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Daily Brief: LePage, Eves at odds over $65 million senior housing bond

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Good morning from Augusta, where a proposal by House Speaker Mark Eves is poised to be the eye in a storm of debate over the state’s responsibility to provide affordable housing for Maine’s seniors. 

Eves, a Democrat from North Berwick, wants the state to take out a $65 million bond to pay for part of the construction of 1,000 energy-efficient affordable homes for seniors in all 16 counties. Eves pitches the plan as part of his “KeepME Home” initiative, and says it will not only provide housing for Maine’s needy seniors but create jobs in Maine’s construction and related industries. 

The plan on Thursday received the backing of 159 companies and groups, including the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, American Council of Engineering Companies of Maine, Maine Council on Aging, and others (see the full list here). The groups made their support known in a letter to Gov. Paul LePage, in which they urged the governor to support Eves’ proposal. 

LePage, however, said Thursday that the bond is the wrong way to go. Instead, he said he’d support the continued efforts of the Maine State Housing Authority to create affordable housing in Maine. 

“By using general obligation bonds for senior housing, we are placing the state in deeper debt and putting additional burden on the backs of Maine taxpayers,” LePage said in a written statement. “The Maine State Housing Authority has the ability to issue bonds to finance affordable senior housing under its current authority. I support the balanced approach they are taking already with the resources they have.”

“Maine Housing already is creating 250-300 new apartments each and every year,” he added. “About half of them are for seniors and the rest are for other needy Mainers. They are trying to balance competing needs.”

Eves’ initiatives on Maine’s elderly are shaping up to be his signature policy goals this year, and LePage’s opposition will be a big hurdle for the Democratic Speaker. Even if Eves can win support of lawmakers and the public for the bond, the fight may not be over, as the governor has shown his willingness to delay bonds in the past. 

Eves’ spokeswoman, Jodi Quintero, said she was “surprised to see the governor turn his back on helping seniors live independently longer, while also growing good jobs in Maine.” — Mario Moretto.

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Chin to fight “Dirty Lew” image in Lewiston mayoral race

The Sun Journal was the first to report Thursday that Ben Chin, political director for the liberal Maine People’s Alliance, will challenge Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald in November’s election.

Macdonald and Chin are polar opposites. The former is described by the Sun Journal as “a conservative firebrand.” The latter is a leader in the state’s leading liberal advocacy group, a post Chin told me Thursday that he’d retain if he became mayor.

I spoke with Chin, a Bates graduate, briefly about his goals. He said Macdonald was too divisive, and that the state’s second-largest city must “have a big conversation” about its future.

Chin cited a slate of devastating fires in 2013 and the presence of absentee landlords in the downtown’s residential neighborhoods as evidence the city “has not yet decided to break from its past.”

Lewiston is sometimes derisively referred to by outsiders as “The Dirty Lew,” which Chin said increasingly doesn’t represent the city.

“There are whole generations of young people who are ready to take this city in a different direction,” he said. — Mario Moretto

Weed campaign gets green leader

Legalize Maine, one of two groups pushing to place a marijuana legalization referendum on 2016’s ballot, announced Thursday it had hired Lynne Williams as it’s campaign supervisor and volunteer coordinator.

Williams, a Bar Harbor attorney, is a former state chairwoman of Maine’s Green Independent Party. Avid readers will recognize her as a frequent critic of wind power development projects, or as the lawyer who represented five “Occupy” protesters who jumped the fence and staged a demonstration at the Blaine House in 2011.

Williams is also involved with NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, according a news release from Legalize Maine. The group says Williams helped draft its proposed legislation.

“I am so excited to be in the position of making a historic change in the drug laws which have long vilified marijuana and marijuana users and filled our prisons with non-violent offenders.” Williams said  in the release.“The change is long overdue and I am thrilled that Maine is likely to be the next state to move forward on this issue.”

Legalize Maine plans to begin its campaign to gather the necessary signatures for a people’s referendum in April. — Mario Moretto

Reading list Lab love

The prospect of making the Labrador retriever Maine’s state dog hit a rough patch this week when a Legislative committee recommended against it, but new data from the American Kennel Club says love for Labs goes way beyond Maine.

Labs have been the most popular dogs in the nation for 24 years running according to coverage of the annual AKC survey by the Associated Press. However, bulldogs and French bulldogs — the latter of which is apparently sometimes called “a clown in the cloak of a philosopher” — are making inroads in the top 10.

Maybe it’s time for an amendment? — Christopher Cousins

Morning Briefing 2.27.15: Distractions, confrontations & explanations

Press Herald Politics -

We’ve all seen it. Skid marks on straight stretches of road that lead to crumpled guardrails. The car ahead creeping along for no apparent reason. The guy who reflexively looks both ways before darting into an intersection, but who pulls into oncoming traffic because the voice machine affixed to his ear has apparently told him the coast clear.

Or this guy:

AP File photo

Maine has a distracted driving law, but as columnist Bill Nemitz illustrated  in this 2013 column, it doesn’t seem to prevent or discourage drivers from seeking distractions, which for some of us — not me! — have a weird gravitational pull. In some cases, cops can’t  issue a citation for distracted driving when they witness it. That’s because the law allows you to dial a number while you’re driving, which it turns out is a pretty good way to get out of ticket.

The Transportation Committee will hold public hearings on two bills that would make it a little harder. One, by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, would only allow mobile phone use while driving only when the device is in hands-free mode. Another, by Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford, would prohibit “handling” a mobile phone while driving. Handling is defined as “talking into or otherwise physically interacting with a mobile telephone.”

Mastraccio’s bill would create an exemption for cops and emergency personnel. But Robert Schwartz, the director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, wrote in a letter to the Portland Press Herald that police should walk the talk when it comes to distracted driving.

Whether or not these bills have a chance is unclear. Mobile phone companies have been pretty good at helping to kill similar proposals in the past.

Whitcomb vs. Martin

It’s been overshadowed by the tax provisions in his budget, but Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal for the state’s Agriculture and Conservation department is shaping up to be nearly as controversial. The public hearings for the plan have been long and heavily attended.

Forest rangers whose jobs are on the chopping block have testified against the plan, arguing that the governor’s proposal to create a new kind forest police force while reducing the number of rangers doesn’t reflect the current challenges on the ground.

Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, publicly made note of a rumor that has been swirling throughout the State House since the plan was unveiled in January. Some have speculated the plan to reduce the number of forest rangers while creating a new type of position is retribution for the rangers defying the governor’s opposition to their push to carry firearms. The Legislature voted to allow the rangers to carry firearms last year, overriding the governor’s veto.

On Wednesday, Martin, after grilling Walter Whitcomb, the governor’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation & Forestry chief, on a number of provisions in the budget, asked the commissioner point blank if the plan was “retribution.”

“No, no it isn’t,” Whitcomb said.

To be continued.

Polar opposites

This is going to be fun.

Ben Chin, a liberal activist for the Maine People’s Alliance, announced Thursday that he’s going challenge Lewiston Mayor Bob Macdonald this year, according to a story in the Sun Journal.

Macdonald promptly called the MPA the “enemy of Lewiston.”

Meanwhile, the Twitter land rejoiced in the prospects of the looming contest.

@sbiel2 A special prayer from Reverend Chin: http://t.co/LIMqY3QNyb #mepolitics

— Lance Dutson (@ldutson) February 26, 2015

Damage control

Portland Mayor Mike Brennan and members of the city’s legislative delegation will hold a press conference at 10 a.m. at the Oxford Street homeless shelter.

The event is an attempt to clarify some of the controversy over the longest stayers at city-run shelters. The story has some big political implications, for the governor’s budget and possibly for Brennan, who is up for reelection this year.

It’s not clear if Brennan fully realizes it. His interview on WGAN this week has done little to either beat back the LePage administration’s steady assault, or provide a clear explanation. In fact, Brennan’s introduction of asylum seekers into the debate has introduced a dynamic that didn’t exist. As shelter officials have noted, the issue isn’t immigrants with big bank accounts, it’s likely people with mental illness. The city’s decision to bill the state for those stays obviously warrants further explanation. Perhaps Brennan will give one on Friday.

 

 

http://www.pressherald.com/2015/02/26/maine-lawmakers-move-to-outlaw-revenge-porn/

Open Internet advocates King, Pingree hail FCC decision on net neutrality

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, on Thursday hailed the Federal Communications Commission’s 3-2 decision to classify broadband Internet service as a public utility.

The FCC is trying to close the debate between two competing visions for what Internet access should look like. On one side, net neutrality advocates say broadband service should be treated like all other public utilities, where all traffic is treated equally. That side is celebrating the FCC’s decision.

The other vision, advocated for by Internet service providers, says broadband should remain unregulated.

