September 15, 2019
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As budget deadline nears, the gap between what lawmakers want and what they can pay for widens

Micky Bedell | BDN
Micky Bedell | BDN
Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, presides over the chamber in this 2016 file photo.

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A new two-year state budget must be in place by July 1. Maine lawmakers are expanding on a long list of priorities as their 2019 session wanes, and the price tags on those initiatives will be crucial to their eventual success as part of budget talks that matter more than floor votes for the time being.

Democrats have given initial approval to a $50 million plan to fully fund aid to cities and towns for this year. Lawmakers in both parties want a big expansion of the popular earned-income tax credit and to use federal funds to address “cliffs” in anti-poverty programs.

Some of these goals are likely to be accomplished in the Democratic-led Legislature, but many of them will rely on the amount of money set aside during talk around a tight two-year budget that hasn’t yet progressed much beyond the largely routine and relatively easy work.

The new priorities are in addition to a Democratic desire to fully fund schools, which won’t happen without a tax increase opposed by the governor. Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, took office while making a promise that she wouldn’t raise taxes in her first budget, which was proposed at $8 billion and spent virtually all of the revenue proposed over those two years. Since then, revenue projections were revised upward by $87 million over that period.

That has given lawmakers slightly more money to play with during budget talks, but it isn’t much in the scheme of things: While Mills’ budget increased school funding and revenue sharing to cities and towns, it is still short of statutory obligations that have long gone unmet by the state.

The gap between Mills’ budget and the school funding goal is about $200 million, while she would raise revenue sharing from 2 percent of state tax revenue to 3 percent, short of a 5 percent goal. Restoring the latter funding for this year would cost $50 million alone.

Democrats backed that in both legislative chambers last week, but the bill failed to get the two-thirds support in the House that was needed to enact it immediately on Tuesday amid opposition from Republicans. Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade, a budget committee member, said he would “vote for this bill if I thought there was money available.”

That idea could doom bipartisan goals, including a large expansion of the earned-income tax credit passed in a 10-1 vote in the tax committee last week. It would expand the credit, extend it to young adults, increase it for others and raise the income level for eligibility. The liberal Maine Center for Economic Policy said it would benefit 177,000 Mainers.

The cost is unclear, however, though the program is pared down from a version that the center said would cost $91 million annually. Another package of bills from House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and Assistant House Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, would use federal and existing funds to address “cliffs” in Medicaid and other aid programs. That could get done, though there is no cost estimate yet.

While lawmakers agree on more than may meet the eye, the cost will be crucial. While Democrats are eyeing more school funding and revenue sharing that would necessitate an undefined tax increase, Republicans think the budget is too high and have endorsed Mills’ recommendations on school funding and revenue sharing.

It’s hard to see how a lot more money is freed up and lots of Democratic and even bipartisan priorities could die. This is normal in the budget process; there is just a longer wish list this time with exactly three weeks left in the legislative session.


Today in A-town

The Legislature will begin mid-week sessions, Mills will sign a bill outlawing conversion therapy and her administration will outline a plan to house female prisoners. The House and Senate typically meet on Tuesday and Thursday, but the chambers will add Wednesday sessions beginning this week as they increase the workload to clear the decks of hundreds of bills. The schedule on the floor is highly uncertain and legislative watchers would be wise to refer to the House and Senate schedules and follow the action.

High-profile floor action today could include a Senate vote on a bill that would cap charter schools at their current limit of 10. The House could vote on a bill aimed at undoing the Electoral College in its current form by joining a national compact that could award presidential electors based on the popular vote.

Mills will also sign a bill into law on Wednesday morning from Assistant House Majority Leader Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, outlawing the pseudoscientific practice of conversion therapy, which is used to try to change someone’s gender idenity or sexual orientation.

The Mills administration will also outline a plan to house female prisoners in empty parts of the embattled Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland due to overcrowding in facilities shared with men at a hearing before a legislative panel on Wednesday afternoon. There is lots of opposition to the idea amid a movement to close Long Creek.


Reading list

— By a slim margin, the Maine House of Representatives gave initial approval to a measure that would allow doctors to help terminally ill patients end their lives. The bill from Rep. Patty Hymanson, D-York, is the seventh legislative effort since 1992 to allow the law that supporters call “death with dignity.” Social conservatives have led the charge against the proposal, which would follow similar laws in eight states and Washington, D.C. A bill like the one being considered now was backed in 2017 by a Republican-led Senate before it failed in the House amid opposition from Republicans and some Democrats. Hymanson’s bill passed in the House on Tuesday in a 72-68 vote, with all but 16 Democrats voting for it. Three Republicans — Keschl, Chris Johansen of Monticello and Dwayne Prescott of North Waterboro — backed it. The bill now moves to the Senate, which is also led by Democrats. Mills hasn’t taken a position on it.

— The governor picked a former leader of the Maine Democratic Party to chair the Maine Public Utilities Commission. Mills on Tuesday announced that she had nominated Phil Bartlett, a lawyer and former state senator, to fill a vacancy on the important energy regulatory commission. He would replace Mark Vannoy, the commission chairman appointed by former Republican Gov. Paul LePage who left his post earlier this month. The six-year terms of the other two LePage-appointed commissioners are up in 2021 and 2023. The Democratic-led Maine Senate must confirm Bartlett’s nomination after a hearing in the Legislature’s energy committee. Earlier this year, Bartlett left his post as chair of the Maine Democratic Party, a position he held since 2014. On Tuesday, Mills also signed into law a bill that adds paid leave for many Maine employees.

— Maine’s high court ruled that pets are just property. In a one-page memo, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday declined to give shared custody of a dog named Honey to an unmarried couple who split up. Under Maine law, animals are considered to be property. A judge may order married couples to share custody of companion animals as part of a property settlement, but not unmarried couples who are breaking up. It was apparent from the questions the justices asked at oral arguments two weeks ago that they felt the Legislature and not the state’s highest court was the proper place to change Maine law.

— Some residents of a Maine town that keeps losing its managers now want to recall three selectmen. The recall effort in Orrington aims to remove three members from the five-member Board of Selectmen in the wake of the firing of the town manager last week. The target of the recall effort are Chairman Allan Snell, Charles Green and Christopher Robison, who all voted to fire Joan Gibson, the third person to leave the position in less than a year. This is the second time this year a group of Orrington residents has tried to boot elected officials out of office. In late January, petitions to recall Selectmen Keith Bowden and Michael Curtis were circulated after voters’ rejected a proposed $3.5 million public safety building. They were withdrawn a month later after Bowden stepped down as chairman and Snell took over.


Body language

On Tuesday, we heard from our pal Alex Acquisto, who is getting ready for her latest journalistic adventure in her new-old home in Kentucky.

“Sitting at a coffee shop down the street from my apartment in Lexington, where it is nearly 90. Forgot it was an acceptable practice in Kentucky for heavy-set men to walk around in the summer without shirts,” she wrote.

First, the use of “heavy-set” instead of “flabby,” “fat” or “lard-soaked” demonstrates that Alex has not lost any of the diplomacy that made her a State House favorite in Maine.

Second, that’s just gross.

I get a sunburn if someone strikes a match nearby. I live in Maine because it’s possible to wear long sleeves throughout the summer here. It’s not modesty or the remnants of a Puritan upbringing. I just can’t imagine walking shirtless around city streets with sweat dripping off my rolls of fat as the sun grills my epidermis.

I shared this image with my wife, whose first reaction was, “Oh god, the smell.” Here is your soundtrack. — Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd 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.

To reach us, do not reply directly to this newsletter, but email us directly at mshepherd@bangordailynews.com or rlong@bangordailynews.com.



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