AUGUSTA, Maine — Health care and broadband expansion are shaping up to be some of the more prominent issues facing the Maine Legislature in an election-year session in 2020 that will be tense if the mood at a Friday meeting of leaders is any indication.
The Legislative Council met Friday to consider appeals for 77 bills ranging from changing teacher certification standards to new marijuana labeling requirements, but a majority of the 10-person panel showed little interest in adding to roughly 500 bills waiting for them in January. The panel must green-light bills before they are considered in short, even-year sessions.
They approved just 19 more. Several dealt with health care, an issue that Democrats have been prioritizing during a road show of town halls featuring Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and other lawmakers as the campaign for both chambers kicks off in earnest.
The panel already approved several bills on the subject, including those that would further expand MaineCare coverage, ensure access to reproductive health coverage and give the state a larger role in managing its Affordable Care Act exchange, a top goal for Gov. Janet Mills.
On Friday, it also let in bills that would create a grant program to treat expectant mothers with substance abuse disorders, expand benefits for the families of firefighters who died in the line of duty and eliminate the need for prior authorization for health insurance for certain conditions.
The broadband issue also got a boost. The panel already approved a measure that would boost funding for broadband internet in rural areas last session. On Friday, it added a proposal to create a tax credit for new jobs that allow employees to work remotely.
But whether Democrats will be able to bring Republicans along on many goals looked questionable Friday, when the minority party’s frustration was evident after the council voted on party lines to turn back bills including one from Rep. Patrick Corey, R-Windham, to prevent citizen initiatives and people’s vetoes from being voted on during a presidential primary election.
That arose as a result of inconsistent guidance from the office of Secretary of State Matt Dunlap to groups that had been considering people’s veto efforts to repeal laws made in 2019 by the Democratic-led Legislature. The office initially told groups the votes would be held in June. It later clarified they would be in March, when Democrats will hold a crowded presidential primary.
Only one people’s veto effort — aimed at repealing a bill seeking to eliminate nonmedical exemptions for required school vaccinations — made the ballot. House Republicans said the timing will lead to the veto effort’s defeat and blasted the council’s decision to kill the bill as a way to “disenfranchise Maine voters” in a news release.
In an exchange over a bill aimed at changing the legislative process, House Assistant Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, told Jackson, he was “disappointed” few Republican bills had made the cut. Jackson fired back after the meeting, saying Stewart “can’t spend a year voting against everything as an individual member” and expect to get bills in.