Legislative hearings begin today on Gov. Janet Mills’ $8 billion two-year budget, a process that is set to take about a month before a key panel begins doing the long and difficult work of reshaping the document.
It starts as one of the more intriguing budget processes we’ve seen recently, particularly after the last three legislatures spent most of their time working around former Gov. Paul LePage to pass budgets. Many of Mills’ goals figure to be fulfilled with Democratic legislative majorities.
There is something for most everyone to hate: It doesn’t raise taxes and some progressives are underwhelmed by the $126 million increase in school funding; Republicans want to reduce the proposed 11 percent increase in total spending that they see as potentially calamitous.
The work will begin with Mills’ health and human services budget. The Legislature’s budget-writing committee will start three days of budget hearings by taking testimony on the Democratic governor’s proposals for the Department of Health and Human Services, the largest state department and the center for many of Mills’ reversals of LePage-era policy — most notably the implementation of voter-approved Medicaid expansion to nearly 9,000 people so far.
The Medicaid budget will be up for discussion on Monday, including a $29 million transfer from the Fund for a Healthy Maine, which uses tobacco settlement money to fund prevention programs, to a Medicaid surplus account. Public health groups have opposed past transfers out of the account to pay for Medicaid shortfalls.
The health and human services hearings will wrap up on Wednesday. On Thursday, appropriators will take testimony on the corrections and public safety budgets. These types of hearings will last until month’s end, then appropriators will begin long sessions of rewrites.
Some have implored Democrats to pass a majority budget, but the clock is running out. Since Augusta is under one-party rule, there have been whispers — mostly among Republicans — that Democrats could pass a unilateral majority budget, bypassing the normal process that requires a bipartisan agreement that gets two-thirds votes in each chamber. Democrats considered it in 1997 and during a 2008 budget-balancing fight.
However, it has always been seen as an overreach that could imperil their majorities. Democrats don’t seem to be seriously considering it this time, though leaders of the progressive Maine People’s Alliance tested the idea on a February podcast after Mills released her budget.
To do it, Democrats would have to pass a budget by early April — just after hearings are supposed to end — and wait 90 days for it to go into effect as a regular law by June 30, the end of the fiscal year. The clock is simply running out, barring a large timing shift.
It would be a power move that Mills-led Democrats don’t seem oriented toward. If Republicans can gain any negotiating footing, they will probably want to engage rather than be left behind.
In a statement Monday, Golden said he stands by his vote. “Mainers in every county in my district were very clear,” he said. “They don’t support expanding background checks to make some transfers between friends and family illegal.”
Today in A-town
— State offices won’t open until 11 a.m. in most places and morning committee sessions are canceled because of the snow. In most cases, that means public hearings scheduled for this morning will now begin at noon or 1 p.m. Mills has closed state offices in Hancock and Washington counties, where the snowfall is especially heavy.
— The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will again focus on election practices. After public hearings on a proposed constitutional amendment from Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade, to ensure that governors are elected by majority vote — effectively ensuring that ranked-choice voting would never apply to gubernatorial races — and on geography-based tweaks to the citizen initiative process, the committee will swing into work sessions on proposals to elect the president via popular vote and to ban per-signature payments for petition signature gatherers. Warning: The late start and potential for lengthy testimony during the public hearings will likely force adjustment to these plans. Click here to follow the discussion.
— We’re still at the stage of the legislative process where symbols matter more than actions. Hence, the State and Local Government Committee will host a public session at noon on a call by Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth, to bring back Maine’s original flag. More than a year ago, the BDN’s Troy R. Bennett dug deeply into this vexillographic controversy. Click here to read all about it again, and make sure you watch the video. Click here to listen to the committee hearing. Here is your soundtrack.
— The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee has a varied agenda today. It will hold a work session on a bill from Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Albion, that would bar convicted sex offenders from living in some places where children reside. The committee also will consider what to do with expired marine flares. Click here to listen.
— Judges, prosecutors and the governor all support adding a special court in midcoast Maine to address the needs of people fighting addiction and veterans who have committed crimes. But the Legislature will have to find as much as $1 million in the next two-year budget to start it. The new court serving Knox, Lincoln, Waldo and Sagadahoc counties would become Maine’s seventh drug court. They provide an alternative route in the state’s justice system for nonviolent offenders, focusing on addressing and treating the reasons why an individual commits a crime instead of sending them to jail.
— Maine’s efforts to put in place a system to track legal marijuana continue to sputter. Two weeks after it signed a $150,000, three-year contract for a marijuana track-and-trace service using a system called Metrc, state agencies have withdrawn the contract and issued another, broader request for proposals. The Office of Marijuana Policy, a part of the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services, said Friday that it is once again looking for bidders to provide a seed-to-sale tracking system for the adult-use marijuana and the Maine Medical Use of Marijuana programs. On Jan. 23 the department pulled out of a deal with BOTEC Analysis of California to draft rules for adult-use marijuana. BOTEC is still deciding if it will appeal that ruling. Mainers voted to legalize recreational marijuana use in November 2016 but lawmakers and two administrations have struggled to establish a framework for it.
— The president’s border wall emergency declaration appears doomed in Congress, setting up a likely veto. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky became the fourth Republican senator to declare that he will vote for a resolution that would block President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to build a. U.S.-Mexico border wall. Paul joins Maine Sen. Susan Collins, North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski to create a bloc of Republicans who could join Democrats and independents to pass the resolution, which easily cleared the House. But neither chamber appears to have the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto, which Trump has threatened.
I’ve at the State House a bit less lately because I’ve been getting my new dog, Hank, an 18-month-old boxer, acclimated to his new home after getting him about a month ago from Midcoast Humane at a Boothbay Harbor adoption event. (My girlfriend, brother and I immediately gathered around his kennel to box out others from thwarting our plans.)
Hank is a good boy, mostly. He has peed inside a couple of times, once imperiling the Daily Brief deadline. He starts chewing furniture when he wants attention or when no rawhide is available. We’re keeping him off the couch, but he still tries to get up a dozen times per day.
After keeping him around the house while largely adhering to the tenets of the “two-week shutdown” for recently adopted pets, we’ve begun to let Hank venture out — first on long walks and on Sunday to the Augusta dog park. He was tasked with ingratiating himself into an established, insider clique of eight or so regulars within the confined area.
Hank ran around by himself and sniffed the perimeter, but he got brave and played with other dogs after 15 minutes or so. A large, unneutered Husky later mounted him to establish dominance. Hank allowed it and kept playing but didn’t forget and mounted that dog back.
The other dog was displeased and they got into a minor teeth-baring scrape. Hank was revved up and tried mounting a puppy. We removed him and drove to Oxbow Brewing Company in Newcastle, where he won praise for his calmness. Here’s his soundtrack. — Michael Shepherd
Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd, Alex Acquisto and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to receive Maine’s leading newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings. Click here to subscribe to the BDN.
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