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Daily Brief: Lawmakers give friendly reception to LePage nominees and booking your campsite now

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Good morning from Augusta, where the snow is once again falling. It was bound to be a quiet day at the State House anyway, with the Legislature and all of its committees off until next week when the pace of lawmaking will quicken noticeably. 

There’s no word yet (as of about 8 a.m. Friday) on whether the weather will lead to closures at state office buildings today, but stay tuned to State & Capitol for updates.

 

And for your information, the Bangor Daily News has a growing list of statewide weather-related cancellations here. Bookmark the site. It’s much quicker to scroll through a list than wait for your event to crawl across the bottom of your television screen, especially when cancellations number in the hundreds. 

One more reminder before we get to some news nuggets: If you haven’t signed up for the State & Capitol Daily Brief to come directly to your email box every weekday, here’s where to get it done

Two LePage nominees sailing through confirmation process

Gov. Paul LePage has run into trouble in the past with some of his nominations to government committees and public organizations. Those include when LePage tapped former Republican state Rep. Jonathan McKane of Newcastle for the Dirigo Health Board of Trustees. That ended in McKane, a well-known and outspoken conservative activist, withdrawing himself from consideration in March of 2013 after being rejected by legislative Democrats on the Insurance and Financial Services Committee.

In September 2014, LePage’s choice of Susan Dench of Falmouth for the University of Maine System board of trustees was also rejected, again behind the votes of Democrats who argued her views were not right for that board. The contentious Senate vote proved to be a bitter day for the 126th Legislature, just about a month before last year’s election.

Despite those examples, many of LePage’s nominees have encountered little resistance and his two most recent are no exceptions. On Thursday, LePage’s nomination to the Public Utilities Commission of his chief legal counsel, Carlisle Tuggey McLean, breezed through the Senate with a unanimous vote. McLean is one of two people LePage will nominate this year to the three-member commission, which is now chaired by one of his earlier nominees, Mark Vannoy. The powerful PUC, which oversees the state’s energy sector, will be central in LePage’s ongoing efforts to sway energy policy in Maine, which he has said repeatedly is his priority.

Also having an easy breezy day Thursday in the confirmation process was Richard Rosen, LePage’s nominee to be commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Affairs. Rosen encountered no resistance in an interview with lawmakers on the appropriations and taxation committees. Rosen’s nomination will go to the Senate, likely next week.

One other pending nomination by LePage is Tom Desjardin, who the governor appointed as acting commissioner of education in late December, after the unplanned retirement of Commissioner James Rier for medical reasons. There has been no word on the timing of when Desjardin will begin the confirmation process, which consists of vetting by the State Board of Education and the Legislature’s Education Committee before a final vote in the Senate.

Environmental, conservation groups identify priorities

Members of the Environmental Priorities Coalition, a partnership made up of 31 organizations in Maine that collectively represent more than 100,000 members, gathered in Augusta on Thursday to list its priorities for the current legislative session:

  • “Keeping roads and wildlife safe” with the passage of a bond bill, sponsored by House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, that would help replace degraded and inadequate culverts throughout Maine;
  • Lowering energy costs for Mainers by passing another bond bill, sponsored by Assistant Senate Minority Leader Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick, that would support energy efficiency projects in Maine’s aging housing stock;
  • Protect natural resources with a Forest, Farm and Fish Bond, which would support the Land for Maine’s Future program. This bill is sponsored by Republican Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta.
  • Encourage private investments in solar power with the passage of a bill sponsored by Assistant House Majority Leader Sara Gideon, D-Freeport.
  • Update Maine’s endangered and threatened species list with the passage of a bill proposed by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
  • Protect Maine lakes and clean water with a bill sponsored by Rep. Gary Hilliard, R-Belgrade.

Many of these bills are still in the process of being written and typically, major bond bills aren’t debated or enacted — or fitted with price tags — until late in the legislative session.

Reading list Dreaming of spring

Sleeping outside in a tent might be one of the last things you want to do right now, but the Department of Agriculture and Forestry, Bureau of Parks and Lands urges you to plan ahead. The reservations office opens on Feb. 2 at 9 a.m. for Sebago Lake State Park, and on Feb. 9 for 12 additional state parks. You can make your reservations online.

It’s a perfect way to spend another snowed-in day.

Daily Brief: Richard Rosen confirmation hearings begin and dissing Dunkin’ Donuts

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Good morning from Augusta. The House and Senate return to the State House today for the first time in a week after having their absence extended by two days because of the weather. It’s going to be a busy day. 

Some of the more than 1,500 bills proposed by lawmakers and several dozen bills forwarded by state agencies are beginning to be published by the Revisor of Statutes’ office and as of Wednesday, more than 200 had been written. The two legislative chambers are busy accepting the written versions of the bills and referring them to committees. It’s about time for some debate to erupt around some early-season proposals. 

One way to monitor the goings-on in Augusta, other than the Daily Brief, is setting your alarm and checking out the House and Senate calendars, which are published every morning. In general, those daily agendas mirror what the two chambers do though legislative leaders can and do choose which items go forward and which are tabled on a minute-by-minute basis. The calendars also include notices you won’t hear about anywhere else. 

For example, this morning’s House calendar says that with Feb. 1 around the corner, a number of state agencies have submitted annual reports to the Legislature that are required by law and in some cases, barely read. They include the Washington County Development Authority, the Maine Public Employees Retirement System, the Maine Educational Loan Authority, the Small Enterprise Growth Board, the Maine Port Authority and the Efficiency Maine Trust. 

Richard Rosen in the hot seat

In May 2014, Gov. Paul LePage appointed former Republican Sen. Richard Rosen of Bucksport as the acting commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, which among a slew of other things is where LePage’s controversial biennial budget proposal was built. In January, LePage officially nominated Rosen for the position.

Today beginning at about 1 p.m., Rosen will sit before the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee for an extended interview that constitutes the beginning of his official confirmation process, which will end sometime in the coming days with a vote in the Senate.

Rosen, the former owner of a long-time department store in Bucksport that bore his family name, served seven terms in the House and Senate, including two years chairing the Appropriations Committee. He replaces Sawin Millett, who retired last year as one of the most respected Maine politicians and bureaucrats in recent Maine history. Rosen’s nomination is unlikely to meet much resistance unless lawmakers choose to make the conversation about the pending budget proposal and not the confirmation.

A close look at education funding

Many lawmakers, agencies and organizations have been slow to react to LePage’s biennial budget proposal, partially because of the complexity of the sprawling document and partially because they are reluctant to fire the first volleys in what for the most part has so far been a cordial 127th Maine Legislature.

LePage and his surrogates have said clearly that his budget essentially flat-funds K-12 public schools, but the Maine School Management Association says that’s not telling the entire story. In a bulletin posted on its website this week, the association details how expenses in the education sector are outpacing the money the state is spending on it. Furthermore, it details how the state is shifting education costs to towns and cities by requiring them to pick up more of the cost of education — they will pay an estimated $8.44 for every $1,000 of a town’s valuation, compared to the current $8.10 per $1,000 — in order to receive full state subsidy. That translates to tens of millions of dollars more on the backs of property taxpayers, though LePage has made it clear that it doesn’t have to be that way if municipalities instead choose to tighten their belts and make cuts.

The bare-bones increase in the cost of education in the coming two years is going up by about $68 million, according to the association, whereas the governor’s proposal increases aid by about $20 million. However, the governor has earmarked some of that money for special projects such as instituting a teacher and principal evaluation system and offering competitive grants to struggling schools.

Some of the projected, built-in cost increases for public schools include $10 million for special education (which is an estimate that could vary considerably); $38 million for operating costs, which includes salaries; more than $16 million in contributions to teachers’ retirements; and $6 million to support charter schools.

If this level of funding and the elimination of municipal revenue sharing go through as proposed by LePage, it’s going to be a tough budget year for many municipalities that could force some tough financial decisions, but that’s exactly what the governor wants.

The nonprofits are coming to Augusta

The Maine Association of Non-Profits is scheduled to hold an event in the first half of the day in the State House Hall of Flags. Various groups populate the Hall of Flags on a nearly daily basis during the legislative session, and use it as an opportunity to network with lawmakers, state staff and the public.

