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Politics

Pulse Newsletter: No Evidence Of ‘Dems In Disarray’ Even As Mills’ Vetoes Loom

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"Say NO to 145-mile CMP transmission line through Maine" via Facebook

In this week’s newsletter: Mills’ approach to disagreements with legislative Dems; watching for vetoes; broadband boosts gets bipartisan nod; and legislature breaks for budget deal.

A legislative session that took place mostly over video conference because of pandemic restrictions is barreling to a close as lawmakers finish their work with a third straight week of in-person debate and a blitz of votes.

Democrats, who control the Maine House and the Senate, are poised to enact a broad range of policies that affect everything from how Mainers get their electricity to how they vote.

Unless, of course, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills uses her veto power to stop them.

That’s most certainly going to happen to some Democratic-endorsed bills, but which ones?

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It’s hard to say.

Mills has mostly steered clear of telegraphing public positions on many Democratic initiatives, sometimes leaving stakeholders and observers trying to interpret carefully-worded -- and often neutral -- positions her staff has taken in public hearings.

And when the governor does take a position, it’s often news.

That’s been the case with the bill to create a consumer-owned utility to replace Maine’s two largest electricity providers, Central Maine Power and Versant Power. The governor has spent the past two weeks framing the bill as a feel-good, rush-job that largely drafts off anti-CMP sentiment, but with potentially negative consequences.

She intensified her public statements against the bill just hours before the Senate followed the House in giving it initial approval. Her opposition, outlined in a detailed memo distributed by her chief of staff earlier this week, arguably had an impact. The initial 19-16 vote in the Senate was narrower than expected as several Democrats joined with Republicans who are nearly-unified in opposition. The bill then failed on enactment after two supporters flipped their votes, forcing the Senate to hold the bill until lawmakers return later this month.

Mills’ approach on legislation and dealing with Democrats who take a different position than she does is contrasted with her predecessor, and likely 2022 challenger, Republican Gov. Paul LePage. When LePage took a hardline on legislation Republican lawmakers were often pressured to fall in line or risk getting called out publicly by the governor himself. When Senate Republicans balked at his dramatic tax overhaul plan in 2015, LePage’s political organization launched robocalls targeted to residents in their districts.

Some of them ended up with their photos hanging from a Christmas tree, LePage’s visual metaphor for what he viewed as budget giveaways to high profile lawmakers.

While frustrating at times for fellow Democrats and a progressive wing eager for more aggressive policy changes, Mills’ approach could be beneficial to her moderate brand as she seeks reelection in 2022 -- as long as she doesn’t alienate the Democratic base.

At a time when split-ticket voters are thought to be a dwindling species nationwide, Maine’s swing voters have proven resilient against nationalized campaigns laced with party identification messaging; there’s a reason President Joe Biden’s nine-point victory here in 2020 didn’t provide coattails for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Sara Gideon.

That’s why breaks between Mills and her party might not be as politically detrimental to the governor -- or legislative Democrats -- as they might seem.

Dems in disarray, a Beltway catchphrase meant to characterize the ongoing and often very public struggles between Democrats’ moderate and progressive factions, doesn’t seem to have the same resonance here (Although it does in the City of Portland).

Veto watch

The governor will soon decide the fate of a slew of bills that have arrived on her desk during the Legislature’s sprint to the finish line. She’ll have 10 days, excluding Sundays, from each bill’s enactment to either sign those proposals, veto them or allow them to become law without her signature.

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Brian Bechard

Mills has made it clear that she’s deeply skeptical of the consumer-owned utility bill, although advocates are holding out hope that she’ll allow the bill to become law and give Maine voters the final say during a November referendum.

(Editor's note: While the governor has raised concerns about the wording of the measure, there have been previous cases where the legislation spelled out what the ballot question should be. This would not set a new precedent.)

Her positions on other bills are a bit harder to discern.

That includes a proposal that would create a landmark law that shifts some recycling and disposal costs from property taxpayers to the producers of packaging materials.

Mills’ Department of Environmental Protection took a neutral position on the bill, but lawmakers attempted to work with the agency to make changes that would win the governor’s signature. It’s not clear if it worked and the full-throated opposition to the bill from the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and other business groups could give the governor pause.

Mills has still not said if she’ll sign a bill that would ban entities with ownership by foreign governments from electioneering in ballot campaigns. The proposal could impact a referendum aimed at scuttling Central Maine Power’s controversial transmission project, which Mills supports. However, lawmakers removed an emergency preamble that will delay the bill’s effective date until mid-September or possibly October. That could limit the bill’s sidelining of Hydro-Quebec, the Canadian utility company that inspired the bill with its prolific spending on the corridor referendum.

Broadband bill gets the nod

The Legislature this week voted overwhelmingly to create a new broadband agency to oversee a massive influx of federal dollars to boost rural broadband in Maine.

The bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Rick Bennett, of Oxford, and Democratic Rep. Seth Berry, of Bowdoinham, was backed by the governor, who described it as a top priority for her administration during a press conference held in April.

The bill creates a new broadband authority to help coordinate and distribute grants to extend and improve broadband service across the state and rural areas. The new agency will fold in the ConnectMaine Authority, a two-person agency established 15 years ago that has provided roughly $1 million in annual grants to about two dozen broadband projects.

The new agency will be responsible for quickly distributing far more money.

In addition to a $15 million voter-approved broadband bond, the agency will also allocate grants made possible by a $129 million IN federal aid made available through the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan.

A recent report found that 85,000 locations across the state don't meet the federal standard for upload and download speeds, while the Pew Charitable Trusts recently found that 4 in 10 Mainers earning $30,000 or less don't have high-speed access at all.

GOP looking for leverage

Legislative Republicans, largely powerless after Democrats used their majority in March to pass a baseline two-year budget and avoid a government shutdown, are hoping to influence sweeping changes to the spending plan, and to influence how the state will spend $1 billion in federal stimulus aid. Negotiations over those items have taken place largely behind closed doors with no breakthroughs on a deal -- or the traditional public fight that typically precedes a breakthrough.

If there’s going to be a deal, it will have to occur in the next 10 days or so.

After convening for a flurry of votes over the past two weeks, the Legislature is going to recess until the end of the month. The move is designed to give the governor time to wade through the bills on her desk and also allow the legislature’s budget writing committee to work on the spending initiatives.