Maine Legislature Makes History Despite Tensions Between, and Within, Parties

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Despite tensions between Gov. Janet Mills and her more liberal Democratic colleagues in the Legislature, the 2023 session produced major progressive victories and expanded social safety nets and programs.

Chief among the legislative victories for Democrats, who control both chambers and the Blaine House, was the enactment of a statewide paid family and medical leave program and expanded access to abortion. Both required Mills to backtrack on campaign promises not to support tax increases or change Maine’s existing abortion law.

The family leave proposal will provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave for virtually all workers in Maine — in qualifying circumstances such as the birth of a child, a serious illness, or a sick relative who needs care. The program will be funded by a new payroll tax of up to 1%, which will be split between employers and workers.

The bill expanding access to abortion was the most hotly debated this session. Maine law used to only allow abortions after a fetus could viably live outside the womb — from around 24 weeks on — if the mother’s life was in danger. Now there will be no time limit as long as the abortion is deemed necessary by a physician.

Despite all the talk about bipartisanship at the beginning of the session, Republicans came away with few victories, except for securing a permanent revenue source for highway projects and modest income tax relief for pensioners.

Citing historic state revenues and surpluses, the minority party sought structural income tax relief and reforms of between $200 million and $400 million, as well as changes to the state’s welfare program to expand work requirements for able-bodied adults and restrict access to General Assistance.

Lawmakers kicked off the session in an unusual fashion — by voting to spend $473 million of state surplus funds to provide $450 checks to more than 880,000 Mainers to help with high heating and energy costs. The deal was negotiated by Mills and incoming legislative leaders, but ran into resistance from Senate Republicans.

Democrats then passed a partial $9.8 billion budget in March, without any Republican support, that focused on funding existing state services and laws already approved by previous legislatures. That left about $900 million in additional funding for the parties to negotiate.

The session saw a gradual rise in partisan tension as Republicans fumed over being cut out of budget discussions and brought national culture wars to the State House, proposing bills that would give parents more say in their children’s education and limit the types of books available in school libraries.

Democrats, meanwhile, used their majority to move in the opposite direction, and not just with expanded access to abortion. They expanded access to health care for people who are transgender while adding legal protections from out-of-state prohibitions for doctors who provide age-appropriate, nonsurgical, gender-affirming care — including hormone blockers — to minors.

But Mills and majority Democrats also clashed at times, most notably on efforts to expand the rights of Maine’s Indigenous tribes. With some Republican support, Democrats passed a bill to apply more federal benefits to tribal communities. But Mills vetoed the bill and lawmakers fell short of the votes needed to override. Mills also blocked Democrats’ efforts to extend minimum wage and labor laws to farmworkers.

In all, lawmakers considered 2,019 bills — the highest total since the 119th Legislature considered 2,276 in 1999.

Through July 20, nearly 450 bills had become law — though that total doesn’t include nearly 100 additional measures, mostly spending bills totaling $11 million, that were sent to the governor on the final day of the session, which began Tuesday and ended at around 5 a.m. Wednesday.

Another 480 bills were carried over to the next session.

HOUSING

Housing was identified as a top priority by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, and Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash. The pair announced the creation of a Joint Select Committee on Housing to come up with ways to address the shortage of housing for Mainers, including the homeless.

The biggest legislative achievement was establishing a statewide housing-first program, which seeks to provide stable housing to people in need so they can then begin addressing other challenges that prevent them from living independently, including substance use and mental health.

The program will be funded by about 25% of the taxes collected on real estate sales. The money will be used to develop housing for people who are chronically homeless, while also funding more support services for people living in housing-first developments, addressing a lack of adequate support that providers say has been a constant barrier to success.

The budget also includes a $70 million investment in rural housing development, plus an additional $12 million for emergency housing and shelters and additional funding to help students at risk of homelessness.

Lawmakers also enacted a bill limiting rental application fees, and increased funding, for the time being, for civil legal services, which will help low-income residents who go to court for things like evictions and child custody cases.

SAFETY NET

Republicans offered proposals to tighten up safety net programs by limiting General Assistance to U.S. citizens and people who have lived in the state for a certain period of time, requiring able bodied adults without dependents to work to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, and tightening up the unemployment program.

Those efforts were stymied by Democrats, who succeeded in expanding access to safety programs. But the party in power faced internal divisions over how far they should go.

They agreed to increase the income limits on programs that provide education to low-income parents and welfare programs, like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Medicaid Savings Program, which helps seniors afford their medicines. They also loosened or eliminated asset tests for the two programs.

But they remained divided over a proposal to resume MaineCare coverage of noncitizens, which was eliminated by former Republican Gov. Paul LePage in 2011. The bill passed the House but died in the Senate.

And while they supported a proposal to use state money to restore enhanced Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits created during the pandemic, they could not come up with the nearly $26 million to fund the program over the next two years, so the bill was carried over.

The budget also includes funding to reimburse family members who are caregivers for children with special needs. People who qualify for in-home help can hire caregivers, who are paid by MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program. But there’s a shortage of direct care workers, which has left some parents unable to get help and unable to hold jobs while they serve as full-time caregivers. The new program allows family members who qualify — typically those with children who have significant cognitive and developmental needs — to be paid to be caregivers.

