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Lobbying by Washington state drugmaker pays off in budget bill

Press Herald Politics -

WASHINGTON — Tucked in the massive congressional budget bill is a provision that props up the price Medicare pays for a handful of medications, costing taxpayers millions at a time when the Trump administration is vowing to reduce the cost of prescription drugs.

Lawmakers acted after a lobbying campaign by a small Washington state pharmaceutical company called Omeros. Its main product is a drug called Omidria, used by hospitals in cataract surgery, which had recently lost a coveted Medicare reimbursement status. Individuals associated with the company also stepped up their political contributions.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the fourth-ranking House Republican, took the issue to Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., securing a place for the drug provision in the 2,232-page spending bill signed Friday by President Trump, aides said. The provision restores the drug’s expired reimbursement status for two years, making it more lucrative for hospitals to continue using it.

The targeted provision succeeded even as broader health care measures failed to make the cut in the budget bill, from legislation to stabilize insurance premiums under the Affordable Care Act for millions of consumers, to a drug-industry backed effort to roll back recent changes that shift some Medicare costs to pharmaceutical companies.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates the pricing break for the Omeros drug and three products from other companies will cost taxpayers $26 million over 10 years, taking into account long-range effects.

Speaker Ryan and Rep. McMorris Rodgers said they acted to preserve patients’ access to an innovative drug.

Getting the change was a major priority for Omeros and its CEO, Gregory Demopulos.

“Our frustration, shared by physicians nationwide, remains patients’ restricted access to Omidria following its pass-through expiration on Jan. 1,” Demopulos said in a recent news release.

Legislative watchdog to investigate log diversion by LePage administration

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A political dust-up over lumber is headed to the state’s watchdog agency.

Members of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee voted Friday to ask the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability to look into suggestions that the LePage administration may be playing favorites with timber harvested on state-owned lands.

Gov. Paul LePage, meanwhile, said he strongly supports an independent OPEGA investigation into what he dismisses as “unfounded claims” against his administration by members of the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee.

“The committee has insinuated that something illegal has occurred, so I would like the Government Oversight Committee to step in, investigate and set the record straight,” LePage wrote in a letter Friday to committee leaders.

The issue centers on LePage’s outspoken support for ending U.S. tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber and his administration’s dealings with mill owners critical of his stance.

In February, the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands diverted wood away from the Moose River Lumber and Pleasant River Lumber mills owned by Jason and Chris Brochu. The diversion took place several months after the Brochus publicly accused LePage of pursuing a “Canada-first” policy at the expense of Maine’s lumber mills as he urged President Trump to end new tariffs on lumber from Quebec and New Brunswick.

During a tension-filled meeting on Tuesday, LePage accused members of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee of engaging in a “witch hunt.” LePage said a logging equipment fire was causing an emergency shortage of wood supply at the Canadian-owned Stratton mill, prompting the temporary diversion from the Brochus’ mills.

“Folks, I have had zero involvement,” LePage said during the Tuesday meeting. “I have bigger fish to fry than to worry about what wood goes to any one mill.”

But the timing of the diversion invited suggestions of retaliation against the Brochus. The issue is also highlighting long-standing frustrations between LePage and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who view his administration as uncooperative and unresponsive to questions.

Sen. Tom Saviello, a Wilton Republican and former forester who has repeatedly clashed with LePage over the years, said LePage will likely never allow department staff to testify to the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee. That’s because LePage has a policy of requiring all legislative questions to be routed through his office and often declines lawmakers’ requests to have administration officials appear before committees.

OPEGA, on the other hand, can compel departments to produce documents or provide witnesses through subpoenas. Government Oversight Committee members also cited concerns about the LePage administration’s transparency later Friday when directing OPEGA to review the Maine Department of Labor’s rocky roll-out of a new unemployment claims system.

On the lumber issue, Saviello said it was unclear what happened with the wood because the administration has yet to answer the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee’s questions.

“I could not find that any laws were violated. We looked hard,” said Saviello, who sits on both committees. “What I could find was that a bad business decision was made, which was picking winners and losers with our public wood, which I don’t think is appropriate.”

In his letter to the Government Oversight Committee, LePage also singled out Saviello and Sen. Paul Davis, a Sangerville Republican who also serves on both committees, including as co-chairman of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee.

“Since Senator Saviello and Senator Davis have information that is critical to refuting the claims by the committee, they clearly have a conflict of interest in this matter,” LePage wrote. “Therefore, I ask that these senators recuse themselves from any deliberations of the committee about this issue. However, both Senators Saviello and Davis should make themselves available for questioning under oath in any Government Oversight Committee investigation of this matter.”

Sen. Roger Katz, an Augusta Republican who co-chairs the Government Oversight Committee, appeared to reject that suggestion, however.

“The members of this committee will not be under oath,” Katz said. “That is confusing what our role is.”

Democrats running for Congress state positions at Bates College forum

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LEWISTON — Taking the stage at Bates College on Thursday, a quartet of 2nd District Democratic congressional hopefuls sounded pretty friendly with one another and not too different in their stances on the issues of the day.

They basically like unions, want to expand the Medicare system to cover everyone, support greater measures to deal with climate change and favor more immigration. But they especially promise to do whatever they can to stifle most everything that President Donald Trump seeks.

Still, there were a few issues on which the four contenders — Lewiston state Rep. Jared Golden, Monroe carpenter Jonathan Fulford, Islesboro bookstore owner Craig Olson and nonprofit executive Lucas St. Clair — staked out stances that didn’t quite match up.

St. Clair, for example, was the only one to decline to endorse a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage, calling it “an arbitrary number” that might thwart economic growth in some parts of the country.

Alone among the four, Fulford said he would endorse turning the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument into a national park. The others said the timing isn’t right, including St. Clair, who spearheaded creation of the preserve.

But the candidates’ positions laid out at the 110-minute forum sponsored by the Androscoggin County Democratic Committee and Bates Democrats clearly had far more in common than the paltry items dividing them.

The four are vying for the right to challenge U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, who has represented Maine’s 2nd District since 2014, when he narrowly defeated Democrat Emily Cain for an open seat. Two years later, he beat her again, by a wider margin.

But despite Poliquin’s success on the campaign trail, Democrats see him as vulnerable in an election in which GOP lawmakers may struggle to hang on if special election results around the country are any indication of slipping fortunes for Republicans.

Golden, the assistant minority leader in the state House, said one thing voters can count on from him is that he already has a solid record of legislative achievement, something the rest of the field can’t match.

“I am ready to beat Bruce Poliquin,” Golden told the audience of about 50 people. “I’ve got the experience and the record and I know what leadership is all about.”

Democrats hope to tap into a national effort to recapture the House from the GOP. The House Majority PAC, which has close ties to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has already announced plans to spend $43 million this year in the effort.

Party leaders have said the unpopularity of both Trump and the GOP’s unsuccessful effort last year to repeal the Affordable Care Act have left incumbent Republicans from many districts vulnerable, including Poliquin.

The Washington Post reported this month that the Democratic political action committee has already reserved $1.7 million worth of possible television advertising time on stations in Portland, Bangor and Presque Isle — a move it can reverse if it decides the money would be better spent somewhere else.

Brent Littlefield, a Poliquin campaign consultant, said Thursday that “out-of-state groups aligned with San Francisco liberal Nancy Pelosi are spending millions of dollars trying to fool the Maine people into defeating” the two-term incumbent.

“Those are the rules” that both sides have to play by, St. Clair said, pointing out that he can’t coordinate with any outside spending organization, whether he likes it or not.

He said he’s not happy about all of the money flowing into politics and opposes the Citizens United decision that opened the floodgates for more spending. St. Clair said all of the cash pouring into races is “the biggest corruption” of politics since the dawn of the republic.

But, St. Clair said, the GOP shouldn’t be worrying about the money. It ought to be concerned about “the terrible decisions” Congress is making for ordinary Americans.