Given that one of the LePage budget’s most controversial proposals is for municipalities to levy property taxes on large nonprofit organizations, you can be sure that there will be some lobbying going on today.

Reading list He said WHAT?

LePage went on the Maine Public Broadcasting’s “Maine Calling” on Wednesday to defend his budget proposal and take questions from callers. He said something that would make most New Englanders cringe, but the question is could it have made a difference in the election if he’d said it a year ago?

“I don’t go to Dunkin’ Donuts,” said the governor. “I go to Tim Horton’s.”

Morning Briefing 1.29.15: LePage outtakes, buffalo doughnuts & gay marriage leader in Portland

Press Herald Politics -

Mic check and having a laugh with Mal & Jennifer on Maine Calling. #mepolitics #mainecalling #MPBN pic.twitter.com/HxWcAMBtMy

— Paul R. LePage (@Governor_LePage) January 28, 2015

Gov. Paul LePage participated in a wide ranging interview on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network call-in show Maine Calling on Wednesday (Listen on demand here). The governor hit a number of topics, but used the appearance — his first on Maine Calling — to plug his big tax plan and his two-year budget proposal.

The governor didn’t talk a lot about the sales tax increase in the budget, but did frame the initiative in a couple of ways that we’ll probably hear again. First, the governor, and his advisors, are rejecting the idea that his budget is a tax increase because its objective is a net tax decrease. This is a rhetorical device, but it does contain some truth. Yes, the governor is trying to reduce the income tax, and yes, his administration believes his plan will result in a $300 million reduction in tax burden for Mainers. But he is using a tax increase — sales taxes and increasing the number of goods services subject to the sales tax — to pay for part of the income tax cut.

Short of shuttering a state agency, or multiple state agencies, the sales tax increase and other measures are the only way to pay for his income tax reduction that will result in a $723 million loss in state revenue over the next two fiscal years.

Second, the governor is making the pitch that shifting the tax structure to a consumption based code is about individual choice. Here’s what he said:

“In order for us to be prosperous, in order for us to get out of poverty and into prosperity, we need to make some bold actions. And a bold action is — what’s the one tax that you have absolutely nothing to say about? It’s income tax. You never see it. You get your paycheck at the end of the week and it’s already gone. Sales tax, you have to make a decision. Property tax, you have to make decision. With income tax the decision is made for you. I’m trying to shift to a consumption tax, so you pay as you go. People say they’re tax breaks for the rich. Well, the guy buying the big yacht it going to pay a lot of sales tax.”

The governor also noted that eliminating the income tax is a long term goal. The proposed reduction over the next four years, he said, was as far as the state could go, but the objective remains the same.

* * *

Fun fact: LePage prefers Tim Horton’s to Dunkin’ Donuts. That explains why his state-issue SUV has been spotted many a morning at the Augusta Tim Horton’s.

His preference for the Canadian coffee and pastry chain over the New England coffee and pastry chain was revealed during an exchange with a Bar Harbor woman who called in to challenge his assertion that raising the minimum wage will hurt Maine seniors. So on what is he basing this claim? Just a guess, but he seems to be saying that raising the minimum wage will will cause retailers like Dunkin’ Donuts (or Tim Horton’s) to raise their prices and that will hurt people on fixed incomes.

The woman wasn’t buying it anymore than Gawker was buying Tim Horton’s Buffalo Crunch doughnut. That’s right, a doughnut that tastes like buffalo sauce.

Hungry? Me neither.

Here’s a SFW version of what Gawker wrote:

“This Frankenstein swimming pool, which is to be served exclusively at the New York State Fair this weekend, proves that Canadians have a bizarrely passive-aggressive but thoroughly performative sense of humo(u)r. … What are you guys doing up there? Leave our food mashups alone.”

* * *

LePage acknowledged Wednesday that there can be financial consequences for state agencies or institutions if they don’t meet his expectations. He said this was the case for the Maine Community College System. He said outgoing president John Fitzsimmons never responded to two key directives: Working with the University of Maine system on a way to transferrable credits with the community colleges and finding out ways ensure that high school graduates are prepared for community college.

LePage, who responding to Mal Leary’s question about why the governor flat-funded the community college system despite employers’ push for job ready graduates, said Fitzsimmons never came through.

“It was never done. That’s my problem,” LePage said. “Until you address some of the issues, you haven’t earned more money.”

* * *

 LePage also panned Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves job training initiative and “jobs tour.”

“We’ve been doing that idea for two years,” the governor said. “Now we need to do more. … It’s not getting your name in the newspaper. It’s sitting down and doing it. Go get the job done. We’re already doing what Mark Eves is talking about.”

Eves, in a statement, pushed back against the governor’s characterization, saying job training is a priority for the business community.

“I’m sorry to hear the Governor is not supportive of our common sense investment in growing Maine’s middle class.  I hope to change his mind in the coming months,” he said. “Investing more in training for our workers and partnering with business across the state to do so should not be controversial.”

He added, “Right now, Maine’s economy is lagging. We face a jobs gap and a wage gap. We need to do better,” said Eves. “We can start by listening to business and workers and building off the successful models like Pratt & Whitney’s public-private partnership with York County Community College.  These are the ideas that the experts on Maine’s economy and our business leaders are telling us will work.”

* * *

Democrats in House District 93 will caucus February 7 to pick their candidate for the upcoming special election. The election will be to replace Rep. Elizabeth Dickerson, D-Rockland, who moved to Colorado and formally resigned last week.

The election will be held March 10. According to press statement, Democratic candidates will be nominated from the floor during the February 7 caucus. The release also noted that four candidates have already expressed interest in running.

No word yet on the date of the Republican caucus.

* * *

 Marc Solomon, the Marriage Project director for Freedom to Marry, will visit the Glickman Library at the University of Southern Maine on Thursday to promote his book, which is apparently printed on a broadsheet to accommodate the title:  “Winning Marriage: The Inside Story of How Same-Sex Couples Took on the Politicians and the Pundits — And Won.”

Solomon, who was also on the steering committee for the Mainers United for Marriage campaign in 2012, will do a reading and book signing on the 7th floor of the library between noon and 1:30 p.m.

Portland’s welfare problem

Matt Gagnon - Bangor Daily News -

The headline was shocking: “Portland faces $6 million in annual General Assistance cuts under LePage budget.”

That headline is from an article on Monday from Portland Press Herald staff reporter Kevin Miller. It certainly got my attention.

What, I wondered, would cause such a draconian cut in funding to Portland in the budget? According to the story, Portland is in line to potentially lose up to $6 million in General Assistance funds if the governor’s welfare reform proposals in his budget are implemented. That is not an insignificant number.

General Assistance is a core welfare program that assists Maine people in paying for things such as food, medicine, fuel and rent. It is a core welfare program.

Cities and the state are collectively responsible for taking care of the needy through this program. The state pays for half of General Assistance costs for all municipalities up to a threshold, after which it begins paying 90 percent.  Most towns never hit the threshold. Portland not only exceeds that threshold, it crashes through it like Vince Wilfork trying to sack Russell Wilson this Sunday.

With the state paying the tab, there is very little incentive for larger cities to be judicious with its payouts. After all, they foot very little of the bill and can pass nearly all of the cost on to the state. They can spend indiscriminately without having to actually pay for it.

Still, most cities behave reasonably. For instance, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, in fiscal year 2010, Bangor spent $2,238,520 on the program, while in fiscal year 2014, it spent $2,170,253.

Lewiston, which has a similar number of residents in poverty (8,344) as Bangor (7,940), spent $920,566 in 2010, and $748,291 in 2014.

You notice the trends, I assume? General Assistance payments going down as the economy improves. That makes sense.

But what has happened in Portland?

The city has seen explosive growth in welfare payments. While the other large cities in Maine saw their General Assistance spending go down between 2010 and 2014, Portland increased its spending from $6,745,981 to $10,018,473.

Portland — a city of about 66,000 people, or about 5 percent of the total 1.3 million population of Maine — accounts for an unbelievable 56 percent of total spending on the General Assistance program.

