Good morning from Augusta. The Maine State House was closed to the public on Wednesday night, but lawmakers and staff working on the two-year budget were milling around as part of negotiations that have remained mostly cold since before the holiday weekend.
The consensus budget almost always breeds a game of political chicken. Gov. Janet Mills and her fellow Democrats controlling the Legislature have most of the clout, but Republican backing is needed to get the required two-thirds support for the budget in both chambers.
Minority Republicans are now signaling that they want Democrats to back off a bill that would cover the cost of abortions under MaineCare and involve them in solving a three-way split on the Democratic priority of workers’ compensation reform. It all could soon tie to the budget.
The two parties haven’t made much progress over the past few days on the budget, which gives Republicans an opportunity to claw back at Democratic priorities. The Legislature’s budget committee hasn’t met in public since Friday, when it voted on outstanding items mostly in the education and health and human services sections. It was thought that they could come back in for much of the afternoon and evening, but they haven’t come back since.
Democrats are still trying to find a way to increase school funding and municipal aid beyond the levels in the governor’s $8 billion proposal — though it may be difficult without a tax increase that Mills opposes — and Republicans think the overall spend is too high. Those global issues are the ones largely holding things up.
Minority Republicans need to find budget leverage where they can get it and it’s hard to see them signing off on a budget with the abortion bill opposed by all Republicans awaiting the budget committee’s sign-off and the workers’ compensation split left unresolved.
Krysta West, a spokeswoman for Senate Republicans, stopped short of calling these items Republican budget demands on Thursday, but she said it’s “safe to say” that the abortion bill and a “less damaging” workers’ compensation solution “is a high priority for our caucus.”
Christine Kirby, a spokeswoman for Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, shot back on Thursday to say that Democrats’ position is that the budget should be considered separately from other bills.
It’s hard to see how the parties could compromise on the abortion issue, but there is still time for a workers’ compensation deal. The abortion bill, which would make Maine the 16th state to supplant a federal ban on abortion funding with state money, has initially passed the Legislature. It now sits on the Special Appropriations Table, where the budget committee comes to agreement on which bills will be funded under the budget and which won’t.
It’s expected to cost $375,000 per year, but the bill allocates no money to the Department of Health and Human Services to fund it. While Democrats could move it from the table in a majority vote, Republicans could withhold budget votes if they made that kind of power play.
The workers’ compensation issue is also thorny, but there is a possible path to compromise. The Mills administration, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and labor interests negotiated a reform deal expected to slightly increase benefits. When Republicans refused to sign on, Democrats out-flanked everyone with a further-reaching proposal.
Democrats are going to try to keep these issues out of budget talks, but Republicans have the votes to inject them. Expect these issues to emerge more explicitly as key parts of the talks.
Today in A-town
The chambers will take votes on bills that could include “death with dignity,” an Electoral College shift and a ban on plastic shopping bags. It should be a big Thursday in the House of Representatives and Senate, which are expected to end three days of floor action with votes on high-profile bills, including one whose passage is uncertain.
That’s the so-called “death with dignity” bill, which would make Maine the ninth state to allow doctors to prescribe life-ending medication to terminally ill patients. It is up in the Senate today after clearing the House by two votes on Tuesday, although Mills has taken no position on it.
The House is expected to pass a bill already backed in the Senate that would make Maine join a group of states that could eventually award Electoral College votes to the winner of the national popular vote in presidential elections. The Maine Republican Party held a State House news conference against it on Thursday morning.
The lower chamber is also scheduled to vote on a bill from Rep. Holly Stover, D-Boothbay, that would make Maine the fourth state to ban single-use plastic shopping bags statewide in a compromise between the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Retail Association of Maine and the Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association.
Correction: Maine would be the fourth state to ban plastic bags statewide. An earlier version of this item used the wrong number.
— A former Connecticut governor has been named the new chancellor of the University of Maine System. The system surprised many on Thursday by naming Dannel Malloy to its top post to replace James Page, who is leaving the system on June 30. Malloy, a Democrat and lawyer with little higher education experience outside of his two terms as Connecticut governor from 2011 to 2019 and teaching as an adjunct professor, was picked after a year-long national search for a new chancellor. Malloy led the merger of the Connecticut university and community college systems as governor, but he left office in 2019 with a 20 percent approval rating that made him the second-least popular governor in the nation, according to Morning Consult.
— The governor has proposed new sustenance fishing guidelines aimed at easing conflict between Maine’s tribes and government agencies. On Wednesday, Mills’ administration introduced a bill that would set new quality standards in tribal waters by 2020. Water quality standards around tribal lands now allow for the safe consumption of 8 ounces of local fish per week. The administration’s new proposal — sponsored by House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and brokered with tribal officials — would upgrade standards to allow consumption of 7 ounces daily in a nod to cultural sustenance fishing. The Legislature is considering another bill that would reclassify quality standards of several water bodies suggested by the Penobscot Nation and conservation groups. Since becoming governor, Mills has taken steps to mend frayed relationships with the tribes.
— A Maine Democrat has joined other members of Congress in calling for a start to impeachment proceedings. After special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s public statements Wednesday that it was up to Congress to determine whether his investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election should trigger action against President Donald Trump, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree from Maine’s more liberal 1st District joined other Democrats in again urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, to begin the impeachment process. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat who represents Maine’s 2nd District, which voted for Trump in 2016, has not endorsed an impeachment inquiry.
— A social service provider closed abruptly after 35 years, putting almost 80 people out of work and leaving clients in three coastal counties uncertain about where they will receive care. At the time of last week’s decision to close, Broadreach Family and Community Services, which has a $3 million operating budget, employed 79 social workers, case managers, teachers, trainers and others who worked in Waldo, Knox and Lincoln counties. Layoffs began last Wednesday, first affecting Broadreach’s behavioral health and prevention personnel. Two days later, the people who worked in the after-school programs were let go, and two programs that serve youth were discontinued. The administrative staff was let go Tuesday, and the rest of the agency’s early childhood education staff will lose their jobs by the end of the week. A local lawmaker and Maine Department of Health and Human Services officials are scrambling to fill the gaps in mental health care and early childhood intervention services.
— A veteran Maine town manager quit, citing a ‘toxic work environment.’ After 26 years on the job. Thomaston Town Manager Valmore Blastow unexpectedly gave his two-week notice last week. In his May 24 resignation letter, Blastow said that he has endured a “tumultuous year in a hostile and toxic work environment […] the defamation and torturous conditions continue to this day.” Blastow took specific aim at the newest member of the select board, Beverly St. Clair, who was elected in June 2018. St. Clair, according to the resignation letter, was trying to “get rid” of Blastow as town manager. St. Clair denied that she was trying to oust Blastow and said she does not believe that town business has changed over the years, only that the public is more aware because of “open meetings, unlike the clandestine meetings of the past.”
No skin off my back
A Portland man has apparently become a social media sensation because he has a tattoo of Jar Jar Binks covering his back. Click here to read Troy R. Bennett’s “Star Wars” lingo-infused interview with him. The big takeaway is that the guy is OK with the much-reviled prequel series.
I don’t feel qualified to weigh in on the quality of the prequels, other than to note that the dialogue is terrible and that a robot would have shown more life than Hayden Christensen. Truth is, I wasn’t that impressed with the first three films that form the basis for the “Star Wars” canon. They came out a few years too late to help define my formative years. I was more of a “Lost In Space” and “Star Trek” space cowboy. However, when the initial “Star Wars” trilogy made it to VHS, they were a helpful way to reward or calm students in my special education class.
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.
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