Littlefield said that Democrats “claim to care about issues, but they only care about politics and electing any one of the individuals in this forum who will simply do their bidding.”

If they didn’t care about the issues, they sure did a good job of acting passionate about them.

Olson said the country has to do better on the international stage.

“We basically have an amateur in the White House,” Olson said. Calling Trump “a fairly cowardly” leader, he insisted “there are no adults in the room who know what they’re doing and that is my biggest concern.”

“We have to find a way to lead with diplomacy and not with war,” Golden said.

Fulford said the Paris Accord, the worldwide pact dealing with climate change that Trump rejected, is “critical to the future of the planet.”

They hailed Maine’s new immigrants, praised teachers, fretted that poor decisions on tariffs could set off a trade war, called for better background checks for gun buyers, bemoaned the nation’s failure to take care of veterans properly and vowed to try to obtain a federal law that would stop states from imposing anti-union, “right to work” statutes.

Any one of them, said county Chairwoman Elaine Makas, would be a big improvement over Poliquin.

The new ranked-choice voting system that will be in place for the primary — the first time in American history that it will be used for a congressional election — provides an incentive for candidates to get along with one another, experts said.

To come out on top, they may need to attract the second-place votes of supporters whose own candidates fall short in the first or second round of ballot counting.

The winner of the primary will get the opportunity to take on Poliquin in the Nov. 6 general election. In addition to the major party candidates, there will likely be at least one independent in the race, lawyer Tiffany Bond.

After earlier veto threat, Trump signs $1.3 trillion spending bill

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Just hours after threatening a veto, President Trump said Friday afternoon that he had signed a “ridiculous” $1.3 trillion spending bill passed by Congress early Friday and averted a government shutdown.

In a morning tweet, Trump said he might veto the omnibus bill because it does nothing to address the fate of young undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers” and does not fully fund his border wall.

But speaking to reporters at the White House about four hours later, Trump said he had decided to sign the bill despite his reservations, arguing that it provides much-needed funding for the military, including a pay increase for troops and new equipment.

“My highest duty is to keep America safe,” Trump said. “We need to take care of our military.”

Still, he voiced disdain for the way the hasty way the bill was passed.

“I say to Congress, I will never sign another bill like this again,” Trump said, also calling on Congress to give him a line-item veto, a tool that the U.S. Supreme Court has said is unconstitutional for the president.

“There are a lot of things that I’m unhappy about in this bill,” he said later in his meandering 20-minute remarks, telling reporters that he had “very seriously” considered a veto.

The announcement, which Trump teased in a separate tweet an hour before it began, capped off a wild morning in the White House and on Capitol Hill. Several aides scrambled to convince the president not to follow through with his threat.

In his Friday morning tweet, Trump said that those protected from deportation by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program have been “totally abandoned” by Congress, and he blamed the Democrats.

Trump, who decided last fall to end the DACA program, was seeking a deal that would give Democrats protections they sought for the program’s recipients in exchange for additional funding of $25 billion for his long-promised U.S.-Mexico border wall. The bill includes a minor down payment of $1.6 billion on his marquee campaign promise.

“I am considering a VETO of the Omnibus Spending Bill based on the fact that the 800,000 plus DACA recipients have been totally abandoned by the Democrats (not even mentioned in Bill) and the BORDER WALL, which is desperately needed for our National Defense, is not fully funded,” Trump said in his tweet.

In his remarks, at the White House, Trump said he was disappointed in the level of border-wall funding but pledged to do as much as possible with it and to seek more money from Congress.

Saying he was addressing Hispanics, Trump argued his party was more interested in the fate of “dreamers” than Democrats.

“Republicans are much more on your side than the Democrats, who are using you for your own purposes,” the president said. His aides have argued Democrats are trying to use DACA as an election issue.

People familiar with Trump’s thinking said the president was frustrated with the bill and the coverage it was receiving, particularly on Fox News, where critics took aim at the level of spending in the bill.

“He doesn’t care as much about the spending levels, but he knows all of his conservative friends do,” said a senior White House official, who requested anonymity to speak more candidly.

Lawmakers have left town on a two-week recess, some of them on overseas trips and with no plans to return to Washington. The House passed the bill midday Thursday, and the Senate cleared the measure shortly after midnight.

Trump had until midnight Friday to sign a bill or a government shutdown would ensue.

The legislation funds the federal government for the remainder of the 2018 budget year, through Sept. 30, directing $700 billion toward the military and $591 billion to domestic agencies. The military spending is a $66 billion increase over the 2017 level, and the non-defense spending is $52 billion more than last year.

The spending bill is widely expected to be the last major legislation that Congress will pass before the November midterm elections, which had increased pressure to jam the bill full of odds and ends, with provisions addressing everything from gun safety to invasive carp.

The lack of an immigration deal in the spending bill had set already set off a round of recriminations, with the White House aggressively trying to deflect responsibility for the failure.

Trump’s veto threat only intensified the blame game on Friday morning.

“Let’s not forget that you ended DACA and torpedoed every possible bipartisan fix. This is on you,” Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) said on Twitter.

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) accused Trump of making a “loser’s bluff.”

“Go ahead and veto the omnibus over DACA. We dare you,” Pocan said on Twitter. “Everyone knows you’re the reason DACA recipients are abandoned.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers who opposed the spending bill on other grounds used the occasion to urge Trump to follow through with his threat.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), head of the hard-right Freedom Caucus, urged Trump to veto the bill. “The@freedomcaucus would fully support you in this move, Mr. President. Let’s pass a short term [continuing resolution] while you negotiate a better deal for the forgotten men and women of America.”

Also urging Trump to veto the bill was Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who in a tweet Friday morning said: “Please do, Mr. President. I am just down the street and will bring you a pen. The spending levels without any offsets are grotesque, throwing all of our children under the bus. Totally irresponsible.”

Before the Senate’s early-morning vote Friday, Corker had complained about the process of rushing the bill through Congress.

Several other conservative lawmakers egged Trump on Friday morning, complaining about the amount of spending and the rushed process. But there is no indication that Trump shares those concerns.

Instead, in his veto threat Friday, Trump proposed something that conservative hard-liners have largely rejected in recent months — trading dreamer protections for border wall money. Conservatives, emboldened by a White House proposal released in January, have insisted that any immigration deal go farther, cutting several programs that allow foreign nationals to live in the U.S. legally.

Other senior Republicans began making their own Twitter pleas urging Trump to sign the bill. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, rattled off several policy wins in a Friday tweet directed at the president, including a gun-related measure long championed by the Texas Republican that was included in the 2,232-page spending measure.

“While (Democrats) obstructed normal appropriations process, forcing an Omnibus, the benefits of Omnibus to national security, border security, opioid crisis, infrastructure, school safety and fixing gun background check system are important and will save lives. @realDonaldTrump,” Cornyn tweeted Friday.

“Art of the deal wrecker,” was how Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) sized up the president’s veto threat Friday morning. He urged the president to sign the bill.

“One day after his own (Office of Management and Budget) director said he would sign it, that he’s now saying he’s thinking about vetoing it,” Kaine told reporters. “What, does he just want to create more confusion and chaos? I don’t get it.”

Kaine said Trump’s professed concern about DACA recipients is not sincere because he walked away from an offer from Democrats weeks ago to protect them in exchange for more border security funding.

“He was the one who poured cold water on it and killed it among the Republicans just a month ago,” Kaine said.

“I hope he doesn’t do it. That’s my reaction,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), of Trump’s threat.

“I don’t think what we did was the best thing we could have done,” he added. “But it was the only thing we could have done. So to veto it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

“This is classic Trump,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). “He says one thing and then he does something completely different.”

Van Hollen added, “He’s actually one of the worst negotiators I’ve ever seen.”

Although Trump aides declared Thursday that Trump intended to sign the bill, there were signs of his displeasure with various aspects of it.

On Wednesday, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) rushed to the White House to reassure Trump.