Just for comparison’s sake, let’s compare Portland with the often forgotten Lewiston-Auburn metropolitan center, which for the purposes of this comparison we will — I think fairly — treat as a single city.

Portland has an estimated population of about 66,318, while Lewiston (36,437) and Auburn (22,987) combined for a population of 59,424. Portland has 13,662 residents in poverty, Lewiston and Auburn together have 11,815. More or less comparable all around.

In 2014, Portland spent the aforementioned $10,018,473 on General Assistance. Lewiston and Auburn together spent $887,713. Portland spends well over 10 times what a comparable metropolitan area spent in 2014.

I could keep citing numbers forever, but I think the point is made.

While other cities in Maine behaved responsibly with welfare payments, Portland saw a gravy train. With state reimbursements of 90 percent, paying for this explosive growth in the program became somebody else’s problem. That somebody else is the Maine taxpayer, of course.

The LePage proposal, which I wholeheartedly support, offers a far more rational way to deal with the state’s management of funding for this program. Instead of the 90 percent reimbursement, the state would pay 90 percent of a city’s costs until the city reaches 40 percent of the previous six-year average. At that point, the reimbursement would drop dramatically to 10 percent.

In other words, the state would cap the growth of the program and ensure that it is kept in line with the payments from previous years. After that cap is met, a city can still spend a great deal more, but in that instance, it will be on its dime, not the state’s.

According to DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew, nearly 60 percent of Maine towns would actually see more money under this proposed change. But it would mean that cities such as Portland, which have been financially irresponsible for years, would be forced into a more rational use of taxpayer funds.

That is a good thing for the health of the system. With a better use of state funds, and without so much of the treasury being wasted, Maine will have more money to recommit to the truly needy.

Tune your radio dials: LePage will take your calls today at noon on MPBN

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Gov. Paul LePage, pictured here recently in Portland. BDN file photo by Troy R. Bennett.

Consider this a public service announcement that Gov. Paul LePage will be the featured guest on Maine Public Broadcasting Network’s call-in radio show, Maine Calling, today at noon.

The show, if you haven’t heard it, is an hourlong live call-in program, so listeners will have a chance to call in to ask the governor questions. MPBN’s Mal Leary tells me the show will start with a conversation between LePage and hosts Jennifer Rooks and Keith Shortall about the governor’s two-year budget proposal, followed by listener Q&A.

I’m sure some of you would love the chance to ask the governor a question. If you can’t call in this afternoon, you can tweet your questions to @mainecalling.

You can listen to MPBN online, here.

Daily Brief: Collins claims victory against Obama plan to tax college savings plans

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Good morning from a tranquil Augusta, where all remains quiet after yesterday’s headline-grabbing snowstorm dumped more than a foot of powder.

There’s been no word from Gov. Paul LePage about further state office closures, so it appears government will open once again after being officially put on hold yesterday when the governor declared a state of emergency

Legislative committee meetings, however, have been cancelled for the day, meaning many lawmakers will get another snow day — whether they’re at home in their districts or whiling away the time at the Senator Inn, where many legislators stay during session. 

Don’t forget to sign up to receive the Daily Brief in your inbox every weekday morning. 

Collins claims win as Obama dumps move to tax college savings plans

It was only yesterday that Susan Collins, Maine’s wildly popular senior senator, took the floor of the Senate to rail against a proposal by President Barack Obama to tax the earnings of college savings accounts known as 529s.

So it was with pleasure that Collins learned later in the day that Obama would drop the plan, which faced growing pushback on Capitol Hill, according to CNN.

The president had proposed the plan as part of his upcoming budget plan. The savings accounts allow for post-tax income to be saved for tuition and other costs associated with attending college and withdrawn tax-free, and Collins said they help millions of parents plan for their children’s future.

“The President’s proposal undermines the very values that we should be promoting – families making sacrifices today in order to better provide for their children tomorrow,” Collins said on the Senate floor, echoing sentiments she expressed in a letter to the Senate Finance Committee.

But it wasn’t just Collins who opposed the president’s plan, according to CNN. The news agency reported yesterday that a White House official said “fierce opposition to the provision was building in Congress, even among fellow Democrats.”

Collins said word that Obama would back down was welcome news, and that the president’s plan “never made sense.”

An Obama administration official said the 529 tax plan was only a small piece of the president’s larger tax reform proposal, which the administration claims will lead to $50 billion in education tax cuts, CNN reported.

All snow is politics

The storm dominated news coverage yesterday as seemingly every reporter in the state became a weather reporter for at least part of the day. But as students — and some grown ups — reveled in the snow day, the office of House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, used the storm to rally against Gov. Paul LePage’s newest proposal to gut state aid to municipalities.

As you’re doubtless aware, LePage’s two-year budget proposal holds the line on municipal revenue sharing at about $60 million in the first year before eliminating it completely in the second.

The fight over cuts to revenue sharing was one of the most contentious of the last budget cycle. LePage originally proposed doing away with revenue sharing completely, but the legislature preserved about 40 percent of what the revenue sharing law calls for. Local officials and their allies in both parties argued that cuts in state funding for local governments cause property tax increases as towns and cities struggle to afford education and basic services.

Services such as snow plowing.

“During a blizzard, we see municipalities put those [state] dollars to work,” wrote Eves’ spokeswoman, Jodi Quintero, in a memo to reporters. “From plow truck drivers to emergency responders, each and every one of our towns depends on these state funds to ensure public safety. They work around the clock and they depend on the state to help cover the cost.”

Democrats have been slow to make pointed criticisms of the governor’s budget proposal and stressed their willingness to work with LePage on a state spending plan. But where revenue sharing is concerned, there’s likely going to be a fight — whether it’s wanted or not.

Reading list Maine’s news musician strikes again

BDN visual journalist Troy R. Bennett has a penchant for songs about the news. You may remember his ode to the runaway pig that escaped the slaughter in Woodland, or his ballad for the North Pond Hermit.

Yesterday, between shooting photos of snowmobiles and cross-country skiers prowling the streets of Portland, Troy penned and performed a song for the snowstorm: “This is Maine and it’s going to snow.” Give it a listen so it can be stuck in your head, like it’s been stuck in ours.

Morning Briefing 1.28.15: Whitewash & the faint outline of a debate on taxes

Press Herald Politics -

 

Good morning, hope you like the white stuff because there’s a little bit more on the way. Legislative offices and hearings are postponed Wednesday after the blizzard wiped out everything on Tuesday. It will be relatively quiet at the State House, but that should begin to change next week.

First the governor will deliver his State of the State on Tuesday evening. Additionally, the first round of public hearings will begin on a smattering of bills. We should see more bills referenced to committee on Thursday when lawmakers return for another session.

* * *

Democratic lawmakers haven’t had a lot to say about Gov. Paul LePage’s budget, but it’s looking like they’re going to make some kind of stand on his plan to eliminate municipal revenue sharing, and maybe, his income tax cut. The governor has proposed replacing revenue sharing by allowing towns to tax large nonprofits, but early analyses show that doing so could disproportionately benefit larger service center communities over rural localities.

Democrats have taken a wait-and-see approach with LePage and his proposals this year. Waiting for what, you ask? Unclear, but it wouldn’t be a shock if they’re polling certain initiatives in his budget to measure public opinion.

Right now it appears that they’re comfortable opposing the governor’s revenue sharing cut and they’re lining up for a debate over his income tax reduction plan. Perhaps they’ll specifically target how his income tax cut would make it so that people who earn over $50,000 will pay a higher tax rate than those who make $175,000. It’s actually not that simple — get ready for mind-bending explanations of the “bubble bracket” — but it’s an argument that Democrats have made before and it just so happens to line up with President Obama’s rhetoric about taxing the wealthy to help the poor and middle class.

Republicans will call this tack “wealth redistribution,” an effective rhetorical argument if you happen to believe that the current state and federal tax code are level playing fields for all Americans.

Anyway, that debate hasn’t been initiated yet, but here’s what House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said in a prepared statement on Tuesday when asked about Democrats’ position on the budget:

“What Mainers need are tax cuts that actually lift the middle class, making their hard earned dollars go further. As it stands right now, the Governor’s proposal squeezes the middle class and puts enormous pressure on local towns and schools in order to give tax breaks to the very wealthy and corporations. These kinds of policies won’t help grow jobs or strong wages at a time when our state lags behind the nation in both areas.