It’s not hard to see the stakes. Take Time Warner, which provides broadband Internet service as well as cable TV, as an example. If Time Warner were allowed to differentiate between one kind of traffic and another, they may very well charge competitors to their cable service — like the wildly popular bandwidth hogs Netflix — greater fees for access to their networks than they charge others.

That’s what makes today’s FCC decisions so huge. They’re siding with net neutrality advocates. The big ISPs have pledged to appeal in court.

“I think it’s one of the most important decisions made in Washington in years,” King said in a video response to the FCC’s decision. Here’s the clip:

The principle of net neutrality is that all Internet traffic should be treated equally, and that ISPs should not be allowed to throttle or block certain traffic, or prioritize any particular sites or services over any others.

Maine’s 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, also supports net neutrality.

In a press release Thursday, she said that “regulating the Internet as a public utility will keep giant broadband providers from stifling innovation and fair competition for their own ends. This is a huge victory for the millions of people who rose up in the last year to speak up for net neutrality and a free and open Internet.”

But not all of Maine’s congressional delegation sides with King and Pingree.

I recently asked 2nd District U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican, for his opinion on the plan to classify broadband as a utility. His said the FCC “should not be regulating the Internet with rules designed for the 1930s,” and said he feared net neutrality would discourage investment in new technology that could increase broadband speeds in Internet backwaters, such as rural Maine.

Republican Susan Collins, Maine’s senior senator, has been noncommittal on her position on net neutrality. When I reached out to her office recently, a spokesman said only that Collins “does support common-sense regulations to prohibit Internet providers from discriminating against customers based on who they are or what they say.”

Courier-Gazette endorses Beebe-Center in House District 93 race

Dirigo Blue -

The Courier-Gazette, part of Village Soup media and based in Rockland, today endorsed Anne “Pinny” Beebe-Center in the special election to fill the vacant House District 93 seat. A special election was called after Rep. Lizzie Dickerson abruptly resigned in December. Beebe-Center, a Democrat, is facing Ron Huber (Green), Jim Kalloch (a Republican who lost to Dickerson last November), and Sean Levaseur (Libertarian). The election will be held Tuesday, 10 March, for the seat that represents Owls Head and Rockland.

In endorsing Beebe-Center, the editorial board cited her many years of service to the community and her ability to work across the aisle:

[Beebe-Center] has educated children in this community, fed the hungry at the food pantry, sheltered the homeless, and worked to provide help for low-income families so that they can become self-sufficient. She has done this as the regional manager of Penquis Community Action Program, as chairwoman of the Knox County Homeless Coalition and in her work with the Area Interfaith Outreach Food Pantry, among other volunteer activities.

In this work, she is known for finding commonsense, practical solutions to problems and facilitating teamwork among individuals with different political philosophies.

For more about Beebe-Center, visit her facebook page here. The campaign office is located at 408 Main Street in Rockland, and is headed by Dan Lord. Volunteers are always welcome – conatact Dan at 460.8084.

Daily Brief: Lawmakers to unveil bill that outlaws ‘revenge porn’ in Maine

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Good morning from the state capital, where there’s another lengthy schedule of lawmaking on tap. 

The Appropriations Committee continues to slog through budget bills related to the attorney general’s office and the Department of Health and Human Services. The committee is expected to take a series of votes today on supplemental spending for the current year, though decisions about Gov. Paul LePage’s biennial budget proposal remain weeks away. 

The Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee will consider ordering a review of the merger that resulted in the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, as well as measures to support farms and fisheries and improve permitting for those who cut Christmas trees and evergreen bows. 

The Environment and Natural Resources Committee will tackle the controversial subject of development setback laws involving vernal pools — a law that puts Maine in a decided minority of states nationally — and the Transportation Committee has a long list of work sessions on issues ranging from requiring horse-drawn carriages to be equipped with reflectors to authorizing up to three free sets of license plates for 100-percent disabled veterans. 

The Education and Cultural Affairs Committee will have an interesting debate about which statues should represent Maine in the National Statutory Hall Collection in Washington, D.C. Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, proposes replacing a statue of Maine’s first governor, William King, with a statue of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. 

Chamberlain, who hardly needs any introduction, is the subject of a larger-than-life statue on the Bowdoin College Campus. He was that institution’s president, a Union Army hero of the Battle of Gettysburg, a Medal of Honor recipient and the 32nd governor of Maine. He’s kind of a big deal, but William King is no slouch either. 

King was born in Bath and became Maine’s first governor after we separated from Massachusetts in 1820. He started his career as a shipbuilder in the City of Ships and later became the largest merchant shipping owner in Maine. He was also involved banking, real estate and the production of cotton. 

Politically, King was a member of what was then called the “Democratic-Republican Party” (imagine that?) and represented Maine in the Massachusetts House and Senate before Maine became its own state. He led the effort to separate the two states. Despite his limited education, he served for many years as a trustee of both Bowdoin College and Colby College, which at the time was called Waterville College. 

The debate around Mason’s bill, which is scheduled to start sometime after 1 p.m., should be a delight for history buffs. In case you’re wondering, the other statue that represents Maine in the nation’s capital is of Hannibal Hamlin, who was vice president under Abraham Lincoln. — Christopher Cousins

Outlawing ‘revenge porn’

The top two Republicans in the House of Representatives will host a press conference at 11:30 a.m. today to unveil a bill designed to protect Mainers from a new trend known as revenge porn. This is when one person posts intimate photos or videos of another person without their consent, often after a romantic breakup. According to a press release, there are thousands of websites that feature this material, and some charge substantial fees to the victims in exchange for taking the material off the web.

House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, partnered with the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence to sponsor the bill, which would make posting revenge porn a Class D crime with penalties including a $2,000 fine and one year in jail. Also supporting the bill are Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, and Democratic Rep. Diane Russell of Portland. Also scheduled to appear in support of the bill are Julia Colpitts of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence and Cara Courchesne of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault. — Christopher Cousins

Dems hire recruiter for 2016 election Democrats in Maine saw the state Senate slip from their control in 2014, when Republicans won the chamber by picking up five new seats for a 20-15 majority. It was the fulfillment not only of the state GOP, but of national Republican interests, which had identified the Maine Legislature as one of its “Sweet 16 Targets” nationwide. The election may have only been four months ago, but the campaign cycle never stops. Maine Democrats have made a key hire in their effort to win back the Senate: BJ McCollister started his new job this week as the party’s Senate caucus director. It will be his job to recruit candidates and ensure the party’s incumbents don’t lose when they run for re-election in 2016. Regular readers will recognize McCollister as the program director for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, a post he held for three years. Previously, he was southern Maine regional field director for the Senate Democrats in 2010, and worked with the SEIU-based “Change That Works” campaign for health care reform in 2009. — Mario Moretto. Reading list Pig pass

Need a chuckle to start your day? Check out Julia Bayly’s blog about a 450-pound pig wandering the snowy roads of Bradford. In a video that’s going viral, a passing motorist on his way home from the dump stops to um, talk to the pig, and give it a homemade peanut butter-chocolate chip cookie.

You’ll notice in the video that a dog can be heard barking in the background. I think the dog wants a cookie too.

Or some bacon. — Christopher Cousins

Maine’s development conundrum

Matt Gagnon - Bangor Daily News -

A rendering of the first phase of the proposed Midtown complex in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood.

A week ago, Doug Thomas, a former Republican member of the Maine Senate and the Maine House from Ripley, wrote a special column to the Bangor Daily News, entitled “Our economy won’t improve if we reject development.”

Certainly, I couldn’t possibly agree with him more. But then again, I would be hard pressed to find anyone who rejects that basic principle.

Unfortunately, the conceptualization of “supporting development” and the actual real world steps necessary to support it are very often misaligned.

Ask most members of any political ideology whether or not they think development is necessary for growth, and you’ll almost always get a yes. But go to their town with a development proposal, and you are likely to see those same people fight against said proposal.

In the worst spirit of NIMBY-ism, growth and development is a good thing to a lot of people, so long as it happens somewhere else. In our own towns and cities, we want to “preserve the village charm” or “stop the wrong kind of development.” Unfortunately, these valid concerns frequently morph into outright hostility to anything new being built or anything changing in a community.

Ironically, many of these people are the very same ones who complain about Maine’s youth exodus. As towns grow older and communities get sleepier, they become less attractive to not only teenage and college-age young adults, but young families as well.

Perhaps you think I’m complaining about rural Maine’s hostility to newness, but the problem actually seems to be worse in the most “urban” areas of the state.

Take Maine’s largest city, Portland. It boasts an obscenely low vacancy rate for both residential and commercial rental property, yet there is high demand for it. High demand and low supply means higher prices.

Yet this is the kind of city Portland municipal officials and residents apparently want. The same people, incidentally, who complain about Portland’s higher rental rates. Projects are assaulted by groups like the hilariously named “Keep Portland Livable,” and political leaders do not have the fortitude to stand up to them.