The president was upset with the amount of money for his border wall, and he griped about a proposed tunnel between New York and New Jersey — a project beloved by Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) — that Trump has ferociously tried to block as part of the negotiations.

Veto threats were made then, too, but after conversations with Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the White House issued a statement saying Trump supported the bill.

“Is the president going to sign the bill? The answer is yes.” Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, told reporters at the White House on Thursday afternoon.

On Thursday, the White House also issued a lengthy release titled, “The American People Win as President Donald J. Trump’s Priorities are Funded,” with a long list of specific items in the massive legislation.

Asked about the president’s tweet on Friday, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said in a statement: “The tweet stands for itself.”

Josh Dawsey, Erica Werner, Sean Sullivan and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.

Maine Labor Department’s new unemployment system to be investigated

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AUGUSTA — The Government Oversight Committee has voted 8-2 to take up an investigation into the bungled implementation of the Labor Department’s new unemployment system and accusations that claims documents and pleas for help were ordered destroyed by top management.

Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, co-chairman of the joint Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development spoke Friday morning before the Government Oversight Committee describing what he has heard from constituents and whistleblowers within the department and asked the committee to support the launching of an investigation into the department and into the Office of Information Technology.

Rep. Ryan M. Fecteau, D-Biddeford, speaking before the Government Oversight Committee on Friday. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

“The bottom line is there are allegations from whistleblowers, former and current employees at DOL and OIT, and there is information coming from the department that conflict. I’m not saying who is right and who is wrong. The bottom line is that we need an investigation,”Fecteau said during the session. “(We need) an independent investigation where we’re able to retrieve emails and communications internally from the department that clarify whether or not the department has done something negligent in launching the system prematurely and destroying voicemails and documentations from claimants who are having issues.”

Fecteau formally requested the oversight committee launch an investigation Thursday in a letter, in which he stated that he and Sen. Shenna Bellows heard from constituents and whistleblowers within the department, who said morale was low because they were not allowed to help claimants. His letter also states that a former employee at the Office of Information Technology noted that an internal audit warned of faults with the system, known as ReEmployME.

“The issues reported by both claimants and whistleblowers raise many questions and concerns about the development and rollout of the unemployment online portal and the efficacy of delivering services to claimants,” Fecteau’s letter states.

The votes against launching the investigation came from Rep. Paula Sutton, R-Warren, and Rep. Jeffrey Pierce, R-Dresden.

This story will be updated.

Emily Higginbotham — 861-9239


Twitter: @EmilyHigg

More investigations loom for busy Maine government watchdog

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Good morning from Augusta. The Maine Legislature’s watchdog committee may be busier after Friday morning, when they’ll meet to consider two new requested probes from lawmakers on the state’s allocation of timber from public lands and the unemployment system.

Those new investigations are likely to pass the committee. The timber review is being requested by the Legislature’s forestry committee after a tense Tuesday hearing where Gov. Paul LePage clashed with Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, who has led the inquiry.

The Republican governor denied that the state diverted timber from public land away from two millowners because of political differences on new softwood tariffs, but he also implored the panel to send the issue to the Government Oversight Committee — which runs the independent Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

The unemployment review could be more partisan. It’s being requested by Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, after issues began in December with Maine’s new online unemployment system. Earlier this month, the Morning Sentinel published a memo saying the Maine Department of Labor destroyed complaints about the system and rolled it out despite employees’ concerns.

Labor Commissioner John Butera responded with a letter on Thursday to the committee that denied that documents were destroyed inappropriately and decried “unsubstantiated allegations generated by legislators and the media.”

The Government Oversight Committee is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, but two moderate Republicans serve on it — Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta, the co-chairman, and Saviello. That means it’s not hard to get investigations through the panel.

And the watchdog arm is already busy investigating Maine’s child welfare system, with minor updates expected today. OPEGA is tracking toward a May report detailing the state’s involvement with two families before the February death of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy in Stockton Springs and the December death of 4-year-old Kendall Chick in Wiscasset and another, more time-consuming report on Maine’s child welfare system at large.

On Friday, the committee is expected to authorize subpoenas for school and state information in those cases. Earlier this week, Katz said at least one education official asked to be subpoenaed for information amid concerns that handing it over voluntarily would violate federal privacy laws.

House rebuffs bid to slow minimum wage hikes

After a long debate, the bill went predictably down — largely along party lines. The House on Thursday voted 81-69 to reject a bill by Rep. Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, that would slow and block annual increases in the minimum wage approved by voters in a 2016 citizen initiative. Democrats and independents voted against the measure.

Floor debate went on for more than an hour, with the bill’s supporters arguing that it causes employers to reduce hours for minimum-wage employees and discourages them from hiring students. Opponents countered with reminders that Republicans blocked previous efforts to increase Maine’s minimum wage, spurring the ballot question.

The bill heads to the Republican-led Senate, where it may pass. But even so, its chances are slim amid House opposition. Expect to hear a lot more about it on the campaign trail in 2018.

Today in A-town

There’s a public hearing on a bill to continue funding a child abuse prevention program. The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee will take testimony on a bill from Rep. Pinny Beebe-Center, D-Rockland, that would continue funding a $2.2 million child abuse prevention program that the LePage administration has said it will end in September.

It has gotten bipartisan support after the uproar over the Kennedy and Chick cases, with six Democrats and three Republican leaders — Senate President Mike Thibodeau of Winterport, Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling of New Gloucester, and Assistant Senate Majority Leader Amy Volk of Gorham on the list of co-sponsors.

Reading list
  • Republicans who want to run against U.S. Sen. Angus King tangled Thursday. State Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn filed a complaint with the secretary of state’s office, accusing his opponent, Max Linn, of submitting bogus signatures — including those of dead people — to qualify for the primary ballot. Linn shot back with a complaint alleging that a person who notarized signatures for Brakey’s ballot petition had been convicted of rape in Rhode Island. Public hearings on those complaints will take place within the next week.
  • All but four Maine counties gained population in 2017. These were only modest gains, but they’re still improvements over 2016, when northern Maine counties lost population. York and Cumberland counties saw the biggest year-over-year gains, with Penobscot growing by a slim 442 people. Aroostook, Franklin, Piscataquis and Somerset counties continued to shrink.
  • A Maine expert says a trade war with China could stunt Maine exports. In recent years, trade between Maine and its top trading partner, Canada, has declined and trade with China has increased. Now, the the former president of the Maine International Trade Center says President Donald Trump’s new plan to slap $60 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods could have a “strong negative impact” on Maine exports.
  • Lawmakers overrode a LePage veto of a bill requiring Maine insurance carriers to pay for services from naturopathic doctors. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, will require insurers to pay for health care provided by licensed naturopaths, who often offer alternative recommendations to health issues, such as herbal remedies, massage and meditation. There are about 50 naturopaths in Maine.
Does Maine need another license plate?

A student-led group, Maine Community Energy Advocates, has launched a campaign for yet another specialty license plate in Maine. The state has specialty plates to raise money for conservation, sportsmen, agriculture, fighting breast cancer, supporting troops and the university system, among other causes.

The latest specialty plate proposal would support community energy projects with a message to “Sustain Maine.” It’s got a nice ring to it, and the image of pine trees growing out of a light bulb fits the theme. Click here to learn more.

License plate design and messaging has long been a contentious issue in Maine. The introduction of a red lobster in the late 1980s engendered a chorus of derision, ranging from complaints about inaccurate depictions of the crustacean’s anatomy to the fact that a red lobster is dead. There’s even a song about dead lobsters on our plates.

The choice of a chickadee in the late 1990s elicited squawks that the bird was too delicate to represent such a burly state. Some said putting a loon on conservation plates in the early 1990s was, well, loony. Moose advocates clamored for decades to include an antlered behemoth on a specialty plate before finally winning a spot in the early 2000s, albeit shared with a fish.

