AUGUSTA — The Maine Legislature will return to work in its traditional home, the State House, this week after 14 pandemic-imposed months away, and the list of work at hand – most of which needs to be completed by mid-June – is long.
Topping the list of chores lawmakers must dispense with is a state budget bill offered by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills that will make major tweaks to the state’s next two-year budget, which starts July 1.
Mills is sitting on a rosy state revenue forecast that projects an extra $941 million in tax revenue over the next two fiscal years. The largest chunk of the new spending plan by Mills, $187 million, would increase state aid to public schools and bring the state’s share of funding for public K-12 education to 55 percent, something that was mandated by voters 17 years ago but has yet to happen.
While final votes on the budget package will likely come later in June, the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee will continue its work this week voting line by line on the many changes. Mills has said she hopes the final package will gain two-thirds support of the entire Legislature, which would allow the budget changes to go into effect immediately. That would require some Republican votes.
But before wrangling over the budget bill ensues, the Legislature will take action on a range of other bills that touch on everything from reforms in the state’s criminal justice system to a renewed effort to increase taxes on Maine’s wealthiest earners.
Here’s a look at some of the bills the Legislature is expected to vote on over the next two weeks:
A bill that requires manufacturers to notify the Maine Department of Environmental Protection of products that contain so-called “forever chemicals” per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, gained broad bipartisan support in May. The bill also bans the sale of carpet and fabric treatments containing the chemicals.
Another bill moving to the full Legislature would establish a $10-per-ton sludge disposal fee, with the funds being used to help pay for testing and response to PFAS contamination. The measures and several others on the pollutant come after more than 60 private wells in Fairfield tested above the federal government’s health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for certain PFAS compounds. Some wells measured above 20,000 and 30,000 parts per trillion.
The state’s investigation of the contamination has since expanded to Benton, Unity and Oakland, where sludge from the same sources was also spread on farm fields as fertilizer, approved by state regulators more than 40 years ago.
TANK FARM MONITORING
Petroleum tank farms in Maine would have to continuously monitor emissions and take other steps to reduce off-gassing from aboveground tanks under another bill that likely will be voted on in June.
The measure is a response to concerns in South Portland about noxious odors and air pollution emanating from massive tanks located along the city’s waterfront in close proximity to schools, residential neighborhoods and businesses.
CONSUMER-OWNED ELECTRIC UTILITY
In the works is also a bill that, if approved by two-thirds of the Legislature, would ask voters in a statewide ballot measure to approve a state buyout of the state’s two largest providers of electricity delivery, Versant Power and Central Maine Power. The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, and Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, drew dozens of supporters and opponents during a public hearing in May.
If lawmakers agree, voters will decide in a statewide referendum later this year whether to stick with CMP and Versant or make the historic transition to a consumer-owned utility.
CHANGES TO EDUCATION
Beyond the increased funding for public schools, lawmakers also are expected to vote on bills that would add components on Black history and genocide to the state’s learning standards for school curricula. One of the measures, authored by Assistant House Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, incorporates Black history in Maine as part of the new standard.
Another bill that could see a lively floor debate calls for a ban on the use of restraints and seclusion in Maine schools as a means to control students with behavioral impairments. While the measure has the strong support of advocates for the disabled, some parents of behaviorally impaired children, as well as special education teachers and school administrators, have said the bill would do more harm than good. They worry it would effectively remove behaviorally impaired children from school permanently while foisting a huge bill to educate them in schools outside of Maine on state taxpayers.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORMS
A bill that would eliminate cash bail for most misdemeanor crimes also is in the works. That measure, which is opposed by the Maine State Police, would allow those charged with minor nonviolent crimes such as drinking in public to be released before trial without paying bail.
Supporters of the bill say cash bail creates an unfair and unequal criminal justice system – allowing those with money to go free as they await trial, while poorer people often languish in jail for weeks or even months even though they haven’t been convicted of a crime.
Police say the bail requirement allows them to de-escalate dangerous situations by removing individuals from circumstances that create a danger for the public.
Additionally, lawmakers will likely battle over a pair of bills that ease penalties for illegal drug possession in Maine. The bills, which were approved on a split committee vote in May, would largely decriminalize most forms of drug possession.
Under L.D. 976, instead of going to jail, a person who has heroin or other substances in his or her possession would be required to pay a fine of up to $100 or get a health assessment, a potential first step to treatment. Selling or distributing drugs would still be illegal.
Another bill, L.D. 1675, makes it harder for prosecutors to get a conviction based only on the amount of drugs in a person’s possession. Under the current law, people can face a felony trafficking charge just for carrying more than two grams of heroin or fentanyl.
Supporters say people with substance use disorder are being wrongly charged with felony trafficking under Maine’s current law, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine testified that 39 states require more evidence of intent to sell drugs in order to bring those charges. Opponents worry that people who are actually selling drugs wouldn’t be adequately punished.
A perennial battle over taxes between conservatives and liberals is likely to unfold on the floors to the Senate and House in the days ahead. A bill that cleared the Legislature’s Taxation Committee on a narrow party-line vote, with Democrats supporting and Republicans opposing, would tack a 3 percent surcharge on state taxable income over $200,000. The bill mirrors a ballot question that was passed by voters in a statewide referendum in 2016 but overturned by the Legislature. If approved by the Legislature and signed by Mills, the bill would increase state tax collections by about $209 million a year.
Another issue that is certain to gain attention this week is whether a small band of conservative lawmakers and their supporters will attempt to disrupt the proceedings by refusing to follow policy that requires face coverings in public spaces at the State House, including the House and Senate chambers.
The policy is similar to what already is in place for government workers in other state office buildings, according to Kelsey Goldsmith, a spokeswoman for the Department of Administrative and Financial Services.
In an email Friday, Goldsmith said the Mills administration is keeping facial covering requirements in place for state workers while they are inside, at least until July 7.
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