Take the now famous Midtown project, which has been in development hell for five years.

Five. Years.

After unending hostility and pressure, desperate to get anything done, the developer agreed to cut the height of its already laughably short proposed buildings in half, while dropping the number of residential units from 650 to 445. The investment the company would make in Portland was cut from $105 million to roughly $75 million. And even after all that, there still isn’t any certainty in the project.

In Portland, density is a dirty word, despite it being the most basic tenet of good city planning. Instead, the city chooses spread-out, remote buildings that are short and compact, which ironically increases “sprawl,” which so many of these groups of citizens despise.

But, density creates concentrated areas of population, which more easily support shops, stores, community centers and neighborhood life. A more dense, development-friendly city could drive a major economic boom.

And we aren’t talking about New York City-level density here, with its 27,012 people per square mile. No one wants to turn Portland, or any other Maine city, into a major metropolitan center like that. We can and should retain its colonial, small city feel. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be a great deal more vibrant and alive.

Portland’s current population is roughly 66,000 people. On its current footprint, if it had the population density of Boulder, Colorado, it would have a population of 84,111. Sacramento, California? 101,521. Rochester, New York? 125,409. Alexandria, Virginia? 198,481.

Those cities are all walkable, charming, small cities. I’ve either lived in or spent significant time in each, and none of them is suffocated by people or overdeveloped in an unhealthy way.

Portland having a similar philosophy behind city planning could potentially double its population (and economic output) while not losing its character. Heck, it could go “development crazy” and mimic the density found in Boston, and that would produce 272,619 Portlanders.

The point here goes well beyond Portland, and it also goes well beyond density. Suburban towns are hostile to change as well, though their hostility typically relates to opposing a road being built, or an addition being made to a supermarket.

Maine simply can’t afford that mentality anymore. The notion that newness, growth, and building destroy the character and personality of Maine is not true now, nor has it ever been.

Quite the contrary, this opposition to growth is what is changing the character of Maine. Where once was a prosperous, vibrant, living collection of true communities, we now see dying towns, cratering student enrollment, ancient commercial and residential building stock, and insolvent municipalities.

That is the true legacy of the anti-development movement, and it is what is really changing Maine.

Daily Brief: Are Obama and LePage veto soul mates?

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Good morning from Augusta, where everyone today is turning their attention to faraway Bald Mountain, more than 200 miles north in the heart of Aroostook County. 

It’s far removed from the State House, but the mountain — said to contain vast deposits of copper and zinc — has been the focus of lawmakers for the past three years. J.D. Irving Ltd., the behemoth New Brunswick company and largest landowner in Maine, wants to mine its 500-acre parcel on Bald Mountain, but needs state mining rules changed before it can do so. 

But a deal on new rules has been out of reach for lawmakers under pressure from environmental groups who oppose expanded mining in Maine and Gov. Paul LePage and his Department of Environmental Protection, who want to green light Irving’s project. 

What’s happened before will happen again today during a public hearing on the latest proposal from the DEP — a carbon copy of last year’s failed plan — which will be held by the Environment and Natural Resources Committee. 

For more background, see Chris Cousins’ look ahead at the debate here, and the Wall Street Journal’s view from afar, here

Also on deck for Wednesday are two bills on charter school funding in the Education Committee, a voter ID law in Veterans and Legal Affairs and a plan to give Mainers a tax credit for turnpike tolls in Taxation. — Mario Moretto.

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Obama, LePage vetoes: A comparison

Yesterday, President Barack Obama signed his first veto of the new Republican-controlled Congress, fulfilling his promise to block the GOP-backed Keystone XL pipeline.

In his veto message, Obama said nothing about the merits or flaws of the pipeline. Instead, he said he was nixing the bill because it “conflicts with established executive branch procedures.” In other words, he wanted to prevent Congress from inserting itself into policymaking that he believes is under the sole purview of the president. He’s making an argument for separation of powers. Call this the “get your nose out of my business” veto.

Sound familiar?

That was a common theme — explicit or implicit — in many of Gov. Paul LePage’s vetoes during the Democrat-controlled 126th Legislature.

For example, LePage last year vetoed LD 1254,  bill that would have encouraged state agencies and schools to buy local foods, saying it was “incongruent with the constitutional principal of separation of powers” because such food purchases were an executive branch function.

Or this one, when he vetoed LD 1281, which would have directed his administration to study a proposal to license recreational therapists: “Studies utilizing legislative staff are within your purview and I will not second-guess those. However, when a bill directs executive departments to undertake studies on subjects we do not support, I will return them to your desk.”

Concerns over separation of powers are serious ones, and I don’t want to overplay the similarities between the governor and the president (they’re few and far between). But LePage, with about 180 vetoes to his name, has a lot more experience than Obama, who’s used his veto pen just three times. So maybe, just maybe, Obama is taking a page from LePage.– Mario Moretto.

The state pastime is …

… choosing symbols that represent the state. Or at least so it seems.

Legislators this week balked at a plan to name the Labrador Retriever the “state dog,” and who could forget the flap over whether the blueberry or whoopie pie should be the “state treat”? In the end, a compromise was reached.

On Wednesday, legislators will take up two more consequential bills of great importance to Maine people when the State and Local Government Committee holds public hearings on whether to declare the Friendship Sloop as the official state maritime symbol and maple syrup the official “state sweetener.”

There’s a whole section of Maine law dedicated to this stuff. Most schoolchildren in Maine know the state motto is “Dirigo,” and the state bird the chickadee. Those and other more popular state symbols were chosen mostly in the early 20th century. But there’s also a state soil (“Chesuncook,” it’s called) and state herb (wintergreen), both named by the Legislature in 1999. In 2005, lawmakers declared Moxie the state soft drink.

It’s worth noting the sponsor of the maple syrup bill, Rep. Russell Black, R-Wilton, is a maple syrup producer. An initial look at the biography of Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, the sponsor of the Friendship sloop bill, didn’t turn up any potential financial gain from the sailboat’s designation as a state symbol. — Mario Moretto

Reading list Bananas at the capitol

It was not a great news day for the University of Maine System, which saw Standard & Poor’s downgrade the seven-school system’s credit outlook to “negative,” citing management turmoil and declining enrollment.

But that didn’t seem to dampen the mood in the State House Hall of Flags, where the system’s flagship school in Orono celebrated its 150th birthday. Bananas the Bear, the school’s mascot, was arguably the most popular guy in Augusta Tuesday, getting his photo taken with lawmakers, security personnel, visitors and even this reporter (a proud UMaine alum). Above, the Legislature’s doctor for the day, James Hildebrand from Orono, poses for his own snapshot. — Mario Moretto.

Morning Briefing 2.25.15: Mining redux, Maine’s official sweetner and Collins on DHS/immigration

Press Herald Politics -

It should be a busy day around the State House on Wednesday.

The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will take up several bills to change the referendum process in Maine (including the gathering of petition signatures) as well as the perennial Voter ID law.

Over in the budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, a large crowd is expected to testify about the LePage administration’s plans to the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. LePage’s proposal includes eliminating some forest ranger positions and creating new “natural resources law enforcement officers” to take over the policing and investigations now handled by rangers.

Remember the bill to designate the Labrador retriever as Maine’s state dog. That proposal didn’t fly with the State and Local Government Committee, but we’ll see if these two bills fare better after Wednesday’s public hearings:

LD 110 – An Act To Designate Maple Syrup as the Official State Sweetener

LD 137 – An Act To Designate the Friendship Sloop as the Official State Maritime Symbol

Mining is back

On Wednesday, state lawmakers will pick up pretty much where they left off last year on controversial rules that could revive a nearly nonexistent metallic mining industry in Maine.

And if all of the recent behind-the-scenes political maneuvering is any indication, passions haven’t simmered much – if at all – since the mining issue fizzled out in the Legislature last year.

First, a quick recap: in late-2013, the Board of Environmental Protection endorsed new rules that would loosen environmental regulations that have all but shut down industrial mineral mining in Maine since 1991. But the Democratic-controlled Legislature refused to go along and, instead, ordered the Department of Environmental Protection to come back with new rules. Then Republican Gov. Paul LePage vetoed the Legislature’s order, essentially leaving everything in limbo.

The DEP has brought the same rules back for reconsideration again this year. The Environment and Natural Resources Committee will hold a public hearing on the issue at 9 a.m.

While the proposed rules would apply statewide, the changes were sought to allow J.D. Irving Ltd. – the Canadian company that is Maine’s largest private landowner – to mine for the potentially billions of dollars in gold, silver and other metals at Bald Mountain in Aroostook County. Environmental and outdoors groups fear looser rules will only lead to the type of long-term contamination seen elsewhere.

For more of the background on Bald Mountain and the mining debate, click here.