A French horn player I once knew took matters into his own hands. He very carefully edited the “Vacation Land” message on his plates to read “Taxation Land.” Here is his soundtrack. — Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

Never having sent a woman to Congress, Vermont hits last place

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MONTPELIER, Vt. — Vermont, considered by many to be one of the most liberal states in the country with a higher-than-average percentage of women serving in the state Legislature, is the only state to have never sent a woman to Congress.

Vermont fell to the bottom of the women-in-Congress list Wednesday when Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant appointed fellow Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith to temporarily succeed retiring GOP Sen. Thad Cochran; she will face at least two opponents in a nonpartisan special election in November to complete the term Cochran started, which expires in January 2021.

Former Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin, a Democrat and the state’s first female chief executive, called it “a little embarrassing to be beaten out by Mississippi.”

Deb Markowitz, who served 12 years as Vermont’s secretary of state and then six as the secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources under Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin, said there is little turnover in the state’s congressional delegation, all of whom serve the state well.

Vermont, with a population of about 625,000, is the second-least populous state in the country, meaning it has only one at-large representative to the U.S. House.

Nevertheless, Markowitz tweeted Thursday, “We have a great delegation – but when there is a vacancy, count me in!”

Markowitz, who is now teaching at the University of Vermont, said after she tweeted that she missed public service and didn’t believe the lack of women in Congress meant the state’s voters were hostile to women. Democratic U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy was first elected to the Senate in 1974. Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders was elected to the Senate in 2006, after serving in the U.S. House, the post to which he was first elected in 1990.

Vermont’s lone U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, the newcomer to the delegation, was first elected in 2006. In that race, Welch defeated his Republican opponent, former Vermont National Guard Adjutant General Martha Rainville, the first woman to lead a state national guard.

Despite the lack of women in Congress, Vermont’s political bench is filled with possible female candidates. A survey of women in state legislatures shows that 40 percent of the members of the Vermont Legislature are women.

House Democrats oppose bill to rein in minimum-wage increases

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AUGUSTA — House Democrats rejected a proposal on Thursday to slow down the minimum wage increases approved by Maine voters and to establish a lower training wage for young workers.

In November 2016, Maine voters approved a ballot initiative that increased Maine’s minimum wage in annual steps until reaching $12 an hour in 2020. While supporters have hailed the voter-approved law as a long-overdue step toward living wages in Maine, some businesses have warned the size and pace of the increases could force them to increase prices, reduce employees’ hours or lay off workers.

A controversial bill pending in the Legislature, L.D. 1757, would freeze Maine’s current minimum wage at $10 until 2020 and then increase the wage annually by 50 cents an hour, compared to the $1-per-hour increases approved by voters. The latest version would also create a special “youth wage” equivalent to 80 percent of the minimum wage for workers under age 18 during their first 200 hours of employment.

On Thursday, the House voted 81-69 largely along party lines against the bill after lengthy debate.

Bill sponsor Rep. Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, said Maine “cannot afford to do nothing” in the face of rising labor costs that are harming small businesses, especially those in rural Maine. Recalling some of the testimony shared with the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, Stetkis talked about businesses laying off employees or reducing worker hours and benefits because of the higher wage costs associated with the November 2016 ballot initiative.

“I think today the question is do we believe what all of these people are telling us?” Stetkis said. “And secondly, what are we willing to do about it?”

But Democrats and independents pointed out that employment numbers and wages are both up in Maine since the referendum, facts that they say undercut the gloom-and-doom predictions of wage hike opponents.

Rep. Ryan Fecteau, a Biddeford Democrat who co-chairs the labor committee, pointed out that the majority of voters in 13 of Maine’s 16 counties – including nine counties that supported President Trump – voted in support of the minimum wage referendum.

Rep. Kent Ackley, I-Monmouth, criticized bill supporters for once again trying to rewrite a referendum passed by Maine voters. Lawmakers tweaked the minimum wage law last year to reinstate the so-called “tip credit” for restaurant workers and have delayed implementation of marijuana legalization in the state.

“These are the same citizens who, in the face of gridlock in Augusta, exercised their constitutional right to use the citizen’s initiative process to create law,” Ackley said. “And that was because the leaders here could not do so.”

The bill will likely receive stronger support in the Republican-controlled Senate but appears dead in the face of strong Democratic opposition in the House.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:


Twitter: KevinMillerPPH

LePage nominates four judges to the Maine District Court bench

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AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage nominated four people, including his chief legal counsel, to be Maine District Court judges Thursday.

LePage nominated Brent A. Davis, Tammy Ham-Thompson, Stephen D. Nelson and Lea-Anne Sutton to the district court posts.

Brent A. Davis of Skowhegan, LePage’s chief legal counsel, previously served as assistant district attorney and first district attorney for the Somerset and Kennebec County District Attorney’s Office, according to a news release from the governor’s office.

Tammy Ham-Thompson of Gardiner has served as a family law magistrate for the district court since 2016. She previously was a partner at Farris Law, handling family law and general litigation cases for 12 years.

Nelson of Houlton is an attorney with Severson, Hand & Nelson practicing family law, small business representation, civil litigation and estate planning/probate administration. He provides legal representation to victims of domestic violence through the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians domestic violence program.

Sutton of Gorham works in the Maine Attorney General’s Office, serving as a felony drug prosecutor in the Criminal Division, and is assigned to the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office. She has worked for the Attorney General’s Office since 1995 and was the department’s employee of the year in 2009. Sutton has also served as an instructor at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.

LePage also nominated Judge Andre G. Janelle, Judge Bernard G. O’Mara and Judge Patricia G. Worth to serve as active retired judges for the district court.

Janelle of Saco has served in district court since 1986; O’Mara of Dyer Brook since 2003; and Worth of Belfast since 2000.

The nominees face confirmation hearings before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, followed by confirmation votes in the Senate.

Davis is the third staff attorney from the governor’s office to be nominated to the bench by LePage.

The governor previously appointed Daniel Billings, now a superior court justice in Lincoln County, and Cynthia Montgomery, a district court judge in Portland, to the bench. Another former LePage attorney, Carlisle McLean, was appointed by LePage to serve on the Maine Public Utilities Commission. McLean resigned from the PUC in June of 2017 to take a job with Central Maine Power Co.’s parent company, Avangrid.

Mike Cianchette, another former LePage attorney, was a naval officer who deployed to Afghanistan and returned to work in the private sector following his deployment while former LePage attorney Avery Day, also resigned from LePage’s office in 2016 to return to the private sector.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:


Twitter: thisdog

H.R. McMaster out as Trump’s national security adviser

Press Herald Politics -

WASHINGTON — President Trump is replacing national security adviser H.R. McMaster with the former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, injecting a hawkish foreign policy voice into his administration leading up to key decisions on Iran and North Korea.

Trump tweeted Thursday that McMaster has done “an outstanding job & will always remain my friend.” He said Bolton will take over April 9.

Bolton will be Trump’s third national security adviser. Trump has clashed with McMaster, a respected three-star general, and talk that McMaster would soon leave the administration had picked up in recent weeks.

His departure follows Trump’s dramatic ouster of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week. It also comes after someone at the White House leaked that Trump was urged in briefing documents not to congratulate Russian President Vladimir Putin about his recent re-election win. Trump did it anyway.

In a statement released by the White House, McMaster said he would be requesting retirement from the U.S. Army effective this summer, adding that afterward he “will leave public service.”

The White House said McMaster’s exit had been under discussion for some time and stressed it was not due to any one incident.

I am pleased to announce that, effective 4/9/18, @AmbJohnBolton will be my new National Security Advisor. I am very thankful for the service of General H.R. McMaster who has done an outstanding job & will always remain my friend. There will be an official contact handover on 4/9.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 22, 2018

Bolton, probably the most divisive foreign policy expert ever to serve as U.N. ambassador, has served as a hawkish voice in Republican foreign policy circles for decades. He met with Trump and White House chief of staff John Kelly in early March to discuss North Korea and Iran. He was spotted entering the West Wing earlier Thursday.

Bolton has served in the Republican administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, and served as a Bush lawyer during the 2000 Florida recount.

