Under the Dome: Inside the Maine State House provides a high-level overview of recent activity at the Maine State House. If you would like more specific information, please contact Andrea Cianchette Maker or John Delahanty.
Governor Threatens to Hold Land Bonds
In a memo sent this week to lawmakers on the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, Governor LePage reiterated he would not release approximately $11.5 million in voter-approved conservation bonds until the legislature approves his plan to increase timber harvesting on public lands. The Governor’s plan would use money from the increased harvest to fund home heating assistance programs. Meanwhile, Senator Roger Katz of Augusta is building a bipartisan coalition to support a bill that would prohibit the Governor from deferring the release of the bonds, absent extraordinary circumstances. The bonds would fund 30 conservation projects around the state that were approved by Maine voters and vetted by Lands for Maine’s Future, the independent state agency that receives the bond money to fund the acquisition of land for preservation and public access to our natural resources.
Appropriations Committee at Work on Biennial Budget
This week the Appropriations Committee voted on several sections of the biennial budget pertaining to various agencies and departments within state government. The budget writing committee has yet to deal with the tax provisions proposed by the Governor and those recommended by the Taxation Committee. Meanwhile, Democrats and Governor LePage continue to take their reform messages on the road with each hosting town hall forums across the state. While the two plans have many differences, both sides want to reduce the income tax and believe paying for an immediate cut can be achieved by broadening the sales tax to include additional goods and services. Some members of Appropriations are hopeful the Committee will finalize its work on the budget late in the evening of Saturday, May 16. It would then head to the House and Senate.
State Budget Forecast Adjusted
The latest revenue forecast released Thursday by Maine’s Revenue Forecasting Committee projects the state will receive $22 million more than originally projected by June 30, the end of the fiscal year. First estimated payments for the 2015 tax year have come in extremely strong – 38 percent over last year. State Associate Finance Commissioner and Committee Chair, Dr. Michael Allen, said the group is reducing its estimates for the upcoming two-year budget cycle that begins July 1 by $29 million, which is not much of a change given the state is expecting to bring in more than $6 billion in revenues over the next two years. He also said most state revenue sources are pretty much unchanged, indicating the state’s economy continues to grow slowly.
State Audit Shows Mainers Received Unemployment Benefits without Verification
The state auditor said this week that four separate audits show as many as one in three Mainers on unemployment may not be eligible for benefits, yet they have continued to receive weekly checks from the state. The audits, including one released this month, warn that the Department of Labor has failed to ensure that claimants are actively looking for work, a basic eligibility requirement for receiving an unemployment check. A third of those receiving benefits failed to provide evidence that they have tried to find a job. The audit said this may have led to improper payments of hundreds of millions of dollars between fiscal years 2011 and 2014, the latest year of the audits.
Minimum Wage Bills Debated in Labor Committee
Eight bills seeking to adjust the state's minimum wage in some form are being worked on by the Labor, Commerce, Research, and Economic Development Committee. It is unlikely all the bills will make it out of committee and it is a near certainty any measure to raise minimum wage will be vetoed by the Governor. The LCRED Committee is also taking up a Governor’s bill that would prohibit cities and towns from enacting their own minimum wages that are higher than the state minimum, currently at $7.50 an hour. The Committee is also weighing two bills aimed at changing laws that govern pay and working conditions.
Long time Legislator Backs off Term Limits Bill
Democratic Representative John Martin has backed off a bill seeking to remove term limits on legislators. On Monday, the State and Local Government Committee voted 10-1 in opposition to the bill after Martin quietly asked the committee to kill the measure. Maine voters approved a law in 1993 limiting representatives and senators to four consecutive terms representing the same district.
Energy Efficiency Fix Bill Gains Committee Approval
The Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee voted 10-1 this week (two members have yet to vote) in favor of the bipartisan bill to correct a clerical error that could result in a loss of $38 million for energy efficiency programs. The bill now heads to the House. The Governor has said he will veto this legislation and is pushing for a Republican backed measure that ties the energy efficiency fix to a proposal that would create the new cabinet level position of state energy commissioner and give Governor LePage more control over the Efficiency Maine Trust. The EUT Committee has yet to take action on that bill.
Taxation Committee Hears Revenue Sharing Bills
A suite of bills related to revenue sharing for towns and cities and property tax relief programs were the subject of public hearings Wednesday by the Taxation Committee. All six bills are overshadowed by major initiatives in those areas by Governor LePage, who has proposed eliminating revenue sharing in fiscal year 2017 and focusing on property tax relief for Maine homeowners over age 65.
This week Governor LePage announced the nomination of Superior Court Chief Justice Thomas E. Humphrey as Associate Justice to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Chief Justice Humphrey will take the position of Justice Warren M. Silver, who resigned from the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on December 31, 2014. Chief Justice Humphrey was appointed to the District Court in 1993 by Governor John McKernan and in 1997 was appointed Deputy Chief Judge of that court. He was first nominated to the Superior Court by Governor Angus King in 1998 and was reappointed by Governor John Baldacci in 2005. Humphrey has served as Chief Justice of the Superior Court since 2004.