Democrats want tax cuts to benefit middle class families not drive up property taxes or cut local services. This week’s historic blizzard is a reminder of just how critical state funds for towns are for ensuring streets are plowed and our communities are safe.

We also take strong issue with the governor’s proposal to cut funding for programs that help seniors pay for their medicine and care — these programs are a lifeline for so many seniors, especially in rural areas. Meanwhile, we see little investment to help seniors live independently longer, which is a key priority for Democrats this session.

There is a lot to negotiate in this budget. Maine people can count on Democrats to make sure the budget is fair. We will be at the table working with Republicans and the Governor to ensure that the budget protects middle class families, our seniors and our schools, while ensuring our economy grows from the middle out.”

* * *

In case you missed it, the governor’s non-profit tax drew some interest from the Wall Street Journal. Mainers who have been reading local coverage won’t see much new in the piece, but the WSJ reached out for a little national context. Here’s what Daphne Kenyon, a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Mass., had to say about the plan:

“It would be a stunning development. I think there would be all kinds of reaction, from litigation to nonprofits’ possibly moving.”

* * *

This guy:

So many people have told me that I should host Meet the Press and replace the moron who is on now. Just too busy, especially next 10 years!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 27, 2015

 

Poll: More Democrats think Pats cheated, but national jealousy over team’s success is bipartisan

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady addressees members of the press during media day for Super Bowl XLIX at US Airways Center. Rob Schumacher-Arizona Republic via USA TODAY Sports

Come Sunday evening, just like more than 100 million people around the world, I’ll be watching the Super Bowl and I’ll be wearing my Vince Wilfork jersey. My wife and sons will be donned in Edelman, Gronk and Brady.

All of this is to say: I’m not your unbiased source for news about the Patriots. Nor is State & Capitol where you’re looking for articles about sports.

However, there’s been a poll on the matter and this IS where you read about a lot of those. Public Policy Polling (who like me are obviously testing the boundaries of their mission) released a poll Tuesday that found 50 percent of all National Football League fans think the Patriots and their deflated footballs cheated in the AFC Championship game.

My knee-jerk reaction was OK sure, the other half of the poll’s respondents must be Pats fans. I mean, obviously, right? Then I kept reading.

  • 41 percent of voters overall (which includes a healthy percentage of people who don’t care about football and are going to scream if they hear “deflategate” one more time) think the Patriots cheated, versus 27 percent of those think they didn’t.
  • I promise not to hold this against Democrats (as far as they know): 46 percent of them think the Pats cheated, compared with 36 percent of Republicans.
  • Bill Belichick has a terrible 28 percent favorability rating, which I’m guessing might be his personal favorite in a long list of superlatives that includes three Super Bowl wins.
  • The poll put the Patriots in a two-team group with the Dallas Cowboys (the COWBOYS!?) for having a net negative favorability rating. We’re (notice how I used “we” there?) 36 percent favored. They’re four percentage points better at 40, even though another poll question found the Cowboys “America’s most hated team.” The Pats were second most hated followed by the Bears, Giants and Steelers. Most loved are the Green Bay Packers.
  • Pats QB Tom Brady has a dismal favorability rating of 37 percent, which was 2 percent lower than last year. Two is also about the number of pounds per square inch that the Pats’ footballs were (allegedly) deflated. Clear correlation here.
  • Just because this is a political blog and that’s a political poll: 38 percent of Republicans had a favorable view of the Cowboys, versus just 32 percent of Democrats. Draw your own conclusions.

“Yet for all that it’s not clear that the Patriots have really fallen that far on the field of public opinion for the simple reason that the franchise wasn’t very popular to start with,” wrote a PPP researcher, who must be a Cowboys fan.

Thirty-six percent of poll respondents said they will root for the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, versus 29 percent who are behind the Pats.

Which proves, definitively, that 36 percent of America is wrong.

 

As economic and snowstorms hit us, how do we dig out?

Amy Fried - Bangor Daily News -

This big storm put me in mind of what a friend, the photographer Jeff Kirlin, said the other day: “I love the sound of the Socialist snowplows scraping up my Socialist streets.” We pay taxes for government services that serve the public good — in this case, the ability to get places safely and not get stuck in some massive snow bank.

What government should do and how to pay for it is a perennial issue. But Maine people generally think well of their local governments. Attempts to make it hard for towns to fund services have been blocked by the voters.

On a lovely crisp day in fall 2009, I opened my door to find two Bangor firefighters on my porch. Had I heard of TABOR, the tax limiting plan? they asked. Did I know how TABOR would squeeze budgets so much that it would cause problems for our city services, not only firefighting but also our police, schools, recreation and street clearing?

That November, 336,144 Maine voters, nearly 60 percent, gave TABOR a resounding “no.” There were over 40,000 more anti-TABOR votes than ever cast for a gubernatorial candidate in Maine, including our current governor. In Bangor, only one-third thought it was a good idea.

Bangor’s police department, with its quirky Duck of Justice, has done a fabulous job working with the public, and the school department delivers an excellent education. Public-private partnerships, creativity, and hard work have propelled economic development.

There are real questions about how consolidation could save money.

Government, whether local, state or federal, should work as well and efficiently as possible.

That’s what makes a little known endeavor, the Obama administration’s focus on evidence in policymaking, so important.

As “Show Me the Evidence” by Ron Haskins and Greg Margolis discusses, this government venture requires those receiving grants to test programs’ effectiveness.

We all want teens to get a good start in life, but what works? As Haskins and Margolis discuss, low-income 13- to 15-year-olds enrolled in a three-year project focused on academic and job skills, arts and sports activities, and health care. Seven years after starting, 63 percent were enrolled in college, 37 percent more than a control group. Fewer got pregnant, and more held jobs. This and other programs saved money while producing results, such as less child abuse and more learning.

Government can promote economic opportunity and security. Medicare proved enormously effective in reducing poverty among the elderly. Elite universities’ presidents wanted to restrict post World War II GI Bill education benefits to top students, but the GI Bill’s generous mandate propelled millions into the middle class.

We need a way to pay for the government that works.

Zeroing out revenue sharing, as Gov. Paul LePage proposes, would especially hurt towns without large nonprofits that could be taxed. They’d have more trouble paying for everything, including snow removal.

Right now the bottom one-fifth of Maine’s non-elderly taxpayers, who make $19,000 a year or less, pay 9.4 percent of their income in state and local taxes. The top 1 percent, who make over $362,000, pay 7.5 percent of their income in state and local taxes.

While LePage sees states without any income tax as models for Maine, those states are even more regressive.

As the Institute on Taxation and Economy Policy notes, “No income-tax states like Washington, Texas and Florida do, in fact, have average to low taxes overall. However, they are far from ‘low-tax’ for poor families.”

“The bottom line is that many so-called ‘low-tax’ states are high-tax states for the poor, and most do not offer a good deal to middle-income families either. Only the wealthy in such states pay relatively little.”

When it comes to federal taxes, those whose wealth comes from speculative investments pay lower tax rates than the middle-class.

Not only do people start with unequal resources but that matters more than before. Fewer lower income persons move up and fewer people born in high income families drop down.

As wealth is increasingly concentrated, it’s unreasonable to believe that the people working two and three jobs to provide for their families just aren’t working hard enough.

Laid-off Bucksport workers aren’t responsible for what that hit them.

Clearing the snow from public streets is a public endeavor. Rebuilding the middle class, hit by damaging economic storms, should be, too.

Daily Brief: LePage declares emergency, shuts down state offices

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Expecting an onslaught of snow and wind, Gov. Paul LePage on Tuesday announced that he had declared a state of emergency, shutting down all state offices and urging Mainers to stay off the roads. 

“Travel conditions will be life-threatening, and widespread power outages are probable,” LePage wrote in the emergency proclamation. Much of the state is braced for a snowstorm that is forecast to deliver blizzard conditions in the coastal counties, and in the capital region. There have already been more than 1,000 cancellations statewide

“The amount of snow and the high winds, along with blowing and drifting snow, makes this storm dangerous for many Mainers,” LePage said. “We want everyone to stay off the roads and stay safe.”