A strong supporter of the Iraq war and an advocate for aggressive use of American power in foreign policy, Bolton was unable to win Senate confirmation after his nomination to the U.N. post alienated many Democrats and even some Republicans. He resigned after serving 17 months as a Bush “recess appointment,” which allowed him to hold the job on a temporary basis without Senate confirmation.

Tension between Trump and McMaster has grown increasingly public. Last month, Trump took issue with McMaster’s characterization of Russian meddling in the 2016 election after the national security adviser told the Munich Security Summit that interference was beyond dispute.

“General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems,” Trump tweeted Feb. 17, alluding to frequent Republican allegations of impropriety by Democrats and Hillary Clinton.

Tillerson’s exit also forecast trouble for McMaster, who had aligned himself with the embattled secretary of state in seeking to soften some of Trump’s most dramatic foreign policy impulses.

McMaster told The New York Times last year that Trump’s unorthodox approach “has moved a lot of us out of our comfort zone, me included.”

The military strategist, who joined the administration in February 2017, has struggled to navigate a tumultuous White House. Last summer, he was the target of a far-right attack campaign, as conservative groups and a website tied to former Trump adviser Steve Bannon targeted him as insufficiently supportive of Israel and not tough enough on Iran.

McMaster was brought in after Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was dismissed after less than a month in office. White House officials said he was ousted because he did not tell top advisers, including Vice President Mike Pence, about the full extent of his contacts with Russian officials.

Democrats slam Sen. Collins over ACA stabilization comments, votes

Press Herald Politics -

Maine Democrats on Thursday attacked Republican Sen. Susan Collins for failing to secure “promises” from Republican leaders for votes on Affordable Care Act stabilization measures in return for her votes to pass the Republican-led tax reform bill approved in December.

Collins, meanwhile, was making a last-minute pitch on the Senate floor to include the ACA measures attached to an omnibus spending bill. The measures failed to make it in the House version of the bill, but the Senate could be considering the ACA provisions Thursday night.

Democrats charged Collins with being deceptive.

“Not only did Senator Collins fail to follow through on her promises, but she gave away tax breaks to the rich that should have gone to middle-class Mainers and now she’s sticking us with the bill in the form of higher health care premiums,” Maine Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett said in a statement. “She should have just voted against this fiasco last December rather than deciding that making nice with President Trump was more important than advancing better policy for Mainers. But because of her bad judgment and her bad deal for Mainers, we’re now stuck having to deal with the consequences.”

According to The Hill newspaper on Thursday, Collins said she was able to secure other amendments to the tax reform bill, including preserving some deductions for state and local taxes.

“I was able to prevail on all of those and that was sufficient for me to vote for the bill,” Collins told reporters on Thursday. “The idea that this was the one and only issue, and that there was some kind of deal, is not an accurate assessment of what happened.”

In December, however, Collins said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s support for her ACA measures was key to her vote to support a federal tax reform package that cleared the Senate.

“Having secured these key improvements in the bill, as well as the commitments to legislation to help lower health insurance premiums, I will cast my vote in support of the Senate tax reform bill,” Collins said in a prepared statement before the vote. “As revised, this bill will provide much-needed tax relief and simplification for lower- and middle-income families, while spurring the creation of good jobs and greater economic growth.”

Collins reiterated her position a week before the final vote on the tax bill late in December.

“If this commitment is not kept to me, believe me, there will be consequences. There really will be,” Collins told the Press Herald. “I mean, I can’t not have the commitment happen.”

In a Senate floor speech Thursday afternoon, Collins urged lawmakers to include the ACA stabilization measures in the omnibus bill.

The House refused to put the ACA measures in the bill after objections by conservative Republicans over “bailouts” for insurance companies and by Democrats opposed to restrictions in the bill limiting abortion coverage.

But Collins said the Senate should include them.

“It is the right thing to do and it is urgent we do it now,” Collins said.

Collins said the measures, which include funding the “cost-sharing reduction” payments to insurance companies that the Trump administration ended last year, plus $30 billion over three years for reinsurance, will help reduce premiums by “up to 40 percent.”

Collins said the ACA stabilization will include funding the “cost-sharing reduction” payments to insurance companies that the Trump administration ended last year, plus $30 billion over three years for reinsurance, which would help reduce premiums by “up to 40 percent.”

“Let me be crystal clear. Our proposal is the last opportunity to prevent these rate increases from going into effect,” Collins said. “Our package will help to stabilize the insurance markets and make them more competitive.”

The official Congressional Budget Office report on the ACA measures, released this week, showed that although those earning more than 400 percent of the federal poverty level – about $81,000 for a family of three – would see their premiums decrease if the Collins-led measures were included in the omnibus, many earning under that amount who qualify for subsidies under the ACA would see premium increases.

Collins wasn’t available for comment Thursday afternoon.

This story will be updated.

LePage slams municipal group as ‘enemy of elderly’ over foreclosure bill changes

Press Herald Politics -

Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday lambasted a legislative committee for watering down a bill he initiated to try to protect the elderly from tax lien foreclosure and urged Mainers to contact legislators.

LePage also went after the Maine Municipal Association, which he said “has proven that it is the enemy of the elderly in Maine” by supporting the altered version of the legislation.

“This is not about Democrats or Republicans. This should be about common decency to older people who are vulnerable,” the governor said in a phone interview Thursday before releasing comments in a written radio address and letter.

Since the bill, L.D. 1629, has gone through the Joint Standing Committee on Taxation, it now goes to the speaker of the House, who could call for a vote, and then it would go to the Senate.

“I’m just going to fight,” LePage said in the interview. “If it gets defeated, I’ll campaign for the rest of the year against those who defeat this.”

Asked to respond to LePage’s comments about the association, Executive Director Stephen Gove issued a statement saying the group differs with LePage on the best way to address the issue of property-tax pressure on senior citizens.

“MMA is cautiously optimistic that the full Legislature, like the legislative committee that heard extensive testimony, including from municipal officials, on this bill, will also see that the current property tax system is administered fairly and evenly at the local level,” Gove said in the statement. “The current, amended version of L.D. 1629 includes improvements that MMA supports. We regret it when we read and hear that differences over public policy proposals result in name calling and disparaging comments. MMA will not go there.”

LePage initiated the bill, “An Act to Protect the Elderly from Tax Lien Foreclosures,” after an Albion couple, Richard and Leonette Sukeforth, lost their home on Lovejoy Pond to foreclosure. The town sold the property — worth $70,000 to $80,000, according to LePage — for $6,500 in a sealed-bid auction even though a neighbor offered to pay the back taxes and submitted a bid of $6,000.

The buyer evicted the couple, who are in their 80s, while Leonette Sukeforth was sick and in a hospital bed in the home, demolished the house and constructed another building there. The couple now are in a nursing home.

LePage personally intervened when he heard about the matter and tried to help the couple but was unsuccessful, as all the proper legal avenues were followed in the case.

LePage’s bill had sought to ensure that municipalities help homeowners file for an abatement if they face foreclosure and advise them of the right to seek help through the state’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection to connect with someone who would work with the municipality on the homeowner’s behalf. LePage even mentioned the Sukeforth case in his last two State of the State addresses before the Legislature.

The taxation committee discussed the bill at length in several sessions and ultimately voted Feb. 27 to water down the language before sending it to the full Legislature.

The committee removed much of the bill’s language, including the provision that if a home is foreclosed on, the property may be listed for sale and must be sold by an independent licensed broker at fair market value or at a price which the property is anticipated by that broker to sell within 90 days. It also dropped language saying that if a property is sold, the homeowner would get the proceeds of the sale beyond what is owed the town in taxes, interest and fees.

Some committee members said the bill would require municipal officials to do work beyond their training and cost money. They also said towns already help homeowners who have trouble paying their taxes. They asked for numbers of people foreclosed on in such situations, saying they were not convinced there is a widespread problem.

But LePage maintains that if it happens to one person, that is too many and that municipalities should always work with the person.

