Maine Legislature’s First Regular Session Launches
On Wednesday, January 4, the Maine Legislature returned to begin its 128th Session. Over the holidays, members of the Legislative Committees were announced, 122 bills were submitted by State Agencies, and 1824 bills were submitted by legislators. At this time, only the titles of most bills are available to the public. In any First Regular Session, any legislator may submit bills on any topic they wish. These bills will be printed and referred to their respective Committees for public hearings, work sessions and final committee votes before moving to the full House and Senate. A review of the bill titles indicate a strong interest in legislation ranging from Maine’s food economy, funding our state’s public higher education institutions, mining regulations, revising Maine’s education funding formula and a continued strong interest in developing solar energy in Maine, among others.
Governor’s Budget Outlines Major Policy Initiatives
Governor Paul LePage released his proposed $6.8 billion biennial budget Friday, January 6. Included in the budget, among other things, is a proposal to cut 500 state jobs, and a proposed expansion of the state’s sales tax to pay for the proposed reduction in income and corporate taxes. The Governor is also seeking welfare reform and hopes to overhaul how education is funded. As may be expected, Republicans speak favorably about more parts of this proposed budget than Democrats, who express concern about the spending cuts in particular. The budget bill has been referred to the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, and will form the bulk of their work for the session. Finally, the members of legislative leadership are also expected to work to shape the budget. This is usually one of the final pieces of legislation to be acted upon at the very end of the session. The state’s current budget expires on June 30, and the hope and intent is to enact the next biennial budget before that date.
The Democratic lead over Republicans in the House of Representatives is growing as Representative Kevin Battle announced recently he will leave the Republican Party and become an Independent. With this move, Democrats will have 77 members to the Republicans’ 71, with three Independents. However, these numbers may change again in the near future as Republican House member Stephen Wood is rumored to be considering a similar shift.
Legislature to Consider Amendments to the 2016 Citizen-Initiative Ballot Measures
Once a citizens’ initiative is enacted by the voters in a statewide ballot vote, it has the same status as a law passed by the Maine Legislature, and it is well within the purview of the Legislature and Governor to amend such measures. Along those lines, legislators and the Governor have submitted proposals to amend each of the four measures that passed in November.
Question 1: Last November, Mainers passed a law legalizing the possession and use of marijuana by persons 21 and older, and gave the state the power to regulate and tax marijuana. While it will be legal for Mainers to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana as of January 30, the Legislature is currently negotiating a bill that would put a limited moratorium into effect, delaying many aspects of the passed law until February 1, 2018.
Question 2: Question 2 assessed a 3% income tax surcharge on household incomes over $200,000 to provide more funding for Maine’s K – 12 education system. The Governor’s proposed budget seeks to offset the 3% high-earner tax by lowering Maine’s top tax rate to 7.15 percent this year and seeking a flat tax rate of 5.75 percent for all taxpayers by the year 2020. In addition, several legislators have submitted legislation to amend the new law, which narrowly passed in the statewide ballot vote.
Question 4: Mainers enacted a law to increase the minimum wage, including the elimination of the tip credit for service employees. More than 15 bills have been submitted to the Legislature that propose amendments to Maine’s new minimum wage law.
Question 5: Voters made Maine the first state to allow the ranking of statewide candidates when the ranked-choice voting initiative passed in November. However, the Senate will address this issue next week, and may vote to have the Maine Supreme Judicial Court issue an opinion on whether the ranked-choice practice is in violation of the state constitution.
In summary, the referendum process has set the stage for some challenging work for state legislators as they contemplate the practical ramifications of implementing the new citizen-initiated laws. This type of work is generally done when a bill is enacted through the legislative process rather than by referendum.