On Tuesday, opponents of the rules cheered a memo from the Maine Attorney General’s Office suggesting that the DEP did not follow the proper administrative process when it re-submitted the same exact rules to the Legislature this year. The memo didn’t appear to have the effect desired by those opponents, however.

Sen. Tom Saviello, the Wilton Republican who co-chairs the committee, said the hearing will happen as planned.

“The bottom line is, I want to get it done,” said Saviello. “It’s the biggest bill in front of my committee and I want to do it while their minds are fresh.”

Opponents of the proposed rules were also upset by this line in the committee instructions for Wednesday’s hearing: “Please do not present testimony regarding mining activities proposed at Bald Mountain or any other specific sites.”

In other words, stick to the rules at hand during your 3-minute testimony. That might be a tall order for the committee to enforce, however, given the fact that Irving’s interest in Bald Mountain was the impetus behind this latest push to re-write Maine’s mining rules.

Collins in middle of DHS/immigration debate

Expect to hear a lot in the coming days about the latest congressional impasse that could lead to a “shutdown” of the Department of Homeland Security beginning Saturday (even though few DHS programs would actually shut down).

Once again, Maine Sen. Susan Collins could play a role in attempting to negotiate an end to the impasse as she did during the 16-day shutdown of the entire federal government in October 2013.

On Monday, Collins introduced a bill that would block executive orders issued by President Obama late last year that would protect millions of illegal immigrants from deportation. While Collins said she supports reforming the country’s immigration system – and voted in support of a 2013 Senate-passed immigration bill that stalled in the House – she has joined other Republicans and some Democrats in denouncing Obama’s executive orders as presidential overreach.

Republicans are attempting to use the DHS budget bill to thwart Obama’s plans. But Senate Democrats have filibustered the DHS bill because of the immigration add-on.

Fearful of public backlash against his party, the new Republican Senate Majority Leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, now wants to separate the two issues in order to avert a DHS shutdown. According to reports out of Washington on Tuesday, McConnell has agreed to allow a vote on a “clean” DHS bill and then hold a separate vote on de-funding Obama’s executive orders.

Collins’ bill could be that vehicle, although it was clear Tuesday evening that the political posturing was far from over inside the Capitol, as evidenced by this report from the National Journal.

“Democrats will need to agree to McConnell’s new plan for the DHS funding bill to move forward. The minority—or at least six of its members—will have to agree to allow the Senate to take up the House-passed DHS bill, which Democrats have already voted down four times. The House bill currently includes several amendments defunding Obama’s executive actions on immigration from the past three years, but McConnell has promised that he would move to remove them once Democrats agree to get on the bill.

“If Democrats continue to filibuster the funding bill, McConnell said Tuesday he would bring up the immigration measure from Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, on Friday anyway.”

The text of Collins’ bill was not yet available online but her spokeswoman, Alleigh Marre, said the bill only targets Obama’s 2014 executive orders, which Collins has said “undermines the separation of powers doctrine that is central to our constitutional framework.”

Unlike the House-drafted version of the DHS funding bill, Collins’ proposal would not dismantle the so-called DREAMERS program adopted by Obama in 2012 that allows some children brought to the U.S. by their immigrant parents to become legal residents.

Of course, Collins’ effort to undo any part of the president’s actions will not sit well with groups in Maine and nationally that have been demanding reforms to an immigration system that all sides agree is broken. But she is not the only moderate — whether Republican, Democrat or independent — critical of Obama’s executive order bypassing Congress.

But what about King?

If Collins’ bill does come up for a vote, it will be interesting to see how her Maine colleague, independent Sen. Angus King, votes on the measure.

King has roundly criticized House Republicans’ efforts to link DHS funding with Obama’s executive action on immigration. Yet at the same time, King has been critical of the president’s unilateral move and its implication for the separation of powers.

Back in November, King prophetically worried that Obama’s actions “could actually make the reform we need more difficult by causing a backlash in public opinion and solidifying Republican opposition.”

And as he later told NPR:

“You know, the Constitution says that the Congress makes the law and the president executes it. It’s a very clear division. The Framers knew what they were doing and it doesn’t say if the president gets frustrated and Congress doesn’t act, he gets to do, you know, what he thinks is important for the country.”

 

 

 

VIDEO: Candidate forum for House District 93 race

Dirigo Blue -

The four candidates for the special election to fill the House District 93 seat were hosted by Village Soup TV (VStv) last week, and the video is below. The candidates are: Anne “Pinny” Beebe-Center (D), Ron Huber (G), Jim Kalloch (R), and Shawn Levasseur (L). The moderator was Alan Hinsey. HD93 encompasses all of Owls Head and Rockland. The special election will be held 10 March, and early and absentee voting are available – contact your town clerk to learn how.

Governor’s words matter, but his bad policies matter more

Amy Fried - Bangor Daily News -

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Reuters photo by Yuri Gripas.

What a way to introduce yourself to the American public. A few months ago, when people were asked about likely Republican presidential candidate Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, over half had no opinion or said they had never heard of him.

If people learned of Walker recently, it was for his answers to reporters’ questions. Asked in London if he believed in evolution, Walker said he would “punt on that one,” after refusing to address queries on the European Union, Ukraine, and the Islamic State.

Then Walker got pulled into the swamp of fact-challenged negativity toward President Obama.

As Walker sat near former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani at an event, Giuliani said, “I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.”

Walker first refused to say what he thought of Giuliani’s remarks, then said, “I don’t really know” if Obama loved this country and the former mayor wasn’t out of line with his comments. A few days later, Walker said, “I don’t know” when asked about whether Obama was a Christian.

For most American voters, Walker’s comments seem out of the mainstream and too attached to the extreme right.

What Walker said matters because somehow we’re off to the races already, the presidential and congressional races of 2016. Assuming Hillary Clinton runs, she’ll likely be the Democratic Party nominee and the first woman to head a major party ticket. Walker could be her opponent.

Governors are no strangers to presidential nominations and the presidency. Four of our last six presidents were governors.

And in evaluating governors as they run for the presidency, more than their rhetoric needs to be scrutinized. Their policies may provide a template for national problems.

Indeed, Gov. Mitt Romney’s approach to health care reform had the same key core elements — insurance exchanges with subsidies to help people afford private insurance — as the Affordable Care Act Obama signed, and which has substantially lowered the percentage of Americans without health coverage. Nearly 75,000 Mainers have coverage through the exchange.

Walker’s record as governor should serve as a warning to Maine policymakers.

What happened in Wisconsin and neighboring Minnesota is as close to a natural experiment as one could ever see. The states are next to each other, have a history of fairly similar politics and their populations are quite a lot alike.

Both Walker and Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton took office in 2010 amid terrible economic conditions, with high unemployment and high state budget deficits. Their approaches could not have been more different.

Walker slashed spending and cut income taxes while reducing the tax credits (typically lower-income) renters would receive, opposed a minimum wage increase and refused to take federal funds to expand Medicaid.

Dayton increased the tax credits for renters, created a new income tax rate of 9.85 percent for the top 2 percent, cut income tax for the middle-class and raised the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour while also indexing the wage to inflation.

The result? As Wisconsin’s LaCrosse Tribune notes, Wisconsin has “private-sector job growth that continues to lag behind the national average. The latest 12-month period numbers that ended in June show Wisconsin 32nd in the nation in job growth. Minnesota was 26th. Minnesota’s jobless rate in November was 3.7 percent. Wisconsin’s was 5.2.”

Wisconsin has a $2 billion deficit, while Minnesota has a $1.2 billion surplus, even as Walker cut education and transportation spending and Minnesota increased both.

Forbes ranked Wisconsin 32nd best for business, with Minnesota ranked 9th best.

Politico reports that, “Walker is using budget gimmicks to postpone more than $100 million in debt payments.”

Walker, a member of what columnist Jonathan Chait calls “the Republican anti-math wing,” holds firm to his belief that tax cuts boost state revenues and jobs.

Maine’s economic growth continues to lag the rest of New England and the nation. Evidence about what works should guide our direction.

You have to agree with the LaCrosse newspaper that, “Economic measures of income and employment clearly favor Minnesota. At least Wisconsin has the Packers.”

Daily Brief: Saufley to deliver ‘State of the Judiciary’ speech

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Good morning from frigid Augusta, where cold means more than the relationships between political opponents. 

There’s a lot on the docket today with the House and Senate returning to session after a week’s vacation and many of the Legislature’s committees plowing through bills. On that latter front, the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee is expected to make recommendations to the full Legislature on two interesting bills that would expand the production and use of industrial hemp in Maine. Hemp is a form of the marijuana plant but is generally not smokable and is valued for its strong fibers in products like rope and clothing. 

Hunters take notice: the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee is being introduced to a handful of bills that affect you. Rep. Roland Martin, D-Sinclair Township, is sponsoring a resolve to study the impact of winter ticks on the state’s moose population, and Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, seeks to allow the hunting of small game animals with slingshot. But perhaps the most interesting bill title in this committee today is this: An Act to Allow Hunters to Wear Hunter Pink Instead of Hunter Orange in October in Recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, sponsored by Rep. Ricky Long, R-Sherman. 