Related Elderly couple’s eviction from Albion home draws LePage’s ire

LePage said foreclosures such as the Sukeforths’ happen with elderly people who own their homes but get ill and have to decide whether to pay their taxes or buy food and medicine, and then they lose their homes.

“To me, it’s just sinful because it’s just a small group of people who have never been in debt, don’t want to be in debt and are taken advantage of,” LePage said Thursday in a phone interview.

He said he plans to talk with both House and Senate Democrats and Republicans to urge them to vote appropriately on the bill.

LePage said a town could do a reverse mortgage and have the owners borrow money against the house to pay taxes.

“The town never loses money because once there’s a lien on the house, it can’t be sold until the taxes are paid,” he said.

LePage claims a municipality would be made whole if it follows some simple steps he recommends in the bill, and a homeowner would receive equity in his home that he has built up over years.

He said the committee watered the bill down and wanted to include only some additional notification in the process.

“Instead of truly helping the elderly — like my bill would have done — they are doing just enough to check the box and make it look like they have taken action to help our seniors,” his letter says. LePage noted that Pine Tree Legal Assistance, Legal Services for the Elderly and the Maine Council on Aging all testified in support of the bill and that the amended version “is nothing more than a feel-good attempt to make it look like they really are helping the elderly.”

He said the Maine Municipal Association is funded with taxpayer dollars, “but MMA always fights against any initiative that would actually benefit hard-working, property-tax payers. It is a clear conflict of interest.”

Gove, of the municipal association, said municipalities provide crucial services that in many cases are mandated by the federal and state governments.

“Municipalities fund fire and police response services, maintain and plow our roads, hold local elections and provide many other services that Mainers simply cannot live without,” he said. “These services, plus public school funding and county assessments, must be paid for, and property taxes are the primary way that local officials can do so under Maine law. Finally, MMA is a voluntary, membership organization. We are incredibly proud that 485 towns and cities in Maine choose to be members. It is our privilege to serve the local elected officials and their employees, who are the beating heart and soul of government in Maine.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247


Twitter: @AmyCalder17

U.S. Senate candidate says Maine primary opponent’s petition signatures are invalid

Press Herald Politics -

The U.S. Senate campaign of Eric Brakey is challenging the validity of a Republican opponent’s paperwork to qualify for the primary ballot this June, saying the nomination petitions include signatures of dead voters and many duplicates.

In a formal complaint, Brakey political director David Boyer alleged that candidate Max Linn’s petition sheets contain at least four deceased signers, more than 200 duplicate signatures and several “inconsistencies” by one of the notaries. Boyer’s complaint, filed Thursday with Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap’s office, states that the “duplicates, forgeries and altered petitions invalidate enough of Mr. Linn’s 2,248 signatures to preclude him from the Republican primary ballot.”

Candidates seeking their party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate race must collect at least 2,000 signatures from registered voters. The deadline to submit petition signatures was last Thursday, and Dunlap’s office certified that Linn had submitted 2,248 signatures.

Dunlap’s office will now review the petition sheets.

Brakey and Linn are vying for the opportunity to challenge independent U.S. Sen. Angus King in the general election. Brakey is a libertarian Republican who currently represents the Auburn area in the Maine Senate. Linn is a financial planner living in Bar Harbor.

This story will be updated.

House approves $1.3 trillion measure that bolsters defense, domestic programs

Press Herald Politics -

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House has easily approved a bipartisan $1.3 trillion measure handing huge spending increases to defense programs and domestic initiatives ranging from road-building to biomedical research.

Thursday’s vote was 256-167. That shipped the 2,232-page package to the Senate.

Passage there is assured. But some Republican senators upset that the measure spends too much could delay the bill. The question is whether it will be approved before midnight Friday.

If it isn’t, that would force the year’s third government shutdown. That would likely be brief, but still embarrass Republicans controlling the White House and Congress.

The bill provides just $1.6 billion to start building pieces of President Trump’s wall with Mexico and for other border security steps. But it doesn’t temporarily extend protections against deportation for young Dreamer immigrants.

This story will be updated.

White House readies tariffs on China, which says it will defend itself

Press Herald Politics -

WASHINGTON – The Trump administration is readying restrictions on Chinese investment and tariffs on nearly $50 billion worth of Chinese imports to punish Beijing for stealing American technology and pressuring U.S. companies to hand it over.

China is already warning that it will take “all necessary measures” to defend itself, raising the prospect of a trade war between the world’s two biggest economies.

The White House says President Donald Trump will direct the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to publish a list of proposed tariffs for public comment within 15 days. USTR has already identified potential targets: 1,300 product lines worth about $48 billion. The president is also asking Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to come up with a list of restrictions on Chinese investment.

This story will be updated.

Septuagenarian smackdown? Trump, Biden trade fighting words

Press Herald Politics -

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are in a rhetorical smackdown over who could clean the other’s clock in a brawl.

Trump, reacting to comments Biden made about him earlier in the week at an anti-sexual assault rally, tweeted Thursday: “Crazy Joe Biden is trying to act like a tough guy. Actually, he is weak, both mentally and physically, and yet he threatens me, for the second time, with physical assault. He doesn’t know me, but he would go down fast and hard, crying all the way. Don’t threaten people Joe!”

At the University of Miami on Tuesday, Biden cited lewd comments the Republican president made in a 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape about grabbing women without their permission.

“If we were in high school, I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him,” said Biden, a Democrat. He also said any man who disrespected women was “usually the fattest, ugliest S.O.B. in the room.”

Biden, 75, made similar comments in the closing days of the 2016 campaign. He has kept open the possibility of a 2020 bid for president and is gearing up to play a big role campaigning for Democrats running in this year’s midterm elections.

Trump, 71, dismissed the prospect of a Biden run recently at the annual Gridiron Dinner with Washington journalists, calling him “Sleepy Joe” and saying he could “kick his ass.” Trump also attacked Biden on Twitter in 2016, calling him “Our not very bright Vice President.”

Lawmaker seeks formal investigation into handling of Maine unemployment system

Press Herald Politics -

An official investigation into the Maine Department of Labor’s botched roll out of the unemployment insurance filing system has been requested by a state legislator after a leaked confidential memo outlined how the department rushed to implement the new system and destroyed records of their failure in what was described as a “coverup.”

Meanwhile, it was rumored that the department was finally going to respond to allegations of the failed rollout, which has left countless Mainers unable to access their benefits, as well as allegations of high ranking officials ordering that records of claimant complaints be destroyed. On Thursday morning, no such message had been released.

Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, co chair of the joint Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development, requested that the Government Oversight Committee launch an investigation into the department and the Office of Information Technology on Thursday. The GOC meets on Friday, when it would presumably decide whether to investigate. In his letter to the GOC, Fecteau states that he and state Sen. Shenna Bellows heard from constituents and whistleblowers within the department, who noted low morale caused by an inability to properly help claimants. His letter also states a former employee at the Office of Information Technology noted an internal audit warned of faults with the system, known as ReEmployME.

“The issues reported by both claimants and whistleblowers raise many questions and concerns about the development and rollout of the unemployment online portal and the efficacy of delivering services to claimants,” Fecteau’s letter states, and goes on to state that by only allowing claimants to file their work search histories online, the department was violating federal law. “States must comply with the requirements of federal unemployment insurance law as a condition of receiving federal UI administrative grants, thus these issues also place the state at financial risk.”

Fecteau makes it clear he believes there needs to be an independent investigation conducted by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, which conducts objective and independent performance audits of state government programs.

“The need for an investigation by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA) into MDOL and OIT as it relates to the unemployment consortium is abundantly clear,” Fecteau writes. “The investigation should consider all the issues raised in this memo, but should consider additional aspects of the consortium’s development, rollout and post-launch, as well as MDOL’s staffing levels within the Unemployment Insurance (UI) system that are not contemplated in this request.”

This  internal confidential memo written by an unidentified Department of Labor employee contains allegations that department officials were involved in destroying documents from unemployment claimants requesting help.

