POLITICAL HIGHLIGHTS

This year's 2nd regular legislative session was focused largely on budget matters, carry over legislation and a limited number of new bills. Most newly introduced legislation was minor or technical in nature while only a few large reform proposals survived the legislative process.

This was the second year of divided government with the administration of Republican Governor Paul LePage controlling the Executive Branch and Democrats controlling both the House and Senate. Given this partisan divide between the executive and legislative branches and the fact that 2014 is an election year; this year’s session is more a study of what did not get enacted than what became law. Many of the bills introduced by the Governor did not garner sufficient support from Democrats to survive the legislative process and many of the priorities of Democrats failed as a result of the Governor’s veto authority. What did become law therefore had widespread support in order to garner majorities in the Legislature and the Governor's signature or acquiescence or to garner over 2/3rds support in the House and Senate to survive the Governor’s veto pen.

Even in this difficult political structure, some bills did become law. Of those that did, only a few set some significant political direction. These included various budget bills, which were essential to keeping State government operational. Additionally, the Joint Select Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future reported some bills that were enacted. Also, at the end of the session, the legislature passed some bond measures which will be sent to the voters in the fall. Beyond that, about 180 other bills became law.

In total, 288 new bills were introduced this session, including bills initiated by legislators, Executive Branch agencies and the Governor. Additionally, the Legislature considered 212 bills that were carried over from last session. Of these 500 bills that were considered this session, only 196 became law.

One of the big headlines of the session, particularly at the end of the session, was the number of vetoes issued by Governor LePage. In total, Governor LePage vetoed 74 bills this year. Of these 74 vetoes, 51 were sustained, killing the underlying bill, and 23 were overridden, enacting the bill into law over the Governor’s objections. In the past two years of divided government, Governor LePage has vetoed a total of 156 bills, with 128 of these vetoes being sustained. This is a record number of vetoes for any Maine Governor.

KEY ISSUES ADDRESSED

Budget Matters

Each year, adjustments to the State’s budget are inevitable, given the difficulty in accurately predicting State spending and tax revenues. This year was no different, with the Legislature enacting two separate supplemental budgets and two additional budget-related bills.

The first budget-related bill enacted this session, LD 1762, was designed to restore $40 million in municipal revenue sharing. This $40 million hole was created in the biennial budget, which charged the Legislature with identifying $40 million in tax expenditures to eliminate or else an equivalent amount of money would be taken from municipal revenue sharing. The Legislature, however, was unable to identify any tax expenditures to reduce or eliminate and, instead, restored funding for municipal revenue sharing by reallocating various existing funds, including the State’s “Rainy Day Fund.”

The Governor objected to this “raid” of the “Rainy Day Fund” and legislation to restore the roughly $21 million taken out of this Fund, LD 1807, was enacted less than a month after LD 1762 became law. LD 1807 proceeded in tandem with a bill, LD 1843, to balance the State’s budget during the current State fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2014. The fiscal year 2014 supplemental budget bill closed a roughly $40 million budget gap for the current fiscal year, much of this gap being caused by unanticipated Department of Health and Human Services spending.

The final budget-related bill of the session was the fiscal year 2015 supplemental budget bill, LD 1858. This bill was designed to close a roughly $32 million budget gap for the remainder of the budget biennium. The Governor vetoed this bill on the basis that he believed it used budget gimmicks to balance the State’s budget. But it became law over the Governor’s objections when his veto was overridden the last day of the session.

Medicaid Expansion

Medicaid expansion was very likely the signature issue of this year and the entire 126th Legislature. At stake was expansion of MaineCare, the Maine Medicaid program, to an estimated 70,000 people as authorized under the federal Affordable Care Act. The battle over Medicaid expansion was first fought last year, when the Legislature sent two separate Medicaid expansion bills, LD 1066 and LD 1546, to the Governor’s desk where he vetoed both bills, and both vetoes were sustained by the Legislature.

This year, however, Medicaid expansion remained a top agenda item. The first attempt at Medicaid expansion came via LD 1487, a bill that proposed tying Medicaid expansion to the issue of instituting a managed care system for the MaineCare program. This proposal had some Republican support and the potential to garner veto-proof support in the Legislature. Veto-proof support, however, never materialized and this bill faltered after being sent to the Governor. Subsequently, two more Medicaid expansion proposals were sent to the Governor at the end of the legislative session, LD 1578 and LD 1640, though neither one had any serious prospects of surviving a gubernatorial veto. In all, five separate expansion proposals were enacted over the past two years, each dying after being vetoed by the Governor.

Welfare Reform

While Democrats in the Legislature were working to expand access to healthcare by expanding Maine’s Medicaid system, Governor LePage was busy promoting welfare reform.Likely both parties were talking about the same issue but talking past each other. In any event, the Governor unveiled a welfare reform agenda toward the end of the legislative session focused on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (“TANF”) Program and Electronic Benefit Transfer (“EBT”) cards, including:

  • LD 1815 – requiring TANF recipients to look for a job as a condition of receiving benefits,
  • LD 1820 – limiting EBT benefits to in-state transactions, and
  • LD 1822 – prohibiting EBT expenditures on tobacco, liquor, gambling and bail.

While there was considerable discussion of this issue, the Governor’s welfare reform agenda did not have sufficient support from Democrats in the Legislature and these, and other welfare reform proposals, failed to garner sufficient support in the Legislature. LD 1820, regarding out-of-state use of EBT cards was turned into a resolve directing a study of this issue by the Legislature, which died after being vetoed by the Governor.