The Judiciary Committee has a trio of bills on its schedule that are designed to increase compensation for serving on juries and the Transportation Committee will be busy hearing bills regarding the Maine Turnpike Authority. 

As usual, most everyone will have one eye cast toward the Appropriations Committee and its ongoing work on Gov. Paul LePage’s biennial budget proposal. The committee is turning its attention to the vast Department of Health and Human Services.

In other events, the University of Maine, the state’s flagship public university, turns 150 years old this year, and a group of UMaine leaders, teachers and students are gathering at the State House today to mark the occasion. 

Lastly, Chief Justice Leigh Saufley is scheduled to deliver her annual “State of the Judiciary” speech to a joint session of the Legislature at 11 a.m. Veteran BDN courts reporter Judy Harrison has dropped by the Daily Brief for a visit (Hi Judy!!) and has written the following preview.

Don’t forget to sign up to receive the Daily Brief in your inbox every weekday morning. — Christopher Cousins/Mario Moretto

State’s top judge to address House, Senate lawmakers

Chief Justice Leigh Saufley is expected to outline plans for transitioning the court from a paper document system to one in which lawyers and people representing themselves could file from a computer. Saufley also will talk about the March 2 opening of the Capital Judicial Center, which combines District, Family and Superior courts in Kennebec County, and the expansion under construction at the Washington County Courthouse as examples of the judiciary’s commitment to the modernization of court facilities.

The governor’s proposed budget includes additional funding for entry screening at the new Augusta and Machias courthouses and other courthouses around the state. If approved, the new funds would allow Saufley to get close to meeting the goal of having full-time entry screening at every courthouse.

The chief also might touch on competing bills before the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday afternoon that propose raising the daily pay rate and mileage rate for jurors. Jurors currently are paid $10 per day and are reimbursed 15 cents per mile to travel from their homes to courthouses. — Judy Harrison.

Military group backs LePage budget

While lawmakers continue to chew on LePage’s $6.57 billion two-year budget proposal, a handful of groups have come out to support portions of the plan, if not the package in its entirety.

On Monday, William “Chick” Ciciotte, and 82-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran and legislative chairman for Maine’s American Legion, told legislative budget negotiators that the state would benefit from LePage’s plan to exempt military pensions from the income tax.

“There are over 2 million military retirees in the United States,” he said. “That’s a large pool to attract to settle in Maine.”

He added: “The state of Maine has an opportunity to attract young veterans to retire into Maine. … We spend our money in Maine. We came here, we bought cars, we bought groceries, we sent our kids to school and our grand kids and on and on and on.”

Ciciotte said most veterans in Maine are older than 65, but that the tax exemption could attract younger retirees to the state. — Mario Moretto

Dog days of winter are over

Talk in the State House of naming the Labrador retriever the official dog of Maine is probably near an end following a 9-2 committee vote against the idea Monday afternoon. The measure will go to the full House and Senate but its “ought not to pass” recommendation probably means it’s doomed.

Dog bills don’t have as many lives as cat bills. — Christopher Cousins

Reading list ‘A truly great man’

Maybe you saw a headline yesterday about a guy named Wil Smith, who died Sunday of colon cancer at age 46. Do yourself a favor and read this inspirational story by the BDN’s Beth Brogan.

Smith, a single father whose connection to Maine started when he was stationed at Brunswick Naval Air Station and a Bowdoin College basketball coach urged him to apply to Bowdoin, is among other things the subject of a film project planned by Sony Pictures. He was the kind of guy the word “inspirational” was made for and Maine is at a loss in so many ways because of his passing.

Smith often said his greatest achievement was his daughter, Olivia, who was one year old when her father enrolled at Bowdoin. He toted the infant to basketball practice, to classes, to the stage to collect his Bowdoin diploma in 2000, and through life. This intimate StoryCorps recording will rip your heart out, in a good way.

“Were you ever embarrassed bringing me to class? Or just having me in general?” asks Olivia, now a young woman.

“I felt a little awkward, but never embarrassed,” says Wil. “There were times when the only way I could get through was to come in and look at you and see you sleeping — and then go back to my studies. … I draw my strength from you. I always have and I still do.”

RIP to the man who showed us again that there is no better way to make your mark in the world than by being a good parent. — Christopher Cousins

Morning Briefing 2.24.15: Soft parade of opponents, evolutions & slingshots

Press Herald Politics -

Former Republican state Rep. Lance Harvell, of Farmington, during one of his many floor speeches.

The parade of opponents to Gov. Paul LePage’s tax overhaul continued Monday as lawmakers on the Appropriations and Financial Affairs and Taxation committees received testimony on proposed increases to the sales tax and broadening the tax to include new goods and services.

As was the case last week on hearings devoted to the income tax cut, revenue sharing elimination and taxing nonprofits, opponents dominated the testimony. Officials and paid representatives for attorneys, summer camps, retailers, accountants and others said the tax overhaul would raise costs and create other problems (As an aside, some of the lobbyists could have just as well thanked the governor for giving them some new clients for the session.)

There were few surprises during the hearing. Businesses exempted from the sales tax generally don’t support having one applied to them. However, there were a few interesting tidbits that could be politically significant.

First, the opposition from the business groups seemed slightly more subdued compared to tax plans that failed in 2013 and were repealed by voters in 2009. In fact, some organizations that openly opposed the 2009 and 2013 efforts took a neutral position Monday. Some of the Democrats involved in the 2009 reform initiative took notice and asked groups like the National Federation of Independent Businesses why. The answer, while not stated publicly, may be that some of these groups are some of LePage’s allies. Maybe they’re fighting this tax plan in a quiet way, maybe not. Or maybe the theory that the governor leading on tax reform is the only way that it will ever happen.

That brings us to the second observation. So far, the biggest supporters, or potential supporters, of the governor’s plan are, to this point, the lawmakers typically aligned with the center of their respective parties. Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, has had a couple of very public disputes with the governor, but right now he’s one of the biggest advocates of this initiative. Katz, a member of the budget committee, has repeatedly defended the plan during hearings over the past week. When Democrats on Monday pushed the administration for data proving that the tax overhaul would produce the advertised economic turnaround, Katz challenged them to provide data showing that the current tax formula was working.

“We’re not operating in a vacuum. If anyone is a defender of the status quo; I’d like to see their data on how a high income tax serves our interests” he said.

Third, LePage has allies among past advocates of tax reform. That includes former Sen. Dick Woodbury, of Yarmouth, who is consulting for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce on the plan. It also includes former state Rep. Lance Harvell, a Republican of Farmington. Harvell voted against the 2009 reform law when he was in the Legislature. However, he signed on as a cosponsor to Woodbury’s Gang of 11 plan in 2013. Harvell came to Augusta on Monday to support the governor’s proposal.

“As long as I’ve been watching this (the tax reform debate), this is the best opportunity to pass tax reform,” he said.

Harvell also recalled a meeting with LePage in 2013 to discuss the Gang of 11 plan. While the governor did not support the initiative, Harvell left the meeting convinced that the governor wasn’t completely opposed to the concept.

Evolution

Harvell’s recollection of the 2013 meeting, combined with the plan now before lawmakers, marks what people in the political world describe as a dramatic evolution for LePage. As the Republican candidate for governor in 2010, LePage was convinced that the state income tax could be reduced simply by shrinking government.

Here’s what LePage had to say about the tax reform law in an interview with Portland Press Herald in 2010:

” ‘People aren’t stupid,’ he said. ‘They can see through smoke and mirrors.’ He added that if the bill had just reduced the income tax without making any other changes, he could have supported it. He advocates a reduction of the income tax to 5 percent and would pay for it by cutting state government.”

Ruh-Roh

Here’s some news for those hoping that the Legislature would declare the Labrador Retriever the official state dog. Are you sitting? Now lie down. Roll over …

Sorry about that. It’s just that it’s looking like the chances to make silly doggy jokes about L.D. 107 are dwindling. The State and Local Government Committee voted 9-2 on Monday spike the retriever bill, a signal that either legislative leaders don’t like labs as much we do or they have declared that legislating this kind of stuff isn’t the best use of lawmakers’ time. The latter explanation is likely the safest bet.

Obama on snow

With the exception of LePage, New England governors visited the White House on Sunday for the kickoff to the annual National Governors Association meeting. The president made some brief remarks and noted the spate of snow storms that hammered New England over the past six weeks. Here’s an excerpt according to the White House transcript:

“We are grateful that the weather held up after yesterday’s storm.  And we’ve been thinking about you governors from New England, and everything that your citizens have been through this winter.  I want to make sure we’re working with each other to get what you need.  It is a good thing that you are not coming on a snowstorm like there was during the dinner of 1987.  Hours into the dinner, the food was gone.  Everybody was standing around. The snow seemed to keep falling harder and harder.  And President Reagan looked out the window and turned to the First Lady and said, ‘Honey, do we have enough cots?’ To which Nancy replied, ‘We have a few spare bedrooms.’ 

