Friday, March 7, 2014
By GLENN ADAMS, Associated Press
AUGUSTA -- With a small mountain of work to do, the clock is ticking for Maine lawmakers, who have one month left before the law says they have to go home.
At least two budget-balancing bills that contain a number of explosive policy changes must be deliberated, agreed on in committee and then voted on by the House and Senate. Gov. Paul LePage's major packages proposing education reforms, actions to lower energy costs, and restructuring of how social services are delivered, must be dealt with.
The long-simmering issue of whether to drastically change the way development is regulated in Maine's Unorganized Territory is guaranteed to generate extended debate. The governor has promised a package to prevent domestic violence, and bipartisan agreement on the issue has given it traction and it should pass easily.
Majority Republican leaders say lawmakers are on a track to finish on time, perhaps early. Democrats say they won't be rushed into making hasty decisions on momentous issues.
The Legislature has begun chipping away at some of the more contentious issues it's had to face this election-year session. The politically charged issue of voter identification, carried over from last session, has been put to rest with a study. Clean Election Act funding, an issue foisted on lawmakers by a U.S. Supreme Court decision, appears to be dealt with. And lawmakers appear poised to approve funding for a study on the feasibility of an East-West highway.
"I am very encouraged by the progress legislators have made with their workload this session," said House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland. So far, 339 of the 425 bills that were introduced for the 2012 windup to the two-year session have been voted on or reported out of committee, he said. "That is roughly 86 percent. This puts us on track to have all bills dispensed with by the first week of April."
Budget issues stand to be the biggest challenges in the weeks ahead.
A supplemental package presented last week, which includes income tax exemptions for retirees and sales tax exemptions for logging equipment, raises significant policy issues. Democrats are aghast at proposed General Assistance cuts and eliminating the total Maine Public Broadcasting Network funding of $1.7 million.
While lawmakers have already enacted a bill to cover a $120 million budget gap for the current fiscal year, they must still make about $100 million in proposed cuts for fiscal 2013, which begins July 1. And those cuts will continue the governor's focus on making MaineCare more affordable by scaling back services.
The to-do list also includes some late arrivals and potentially contentious bills, such as a measure to update the states mining extraction laws. The bill is sparked by interest in gold, silver, zinc and copper deposits in Aroostook County's Bald Mountain.
"Rushing through major policy changes in the last days of session short changes the public, who deserve time to digest the information and provide feedback, and does a disservice to good governance and transparency," Rep. Emily Cain of Orono, the House Democratic leader. "Democrats won't rubber stamp the governor's complex proposals upending energy, education, and health care policy in our state just because the clock is ticking."
The statutory adjournment date is April 18. Lawmakers can observe it, or they can choose to close up shop ahead of time or extend the deadline.