Workforce Development Select Committee

At the start of the 2013 session, legislative leaders created the Joint Select Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future to address workforce development and other issues during the two years of the 126th Legislature.Much of this Committee’s work came to fruition at the end of this year’s legislative session with the enactment of policy bills, such as LD 1172, which supports the Maine Downtown Center, and LD 1489, which establishes the Maine Workforce Opportunities Program. Perhaps the biggest success of this Committee were the four bond bills that will be on November’s ballot that reflect the priorities of this Committee and that propose to support biotechnology, genetic and biometric research, marine business and small business jobs.

Environmental Reforms

By and large environmental bills were not able to secure widespread support and many environmental bills did not become law this session. There were, however, some minor proposals that did advance, such as LD 1634, which accelerates the implementation date for a product stewardship program, and LD 1671, which limits motorized gold prospecting in some Maine waters. Legislation regarding major environmental issues like metallic mineral mining, LD 1771, LD 1772 and LD 1851, and additional regulation regarding Maine lakes, LD 1744, did not become law.

Tax Policy

The Taxation Committee had a busy session, as is usually the case. Some bipartisan work of the Committee did survive the legislative process. This includes LD 1643, a law that establishes a regular review process for tax expenditures, which also survived a gubernatorial veto.This Committee also worked to restore charitable and medical tax deductions, which were subject to an annual cap as part of the biennial budget. The charitable cap will now be phased out pursuant to LD 1664 and the medical cap was eliminated as part of the fiscal year 2015 supplemental budget bill. Of course, not all work of this Committee was bipartisan and one bill of note, LD 1120, was designed to tax income from certain foreign jurisdictions deemed “tax havens.” This bill was defeated when the Legislature voted to sustain the Governor’s veto of this bill.

Other Proposals That Were Not Enacted

Many of the bills introduced by the Governor this session came toward the end of the session and were not enacted into law.This included LD 1811, a proposal to increase efforts to investigate and prosecute drug crimes; LD 1828, a proposal to assert some State authority over any decision to locate a national park in Maine; LD 1835, a proposal to establish “open for business zones” to attract major corporations to Maine; LD 1838, a proposal to provide heating assistance with revenues from expanded timber harvests on state land; and various welfare reform proposals mentioned above.

The Governor’s initiatives were not the only major policy proposals to falter this year. Other bills of note that did not advance include LD 1710, a proposal to claw back economic incentives from call centers that offshore jobs; LD 1641 and LD 1833, proposals to modify workers’ compensation laws; LD 1458, a proposal to drastically modify the relationship between franchisors and franchisees; LD 788, a proposal to implement a so-called “right to repair” as it relates to automobiles; and any number of bills related to Maine’s laws regarding wind power, a perennial legislative debate.

A LOOK AHEAD

The remainder of the 2014 election year will be busy politically. Maine’s primary elections occur on June 10th, just a little over a month after the Legislature adjourned sine die. The race to fill an open seat in Maine’s second congressional district has resulted in a primary fight on both sides of the aisle. State Senator Emily Cain and State Senator Troy Jackson are competing to be the Democratic nominee for this race and former State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin and former Senate President Kevin Raye are competing to be the Republican nominee for this race. These are the most watched primaries on the June ballot, though there are also a few contested State Senate primaries throughout the State.

Once the primary fights are resolved, all attention will turn to this November’s elections. One of Maine’s U.S. Senate seats will be on the ballot as well as both Congressional seats. The federal race that will draw the most attention this fall will be the race in Maine’s second congressional district, as this is an open seat. In the other two federal races the incumbents are heavily favored to retain their seats.

Regardless of what goes on federally, Maine’s most heated and most watched election this year is certain to be the gubernatorial election. Governor LePage, a Republican, is seeking re-election after four years in office. He, again, is in a three-way race that involves Independent Eliot Cutler. This time, however, both candidates face Congressman Michaud as the Democratic challenger. Given control of the State’s Executive Branch is at stake, this is an important race. The candidates themselves have already stated that this race will involve a lot of political spending, both by the candidates as well as independent PACs.

Of course, all 151 seats in the Maine House and 35 seats in the Maine Senate are on the ballot this year. Going into the fall, candidates will be competing in new legislative districts, as the Legislature reapportioned state legislative districts last year. While reapportionment did not result in wild swings in the composition of districts, State legislative races are traditionally very close and can be decided by a couple hundred votes. Redistricting could result in some surprises in November. Also of note regarding legislative elections is the fact that Senate and House Republicans fielded candidates in every district this election year, which is not always the case.

Regardless of the outcome of November’s elections, the composition of the 127th Legislature is certain to be different than the 126th. Currently 41 of the 151 members of the House and 8 of the 35 members of the Senate are not seeking re-election, many due to term limits. These numbers could potentially grow over the coming months. This may fall in line with recent turnover numbers for the Legislature, which has been at about one-third of each chamber each election. On the ballot are 27 candidates who served as House or Senate members sometime prior to the 126th Legislature.

November’s ballot will also contain ballot questions, which may or may not have implications for candidates on Election Day. Most controversial is likely a bear baiting referendum initiated by the U.S. Humane Society. This is a replay of an identical ballot measure that was rejected in 2004 by a vote of 53 percent to 47 percent. Also on the November ballot will be six bond issues reported out of the Legislature this session related to small business loans, grants for marine-based industries, support for the Jackson Laboratory, support for the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory, support for a laboratory at the University of Maine, and funding for water-related projects.