January 29, 2013

Legislature releases bill list, demarcating future battle lines

Bill titles hint that prominent legislative Republicans and Democrats have much to agree with each other -- and disagree with the governor -- on

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- Potential battles between lawmakers and Republican Gov. Paul LePage began coming into focus Monday, as the Legislature released a list of all submitted bills, including measures from Democratic leaders on issues such as bonding and charter schools.

During the first week of the legislative session earlier this month, Democrats outlined such general goals as workforce training, education investments and research and development.

All of it, they have said, is aimed at strengthening Maine's middle class. The individual bill titles released Monday hint that prominent legislative Republicans and Democrats have much to agree with each other -- and disagree with the governor -- on.

Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz, R-Augusta, and Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, have submitted bills that would move the state toward matching its statutory mandate to give 5 percent of revenues to municipalities in sharing agreements.

LePage's biennial budget proposal would eliminate revenue sharing, to the tune of $400 million over the next two budget years. Katz, a former Augusta mayor, opposes that, but he said he didn't begrudge the governor for proposing it.

"I'm certainly sensitive to the burden this would place on larger communities as well as very small towns," Katz said. "For those of us who don't think eliminating revenue sharing is a good idea, it's incumbent upon us to come up with other alternatives, and that's the challenge in the months ahead."

Another Alfond bill would go further, placing the revenue sharing mark in a compact and making it difficult for the state to break. Revenue sharing has routinely been raided over the past four years to balance state budgets, according to the Maine Municipal Association, which said $44 million was taken out for the current fiscal year.

"It's not a fair deal if we keep raiding it," Alfond said. "Just like when we talk about businesses, they need to have the sustainable and predictable ways to plan for the future. Why wouldn't we do the same for our communities?"

While Democrats tout research and development and education investments, Republican House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, of Newport, said he's submitted three bills proposing more than $27 million in higher education bonds.

The bill titles released Monday show lawmakers have proposed 33 General Fund bonds, a number sure to be pared down by session's end. Those would have to be approved by voters and issued by LePage, pending any changes between now and then.

Fredette said his proposals are targeted: $15 million for upgrades to Maine community colleges, $7.9 million for a new agriculture building at the University of Maine and a $4.5 million proposal toward a new science facility at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.

"It is focused on students and it's focused on what the economy needs," he said. "More importantly, as a Republican putting your name on a bond, it shows that we understand there's a need -- an unmet need (in the economy) -- and we're willing to work with Democrats."

House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, submitted a bill "to provide tax fairness" to middle-class and working families. He said the bill's language hasn't been finalized, but the proposal will examine state and local tax burdens to ensure that taxes are based on ability to pay, not leaning too heavily on property taxes.

Some bills also signified a fight with executive authority, or LePage himself.

Berry, for example, submitted a resolve that would "ensure that bonds are issued in accordance with the vote of the electorate," an apparent response to LePage's decision not to approve bonds that voters supported at referendum until the state reduces its debt.

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