by the Legislature but as of yet unfunded, it looks like this: ($65,000,000). It’s a cost.

The Special Appropriations Table? It’s abstract and ethereal and as jargony as anything that goes on in the Legislature. Some call it the place where good bills go to die.

In that case, it’s legislative purgatory and they’re zombie bills: passed by the Legislature, but as good as dead unless they’re funded.

Which bills will come off the table with funding?

That’s not likely to be decided until the waning moments of the legislative session, probably late at night when the dust has settled from most of the other battles under the dome. That’s when the Senate will “run the table,” as it’s called.

By then, the decisions will have been made and the votes will be perfunctory.

How will they decide?

They usually do it all at once. This is so lawmakers can have a full list of the bills, and their price tags, from which they can prioritize. This prevents available funds from being expended on bills approved early in a legislative session while other possibly more important but slower-moving bills are still under consideration.

They’ll see how much money there is to go around. In recent years, especially since the 2008 recession, the Legislature has struggled year after year with revenue deficits and found itself looking for ways to cut costs. This year, things are different. State government is running at a surplus — meaning it’s making more money from tax revenues than it is budgeted to spend. The revenue bonanza is estimated to grow to $72 million by the end of the biennium on June 30, 2017.

Wait, you say. There’s a $72 million surplus and $65 million worth of unfunded bills? What’s the problem? Just because there’s a surplus doesn’t mean it should be spent. Fiscal prudence, not to mention national credit rating agencies, calls for states to keep funds in reserve so when there’s an emergency or economic downturn, the money can be used to sustain important services until revenues rebound. Another reason spending all of the $72 million is dangerous is that it’s an estimated surplus, not an actual one. Bad news in the economy could whittle away revenues.

Some of the money is already spent. Remember all that debate about tax conformity earlier this year? The Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage reached a compromise that aligned Maine with federal tax law — and gave businesses continued tax breaks — while providing $15 million in additional school funding in the face of cuts projected for next year. LePage also has publicly promised the University of Maine System a $7.5 million increase in the current biennium. The governor has said he would propose the spending formally in January — after the 127th Legislature is history and the 128th is seated.

LePage wants to put most of the surplus into savings. He announced earlier this year that he wanted the entire surplus put in the budget stabilization fund, which currently contains about $111 million. LePage is certain to oppose most new spending this year, which means he could veto some bills that are “taken off the table” or line-item veto a supplemental budget package that would have to be a creation of the Legislature. LePage has rebuffed calls from lawmakers that the executive branch propose one this year.

Zombie bills

The bills on the Special Appropriations Table are listed at the end of the daily Senate Calendar. Friday’s calendar listed 44 bills, amounting to an orderly jumble of numbers, capital letters and punctuation which say nothing about what they would do for the Maine people.

There are clearly some priority bills. On Thursday, the Appropriations Committee was poised to take three bills off the table and fund them, according to draft agendas published by the committee:

LD 1343, which would waive tuition for active members of the Maine National Guard. The bill, which had unanimous support in the Legislature, has a $500,000 fiscal note (that’s Legislature-ese for “cost estimate”), though the University of Maine has identified a way to fund it.

LD 1496, which would create drug addiction recovery programs in rural Maine at a cost of $600,000 a year, beginning in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

LD 1530, which would correct what most lawmakers agree was an unintended consequence of tax changes enacted last year in the state biennial budget bill. The Legislature increased the service provider tax from 5 percent to 6 percent to help offset the financial impact of an income tax cut. The tax was intended to hit mostly cable and satellite television-associated businesses but also applied — mistakenly, according to some — to medical and mental health service providers. Lawmakers are trying to correct that, but it will require a $6.7 million appropriation to the General Fund.

After convening Thursday afternoon, the committee heard an explanation from Marc Cyr, principal analyst for the Office of Fiscal and Program Review, which among other things is where price tags are put on bills. Cyr explained the Special Appropriations Table process, after which the committee went into private meetings for a while. When they came back, they adjourned until Tuesday.

There are other bills that have a lot of support. High-speed Internet for rural farmers ($1 million). Student debt reduction ($95,000). A drug interdiction unit ($700,000). Increasing opiate addiction treatment ($570,000). Sexually transmitted disease screenings ($390,000). Housing for homeless veterans ($1 million). Emergency funding for county jails ($2.5 million).

Those are just a few and there will be more added to the list in the next couple of weeks, including some from LePage.

On Thursday, for example, he proposed a network of new substance abuse treatment centers run by county sheriffs, which would be supported by reimbursement grants from the state. LePage’s bill would create the “Community Substance Abuse Fund” but does not identify how it would be funded.

That means, if it passes, it will probably land on the table that isn’t a table, among the zombies where good bills go to die.

 

Correction: A previous version of this report contained an error. Christopher Nolan is the director of the Office of Fiscal and Program Review, not Mark Cyr who is the office’s principal analyst.


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