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Politics

Hedgehogs, Spearfishing, Marijuana — A Look At Bills Submitted To Maine’s New Legislature

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The list of bill titles for the new Legislature is out and, as usual, it’s … interesting.

The Legislature’s Information Office released over 1,800 bill titles sponsored by lawmakers yesterday. Thanks to a rule, most of the bills the Legislature will take up during the session had to be in by Dec. 30. So these "placeholder" bills — just titles.

The topics are wide ranging, potentially affecting Mainers’ health care, voting, taxation and finances. There are also some curious submissions, like the licensing of hedgehogs and banning elephants from circus acts. Maine Public political correspondent Steve Mistler and Nora Flaherty broke down the bills and identified some trends.

Nora: So what can you tell us about the bill titles?

Steve: Well, there are a lot of them, but that’s normal. The first session of the Legislature is usually the busiest and the longest — about six months — so it’s pretty common to have close to 2,000 bills. We’re not there yet, but there’s plenty of time to add more, including by Gov. Paul LePage, who can submit a bill at any time while the Legislature is in session. There’s also the possibility, or even likelihood, that lawmakers will succeed in getting after-deadline bills reviewed this session.

It’s important to note that what we have right now are bill titles. A lot of the language for these things hasn’t been drafted or isn’t public. So in some instances we’re just speculating about what these bills will actually do. And that’s an important caveat because, as we’ve seen in the past, a title sometimes tells us very little about the actual bill.

Nora: Do you have any examples?

Steve: Yes. How about An Act Regarding Maine Courts, sponsored by House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport? No idea what that is. Then there’s the Act to Protect Rights and Privileges Under the U.S. Constitution, sponsored by Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred. Which rights? Free speech, right to bear arms? Who knows. You get the point. There’s a lot we don’t know about these bills.

Nora: OK, maybe we should stick with what we might know about some of the others.

Steve: Good idea. Do you want to start with the oddball bills, or the serious ones?

Nora: Can we start with oddballs?

Steve: So, Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, wants to allow Mainers to keep unlicensed hedgehogs as pets. That’s right — hedgehogs, which are arguably cuter than a porcupine, but just as prickly. Apparently you currently need to pay $50 to own one of these, which Brakey says is the same price you have to pay to own a tiger in Maine.

Anyway, he wants to get rid of the fee for hedgehogs, although it might be wise to keep the fee for a tiger, you know, as a deterrent.

Staying on the subject of wildlife, Rep. Lester Ordway, R-Standish, wants to allow spearfishing for northern pike on Sebago Lake. Having caught a few northern pike with traditional pole fishing, I’m willing to bet hunting these things down in the murk of Sebago is a bit of a challenge.

And then we have Rep. Larry Lockman, who has submitted a bill that will protect political speech by preventing “climate change profiling.” Again, we don’t know the substance of Lockman’s bill. I looked up climate change profiling to see if it’s a thing, but came up empty. But we do know that there are conservatives who don’t believe in the science of climate change, so perhaps Lockman believes that these so-called climate deniers are persecuted and need special protections.

Rep. Matthea Daughtry, D-Brunswick, would allow farms that slaughter fewer than 1,000 rabbits a year to sell them. Rep. Kimberly J. Monaghan, D-Cape Elizabeth, wants to prohibit elephants from appearing in traveling acts, such as the circus.

And there are more where those came from.

Nora: That’s quite a list already. Let’s switch to the more conventional proposals.

Steve: There’s a lot to talk about here.

There are at least four bills to expand Medicaid, or MaineCare, under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare this session.

Democrats have tried and failed to expand health coverage for low-income Mainers at least half a dozen times since the federal government began providing additional funding to the states.

But here’s the problem: LePage is vehemently against expansion, and so are most Republicans in the Legislature. That’s why it’s never garnered enough votes to override LePage’s veto.

Now, the future ability to expand Medicaid is in serious doubt. That’s because Congress is working on efforts to repeal the ACA, the law that offered expansion. Additionally, Republicans in Congress are already talking about some big changes to Medicaid.

Still, this is a core issue for Democrats. While Medicaid expansion is likely dead on arrival this session, the legislation allows Democrats to keep the issue alive. And that might be important if Medicaid expansion survives federal overhaul, especially since there’s an effort underway to expand the coverage through Maine’s citizen initiative process.

There are several bills to change Maine’s century-old referendum process. That was the case after the 2014 election, when lawmakers attempted to tighten the rules to make it less easy to get a referendum question on the ballot. The political dynamic is a little different this year because there was a record five citizen initiatives on the ballot last year. Republicans are historically prolific users and defenders of the citizen initiative process, using it to implement conservative changes to the tax system and other issues. Now, however, some in the GOP are less enthusiastic about it, especially as outside progressive groups pump big dollars into getting initiatives on the ballot, and in some instances, like the minimum wage and the education funding initiative this year, approved by voters.

Look for proposals that would make groups gathering signatures to go outside urban, progressive areas like Portland. For example, there’s a bill title in now that would make it so ballot campaigns have to have an equal amount of signatures from the state’s two congressional districts. A previous attempt to do this failed two years ago.

This Legislature is also going to spend a lot of time talking about the opioid crisis, education funding, student debt, solar energy, welfare, expanding broadband access to rural areas and marijuana.

There are dozens of bills that are response to the passage of Question 1, which allows adults age 21 to possess and grow marijuana while also setting up for the licensing and retail sale. The titles suggest lawmakers want to do a lot of tinkering with this law, which is interesting since it’s the Legislature’s unwillingness to deal with legal pot that put the issue on the ballot.

There’s a bill to repeal legalization, which is highly unlikely. But there are others that deal with delaying enactment of the law, licensing requirements and even creating setbacks from churches and schools. This is expected. After Colorado legalized pot, the Legislature there passed 80 bills to amend the law.

There are dozens of bills that attempt to tackle the opioid crisis, which drove a record 280 overdose deaths. The focus this year appears to be treatment and rescue. That is, many of the proposals expand access to methadone and Suboxone for treatment. Others build on efforts to expand access to naloxone, or Narcan, which is used to revive someone who has overdosed.

On the education front, there are a bunch of bills that would change how local education funding is distributed by the state. And another big issue this year is student debt. Lots of bills that attempt to reduce or forgive college loan payments, which we know is a big issue for Maine families.

Nora: I know from recent sessions that some lawmakers submit more bills than others. Do we have a winner this year?

Steve: This is from some quick math, but I’m pretty sure it’s Sen. Troy Jackson, the Democratic minority leader. Jackson has submitted over 40 bills this session. But he has some company. Brakey, who submitted the hedgehog bill, has nearly as many. So does Gideon, who has close to 40.

This interview has been edited for clarity.