The closure of state offices means most points of entry for residents to interact with the government — such as the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, Department of Health and Human Services offices and Career Centers — will be closed and thousands of state employees will take the day off.

Legislative leaders had already canceled Tuesday’s sessions of the House and Senate, along with all committee meetings. The state’s Supreme and District courts are also closed for Tuesday, and some courts are scheduling late starts for Wednesday.

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How I learned to love the tax hike

That Gov. Paul LePage’s tax reform proposal includes an increase in the sales tax was a surprise to some — and an unwelcome one at that to some legislative Republicans for whom any tax hike is anathema.

While LePage’s broadening of the sales tax base is meant to pay for decreases in income tax and the elimination of the estate tax, The New York Times reports it’s still part of a larger move among Republican governors to move into what was once the “forbidden territory” of tax increases:

At least eight Republican governors have ventured into this once forbidden territory: There are proposals for raising the sales tax in Michigan, a tax on e-cigarettes in Utah, and gas taxes in South Carolina and South Dakota, to name a few. In Arizona, the new Republican governor has put off, in the face of a $1 billion budget shortfall, a campaign promise to eliminate the unpopular income tax there.

Adam Nagourney and Shaila Dewan, the article’s authors, report that the new willingness among some GOP governors to raise some taxes is pragmatic, rather than philosophical.

They cite a National Association of State Budget Offices warning that states were not raking in enough revenue to support basic services and meet new demand for increased spending on education and prisons — two topics that should sound familiar to those who follow Maine politics.

Collins, King at odds over Keystone XL

Maine’s two senators — independent Angus King and Republican Susan Collins — like getting along. They really like it. Their two offices regularly send joint press releases. King endorsed Collins’ re-election last year. The two senators are friendly in a way you don’t always see between a state’s two delegates to the upper chamber in Congress.

But on the Keystone XL pipeline, the two are divided. Last night, Senate Democrats blocked –twice — the advancement of a bill to approve the construction of the controversial large-diameter crude oil line from Alberta, Canada, to Steele City, Nebraska.

King voted to stall the bill’s movement, saying he “could not be more convinced” that Keystone XL was a bad deal for the country. Collins voted to advance the bill to a final vote.

“The pipeline will facilitate the development of dirty, climate-harming oil when the United States should focus its attention on transitioning away from fossil fuels to renewable forms of energy,” King said in a written statement. “It would only result in about 35 long-term jobs, and it appears likely that the oil will be exported overseas. All of this does not even begin to address the underlying issue here: the Senate should not be in the business of issuing building permits for construction projects.”

Collins had no official statement on the vote, but has said in the past that the pipeline would create jobs and decrease U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

Reading list E-edition of BDN free for 2 days during storm

Newspaper delivery will likely be slowed by the storm, and we want to ensure the daily paper can be available at the start of the day without interruption. So on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Bangor Daily News is making its E-Edition — a digitized version of the printed newspaper — free to everyone.  You can view the E-Edition by clicking here.

Emergency officials eye coming snowstorm; state office closures likely

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

As Mainers prepare for what could be a record-breaking blizzard, state emergency officials are keeping close watch on an impending snowstorm that may dump up to two feet of snow on parts of Maine.

Legislative leaders have already canceled Tuesday’s sessions of the House and Senate, and if previous experience is any indication, it’s likely Gov. Paul LePage will likely close at least some state offices and tell all but the most critical state employees to stay home to wait out the storm.

The State House during a 2006 storm. BDN file photo by Bridget Brown.

LePage will make the decision after consulting with officials at the Maine Department of Transportation and the Maine Emergency Management Agency. There’s no meteorologist on state payroll, but the two agencies work closely with the National Weather Service stations in Gray and Caribou.

Ted Talbot, a spokesman for MDOT, said Monday that the state usually tries to wait until between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. the day of a storm to decide whether a closure is necessary. However, he said the expected size of the coming snowstorm means the decision will probably be made today.

MDOT, MEMA and the National Weather Service will hold a conference call at 1 p.m. Monday to discuss the most recent information and forecasts.

“You want the latest information, up to the latest time you can make [the decision],” Talbot said, but “you don’t want people on the roads if they don’t have to be.”

Lynette Miller, a spokeswoman for MEMA, said that while closing state offices is a big decision, the process for coming to an agreement is an “old-fashioned” one.

“It’s based on the practical decisions about safe transportation [and] what makes it easier for roads to be clear,” she said. “Our director [Bruce Fitzgerald] gets on the phone with various parties, including the weather service and DOT, to get a good picture of what to expect. … They put their heads together and decide what to recommend to the governor.”

If state offices do close, it doesn’t mean all state employees get the day off. While your local Bureau of Motor Vehicles office may be empty, “critical” employees in each branch of the bureaucracy will still have to report for duty (I’m working to find out how many employees that is).

In MDOT alone, more than 400 “snowfighters” are expected to be working as parts of plowing teams, Talbot said.

Daily Brief: More changes in Democratic leadership; fashionable and ready for snow

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

The chatter in the State House for the next couple of days will be the same as the chatter is everywhere else in New England, and at long last I’m not talking about deflated footballs. It’s going to snow and this incoming storm looks to be a doozy. Stay safe, people. 

I expect state offices in most of Maine — including the State House in Augusta — will be closed for some of all of the day on Tuesday (though this is NOT your official notification of that) but let’s pretend for a moment that the Legislature will be in full swing. 

The House and Senate are scheduled to hold sessions on Tuesday and Thursday this week and there is a long list of committee meetings where the actual work of making laws is expected to accelerate. Some committees will likely begin to hear responses from their constituencies about what remains to be the political focal point: Gov. Paul LePage’s budget proposal.

Just seeing the list of scheduled visitors will give you a sense of what it might be like. This is the first and last time I will put a list this long and dry in your Daily Brief, but it provides a sense of the scope of issues our citizen legislators, some of which have been in public office for only a few weeks, face on a daily basis.

The Education Committee has a full Tuesday docket including (get ready for it) the Maine Adult Education Association, the Maine Education Association, the Maine Administrators of Services for Children with Disabilities, Educate Maine, the Maine Historical Society and Maine Connections Academy. 

And that’s just in the morning. 

In the afternoon are scheduled the Maine Principals Association, the Maine State Cultural Affairs Council, the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, the Office of the State Historian, the Maine State Museum, the Maine State Library, Maine Public Broadcasting Corp. and the Maine Humanities Council. 

That’s just one day in the life of an Education Committee member. Think of this next time someone suggests to you that being a lawmaker is easy.

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Troy Jackson staying in politics

Troy Jackson, a former state senator and representative from Allagash who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic Party’s nomination to run for the 2nd Congressional District seat that was eventually won by Republican Bruce Poliquin last year, will remain firmly entrenched in state politics. On Saturday, Jackson was chosen to become Maine’s delegate to the Democratic National Committee.

That means Jackson will have a say in how the national committee’s resources are used when it comes to Maine and he’ll have a vote at the national party convention when it’s time to choose presidential candidates. But Jackson, an everyman politician whose speech at last year’s Democratic State Convention in Bangor was a searing and memorable tear-jerker where he sowed his own northern Maine Grapes of Wrath tale, said he’ll wear his activist hat in the new position.

“I believe this party is the best vehicle for achieving the world we want,” he said in a prepared statement. Jackson replaces Phil Bartlett, who gave up the post to become the state Democratic party chairman last year, and joins Maggie Allen of Madison, who is Maine’s other DNC delegate.

The Maine Democratic State Committee also appointed a new executive director to take over for Mary Erin Casale, who announced her resignation last month after five years at the helm. Jeremy Kennedy will assume oversight of party operations and staff, fundraising and planning of the party’s conventions. When Democratic State Chairman Phil Bartlett isn’t available, Kennedy will likely also be the party’s backup spokesman.

