Pulse Newsletter: Influenced By National Politics, Maine Legislature Sketches Battleground For 2022
In this week’s newsletter: Recapping the long odyssey of the legislative session; how the corridor fight is padding consultants’ wallets; the little-known firm behind Maine’s landmark recycling law.
The 130th Legislature adjourned Monday, ending an extraordinary first session that was somehow uniquely Maine and also colored by the national strife that keeps infiltrating local politics.
At the same time, the session, its policy debates and resulting laws also provided the rough sketch of the coming 2022 election battleground.
It began in December during the long shadow of the seemingly out-of-control pandemic and a post-presidential election fight that culminated in an attack on the U.S. Capitol. While the insurrection occurred nearly 600 miles away, it triggered tightened security at the state house complex in Maine; on Inauguration Day, Maine State Police tactical teams were staged in the Burton Cross Building in Augusta to respond to reports of possible armed demonstrators at the state house; the Maine Capitol Police chief had been placed on administrative leave for voicing the same doubts about the election outcome that had inspired the Jan. 6 riot in D.C.
Meanwhile, pandemic politics swamped newly-elected legislative leaders as Democrats and Republicans clashed over mask policies, remote public hearings and visitors at a state house that would remain closed to the public until the spring.
Distrust was the prevailing sentiment.
It mostly remained that way until the end when the influx of COVID-19 vaccines slowly lifted restrictions and allowed lawmakers to gather in-person again in June.
By that time Democrats, who control the Maine House and Senate, had already used their majorities to pass a baseline budget and forestall any hard-bargaining by Republicans that would result in a government shutdown. It was an outcome years in the making and fresh in the minds of Democrats who served during the 2017 shutdown forced by former Gov. Paul LePage and House Republicans -- a brief stoppage that seemed more about partisan bragging rights than any particular policy dispute. With LePage continuing a third year of teasing about a third gubernatorial run, and a GOP base ready to back him, Democrats did not want to take any chances with a state budget fight that could delay an economic recovery, and with that, dim their own electoral fortunes next year, or those of Gov. Janet Mills.
The flexing of their majorities was condemned by Republicans, some of whom decried the move as an end to bipartisanship this session.
It didn’t turn out that way.
In June both parties agreed on changes to the new two-year spending plan, which included a plan to provide universal free school meals, making Maine one of the first states to do so.
Over the final weeks of the session the spotlight shifted to disagreements between Mills and her left flank.
Some progressive activists worried the governor’s centrist positions and rejection of ambitious reforms will depress enthusiasm among the Democratic base next year. Others, including Democratic Senate President Troy Jackson, bristled as his push to overhaul prescription drug regulations and end aerial herbicide spraying fell under the veto pen of a governor from his own party.
Jackson voiced his disappointment again during an appearance on Maine Public’s Maine Calling talk show this week.
He said Democrats had achieved quite a lot this year, but acknowledged that he tends to focus on the losses.
Democratic House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, took a different view, calling the session and the final bill dispensing $1 billion in federal relief funds “transformational.”
Despite agreement on 97% of its contents, the spending bill passed on a party line vote, which Mills said she hoped to avoid, but that did not prevent her from signing the bill within minutes of it reaching her desk.
“Despite my disappointment over the delay in these investments and the unnecessarily partisan votes on the bill, I am pleased that the Legislature, both Democrats and Republicans, agreed on the vast majority of the important measures in this bill and, like them, I am pleased to see it become law.”
Mills is right to be pleased with the bill, which largely aligns with her initial proposal from the spring. Yet the federal money paying for it will undoubtedly become an issue in the campaign between her and LePage, who announced his long-promised candidacy earlier this month.
The $9 billion flood of federal money helped Maine and the Mills administration ward off the budgetary nightmare that many predicted would arrive this year. It may well also boost the economic recovery, and Mills’ reelection chances along with it.
But Republicans hope to stamp an asterisk on the recovery, just as they did when Mills announced this week that the state now has $500 million in its so-called rainy day fund.
The rainy day fund was an obsession of LePage’s during his two terms as he slashed many programs and services under the banner of fiscal management. He’ll undoubtedly challenge his longtime rival’s claims that she held the line on taxes and extravagant spending while padding the state’s savings.
For now, the former governor is having some early difficulties with his purported rebranding effort, vowing at a recent fundraiser to fight the school system and railing against critical race theory (there is no evidence that the obscure CRT is taught in public schools, in Maine or elsewhere). He also falsely claimed that Maine had the country’s highest death rate in nursing homes during the pandemic (it had one the nation’s lowest).
While implications of the Mills-LePage contest tended to frame the final days of the session, the long odyssey ended relatively quietly with the governor lightly chiding lawmakers for the partisan squabble over a bill they mostly agreed upon.
Full-time employment for consultants
By now Maine voters are probably numb to the millions of dollars that supporters and opponents of Central Maine Power’s transmission corridor have spent on the upcoming referendum aimed at derailing the project.
How the money has been spent might be more intriguing.