But it looks like the weather has cleared up enough that there will not be a pajama party here in the Blue Room tonight.” 

LePage didn’t attend the meeting. He told Maine Public Broadcasting Network that he never found the NGA meetings particularly useful.

“The NGA, the two years that I did participate, everybody sits, Democrats on one side and Republicans on the other side and it’s all niceties and at the end of the day, nothing happens,” he told MPBN.

DHHS budget request

The Appropriations Committee will take a break from the governor’s two-year budget proposal Tuesday and begin working on one of his supplemental budget plans for the current fiscal year. The committee will hold a work session on the Department of Health and Human Services request, which includes $2.7 million for the Riverview Psychiatric Hospital for more staff.

David vs squirrels?

Some lawmakers want to allow the hunting of small game animals with a slingshot. We’ll find out why this method of hunting is preferable to BB guns or low caliber firearms when the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee holds a public hearing on L.D. 291.

LePage’s A-through-F public school grading system put on hold until fall of 2016

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

The Maine Department of Education announced Monday that it will not issue A-through-F report cards for schools this year.

According to a web bulletin by department spokeswoman Samantha Warren, the state is switching to a new online student assessment system this year, which will make it impossible to compute year-to-year student growth. Data from the new assessment tool will first be available in the spring. The next grades for public schools will be released in the fall of 2016.

The public school grading system was launched by Gov. Paul LePage amid a swirl of debate about its merits in 2013.

Daily Brief: Is large-scale mining right for Maine and how free are we?

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Greetings from Augusta, where a busy week for the Legislature is about to launch. The pace in the State House will quicken from here on out as the river of bills swells and budget deliberations intensify. 

The Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee will hold hearings and work sessions on a handful of perennial bills — meaning bills that come up virtually every session — around school funding. Changes to the way charter schools are paid for are on the docket for public hearing, as well as a bill that would appropriate funds for the restoration of the historic Wood Island Life Saving Station in Kittery. The Educaiton committee is also likely to vote on some bills that would require the state to pay more for education and teacher retirement costs. Both of those bills would have to be reconciled with the funding levels called for in Gov. Paul LePage’s biennial budget proposal. 

The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will be deliberating several bills related to the Maine Clean Election Fund and the State and Local Government Committee is expected to make a recommendation on An Act to Recognize the Labrador Retriever as the Official State Dog

More and more Mainers are signing up to receive the State & Capitol Daily Brief in their email inbox every day. Do you want to be one of them? Sign up here. — Christopher Cousins

Metallic mineral mining in Maine?

Proponents of metallic mineral mining in Maine worked for more than a year to usher new mining rules to enactment, only to have them scuttled last year when the Legislature upended them around concerns that they didn’t do enough to protect the environment. The votes to kill the bill were over the objections of Aroostook County representatives who said mining could be an economic shot in the arm. LePage vetoed the effort to kill the bill and the Legislature passed another measure to continue the debate.

The mining rules would apply to the whole state, though much of the debate has centered around stated interest by Canadian timber company JD Irving, Ltd. in mining for copper and zinc on a 500-acre site it owns on Bald Mountain in Aroostook County.

That brings us to this week when the Environment and Natural Resources Committee is scheduled to hear public testimony on LD 146 on Wednesday beginning at 9 a.m.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine, which opposed the mining bills last year, is calling LD 146 “deja vu all over again” and stepping into the forefront of the opposition. NRCM’s chief beef is that the proposed rules don’t do enough to protect groundwater or natural habitats.

Judging by the crowds this issue drew over the past two years when the measure was under consideration by the Board of Environmental Protection, there will be standing room only in the committee room. — Christopher Cousins

How ‘free’ is Maine?

“It’s a free country” is a refrain we started hearing in elementary school, but what does it really mean? That’s a question too complex to answer in the Daily Brief, so we’ll just refer you to a new study by the John Locke Foundation which finds Maine the 19th most free state. The North Carolina-based think tank weighed fiscal policy, taxes and budget issues, as well as education, health care and regulatory policies.

There was no mention of whether neighboring New Hampshire’s state motto of “Live Free or Die” entered the calculus, but New Hampshire ranked ninth. Maine and New Hampshire ranked well ahead of the rest of the New England states. Florida, Arizona and Indiana ranked as the freest states while New York, New Jersey and California were at the bottom of the list.

Maine ranked 38th on both health care and fiscal policy freedom, but its overall ranking was helped a lot by being 8th in educational freedom and tenth in regulatory freedom.

This is just another in a long line of studies which have gauged these issues, but don’t be surprised if you see these rankings used in arguments for and against legislation this year in Augusta. The John Locke Foundation, founded in 1990 to work for “truth, for freedom, and for the future of North Carolina,” is named after a 17th-century English philosopher whose writings inspired the likes of Thomas Jefferson. — Christopher Cousins

How to save your pennies

Gov. LePage and Anne Head, commissioner of the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, announced today that this is “America Saves Week” and “Military Saves Week.”

This might seem like a dry topic, but there is little else more important than helping debt-ridden Americans into the black. In a press release, LePage touted his pending proposal to cut taxes on military pension benefits and Head announced that the state’s Office of Securities would refund driver’s license renewal fees for active-duty military personnel.

Safe investing and saving resources are available here or here or by calling 1-877-624-8551. — Christopher Cousins

Reading list Fish stories

Hours I spent ice fishing Saturday and Sunday: 13

Fishing derbies participated in: 2

Baitfish bought: 18

Traps set by the boy and I: 8

Flags: 3 (when the wind blew hard)

Fish caught (by myself or anyone else in either of the derbies): 0

Good times anyway: 2

Stories I heard about fish being caught all around me: Approximately 15

Suspected liars: Approximately 15

— Christopher Cousins

 

 

Morning Briefing 2.23.15: Getting clean, NRA unites with SAM, trash cash & Dems’ alternative

Press Herald Politics -

Happy Monday.

Lawmakers are returning from break this week. Some, specifically those on the Appropriations and Taxation committees, never really left as the committee held several hearings last week on the governor’s two-year budget. The public hearings will continue on the budget Monday and through the week.

Members of legislative leadership were largely absent, although some Democrats donned hard hats in Fort Kent and other locales as part of their statewide jobs tour.

There are a number of non-budget public hearings and work sessions Monday, including a potential vote on making the Labrador retriever the official state dog.

Clean?

There’s also a hearing on a bill that would prohibit Maine Clean Election candidates from creating leadership PACs. This bill pops up every session and is promptly killed under the direction of legislative leaders who run as Clean Election candidates and create leadership PACs, or by those harboring leadership ambitions.

However, there may be some hope for this one, L.D. 204. Only three of the 10 members in leadership ran “clean” last year, Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick. All the rest ran traditional campaigns. Additionally, while these bills have been spiked before, there’s been a fair amount of attention brought to the practice of candidates accepting taxpayer funds to “get the money out of politics” and then turning around soliciting and accepting donations from corporations and special interest groups to extend electoral favors in the hope of securing leadership positions.

And finally, there’s the fact that participation in the Maine Clean Election program has plummeted since the courts wiped out matching funds.

In the end, the passage of L.D. 204 could hinge on the program’s increasing inviability.

NRA, SAM unite for ballot reform

The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine is ginning up support for L.D. 176, a bill that would make it harder for out-of-state interest groups to initiate ballot measures in Maine by closing a loophole on signature gatherers. SAM’s purpose here makes sense. The group was one of the leading opponents of Question 1, a bear-baiting referendum initiated by the Humane Society of the United States and it has an interest in preventing HSUS from launching a third bear baiting campaign.

But why does the National Rifle Association care about L.D. 176? On Friday, the high power gun rights advocacy group sent an action alert to its Maine members urging them to support L.D. 176.

“(It) would prevent non-Maine residents from collecting signatures or handling petitions in any manner, limiting the influence of out-of-state special interests from using their deep pockets to restrict or limit the rights of Mainers. People’s veto referendums and direct initiatives were designed for the people of Maine to be able to directly influence the laws that govern them if they do not agree with them or want to see a change.  This special privilege is somewhat unique to Maine and should not be abused by outside money and power.”

The NRA mobilizing its members against “outside money and power” will likely strike its critics as a wee bit ironic. It’s interest in L.D. 176 will also fuel years of suspicion that the NRA and SAM often act in unison.

Trash money

The waste-to-energy industry has spent a lot of money lobbying state policymakers over the past two sessions. One company, the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co., a waste-to-energy facility in Orrington, is doing it again.