Kennedy appears to be suited well for the position. He has been the party’s finance director and led its Get Out the Vote efforts in 2012 and 2014, which were both successful in terms of sheer numbers of voters at the polls, despite considerable losses for Democrats in 2014. Kennedy has also worked for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2007 and the unsuccessful 2009 No on 1 campaign that failed to reject a people’s veto of same-sex marriage in Maine. Kennedy lives in Portland with his partner, Democratic State Rep. Matt Moonen.

Charter schools in the spotlight

Today is Maine Charter School Day at the State House and this is National School Choice Week across the country. That means the Hall of Flags at the State House will be full of charter school advocates and students.

In addition to an event that hopes to garner publicity for the state’s charter schools, it’s also an important day for charter advocates to make connections with lawmakers who will vote on a range of charter school-related bills this year. One of the most interesting so far is coming from the LePage administration and will seek to spread funding for the schools across the state, as opposed to the current practice, which puts much of the financial pressure on charter schools’ neighboring districts.

Six charter schools have launched in Maine since the state legalized them in 2011 and Maine Virtual Academy, a second statewide online school for middle and high school students, will open in the fall.

Reading list Throw fashion out the window

A top winter survival tip from the Snow & Ice Management Association: “Wear the right Shoes.”

“While fashion is great, the right shoes to navigate snow and ice place the entire foot on the surface of the ground and have visible, heavy treads and a flat bottom.”

These people apparently don’t know that in Maine, L.L. Bean boots are more stylish than Manolo Blahnik high-heels.

Morning Briefing 1.26.15: Twenty-six days in office, a taxing trend & a song against mispronunciation

Press Herald Politics -

Frederic Hale Parkhurst served as Maine’s governor for 26 days. Photo credit: Library of Congress

Gov. Paul LePage said Friday that the transfer of power is one of the reasons he wants to change the Secretary of State position into a lieutenant governor. The Maine Constitution says that the President of the Senate assumes power in the event that a sitting governor resigns or dies. This is a problem, LePage said, particularly if the Senate leader happens to be from the opposite party as the governor.

Senate presidents have assumed the governorship in Maine from time to time. In fact, the shortest term as governor belongs to Nathaniel Haskell, who held the post for 25 hours in 1953, according to records from the Maine State Law and Legislative Reference Library. Haskell kept the seat warm for Burton Cross, the governor-elect who could not take office until his Senate term expired (Cross now has the misfortune of having his name affixed to the monolithic, Stalinesque building across from the State House.).

Governors have died in office since 1820, but not often.

Republican Joseph Bodwell didn’t quite make a year in office before he died in 1887. Democrat Clinton Clauson had nearly the same misfortune, passing away in December of 1959 after having taken his oath in January.

Edward Kavanaugh, a Senate president, became governor after Democrat John Fairfield resigned to serve in Congress. Kavanaugh himself resigned Jan. 1, 1844, citing poor health. He died 19 days later.

Enoch Lincoln died in office after serving between 1827 and 1829.

Frederic Hale Parkhurst, pictured, maintains the distinction of having serving the shortest term not shortened by resignation or the ill-timed transfer of power. According to the Library of Congress, Parkhurst collapsed his first day in office and died 26 days later of pneumonia.

* * *

The LePage administration is taking to Facebook to make its pitch for his two-year budget. While the budget and its big tax overhaul are receiving a lot media attention, the administration is trying to simplify the message for a complicated plan with one-sheet explanation pieces.

Alex Willette, the spokesman for Richard Rosen, the governor’s budget chief, said last week that the administration will roll out other information, such as how the tax changes could affect individual Mainers, in the coming weeks.

On that note, colleague Craig Anderson broke down some examples of how the governor’s plan could affect Mainers. Be sure to check it out.

* * *

LePage isn’t the only Republican governor eyeing a tax increase this year. A New York Times story published Sunday provided a number of examples of GOP governors who have proposed raising taxes to pay for education, raising gas taxes to fund roads and bridges, taxing electronic cigarettes and more.

According to the Times:

“By most accounts, the proposals emerging from state Republican lawmakers seem like acts of pragmatism rather than shifts in philosophy for the Republican Party. In Washington, Republicans, who control Congress, have made clear they will block a series of tax increases proposed by President Obama.”

* * *

The Maine Democratic Party elected a few new leaders over the weekend:

Jeremy Kennedy named the new Executive Director of @MaineDems at today’s State Committee meeting. #mepolitics pic.twitter.com/HspnojJbjN

— Maine Democrats (@MaineDems) January 25, 2015

       

Huge congratulations to Troy Jackson for being named Maine’s new DNC committeeman. #mepolitics pic.twitter.com/UKTMcLzBGJ — Kate Elmes (@KateElmes) January 25, 2015

* * *

The people of Bangor are sick and tired of being sick and tired that some people are unable to properly pronounce their city’s name. And honestly, how do you get “Banger” out of Bangor? I’m not even from Maine and I don’t screw it up (Obviously, I’m the wrong guy to conduct a gentle public relations campaign, too.).

Anyway, a marketing company cobbled together a video, which features former state lawmaker Emily Cain. Cain, as State House denizens recall, can sing a little.

Scan to :48 to see her in action, or watch the entire clip to see how nice people educate the masses in the art of pronunciation:

Special election date set for House District 93

Press Herald Politics -

The race to fill a vacancy in House District 93 is on.

The Maine Secretary of State announced Friday that the special election will be held March 10. The district includes the towns of Owls Head and Rockland. The vacancy was created by the resignation of former state Rep. Elizabeth Dickersdon, D-Rockland, who moved to Colorado. Dickerson’s resignation letter was received by the Legislature on Thursday.

Gov. Paul LePage signed a proclamation Friday that set the date for the election. The political parties will caucus to nominate their candidates. That nomination process ends Feb. 9, while petitions for non-party candidates must be submitted on the same day. Write-in candidates have until Feb. 17 to declare their candidacy with the Secretary of State.

 

LePage’s ridiculous corporate tax giveaway will face legislative scrutiny

Mike Tipping - Bangor Daily News -

BDN Photo

Yesterday, the Maine Legislature referred the tax conformity package proposed by Governor LePage to both the Appropriations and Taxation committees for further consideration and initial votes. There, it will face its first real scrutiny.

As I explained in a recent column, the bill includes a ridiculous $6-$10 million tax giveaway to large, mostly out-of-state corporations through a complicated mechanism called “bonus depreciation.” Basically, the provision allows certain large firms to get a tax benefit by pretending that business equipment they purchased in the last year is depreciating at a faster rate than it actually is.

The idea behind the policy, when it’s applied proactively, is to stimulate corporate investment, but the legislation as proposed would apply the bonus retroactively, only benefiting companies who already spent money this way in 2014. LePage’s proposal is, therefore, purely a multi-million-dollar corporate handout with no potential return for the state.

While the measure seems mostly to be flying under the radar (other than my column, there’s been virtually no mention of the giveaway in the media, and no opposition has been voiced so far by legislative leaders), some lawmakers are gearing up to oppose the giveaway.

“When we’re looking at totally eliminating revenue sharing to towns in the governor’s budget and massive cuts to drugs for elderly, we should be thinking about what’s a higher priority for us,” said Representative Matt Moonen, a Democrat from Portland who serves on the Taxation Committee, when asked about the bill. “Is it towns, cities, drugs for elderly or giving away something in the range of $10 million to big corporations?”

“You’d be hard pressed to find a small business that made $2 million in business equipment purchases last year. This bill benefits big businesses, almost all of them out of state. Is that where we’d want our tax dollars to go?”

Moonen also noted that because the bill is being submitted as emergency legislation, requiring two-thirds support for passage, it would take the opposition of only a bit more than one third of the House or Senate to prevent it from becoming law.

Daily Brief: Can libertarians, progressives join forces at State House?

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Human trafficking will return to the fore today in Augusta, as Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, and Gov. Paul LePage hold a media event at that State House Hall of Flags to proclaim the week of Jan. 25 as Human Trafficking Awareness Week 

As a member in the House last year, Volk was thrust into the spotlight after Democratic leaders balked at her seemingly innocuous bill to help victims of the sex trade and other targets of trafficking, preventing it from seeing the light of day in the Legislature. 

The GOP deftly seized the moment, casting Democrats as hypocrites who cared more about keeping Republican ideas off the table than helping women. After a brief public outrage, Democrats relented on appeal, the bill ultimately became law, and Volk was elected to the Senate. 

