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Pulse Newsletter: In Trying To Contextualize Vetoes, Gov. Janet Mills Acknowledges Progressive Angst

Gov. Janet Mills speaks to the press at the Maine State House on July 13, 2021 after she vetoed a bill aiming to replace Central Maine Power and Versant Power with a consumer-owned utility.
Steve Mistler
Maine Public
Gov. Janet Mills speaks to the press at the Maine State House on July 13, 2021 after she vetoed a bill aiming to replace Central Maine Power and Versant Power with a consumer-owned utility.

In this week’s newsletter: Gov. Janet Mills tries to contextualize her vetoes; a landmark bid to save recycling; the push to quantify racial profiling; the return of earmarks; Sen. Angus King seeks a lifeline for Afghans; another dubious GOP claim against Rep. Jared Golden.

Her spokesperson had called an end to the press conference, but Gov. Janet Mills had one last point to make.

“By the way, we’ve now taken action on 1,734 bills printed just this year,” said Mills, adding that 635 of those bills were enacted, including 491 that she had signed into law.

“As of today I will have vetoed 21 bills to date, less than 3%,” she added before stepping away from the lectern and into her office.

At a glance, the governor’s remarks may have seemed like a non-sequitur. After all, she had just spent roughly 30 minutes explaining her veto of a bill that would have asked voters to buy out the assets of Maine’s two largest utilities and install a consumer-owned outfit run by an elected board.

But in the context of the past couple weeks, the governor’s parting comments made sense.

Mills may have only vetoed 21 bills this session, but she has been taking friendly fire from progressives and a few Democratic lawmakers for rejecting several high-profile bills advanced by environmentalists, labor unions and criminal justice reformers. While the angst over the fate of those proposals might seem typical of the melodrama that can pervade the State House, some activists worry about missed opportunities with full Democratic control in Augusta and potential electoral consequences by dampening turnout among the Democratic base when Mills seeks reelection next year.

The governor has obviously taken notice of the criticism.

Her emphasis on the relatively low veto rate is a contrast with her 2022 challenger, former Gov. Paul LePage, who with 642 vetoes over eight years surpassed more than 23 previous governors combined. And it could have been more had he and his advisors not defiantly misinterpreted the state constitution.

Nevertheless, Mills’ press conference to announce her rejection of a consumer-owned utility bill backed by many lawmakers in her party was unusual. Typically she lets her written veto statements do the talking.

On Tuesday, she made sure to praise advocates of the bill even though she characterized it as misguided and a hasty “patchwork of political promises.” She also left the door open for a different version of a utility takeover and various regulatory actions that could be taken against Central Maine Power and Versant Power.

When asked if the state’s utility regulator had done its job, she indirectly suggested that maybe it hadn’t, but that her appointments to the three-member PUC would bring a renewed commitment to policing CMP in particular.

“I think the new (Public Utilities Commission) has the capability to do the job,” she said. “And I think I've put two really good people on that commission. I think they have the energy and ability to do the job with absolutely no ties or affiliation with any of these utilities," she said

The next day the PUC approved a double-digit rate hike requested by CMP.

The increase was actually foreshadowed last month and it’s driven mostly by a federally required hike in CMP’s investment in the New England grid. But the rate-hike announcement could not have come at a worse time for Mills, who had just devoted a significant portion of her remarks the previous day to blasting the performance of the utility, hinting at lax oversight by the PUC and leaving the door open to stricter regulation, if not an outright takeover in the future.

For CMP’s legion of detractors the sequence of events was further evidence that Mills is unwilling to take on the utility, which despite its massive public relations problem, continues to accumulate legislative victories in Augusta.

In that sense, CMP detractors appear to share a jilted kinship with the progressive activists and affiliated Democrats who are disheartened by the governor’s other vetoes.

The extent to which it will matter in the 2022 election is unclear. After all, internecine conflicts among partisans who agree on most things can often draw attention that dwarfs its actual effect with voters.

But Mills is clearly aware of her agitated allies. What she does over the next year might show how serious a problem she thinks it is.

Recycling overhaul signed

Mills this week signed a landmark bill that will shift the cost of disposing packaging materials away from property taxpayers and onto the companies that make them.

The governor’s signature means that Maine has edged out Oregon for first-in-the-nation status on what’s known as extended producer responsibility.

The law is a big win for environmental groups, as well as municipal budget writers, who hope the new law will save recycling programs that are ailing from a collapsed market after China stopped accepting U.S. recyclable packaging materials.

“This new law assures every Maine community that help with recycling and lowering the property tax burden is on the way,” Rep. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, said in a statement. “It’s time for packaging producers to take responsibility for their waste stream in the Pine Tree State, as they do in more than 40 other countries and regions worldwide.”

In addition to environmental groups, the proposal was backed by the Maine Municipal Association, which represents most municipalities in the state.