So far, political action committees have spent more than $15 million, more than $10 million coming from CMP’s Clean Energy Matters political action committee, which was formed in 2019 to fight a ballot initiative that was ultimately scuttled by the Maine law court. Like the previous referendum, CMP’s PAC is spending big on television ads -- roughly $5 million this year.
It also spent nearly $4 million on “professional services,” a broad category designed to capture spending on everything from web design to political consulting.
That includes $39,000 last quarter for “political strategy services'' provided by James Mitchell, who is also one of CMP’s primary lobbyists at the state house. Mitchell is often described as a Democratic lobbyist because he was once chairman of the Maine Democratic Party. CMP’s PAC is also paying other Democatic consultants, including Jonathan Breed, who ran Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden’s campaign in 2018. However, the PAC is also paying Republican-affiliated consultants, including Tim Walton, of Walton External Affairs, who once lobbied for Hydro-Quebec.
The Canadian energy company has spent $3 million this year pushing the project and is likely to commit more after Gov. Janet Mills vetoed a bill that would have prohibited referendum spending by companies owned by foreign governments.
CMP’s PAC also paid Patriot Consulting $20,000 for “grassroots town hall services.” Patriot Consulting is run by Zach Lingley, a Republican lobbyist and consultant who recently helped launch state Sen. Trey Stewart’s, R-Presque Isle, nascent bid to unseat Congressman Golden next year.
Stewart this week jousted on the Senate floor with CMP critic Republican state Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, over a joint order that could influence a legal dispute over a corridor lease agreement between the state and CMP (Stewart claimed during the debate that he doesn’t like CMP, but opposed the “precedent” of joint order).
CMP also paid $26,000 to a consulting firm of mysterious origin. It’s called Saddleback Strategy Group, which has a limited web presence and apparently no physical location (it lists an address at the Mailing Center in Augusta). A corporation search of Secretary of State listings shows only the registering agent, not the owner.
Chris Glynn, a spokesman for CMP’s PAC, told Maine Public Thursday that Saddleback is run by Joe Turcotte, a former Republican operative who recently announced that he’s the campaign manager for LePage’s reelection bid. He also runs Turcotte Consulting & Creative Strategies, a political consulting firm.
CMP’s efforts are being challenged on several fronts, but it’s primary rival, at least in terms of spending, is the ironically named PAC Mainers for Local Power, which has spent nearly $3 million this year. The group is primarily financed by Calpine and Vistra, two Texas-based natural gas companies that own plants in Maine, and Florida-based NextEra Energy, which owns an array of fossil-fuel electricity generators and renewable sources.
Like CMP, Mainers for Local Power is spending heavily on national and local consulting firms, including $200,000 last quarter that went to Frame Media Strategies. The firm has been used by the Maine Democratic Party and produced an ad last year that attacked ... drumroll ... Sen. Stewart during his bid for the state Senate.
Mainers for Local Power also spent $15,000 last quarter for the services of “bi-partisan government affairs advocates” Fredette Dion LLC, which is operated by former Democratic state Sen. Mark Dion and former Republican House minority leader Ken Fredette.
There are other consultants involved in the corridor fight, but some are trying to remain anonymous. Another anti-corridor group, Stop the Corridor, is fighting an investigation by the Maine Ethics Commission to determine if the group should file as a political action committee and reveal its funding sources. The group is contesting the commission’s effort to subpoena it’s records and so far it’s been able to shield the identity of a consulting firm that it’s hired.
The lowkey nonprofit behind Maine’s recycling law
Of all the groups and individuals touting -- or panning -- Maine’s new law that forces companies like Amazon and Walmart to pay to recycle the packaging they produce, the Boston-based Product Stewardship Council probably isn’t one of them.
But PSI is the brains behind the legislation that supporters hope will save municipal recycling programs and the property taxpayers that finance them.
According to the Boston Globe, PSI has been crafting waste disposal laws in state legislatures for more than two decades, including initiatives to dispose of batteries and electronics.
According to the Globe, Scott Cassel, the company’s CEO, was inspired to form PSI when the HP Hood milk company decided to change its clear plastic bottles that other milk producers use to so-called “white-block” containers. That single move created havoc with Bay State recycling programs, which Cassel oversaw at the time.
Today, the packaging problem is more acute. China’s decision to stop taking U.S. recycling has tanked the market, making it more expensive for municipalities to recycle packaging that the Environmental Protection Agency says yielded 82 million tons in 2018.
Maine’s new law aims to flip the cost responsibility from consumers to the companies that make the packaging. And PSI hopes Maine’s new law will inspire other states to make the same move.
Oregon’s legislature has passed a similar law, which is known as extended producer responsibility, which could be signed by Gov. Kate Brown.
Massachusetts will soon review a similar bill.
The pushback from industry groups is expected to be fierce, as it was in Maine. Of the more than 40 organizations that lobbied the bill, most represented companies or industry groups that opposed it, according to lobbyist disclosure reports by the Maine Ethics Commission.
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