Budget Update

Late Thursday afternoon, Governor LePage released a change package to his original biennial budget. The changes proposed in the package primarily focus on allocations and positions within various state agencies. A public hearing on the change package is scheduled for Monday, May 11 beginning at 10 a.m. Meanwhile, the Appropriations Committee continues its work on the biennial budget.  This week the panel voted on several sections of the 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 or those recommended by the Taxation Committee. Without taking procedural measures to extend the session, Lawmakers have until June 17, the legislature's statutory adjournment date, to pass a budget.   

Committees Operating at Full Tilt

Legislative committees continue to post hearings and work sessions, and conduct amendment reviews in very compressed time frames, as they aim to meet the deadline to vote on all bills in Committee by May 22.   

Governor Nominates Tennessee Economist to Public Utilities Post

Governor LePage this week announced his nomination of Bruce Williamson to replace David Littell on the Public Utilities Commission. Williamson is a senior professor at the Institute for Nuclear Security, which is part of the University of Tennessee’s Howard Baker Center for Public Policy.  Williamson’s nomination needs the approval of the legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee and Senate.  If confirmed, Williamson would replace Littell who was appointed to the three-member panel by former governor John Baldacci and whose energy policy frequently differs from that of the current administration.  Littell’s term expired in March, but he has remained on the panel until a new commissioner is confirmed. Williamson would join LePage PUC appointees Chairman Mark Vannoy and Commissioner Carlisle McLean. 

Minimum Wage Bill Gets Green Light From Labor Committee

A measure to increase the minimum wage gradually from $7.50 per hour to $9.50 per hour has won the approval of the Labor Committee. Six Democrats and an Independent voted Ought to Pass on LD 733 which would raise the minimum wage by 50 cents a year until 2018 when the wage would reach $9.50 per hour.  Three Republicans voted against the bill with three other Republicans supporting an amendment that would change child labor laws, bar municipalities from increasing the minimum wage in their own communities, and cap the wage increase at $9 per hour in 2017.  This bill is sure to receive significant floor debate.   

Labor Committee Rejects Right to Work Bill

By a 7 – 6 margin, the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee voted this week to reject a bill that would allow employees who benefit from collective bargaining to opt out of paying unions for those services. The committee’s six Democrats and one Independent voted in opposition of the so-called “right-to-work” bill while the six Republican members supported the legislation. Passage of this bill would make Maine the first state in the Northeast to pass a right-to-work law. Such laws guarantee that employees at a unionized company would not have to join the union or pay fees for the union’s representation.  Maine is one of 25 states that require employees represented by a union to pay a fee for that representation, even if they opt against becoming members of the union.  

Hearing Held on Constitutional Amendment to Eliminate Income Tax

On Tuesday the Taxation Committee heard public comment on Governor LePage’s proposal to create a constitutional amendment to abolish the state’s personal income tax by 2020. To become law, the proposal for a constitutional amendment requires two-thirds support of the House and Senate and, ultimately, ratification by Maine voters. The Taxation Committee is expected to make its recommendation on the proposal next week.

Lawmakers Consider Comprehensive Wind Energy Legislation

This week the Energy, Utilities, and Technology Committee held a public hearing on a bill that would ease the state's original goals for wind energy generation. The bill, sponsored by Representative Beth O’Connor, would de-emphasize wind power's prominence in favor of other renewable energy resources, reduce the state goals for new wind energy development, and require grid-scale wind energy developers to file decommissioning plans and to provide a performance bond to guarantee the funding for decommissioning. Opponents of the legislation said a new study shows the positive impacts on health and the environment from the wind industry's growth in the state. The EUT will make its recommendation to the full legislature later this month.

Growing Up in ‘The County’ May Have Financial Gains Later in Life

A study out this week by the New York Times shows that people who grow up for 20 years in Aroostook County have a better chance of making more money later in life than in every other county except for York, which was the state’s top county by this measure. The report listed Washington County as the state’s worst county for upward growth for its children. The study indicates a “County” kid growing up in a poor family would make $1,460 more a year by age 26, compared with an average American county. Underprivileged children from York County end up making $2,000 more a year than the national average, according to The Times. According to the report, a child growing up in Washington County would make $1,720 a year less during adulthood. 

Bill to Ban Food Stamp Purchases of Junk Food Head to Full Legislature

A bill, which would prohibit food stamp recipients from using their food stamp benefits to purchase junk food, is headed to the full Legislature. The proposal, which seeks to bar food deemed as having “little to no nutritional value”, gained the approval of the Health and Human Services committee earlier this week.  While the majority of grocery items are not subject to sales tax in Maine, the list of foods that would be barred is composed mostly of snack items that are taxable, and includes candy and confections, fudge, ice, liquid iced tea or coffee, soft drinks and bottled water.  The bill would require the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to request permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow Maine to prohibit the use of food stamps to purchase certain food items generally categorized as junk food. To date the federal government has yet to issue any state such a waiver.

Spotted Under the Dome: Former Legislators Welcomed Back

Former legislators were welcomed back to the State House on Wednesday as part of the annual Welcome Back Day.  Former members of the House and Senate were greeted and recognized in both bodies, and treated to a lasagna luncheon in the Hall of Flags.  I had the pleasure of speaking with former Senate President Rick Bennett, who is now the Maine Republican Party Chairman; John Richardson, former Speaker of the House and Commissioner of Economic and Community Development; and former Representative Sue Bell who, subsequent to her Legislative service, worked with Senator Angus King on his Gubernatorial staff and Senatorial staff and who is now working with Laurie Lachance, President of Thomas College.  The luncheon wrapped up with an ice cream social enjoyed by former and current Legislators alike.