Don’t forget, you can sign up to receive the Daily Brief in your inbox every weekday morning. 

Hope for compromise at party fringes?

When politicians talk about “finding common ground,” that usually means leaning on the moderates and cooler heads in each party to work together and hammer out a deal, then find a way to drag the rest of the party — kicking and screaming, if necessary — to the other side.

But at least two state lawmakers think there’s another way. Democratic Rep. Diane Russell of Portland, a stalwart progressive, and Republican Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn, a dedicated libertarian, think there’s room for overlap at the parties’ fringes. On Tuesday, the duo will hold the first meeting of a new Civil Liberties Caucus.

The goal, said Russell, is to see how many other lawmakers think there’s more than one place on the political spectrum where work can get done. There’s a natural “nexus” between libertarians and progressives, she said, on issues of individual rights.

“This is about the die-hards finding common ground,” she said Thursday.

Not many people keep track of bills as they emerge from the Revisor of Statutes’ office, but those who do will have already have seen several this session with Brakey and Russell both listed as sponsor or lead co-sponsor. So far, those have chiefly focused on issues related to marijuana legalization, but Russell said there would be more.

Brakey said Thursday that on issues such as prison reform and privacy rights, there could be enough lawmakers in he and Russell’s camps to move the needle, though he wouldn’t hazard a guess on how many would join the new caucus.

“There are already a lot of caucuses and a lot of expectations on people’s time,” he said.

Voters could decide on ranked-choice in 2016

A group trying to establish ranked-choice elections in Maine says they’re aiming to put the issue to Maine voters in 2016, AP reports.

The goal of ranked-choice, or instant runoff, voting is to ensure an eventual winner with as much support as possible. Waiting until 2016 — rather than putting the question to statewide referendum this year — gives the Committee on Ranked-Choice Voting more time to make their case to voters.

Under the system, voters rank as many of the candidates as they choose. After the polls close, all the first-choices votes are tallied. If one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes, he or she wins. If there is no majority winner, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated.

Then, all that supporter’s second-choice votes are tallied, and added to the remaining candidates’ vote totals, and the lowest-ranked candidate is again eliminated.Additional tallies and eliminations are made until one candidate has more than 50 percent of the votes.

Maine would be the first state to institute instant-runoff for all state-level elections.

Reading list We are Bangor

Just making sure you saw this amazing music video, spoofing the ’80s charity anthem “We Are the World” and teaching all who view it the correct way to say pronounce “Bangor.” (Hint: As the song helpfully points out, “It’s more like ‘store’ and less like ‘airplane hanger.’”).

The video made the rounds yesterday, and we’d be remiss not point out former State Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, singing the hook. She’s the lady in red on the stage at the Penobscot Theater Company. We should probably mention the several BDN staffers who appear in the video too, just for good measure.

Morning Briefing 1.23.15: Dems’ dilemma, Gov. Giants Fan & timely meetings

Press Herald Politics -

A lot has been written about Republican lawmakers’ silence on the governor’s two-year budget proposal and tax overhaul. Overlooked, however, is that Democrats aren’t saying much about it, either.

Or doing much, really. At least publicly.

On Wednesday Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves and Senate minority leader Justin Alfond kicked off their jobs tour. The event received a fair amount of attention from television media. Print media covered it, too.

However, the proposal is sort of a continuation of initiatives that Democrats and Republicans have embraced and enacted here before. What’s new is the message. In 2013 the idea of investing in community colleges and job training to help employers hire skilled workers was called the “skills gap.” Now it’s called the jobs gap, a term that attempts to connect Maine’s slow economic rebound to what have so far been old or ongoing initiatives. There’s also a nifty tie-in with President Obama’s American “comeback” message and his plan to provide free tuition to some community college students, which Eves has said he supports.

Such things are all worthy of examination. But from a political standpoint, those initiatives are destined to be overshadowed by Gov. Paul LePage, who can command attention in just about any situation and that was before he dropped a bold, comprehensive budget proposal that has dominated State House discussions ever since.

It makes sense that Republicans are incognito. There’s a lot for them to hate in the governor’s plan. There’s also a lot for the Democrats to like. Of course it’s not in their interest to champion LePage’s budget and there are probably some good reasons not to blast the elements they don’t like, especially if they end up voting for them. And simply ripping LePage is not a recipe for success (See: Election, 2014).

So what should Democrats in the Legislature do? They’re in a defensive position despite having a majority in the House. The party can’t simply play obstructionist, nor can it risk damaging their brand as the party of collaboration. One Democrat I spoke with suggested a different tack: Use LePage’s budget, specifically his tax plan, as an opportunity to roll out the Democratic alternative, their plan. Offer the public a contrast, a choice. Join the discussion.

Maybe that will happen, but it hasn’t yet.

* * *

Nobody has ever accused LePage of holding back his opinions and he’s been on a roll lately. During his Jan. 9 budget briefing he unexpectedly called for the resignation of the president of the community college system. This week he said Verso Paper is a bunch of “bottom feeders” that should “get out of the state.”

And on Thursday, he weighed in on deflated footballs, saying the New England Patriots are a “less than ethical” franchise. Naturally, this comment became an instant news story — a news story that initially lacked some valuable context: The governor is a New York Giants fan.

Hopefully someone will note @Governor_LePage, like a lot of New Englanders who declined to suffer the bad old Patriots, is a NY Giants fan.

— Steve Mistler (@stevemistler) January 22, 2015

LePage’s allegiance to the Giants surfaced in 2012 in a blog post I wrote for the Sun Journal in Lewiston.  The governor had been invited by New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson to watch a game between the Saints and Panthers from Benson’s private suite.

* * *

Anybody who has spent time at the State House knows that the trains rarely run on time here. Public hearings and meetings are dutifully scheduled and the times are dutifully ignored by state lawmakers running the show. It’s known as “legislative time,” which is essentially code for their schedule takes precedence.

This is especially true of the budget committee, which is known for showing up late, leaving late and taking interminable breaks that always run longer than announced. Sen. James Hamper, R-Oxford, the new chairman of the committee, aimed to change that this year, announcing on the very first day that the committee will start and run on schedule. No legislative time, he said.

So far, he’s been good on his word. The public that shows up to testify — and certainly the press — definitely appreciate it.

* * *

Quick hits: Maine’s U.S. House delegation split on the GOP-led effort to tighten restrictions on abortion …. Most Republicans in the U.S. Senate voted against a measure stating that climate change is real and that human activity significantly contributes to it, although U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, voted for the measure … state Sen. Eric Brakey has submitted a boatload of bills this session and many of them are, well, unique. Brakey is sponsoring L.D. 120, a bill that would give Mainers a tax credit for tolls they pay on the Maine Turnpike.

Video: LePage tells Verso to ‘get out of the state of Maine’

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Gov. Paul LePage said his message to Verso Paper Corp. executives is to “get out of the state of Maine” and echoed allegations from one of the millworkers’ unions that the company sold the mill for scrap to prevent competition.

“Get out of the state of Maine,” LePage said in response to a reporter’s question. “Those people had an opportunity to sell that mill and keep that mill going and they sold it to a company that’s going to dismantle it so they don’t have competition. I’m sorry, I’ve been in that industry… I spent 18 years doing it — they’re not good for the state of Maine.”

LePage made a similar statement to the media after a talk delivered to the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce Wednesday.

Bill Cohen, a spokesman for Verso, said the company did not have a response to the governor’s allegations or the request that Verso leave the state.

“No, we’re not going to respond to that,” Cohen said in a telephone interview.

In a federal lawsuit, lawyers representing the machinists union at the Bucksport mill alleged that the company has conspired with AIM to demolish its Bucksport plant and other facilities around the country to reduce competition in the market for paper used in magazines and catalogs, which has been on the decline in North America.

As that lawsuit moved ahead, the Department of Justice gave Verso clearance to purchase its larger competitor, NewPage, for $1.4 billion, but it did not include the Bucksport sale in that antitrust review. The union argued that was a mistake.

With that purchase, NewPage sold its Rumford mill. The combined company operates a mill in Jay that employs about 860 people.

