Gov. Janet Mills addresses members of the Legislature electronically at the Augusta Civic Center on Dec. 2, 2020. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Good morning from Augusta.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “Whenever customers got angry, nine times out of 10 the first thing that would happen is they would rip their masks off and refuse to put them back on until we are able to finally make them leave,” said Heidi Krantz, a former employee at the Bull Moose store in Salem, New Hampshire, which is temporarily shuttered with workers alleging they were terminated after complaining management did not do enough to keep them safe during the pandemic. “You’d try to help them find something and they’d breathe down their neck with their mask around their chins because they ‘can’t read with their mask on.’”

What we’re watching today

Votes on an updated budget have begun and points of contention are emerging. The Legislature’s budget committee mostly moved small items in when it took votes on Gov. Janet Mills’ $8.8 billion change package on Wednesday. Those votes took place as the group moved piece by piece through the package and not reports from other committees. That is likely how discussions will play out as the budget panel gets to thornier items in a three-week sprint to finish work for 2021.

From Republicans’ perspective, those thornier items include the roughly 150 new positions and 50 temporary positions that are included in the budget and a plan to replace revenue from flavored tobacco products if Maine bans their sale. The latter has not happened yet but President Joe Biden indicated a month ago that he would propose a ban on the product, and a similar bill is making its way through the State House. Public health advocates are squaring off with the convenience store and tobacco industries over the bill, which advanced from a legislative committee with a party-line vote and is sure to make for a hot floor fight.

That hesitation to pick up those items was apparent as the committee largely avoided voting on new positions. It green-lit the Baxter State Park budget and restructured some positions while approving health care and education funding. Discussions about Mills’ desire to increase the state’s share of K-12 public education to a historic 55 percent will come later.

There is a lot of consensus about the various property tax relief proposals in the package, which include $22.3 million more for Maine’s Property Tax Fairness Credit and $80 million to increase municipal revenue sharing. But the divide over the positions hints at the philosophical differences between Republicans, who have balked at the size of the package, and Democrats, who say the $940 million in improved revenue projections represent a chance to fund areas that have needed attention. Those differences are not likely to go away when the committee takes up Mills’ $1.1 billion federal aid package proposal. A bill for that has not been released yet.

The Maine politics top 3

— “Conservative lawmakers vow to keep violating Maine State House mask rules,” Caitlin Andrews, Bangor Daily News: “It is also unclear what consequences await members who vow to return maskless next week, a serious challenge to Fecteau and legislative rules. House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, and Assistant House Minority Leader Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, both said last Thursday they did not want to wear masks. Stetkis reiterated his stance on Wednesday and accused [House Speaker Ryan] Fecteau of dodging questions about what consequences he and others could expect next week.”

The dispute sets up a tense meeting of legislative leaders on Thursday. The 10-member Legislative Council, made up of legislative leaders, is set to meet again one week after Democrats passed the mask mandate to which Republicans are now objecting. Stetkis said in a Facebook post on Thursday that it is “time to stand against Maine Democrat facism,” so bring your popcorn. Follow along here at 1:30 p.m.

— “Maine lawmakers advance 1st-in-the-nation packaging bill aimed at boosting recycling,” Charles Eichacker, Maine Public: “[Rep. Nicole] Grohoski said the program would incentivize companies to use less bulky or toxic packing materials, and she thinks it would be particularly helpful for rural communities which must often pay to ship their trash long distances.”

It is a sweeping proposal opposed by business interests heading through the Legislature with apparent support from Mills. The pioneering product stewardship bill would charge producers of products sold in Maine according to the weight of packaging material and put the money into a fund to help cities and towns expand recycling. While it is backed by municipalities and environmentalists, it’s opposed by business interests that say consumer bills could rise significantly as a result. An amendment from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection provides for more exemptions and was accepted by the majority on the panel on Wednesday. Mills has generally concurred with business groups on progressive bills so far in 2021.

— “Maine isn’t planning to develop state vaccine passport system,” The Associated Press: “Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said such a system would be a challenge because of questions such as how it would work across state lines and how the state would protect residents’ privacy. She said Wednesday the state isn’t looking to create one.”

Senate expected to filibuster Jan. 6 commission over Maine senators’ objections

The U.S. Senate appears poised to block a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that killed five people. A bill to create a bipartisan, 10-person commission passed the House with unanimous support among Democrats alongside more than 30 Republican votes. But it will fail today unless Republicans can rally at least 10 votes in the Senate. It will be a moment of truth for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who is trying to whip Republicans to support a commission plan.

Collins said Wednesday that she would vote to advance the bill, though she still proposed minor changes to the selection of staff and the bill’s timeline. But it is not clear how many other Republicans will join her as the party’s leadership remains opposed. Speaking on CNN’s “New Day” this morning, U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, accused Republicans opposed to the commission of not wanting to look at the facts.

“Many of the same people who were angry, who were upset, who realized what a serious matter this was when it occurred a couple months ago are now saying, ‘Well, it wasn’t really any big deal and we don’t need to know about it,’” King said. Here’s your soundtrack.

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Caitlin Andrews, Jessica Piper and Michael Shepherd. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, you can sign up to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning here.

To reach us, do not reply directly to this newsletter, but contact the political team at mshepherd@bangordailynews.com, candrews@bangordailynews.com or jpiper@bangordailynews.com.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...