The GOC is the body that would call on OPEGA to conduct an investigation. Fecteau said for an expedited investigation to be launched, two-thirds of the GOC would need to support it.

In his address to the chairs of the oversight committee, Fecteau said he had held off the official request to give the Labor department a chance to release their statement.

“I have yet to see this memo and it is unlikely that it would contain information that would warrant not moving forward with this request,” Fecteau writes. “In fact, just this week, we have learned that 150 claimants were overpaid by the Department and yet another Department employeee contacted Senator Bellows reinforcing concerns raised in the attached request. An independent investigation is necessitated in scenarios like this one where whistleblowers and agencies present conflicting accounts of the impacts on our neighbors.”

Even had the Labor department finally addressed the allegations, Maine labor officials never responded to questions regarding the botched rollout of ReEmployME, or the allegations that high ranking department officials ordered that records of claimant complaints against them be illegally destroyed. The Morning Sentinel asked specifically about whether officials acknowledge the existence of the memo and whether John Feeney, the director of the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation directly implicated in the document, would appear before a state legislative committee to answer questions raised by the memo.

The Morning Sentinel recently obtained a classified document, which outlines the Labor Department rushing out the overburdened software and showing little or no concern for the Mainers impacted by the bungling. Neither has the labor department complied with multiple Freedom of Access Act requests from the Morning Sentinel for records and other information other than to acknowledge receipt of the requests.

“Someone needs to account for the failure,” the author of the leaked document says toward the end. “Thousands of dollars in temporary staffing and overtime are accruing because of poor planning and decisions that look a lot like coverups.”

The shortcomings of the system and allegations of records destruction have been discussed at length by the Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development, which is co-chaired by Fecteau and Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough. The committee met on Tuesday, and while they had been slated to talk about language updates to a bill regarding unemployment, the committee ultimately did not discuss or vote on it. The bill, LD 1770, is a housekeeping bill that updates language in the law. The committee likely will not meet until March 28.

Fecteau said members of the committee wanted to change an amendment that passed earlier, clarifying some requirements for the Labor department, specifically regarding alternative filing methods for work search history. Under ReEmployME, claimants would have to file their work searches online, which has proven to be problematic for older Mainers or those living in rural areas without reliable access to the internet or a computer. The changed language also reverts back to adopting the department’s request for charging former employers. Fecteau said while that version is not what they wanted, he acknowledged they would have to “give a little to get something in return.”

The department had called for all past employers within a given time to be charged proportionally. Democrats had proposed only charging the most recent employer.

All the while, Mainers are still calling out ReEmployME for its faults. Tina Christophersen, the director of the Oxford Hills/Nezinscot Adult Education, said the career center in Lewiston was providing unemployment assistance to claimants at the Norway library, sending one person for two days a week. However, that service went away, so Christophersen said their program began sending volunteers to the library to provide the assistance. They send one person for a single two-hour shift, and have been doing so since Nov. 1. She said they have helped 21 people file their claims, and in that time, she says they have seen virtually every fault alleged against the system.

“We’ve experienced the long waits, the inability to talk to anybody,” she said.

The claimants they help are “the same people we serve” at the adult education program, Christophersen said. They come because they can’t read, don’t have internet access or a computer.

“To have this dumped on them, it’s very frustrating for them,” she said. “Some come in close to tears.”

Christophersen said they will continue to provide volunteer help for claimants struggling with ReEmployME, but said it will become more challenging during the summer when the staffing gets smaller due to lack of programming.

“It was the right thing to do,” she said of providing the help. “These are the same people we serve. It didn’t feel right.”

Colin Ellis — 861-9253


Twitter: @colinoellis


Here comes the annual end-of-session flood of LePage bills

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Good morning from Augusta, where Gov. Paul LePage is hoping the second or third or fourth time is a charm for conservative initiatives that have previously failed, including a new bill to give his successor a raise from $70,000 to $150,000 starting next year.

LePage is flooding lawmakers with new bills. That’s even though there is less than a month left before the Legislature’s April 18 adjournment date and the “deadline” for legislative committees to finish their work is Friday. The governor issued a statement Wednesday about his bill to more than double future governors’ salaries but other proposals surfaced with far less fanfare. If some of them sound familiar, it’s because they are.

Right to work. The newest of the bunch would prohibit mandatory membership in a labor union as a condition of employment. LePage has said his many failures to make Maine a “right to work” state rank among his deepest regrets, though he gained ground on the issue last year when his administration negotiated contracts with two major unions that eliminated mandatory union fees for public employees.

Banning welfare for immigrants. Another brand new bill would repeal eligibility for food stamps, TANF, Supplemental Security Income and General Assistance for certain non-citizens who have “alien” status. Reducing services to immigrants and asylum seekers who have not yet attained residency is another issue LePage has dogged legislatively, through rulemaking attempts and in the courts. In January, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled the state can’t refuse food stamps to eligible asylum seekers.

Miscellany. In recent days LePage has also proposed changing residency restrictions for sex offenders, changing the standards for Maine’s proficiency-based diplomas, rehiring attorneys in the Department of Health and Human Services who were eliminated in last year’s budget negotiations, creating a public defender, and aligning rules for health and life insurance companies with federal law. That’s not all and there will surely be more, including the usual storm of vetoes.

Some of those have virtually no chance of passage given a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives that has solidly opposed similar measures in the past. So what’s the point? it’s an election year and both parties are pushing bills for the simple purpose of using opponents’ votes against them in this year’s campaigns. This is more of that.

This sets up attacks from LePage a couple of weeks from now about how the Legislature is inefficient and dragging its feet — another common refrain. The Legislature goes to three-times-a-week sessions next week and could be meeting every weekday soon. Committees can’t work when the House or Senate are in session and vice versa, so proposing new bills now can really gum up the works. Expect April to brim with triple-session days, late-night votes and possibly an extension of the session.

Seem familiar? It is. This maneuvering by the governor has become expected and it’s not over until the hammers drop on final adjournment. (Oh, and LePage is on his way out of office and he really wants this stuff. There’s also that. Here’s his soundtrack.)

House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, said LePage should be focused on problems like the opioid epidemic, workforce training and the state’s mental health system instead of “trying once again to argue battles that he has repeatedly lost.”

“The Legislature will remain focused on what we know Maine people need and look forward to wrapping up the final legislative session under his administration,” Gideon said.

Susan Collins’ health reforms have stalled … again

Changes backed by the Maine senator won’t be in a new budget bill. It was a whipsaw Wednesday for Collins, a moderate Republican who has pushed for changes to stabilize the Affordable Care Act alongside her support of Republicans’ tax bill passed in December that repealed the requirement that Americans have health insurance or face a penalty.

At first, Collins wanted those changes to pass as part of the tax bill. Then, she said they would be considered in January. On Wednesday, similar measures were omitted from the omnibus budget bill expected to pass on Friday, which Collins has called “the last opportunity” to stabilize the health care market and prevent premium increases.

Collins blamed House Speaker Paul Ryan for not including the changes amid Democratic opposition. Republicans got President Donald Trump on board with the changes, which would restart cost-sharing subsidies halted by Trump and allow states to start high-risk polls to cover costly claims. At a news conference on Wednesday, Republicans said Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, agreed with them.

They also decried that their bill had become partisan. Democrats have abandoned the bill over abortion language that they argue would expand an existing ban on federal funding for abortion coverage for a new pool of funding. Republicans, including Collins, said that argument was “phony” on Thursday, since that language is standard.

By day’s end, Collins hit Ryan on Twitter for not including the changes in the House version of the budget bill over opposition from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, calling it “extremely disappointing.”

It’s as unclear as ever if these will pass. Democrats are already using it to bolster past arguments that Collins’ original tax vote was based on a bad deal.