TRIBES

Expectations were high for another strong push for tribal sovereignty when Talbot Ross, whose career has focused on civil rights, took over the gavel to become speaker of the House.

She had sponsored a sweeping bill in the previous Legislature to give Maine tribes the same rights and powers as the country’s other 574 federally recognized tribes — and it passed in both chambers. But when Mills — who was running for reelection — threatened to veto it, lawmakers allowed the bill to die without sending it to her.

As speaker, Talbot Ross invited the chiefs from the Penobscot Nation, Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik, Passamaquoddy Tribe at Motahkomikuk, Aroostook Band of Mi’kmaqs, and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians to address a joint session of the Legislature.

The governor was conspicuously absent from the first State of the Tribes address in roughly two decades.

It wasn’t until the end of the session that Talbot Ross introduced a bill that would have granted Maine tribes access to more existing and future federal laws that benefit other U.S. tribes by removing a restriction in the state’s settlement agreement that ensures the state maintains its jurisdiction over the tribes.

That bill also passed both chambers of the Legislature only to be vetoed by Mills, who criticized the late introduction of the bill and its wording, saying that it was unconstitutionally vague because it was repealing an undisclosed set of state laws.

Support for the measure weakened when the Legislature sought to override the veto.

None of Mills’ 41 vetoes since taking office in 2019 has been overturned.

Mills did sign a bill that gave the Mi’kmaq Nation the same rights and benefits as other Wabanaki Nations in Maine.

The Mi’kmaq Nation was not included in the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, though a separate state agreement allowed them to receive federal benefits. The law signed by Mills extends to them the same jurisdictional rights enjoyed by the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy nations over internal tribal affairs, natural resources and sustenance fishing and other matters.

CONSTITUTION

Thirty constitutional amendments were proposed this session, but none of the headline-grabbing efforts to add new rights in such areas as housing, bodily autonomy, abortion, gender equity, and clean air and water advanced.

Constitutional amendments always face an uphill climb, especially in polarized partisan times, because two-thirds support is needed before they can be sent to voters. But the success of a 2021 effort adding a right to food to the state constitution has led more lawmakers to propose them.

Several proposed amendments did pass, the most high-profile of which deals with Maine’s tribes.

Talbot Ross sponsored a bill that would require that Maine resume printing its original treaty obligations to Indigenous tribes in its constitution. Supporters called it “a powerful truth-seeking measure,” while Mills’ top legal counsel called it “a misguided attempt to right a historical wrong that never occurred.”

Mills was unable to veto the proposal because proposed amendments to the constitution are sent directly to voters, who will also vote this fall on three other proposed amendments: to change rules for who can circulate petitions for people’s vetoes and citizen initiatives, to allow those under guardianship for mental illness from voting in certain elections, and to change the timeline for determining the validity of written petitions.

A bill that would have called for a sweeping review of the state constitution, with an eye toward specific reforms — including electing Maine’s constitutional officers, moving to a one-branch legislature, doubling the length of legislative terms and allowing citizens to initiate constitutional amendments — died between houses.

ENERGY & ENVIRONMENT

The development of offshore wind power took a major step forward this session after a last-minute compromise on a bill was forged between wind advocates and Mills.

The bill is a combination of three separate bills increasing the height of offshore turbines, allowing the construction of a coastal port to service wind turbines, and beginning the process of identifying and choosing an offshore wind developer.

It authorizes the Governor’s Energy Office to procure up to 3,000 megawatts of electricity from offshore wind by 2040 and enacts job quality standards, while allowing Maine-based independent contractors to participate, according to the governor’s office.

It also establishes new standards for building a port facility to service wind turbines, a location for which has not yet been determined by the Maine Department of Transportation.

The Mills administration says the bill protects “prime lobstering ground” by giving preference to projects that are outside of Lobster Management Area 1 in the Gulf of Maine.

Lawmakers also enacted a ban on the sale and distribution of lightbulbs containing mercury starting in 2026, and passed a bill to help struggling bottle redemption centers by increasing the handling fee they receive by a penny to 5.5 cents per container, which will increase to 6 cents a container in September.

A bill allowing mining of minerals, such as lithium, which is in high demand as more electric vehicles are produced, also was enacted. It also directs the Department of Environmental Protection to develop rules to ensure that such mining activities do not harm local water quality.

GUN CONTROL

Democrats were reminded this session that it’s difficult to pass gun control legislation in Maine, which has a long history of hunting and gun ownership.

To try to spur change, gun control advocates pointed to recent incidents: a shooting in Bowdoin that killed four people and false reports of active shooters at Maine high schools. But their efforts came up short.

Some Democratic members crossed party lines to help Republicans defeat proposals to institute a 72-hour waiting period for all firearm purchases, which advocates said could help reduce gun-related suicides; to require universal background checks for firearm purchases, including at private sales and gun shows; and to ban devices, such as bump stocks and auto sears, that can be added to firearms to make them shoot rounds more quickly.

After the shooting in Bowdoin, in which a convicted felon shot his parents and family friends with guns found in the family friends’ house, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, an influential gun rights group, said it was working with the administration on gun safety legislation that would focus on safe storage of firearms and preventing access to guns for people prohibited from having them. That bill never materialized.

Source: Yahoo News