Cohen said the company is working to close the sale of its Bucksport mill to AIM but that it is not yet complete.

The governor has explored other avenues for slowing down or blocking the sale of the mill, writing letters to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Maine Public Utilities Commission raising concerns about AIM taking over operation of power generation assets.

AIM said in court filings that it has hired Consolidated Asset Management Services LLC to oversee operation of the 303 megawatts of power generation in Bucksport.

FERC approved giving AIM permits to operate the power generation facilities last week.

The mill closure resulted in about 500 layoffs. Around 70 people are still employed operating the mill’s power generation assets. AIM agreed to buy the mill and power generation assets for $58 million, which was challenged by the machinists union in court.

A federal judge earlier this week turned down the union’s antitrust complaints. In advance of that ruling, numerous companies stated they would be interested in looking over the mill and would consider buying it, but the judge said those letters, even if submitted as sworn affidavits, would not have had a bearing on the court ruling.

U.S. District Court Judge John Woodcock wrote the same of letters from LePage and economic development official Rosaire Pelletier, a former manager at Fraser Papers in Madawaska who focuses on the forest products industry for the Department of Economic and Community Development.

“The Court respects and appreciates the contents of the Governor’s and Mr. Pelletier’s letters, but neither, even if true, changes the merits of the pending motion,” Woodcock wrote. “As regards the letters from prospective buyers, each is an expression of interest, not an offer, and each is too vague to change the facts upon which the Court must base its Order. Even if these letters were submitted in affidavit form, they would not change the Court’s decision.”

The union this week asked the court to reconsider a separate part of their lawsuit dealing with severance pay.

 

Daily Brief: Poliquin meets Obama and picks up natural gas fight

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

For a day without the House and Senate in session, Wednesday was a busy one in Augusta. Legislative committees heard hours of testimony from department heads, who briefed lawmakers about their agencies’ work and the effect Gov. Paul LePage’s biennial budget proposal would have on it. 

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address garnered some conversation, although lawmakers and state employees seemed more eager to chat about the ongoing “Deflategate” controversy about the New England Patriots using underinflated balls during their playoff win against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday

Thursday is another committee-dominated day with quick House and Senate sessions in the morning, followed by numerous committee meetings in the afternoon. 

If you haven’t already, click here to have the State & Capitol Daily Brief appear in your email inbox every weekday.

LePage to address 700-person Realtors conference

Gov. Paul LePage will deliver opening remarks this morning at a meeting of the Maine Real Estate & Development Association’s annual forecast conference at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland.

The LePage appearance is made more interesting by the sheer scope of the event: More than 700 developers, brokers, architects, bankers, attorneys, accountants and other real estate professionals are expected to attend. The event, which will be covered by the Bangor Daily News, features a series of experts commenting on Maine’s economy and the outlook for the real estate industry.

Poliquin advocating for natural gas in Congress

Thanks to the astute observations of reporter Mike Shephard of the Kennebec Journal and his subsequent Tweet after Tuesday’s State of the Union, we know that U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine, made an impromptu plea to President Barack Obama after the speech to help bring more natural gas to New England.

Poliquin followed that up Wednesday with a floor speech in favor of the National Gas Pipeline Permitting Reform Act. He spoke of how fluctuations in electricity costs, which he said could be stabilized with a more reliable supply of natural gas to northern New England, helped lead to the closure of three paper mills in 2014 and layoffs at a fourth this year.

“We must allow the increased production and transportation of natural gas to drive down the cost of electric power to save our mills and factories, and change our jobs,” said Poliquin.

That’s almost a carbon copy of what Gov. Paul LePage, a political ally of Poliquin’s, has been saying for months. The measure passed in the Republican-controlled U.S. House on Wednesday; though Obama has vowed to veto it.

Bangor school superintendent testifying on Capitol Hill

Bangor schools Superintendent Betsy Webb is scheduled to appear before the U.S. Senate Education, Health, Labor & Pensions Committee this morning to testify about the unintended consequences of the Affordable Care Act’s “30-hour Full-time Rule” on the Bangor School District.

According to Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who is a member of the committee, Webb is one of several professionals from across the United States who will testify beginning at about 9:30 a.m. You can listen to the hearing live by clicking here.

Under the Affordable Care Act, businesses with at least 50 employees must provide health insurance to their full-time workers or pay a fine, but the law defines “full-time” as 30 hours per week. Critics, including Collins, believe the law has caused employers to cut employees hours in an effort to save money on health insurance.

Collins is one of the co-authors of bipartisan legislation in the Senate known as the Forty House is Full-time Act of 2015. The bill would change the definition of full-time to 40 hours a week.

Reading list LePage, Yummy and Mitch

It turns out that LePage has a lot in common with the History Channel’s Down East Dickering star “Yummy,” who met with the governor at the State House on Wednesday to discuss an upcoming fund raiser against domestic violence.

“Just when you’re ready to write Yummy off, he somehow sails through triumphant, without ever spending a penny of his own money,” says the History Channel of Yummy.

Sounds familiar.

Morning Briefing 1.22.15: Yummy & Mitch, mapping property tax relief & the SCOTUS kissoff

Press Herald Politics -

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Good morning. We’re just going to leave this here:

Met with Yummy and Mitch from “Down East Dickering” to discuss domestic violence awareness. #mepolitics pic.twitter.com/1F0e2LPJfx

— Paul R. LePage (@Governor_LePage) January 21, 2015

You’re welcome. Now, on to the Briefing …

As the Kennbec Journal’s Mike Shepherd reported Wednesday, Gov. Paul LePage called Verso Paper “bottom feeders” for the company’s pending sale of the paper mill in Bucksport to a scrap metal recycling company in Quebec. Shepherd also gathered a few other outtakes from LePage on President Obama’s State of The Union speech and the Republican response to the governor’s two-year budget and tax overhaul.

As for the budget, the governor said he hasn’t received much feedback. However, he warned lawmakers that not lowering the state income tax could have electoral consequences: “The poison pill to the Republicans and the Democrats, in my mind, is not to pass the elimination of the income tax because they will feel it in ’16.”

He was also asked if he watched Obama’s speech. Nope. “I would rather watch a bad Saturday night skit,” he said, adding that he read instead.

– Steve Mistler

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Our colleague Christian MilNeil put together this neat interactive of towns that may end up with no replacement for municipal revenue sharing under the governor’s proposed budget. A couple of important caveats: First, this is the best available data from an annual report that towns have to file with Maine Revenue Services, but town officials may not have put a lot of effort in assessing nonprofit properties because those parcels have not been subject to property taxes (That includes land trusts, which we learned on Monday would be subject to the nonprofit tax.). Second, the number of towns could actually be higher than represented on this map because the MRS report does not break down assessed value of nonprofits by specific property owner, it only lists the values by category (hospitals, educational, etc.). Again, nonprofits with an assessed value of $500,000 or more would be subject to the tax under the governor’s plan.

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Wednesday marked the fifth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that has opened the floodgates in election spending in Maine and across the country. On Tuesday the Maine Citizens for Clean Elections used the anniversary to submit signatures for a ballot measure designed to beef up accountability and transparency to state election laws amid record breaking spending by outside groups.

Around the same time a several protesters disrupted the U.S. Supreme Court, which was holding hearings. The SCOTUS blog covered some of the protests.

“(A protestor) continued with a mention of Citizens United, the 2010 ruling that removed limits on independent political expenditures by corporations and unions. Three Supreme Court police officers quickly converged on her, causing a loud commotion as they pushed through an area of the courtroom where single wooden chairs are in use, forcefully subdued her, and then removed her from the courtroom. As what at first seemed like the lone demonstrator was removed, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. quipped, ‘Our second order of business this morning …’ to laughs from the crowded courtroom.”

Shortly thereafter:

But before he could finish that thought, a second demonstrators stood and said, “One person, one vote.” It was perhaps a continuation of the Citizens United theme, or a reference to a key phrase from the Court’s voting rights jurisprudence. As the second protestor was being approached by officers, a third and a fourth one stood and uttered similar lines. The Chief Justice was heard to mutter, ‘Oh, please.’

– Steve Mistler

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