Today in A-town

It’s a busy day on the chamber floors. Several bills — most of them minor — are up for initial and enactment votes today in both the Senate and House of Representatives. Each chamber will also handle one LePage veto — one of a bill aimed at making insurers cover naturopathic services in the House and another bill on liquor licenses in the Senate. A symbolic rebuke of neo-Nazis is up in the House after passing the Senate on Tuesday.

Nine legislative committees are also in, highlighted by a meeting on utilities’ response to a powerful fall storm. The energy committee will continue its discussion on power companies’ response to a powerful October wind storm that knocked out power to 500,000 Mainers at its peak. The voting committee will discuss a bill intended to increase transparency around the backers of Maine referendums.

Reading list
  • Amid student protests, Mainers at a gun show highlighted respect for firearms. A Bangor Daily News reporter went to a weekend gun show in Orland and a Whitefield gun owner said we “don’t want to see this stuff going on,” referring to last month’s Florida school shooting, but also that kids protesting gun violence are “not aware of the good that guns do.”
  • Bucksport residents got a preview of a company’s plans to build a salmon farm on the site of a shuttered paper mill. The CEO of Whole Oceans gave a Tuesday presentation to residents on the company’s plans for a $250 million salmon farm announced in February that is expected to produce 5,000 tons of fish per year. The company is planning to discharge 4 million gallons of water per day into the Penobscot River, but that’s one-fifth of what the mill’s put out.
  • And Rockland is happy to shed its fishy reputation. A former mayor called the 1988 closure of a fish waste rendering plant the “pivotal moment” for Rockland, turning it from a pass-through city known for its smell to a tourist destination of its own. Here’s their soundtrack.
Wrong MJ, son

I was chatting with my boys about basketball yesterday and mentioned how Michael Jordan used to be able to run and jump from the foul line and dunk the basketball.

“Wow, could he really do that?” asked my 13-year-old, who plays basketball. “Wait, I thought Michael Jordan was that famous singer who died.”

It was like a gut punch. Do I really have kids who could confuse Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson? Apparently. I am a failure. Here’s my soundtrack.Christopher Cousins

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins and Michael Shepherd and edited by Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

LePage offers bill to more than double the pay of the state’s next governor

Press Herald Politics -

AUGUSTA – Gov. Paul LePage has again submitted a bill to boost the salary for Maine’s next governor, which at $70,000 a year is the lowest of all 50 states.

LePage’s proposal, announced Wednesday, would more than double that salary, boosting it to $150,000 a year.

“The Governor of the State of Maine is the Chief Executive of our state, and the compensation for the office should be competitive to attract the best talent,” LePage said in a prepared statement. “Maine deserves a governor with executive leadership experience who is in the prime of their career. Leaders who would make excellent governors have told me they won’t consider running because of the pay cut. Competitive compensation is good public policy.”

Previous efforts to boost the governor’s salary, which hasn’t changed in over 30 years, have failed. The most recent effort occurred in 2017, with a bill offered by Rep. Brad Farrin, R-Norridgewock.

LePage has also previously complained to talk show radio hosts that his salary is so low he feels like a “priest or a nun.” In 2016 LePage proposed increasing the governor’s salary to $150,000 and, in a separate bill, proposed increasing the pay for state lawmakers by 25 percent while also cutting the number of seats in the Legislature.

LePage proposed 100 or fewer seats in the House and 25 or fewer in the Senate, a move that would have required a change to the state’s constitution. The House now has 151 members, while the Senate has 35. Legislators serve two-year terms and receive stipends of $14,074 a year for the first session and $9,982 a year for the shorter, second session.

Most of LePage’s senior staff members make far more than their boss, although the governor is afforded living expenses and a home next to the State House.

The governor’s current salary is about $17,000 above Maine’s median household income of $53,079. Under state law, governors also are allotted a $35,000 annual personal expense account that is not subject to audit by the Legislature, bringing the governor’s total compensation package to over $100,000 a year. Governors also live without rent, utility or food expenses while at the official residence.

Beyond the expense account, governors are also afforded sizable benefit packages. In 2016, LePage’s annual compensation package included a $15,809 health insurance plan, $3,717 toward his retirement, $814 for life insurance and a $315 dental insurance policy.

LePage appears to be sweetening the deal for lawmakers, who would have to vote on a pay increase for the next governor, by increasing their meal and lodging allowances. His bill would raise the meal and lodging allowances from $70 a night to $125 a night. The current lodging expense is capped at just $38 a night, which LePage called “outdated.”

“While serving as an elected official is meant to be an act of public service, we should not expect legislators who travel great distances to Augusta to represent their communities to have to dig into their own pockets to cover the costs of staying overnight rather than drive several hours back home each day,” LePage said.

If approved by the Legislature, LePage’s bill would also likely boost the retirement pay for all of Maine’s surviving former governors, including LePage, once he leaves office. Under state law a retired governor who has reached the age of 60 is paid 3/8ths the salary of the current governor. An increase to $150,000 a year means retired governors or their surviving spouses would see their retirement pay more than double, going from $26,250 to $56,250 a year.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:


Twitter: thisdog

LePage’s bill to limit local control of pesticide use appears headed for defeat

Press Herald Politics -

AUGUSTA — A bill proposed by Gov. Paul LePage that would prevent Maine municipalities from limiting or banning pesticide use appears headed for defeat after a legislative committee voted against it Wednesday.

About 20 people spoke at a two-hour-plus hearing by the State and Local Government Committee, fairly evenly split between opposing viewpoints. Supporters of the bill said local pesticide regulation is unnecessary and bad for business, while opponents believe pesticides are dangerous and need to be regulated more stringently.

Among those who spoke against the bill were residents of some of the 30 Maine municipalities that have passed local ordinances to restrict pesticide use. Some of these ordinances date back more than a decade, but others are so new they haven’t gone into effect yet.

Portland agreed to a ban on synthetic pesticides this year, and just last week, Porter became the 30th town in the state to establish its own pesticide regulation.

Pesticide use has been linked to human health problems, including cancers, but also to the well being of ecosystems, from pollinators to fresh- and salt-water creatures affected by runoff from the land.

The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association spoke against the bill, as did environmental groups such as the Natural Resource Council of Maine and Friends of Casco Bay.

Those who spoke in favor of the bill included farmers Penny Jordan, of Cape Elizabeth, and Lisa Turner, of Freeport, as well as the executive director of the Farm Bureau, Julie Smith.

Proponents of the bill, which was presented by state Sen. Tom Saviello, a Republican from Wilton, said the existing municipal ordinances and others like them would jeopardize businesses, including conventional farms that rely on pesticides for higher, more market-ready yields of fruits and vegetables.

“What is at stake are hundreds of good jobs,” said Bob Mann, a lobbyist for the National Association of Landscape Professionals. He said pesticide use should be determined at the state or federal level. Maine, which adheres to the home-rule principle – whereby local governments can self-regulate – is “fertile ground for anti-pesticide activism,” Mann said.

But members of the committee cited home rule in voting against LePage’s bill.

“I don’t think anyone around this horseshoe wants anyone to go out of business,” said state Rep. Richard Pickett, R-Dixfield, gesturing at the committee’s table. But, he added, “Home rule is a very important thing to me.”

Pickett pointed out that he’d already voted against a similar bill in the last session. The bill under consideration closely replicates another pesticide bill LePage unsuccessfully pushed for in 2017 that strongly resembled model legislation crafted by the conservative, business-backed American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC. In May 2017, the same committee voted unanimously against LePage’s original attempt to limit the rights of municipalities to ban pesticides.

“I thought if there was a bill that would come back before us again it would be different,” Pickett said. “But we virtually had almost a duplicate bill and that troubled me.”

Two out of 11 committee members present voted in favor of the bill: Sen. Lisa Keim, a Republican from Oxford, and Lester Ordway, a Republican from Standish. Keim proposed it pass with an amendment allowing for the Maine Board of Pesticide Control to have time to review and advise local ordinances relating to pesticides. Ordway was in favor of it passing without an amendment. The committee will review Keim’s amendment before making a final recommendation to the full Legislature.

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:


Twitter: MaryPols


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