PERC has spent over $71,000 lobbying lawmakers since December, according to lobbying disclosure data from the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices. No other company or organization has come close to spending that kind of money so far this session.

Dems promise budget ‘alternative’

The Democratic radio address last week promised to deliver a fairer alternative to the governor’s budget.

In the address, Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, said she was pleased that the governor’s tax reform and income tax cut are “back on the table,” but that the package largely benefits the wealthy and corporations. Valentino then went on to list all of the other concerns Democrats have with the budget (municipal revenue sharing elimination, etc.).

The address didn’t specifically address how Democrats would make the budget better for low and middle income Mainers, but it sounds like they’re not going to die on the hill opposing the income tax cut. Perhaps their proposal will include changes to how the tax relief is distributed.

What’s in a title?

It’s no secret that Gov. Paul LePage had problems with the presidents of the Maine Technology Institute (MTI). The governor fired former president Bob Martin last August and former president Betsy Biemann abruptly quit in 2012, presumably after refusing to adhere to the governor’s request that private companies receive preference over nonprofits and public entities for R&D grants.

With that as background, it’s easy to read into Friday’s announcement that the governor had nominated Brian Whitney as director — not president — of MTI. The distinction between the titles may seem meaningless, but it would seem that “president” carries a heavier connotation of autonomy than “director?”

It’s not clear if the title change is a mistake or intentional because both were used in the press release issued Friday.

LePage cracks down on state employees viewing porn on work computers

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Gov. Paul LePage. BDN file photo by Troy R. Bennett.

Gov. Paul LePage on Friday issued an executive order to stiffen policies prohibiting state employees from accessing pornographic material on government computers or devices — even when they’re off the clock. According to the governor and his human resources chief, it’s a type of misconduct that persists, albeit infrequently. “Employees of State agencies are compensated for their public service by Maine taxpayers and as Chief Executive I take employee workplace policies very seriously,” said LePage in a written statement. “State agencies already have rules to prohibit this behavior at work, but the practice continues. This Order establishes clear rules for all departments and employees across the board.” The executive order clarifies existing porn prohibitions to state that accessing sexually explicit material on state resources or on state time “will not be tolerated even when it is incidental in nature, or when it is committed off-duty.” LePage also states in the order such behavior by state employees “embarrasses and discredits the State and its taxpayers.” Violation of the rule will constitute just cause for termination, he wrote. Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s press secretary, said that while many of the state’s offices had their own no-porn rules, the governor’s order will set the wheels in motion to develop a uniform, statewide policy. She said that process will include the employees’ unions. “We’re going to be working to implement this policy, and one of those steps is reaching out to the employees,” she said. “The rule will be developed in the coming weeks.” State HR director Joyce Oreskovitch, like the governor, said that the pornography problem persisted, though it was “exceedingly rare.” “Misconduct such as this, while uncommon, is a violation of the public’s trust and could expose the State to sexual harassment complaints,” she said. “Governor LePage’s Executive Order provides clear guidance to state employees that this conduct will not be tolerated.” Asked whether any particularly recent state employee misconduct had prompted LePage to act, Bennett said only that there had been several instances in “recent years” but that she could not discuss particular personnel issues. Bennett also said that additional new workplace policies may be announced soon.

MPBN investigation eviscerates Gov. LePage’s addiction policies

Mike Tipping - Bangor Daily News -

Gov. Paul LePage explains his biennial budget proposal to reporters on Jan. 9 at the State House in Augusta. – Christopher Cousins | BDN

During the drive from my kids’ daycare to my office over the past three mornings, I’ve been treated to one of the best investigative reports I’ve ever heard from a Maine journalist.

Maine Public Radio Deputy News Director Susan Sharon’s ongoing series “State of Withdrawal” examines Maine’s endemic opiate addiction problem, how it’s being addressed by government and health care providers, and what the effects of the treatment overhaul proposed by Governor LePage in his biennial budget would be.

Sharon’s interviews with addiction treatment and policy experts make clear that ending MaineCare coverage for more than 3,000 methadone patients and attempting to switch them over to other drugs likely won’t help those who are in treatment, won’t necessarily save the state any money, and may not be possible at all.

Yesterday’s segment examined how the plan collides with health research, good public policy and the pure pharmaceutical limitations of the drugs in question. Today’s segment examines the logistics of Suboxone treatment, including investigating the LePage administration’s assertion that there are 118 physicians available to prescribe Suboxone in Maine.

Other reporters have quoted experts who refute this claim, but have largely left it as a he said/she said disagreement. Sharon, on the other hand, actually contacted those supposed providers. She found that fewer than fifteen would even accept new patients, and some of those had waiting lists and other restrictions. She proved that the state’s estimation that each physician could serve 100 patients to accommodate those cut off from other treatment options is absolutely ridiculous.

The piece even includes audio from some of those Doctors’ answering machines and you can hear them turning away new patients in their own words.

“For these and other reasons, treatment providers say there’s no way the state’s plan can work,” Sharon concludes. “Even if all 3,000 methadone patients wanted to switch to Suboxone, there aren’t enough doctors willing to prescribe it.”

There’s a lot more to this story. I hope Sharon is able to address, among other topics, the broader potential effects of suddenly cutting off so many opiate addicts from treatment.

The report continues tomorrow with a segment featuring the voices of addicts themselves. You can get caught up right here.

Daily Brief: Corrections commissioner cracks down on jails hours after bill’s passage

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Good morning from Augusta, where there is little on the legislative docket today as lawmakers wrap up their winter break. Committees resume on Monday with a series of public hearing scheduled by the Appropriations Committee and others. But more on that in your Monday State & Capitol Daily Brief, which in case you didn’t know by now can be sent directly to your email inbox at a few minutes past 8 a.m. every weekday. 

Just because the halls of the State House will be relatively quiet doesn’t mean there will be no action in Augusta. The Maine Education Association, the labor union that represents the state’s teachers, will hold a press conference later this morning about Gov. Paul LePage’s biennial budget proposal. LePage and the MEA see eye to eye on very little and the union, which doubles as a powerful lobbying force in Augusta, has been mostly against LePage’s education agenda since he took office. 

The LePage administration has been arguing correctly that state appropriations for education are proposed to go up slightly in the next two years, but the budget basically flat-funds K-12 public education while requiring towns and cities to raise more at the local level before state funding fully kicks in. The MEA is expected to make an argument that we’ll be hearing for months: As austere as the budget for the next two years is, the two years after that will be even leaner if LePage’s proposal to reduce the income tax becomes reality. 

LePage has been unapologetic to the MEA or local schools and part of his cost-cutting strategy is to lower taxes at all levels by forcing municipalities to cut spending by trimming and consolidating local services. Educators and municipal leaders, who have been tightening their fiscal belts since the 2008 financial meltdown, argue that there’s little left to cut without carving into programs and services. 

This will be quite a fight. — Christopher Cousins

LePage family tree has a branch in Connecticut

The Hartford Courant reports that LePage is scheduled to headline Bristol, Connecticut’s Lincoln Day Dinner on March 26. The tradition among Connecticut Republicans dates back to 1860 when then-President Abraham Lincoln made an impromptu tour through the state to campaign against slavery and in favor of Connecticut Republicans.

That’s the interesting part if you’re a history buff. Here’s the interesting part if you’re a political buff:

According to the Courant, LePage’s wife, Ann LePage, is a first cousin to Roxanne Martin, who is married to Republican Connecticut state Sen. Henri Martin of Bristol.

The Lincoln Day Dinner will be held at a restaurant called Nuchies in Bristol. Tickets are $50. — Christopher Cousins

Ranked choice voting advocates gearing up for intense campaign

The Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, which conducted a successful petition drive that will force a statewide referendum on the issue this year or next, is taking steps not unlike a major political candidate would take in the run-up to an election.

The committee announced Thursday that it has rented space in Westbrook’s historic Dana Warp Mill building on the banks of the Presumpscot River. The office will serves as the committee’s headquarters from which it hopes to train a volunteer army of at least 1,000 door-knockers by the end of this year. If successful, the drive would drastically change the way we elect state officials in Maine, allowing voters to rank candidates in order of preference. Ballot counters would resort to lower-preference votes in rounds of counts that would eventually lead to an at least 50 percent majority for a single candidate.

The political action committee has registered with the Maine Ethics Commission and reported nearly $60,000 in donations in 2014, according to its latest report, including about $6,300 in the fourth quarter. Most of the donations listed on the latest report were relatively small amounts given by individuals from Maine and other states.

Some of the group’s larger donations were received late last year during the scramble to collect signatures. They included $4,000 from Cara McCormick of Cape Elizabeth, who is the committee’s treasurer; $20,000 from The Chamberlain Project PAC of South Portland; $5,000 from William Hastings of Falmouth; $1,500 from Ronald Bancroft of Cumberland Center; $10,000 from Horace Hildreth Jr. of Falmouth; and $1,500 from Thomas Platz of Auburn.