Business groups vehemently opposed the bill, arguing that it will increase costs for customers -- although that has not happened in other jurisdictions where extended producer responsibility programs are in place.

Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, the bill’s co-sponsor wrote in a Facebook post that industry groups were contemplating a people’s veto of the measure. Maine Public has not been able to confirm such plans, but organizing a campaign might be difficult without the assistance of local business organizations.

Tracking the race of motorists

Maine this week joined a handful of states that require police to track the race of the motorists they pull over in traffic stops.

Mills allowed the bill sponsored by Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, to become law Tuesday without her signature.

Lawmakers had made a similar attempt to pass such a bill during the previous legislative session, but it failed.

The Department of Public Safety did not oppose the bill, but in testimony during the public hearing, the agency worried that the data it collects will be inaccurate because it relies on the perception of police officers. The law prohibits officers from asking motorists their race during traffic stops.

Advocates for the bill say an officer’s perception of a person’s race is more important than getting it correct because the data could demonstrate evidence of racial profiling in traffic stops.

Earmarks return

Once scorned as conduits for corruption and wasteful spending, congressional earmarks are making a comeback.

Earmarks allow members of Congress to insert into spending bills special projects that directly benefit their state or districts. After a decade-long ban, earmarks have been rebranded -- and according to their supporters -- reformed to become more transparent and potentially greasing the skids for bipartisan cooperation.

Maine Public will have a fuller report on earmarks -- now called Community Funding Projects -- in the near future, but for now, it’s worth noting that Maine’s congressional delegation clearly supports them.

This week U.S. Sens. Angus King, an independent, and Susan Collins, a Republican, submitted a combined 104 earmark requests totalling roughly $460 million. Because both senators support the same projects in some instances, there could be some duplicative funding requests.

The same caveat applies for Maine’s two Democratic House members, Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden. However, the House rules cap each member’s earmark request at 10 projects apiece. Pingree’s requests total about $6.5 million. Golden’s is $6.9 million.

Part of the new earmark rules require members to publicly disclose their requests.

Pingree’s are here.

Golden’s are here.

Collins’ are here.

King’s are here.

All four members have made requests on behalf of non-profit organizations and government entities, as required by the new earmarking rules.

King seeks to help Afghans

The ongoing withdrawal of the U.S. military from Afghanistan has produced a wave of alarming advances by the Taliban forces that American troops battled there for 20 years.

King is worried about the safety of the Afghan people who helped the American mission.

He’s introduced a bill called the Afghan Allies Protection Act, which would increase visas to protect Afghan civilians who helped U.S. forces during the conflict.

“These are people that literally have put their lives on the line for this country, and the least we can do is try to protect them in this situation where we're leaving the country,” King told Maine Public’s Irwin Gratz this week.

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, speaks at Acadia National Park, Friday, June 18, 2021, in Winter Harbor, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, speaks at Acadia National Park, Friday, June 18, 2021, in Winter Harbor, Maine.

The proposal has bipartisan support, but it’s unclear if there’s enough to get through the closely divided Senate.

Gratz asked King if the mere submission of the bill is a sign that the U.S.-supported government in Afghanistan is destined to fall, as some U.S. intelligence projections have indicated.

“Well, I think the people who want to leave are the best judges of that,” King said. “People generally don't want to leave their country, and so I don't think it necessarily sends that kind of signal. I think it sends a signal that we're going to keep our promises to people who help us out. You know, I don't think people are going to make the decision to leave their country, go to a foreign country, where they don't necessarily know the situation and the customs and all of those kinds of things, unless they really feel the necessity of doing so.”

Republicans blame Golden for moths

Republican groups have been trying like crazy to formulate some kind of attack against Golden that sticks.

They’re struggling.

Efforts to chain Golden to Republican’s favorite boogeywoman, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, haven’t worked, in part because the 2nd District Democrat has managed to create the perception that he’s not a fan of her leadership. That includes this week when Golden dinged Pelosi for her maneuvering on a bipartisan infrastructure bill.

In May, a Republican group launched another attack on Golden for supporting the Aqua Ventus wind project off Monhegan Island even though the entire congressional delegation, including Collins, a Republican, have made statements supporting it.

Now, the National Republican Congressional Committee is launching a TV ad blaming Golden for the proliferation of the cursed brown-tail moth.

Nevermind that aerial surveys show that the bulk of the brown-tail moth problem affects mostly 1st District counties. The NRCC ad centers on a 4-year old bill that would have provided municipalities about $500,000 to help towns with remediation costs. The bill failed without so much as a roll call vote, which is another way of saying it failed nearly unanimously. However, the NRCC ad blames Golden for its demise.

The ad makes no mention that the state’s Agriculture Department, then under the control of Republican Gov. Paul LePage, also opposed the bill.

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Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.