In addition to the cash rolling in, the committee has momentum in terms of support. It collected the signatures it needed to force the referendum — well more than 60,000 — in about 10 weeks beginning on Election Day 2014. — Christopher Cousins

DOC chief intervenes on county jail problem

On Feb. 13, the Legislature and Gov. LePage enacted a bill that essentially cut the state’s Board of Corrections out of the oversight of county jails, at least until the end of the fiscal year, and provided about $2.5 million in emergency funding. The bill appointed the Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick or his designee to oversee the dispersement of the money and other matters.

Later that day, Fitzpatrick sent a letter to county sheriffs, urging their cooperation on sharing bed space — i.e., jails with fewer prisoners accepting prisoners from other counties — which has been a source of conflict among the jails for years.

“It seems to be challenging for some counties to cooperatively collaborate around the use of available beds within the county jail system,” wrote Fitzpatrick. “It has also come to my attention that recently, some counties are requesting the removal of inmates sent to them by other county jails due to a lack of bed space at the sending facility. … I do not believe the county system has a lack of bed space; however, there does appear to be a lack of cooperation amongst some counties.”

Fitzpatrick called for a meeting of sheriffs and jail officials, but only if all of them would come to the bargaining table. — Christopher Cousins

Reading list Prone to amendments

Rep. Will Tuell, R-East Machias, comes from the part of Maine that has a lot of snow. That’s a relative term in a year such as this, but Washington County is verifiably buried to the record-breaking point.

Speaking of breaking points, the students of Washington County might be at theirs sometime in June when they’re still making up snow days.

Tuell, a freshman lawmaker, has sponsored a bill to avoid that by allowing schools to add an extra hour to their days now in order to trim full days from the end of the year.

The Legislature would be wise to move quickly on this bill as the snow continues to pile up (there’s more in the forecast for this weekend and next Wednesday!) so schools can take full advantage.

And Tuell would be wise to keep his amendment pen at the ready. At this rate, schools might have to consider adding two hours a day if they want to be in summer vacation by Independence Day. — Christopher Cousins

Poliquin comes out shooting on gun rights

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Republican Congressman Bruce Poliquin announced Thursday that he has co-sponsored a bill that among other things would expand the number of states where Mainers can carry concealed weapons.

The bill, H.R. 986, is not yet written but has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee. According to Poliquin, it would allow people from states where concealed carry permits are allowed, to cross state borders and have their permit be valid in other states that allow concealed carry permits.

“Mainers have a tradition of using their firearms responsibly and should be able to defend themselves and their property as they travel,” said Poliquin in a prepared statement.

Poliquin is among 78 cosponsors of the bill, all but one of whom are Republicans. That’s a sign that the measure won’t attract support from Democrats, most important of which is President Barack Obama, who holds veto power. The bill is likely a non-starter, but one which Poliquin and others will be able to reference in the future to illustrate their stance against gun control.

According to details about the concept from Poliquin’s office, the bill would retain states’ rights to determine their own concealed-carry laws and make concealed carry a judicially enforceable civil right, which among other things means attorney and court fees would be available to plaintiffs and defendants. It also includes provisions of the Firearm Owner Protection Act, which among other things allows, under certain conditions, “safe carry” of concealed weapons through state where concealed carry permits are not legal.

Gun control is one area where politicians are judged decisively by many constituents. It was also a sore spot for Poliquin during last year’s congressional campaign. In the 2014 primary, the National Rifle Association endorsed Republican Kevin Raye, partially because of a $500 donation Poliquin made in 1989 to an organization known as Handgun Control, Inc., which later became The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Poliquin also said during a 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary debate that he supported mandatory background checks for gun purchases.

Regardless, Poliquin holds a lofty “A-minus” rating from the NRA and says despite his statement during the 2010 debate, he does not support expanded background checks for firearms purchases nor any kind of federal directory of gun owners.

However, he may remain vulnerable on this issue among Republican voters. In November 2014, gun-rights activist and Republican-turned-independent Blaine Richardson, who supports full constitutional carry, earned 11 percent of the vote in the 2nd Congressional District. Though Poliquin still managed to best Democrat Emily Cain by 5 percentage points, Richardson or any conservative candidate who can pull 10 percent or more of the vote represents a serious threat to Poliquin’s re-election.

Poliquin is doing best to portray his position in black and white terms.

“As a Mainer, I appreciate and understand the importance of the Second Amendment for our hard-working taxpayers and I will always support and defend their Constitutional right,” he said in a prepared statement.

A measure to overhaul Maine’s concealed weapon permit and reciprocity laws, LD 222, was approved by lawmakers in 2014 but was killed after being vetoed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage. 

Morning Briefing 2.19.15: Pivots, reversals & guns

Press Herald Politics -

Mike Allen, the governor’s tax policy adviser, testifies before the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee alongside budget chief Richard Rosen.

Good morning and, for some of you, happy shoveling.

Thursday marks the third consecutive day of public hearings on the governor’s budget and related tax overhaul before the Legislature’s budget and taxation committees. The hearings have been linked to specific portions of the budget and the tax plan in particular.

Tuesday’s hearing was devoted to the sales tax and income tax portion of the budget, although there will be additional hearings on the elimination of sales tax exemptions next week. Wednesday’s hearing brought out a slew of town officials protesting the governor’s plan to eliminate municipal revenue sharing.

Thursday’s hearing will focus on a variety of elements, including the eventual phase-out of a business equipment tax reimbursement program that is popular with large employers. Gov. Paul LePage proposed a similar initiative in his 2013 budget. The business community did not like it. Not at all. The governor said during his Jan. 9 budget briefing that he believed businesses will be more receptive to this proposal. We’ll find out soon.

Also on Thursday, lawmakers will hear public testimony on the governor’s plan to remove property tax exemptions for certain nonprofit organizations. There is little doubt that this provision will generate opposition from hospitals, private colleges, summer camps and on and on. LePage has contended that his income tax cut will lead to a flood of charitable giving, thereby helping nonprofits replace the money paid in property taxes. However, that claim is disputed.

There are no scheduled committee meetings or hearings on Friday.

Pivot

It’s been noted many times that the governor’s tax plan has put Republicans in a tough spot because they’ve been asked to support a tax change concept similar to one from 2009 that they successfully fought to repeal a year later.

But there have been pivots and reversals within the LePage administration, too.

Take Jonathan LaBonte, the mayor of Auburn and the governor’s director of the Office of Policy and Management. In 2013, LaBonte and a coalition of mayors held a press conference at the State House to oppose the governor’s plan to eliminate revenue sharing. The coalition even supplied a list of alternatives to the cut, including … wait for it … suspending the 2011 income tax cuts. To be fair, LaBonte has long been advocate of consolidation of municipal services, including plans between his home city of Auburn and neighboring Lewiston, so it’s not like he’s doing a complete flip-flop here. However, his opposition to the revenue sharing cut in 2013 and his advocacy for it now, has left him vulnerable to criticism.

Interestingly, the mayors coalition also expressed support for L.D. 1496, the so-called Gang of 11 tax reform plan drafted by former independent state Sen. Dick Woodbury, of Yarmouth. Like the governor’s proposal, Woodbury’s plan reduced the income tax and paid for it with increases in sales, meals and lodging taxes. Woodbury’s plan also expanded the list of services subject to the sales tax. While reducing the income tax was one of the goals of Woodbury’s plan, so was reducing property taxes. Woodbury’s plan did not eliminate revenue sharing.

Reversal

As noted here on Tuesday, Woodbury has written that the governor’s plan is the best hope for tax reform. David Sorensen, the former communications director for the Maine Republican Party now working at the Department of Health and Human services, took notice and promoted Woodbury’s Press Herald op-ed on Twitter.

Now flashback to 2012. Woodbury was hammered with a barrage of attack ads by Republican PACs attempting to link him to the 2009 reform bill, claiming that he voted to raise taxes on services (Woodbury supported the bill, but wasn’t in the Legislature to vote for it.). The Maine Republican Party sent mailers claiming that their candidate, Chris Tyll, fought to repeal the reform law.

Constitutional carry

There have been a number of attempts over the past several years to do away with the law that requires resident to obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon. There’s another one in the works.

The libertarian group Campaign for Liberty has been soliciting support for L.R. 280, a draft proposal to eliminate the permit requirement. An email from the campaign urges supporters to contact their local legislators and urge them to sign on as co-sponsors. The deadline to do so is Feb. 26.

Brent Tweed is the state coordinator for the Campaign for Liberty. If his name sounds familiar, it’s probably because Tweed helped lead the takeover of the 2012 Republican State Convention during which supporters of presidential hopeful Ron Paul secured the majority of delegates over supporters of Mitt Romney.

 

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