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Jared Golden lauds passage of the infrastructure bill, but the intra-party spat isn’t over

Rep. Jared Golden, D-Maine, visits Acadia National Park, Friday, June 18, 2021, in Winter Harbor, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
Rep. Jared Golden, D-Maine, visits Acadia National Park, Friday, June 18, 2021, in Winter Harbor, Maine.

In this week’s Pulse: How Biden’s Build Back Better bill is dividing Golden’s centrists and progressives; the infrastructure bill creates transmission corridors in the “national interest”; pot bust reignites crop tracking debate for medical providers; how the FEC just opened the door to more foreign influence in ballot campaigns.

Last week’s passage of the historic $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill was a major moment for congressional Democrats after months of internal division between progressives and moderates.

But bigger, more contentious issues lie ahead.

The role that U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of Maine’s 2nd District played in that political showdown was widely reported – and strongly criticized by some progressives here and nationally. Earlier this week, Golden said passage of the infrastructure bill (more on that below) was “a big win for the country.”

And the 2nd District Democrat wasn’t backing down amid criticism of moderates’ insistence on delaying a vote on a $1.7 trillion social spending bill in order to get more information on the budget impacts. Golden said his progressive colleagues were wrong to have insisted on pairing the votes and that two-track strategy harmed their agenda.

“There was no need for this delay,” Golden said in an interview with Maine Public. “I actually think the people who constructed this kind of strategy became hostage to themselves. It was failed strategy and I’m glad we were able to shake that loose and get the vote on the infrastructure bill.”

Maine progressives plan to continue pressuring Golden (read or listen to that story here) to support the Build Back Better plan, which many regard as a modern-day New Deal. As it currently stands, the pared-down, $1.7 trillion proposal funds universal preschool, establishes a national paid family or medical leave provision, invests $150 billion in affordable housing and $550 billion in programs to address climate change.

But there is disagreement even among the centrist or moderate Democrats over next steps.

Five of the seven moderates who worked to decouple the votes have committed to voting for Build Back Better “in its current form, other than technical changes,” once they see nonpartisan details on the bill’s impacts and how it is paid for.

Golden and Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia were the notable absences from the joint statement. And Golden still wasn’t making any commitments this week.

“This bill has still got room for improvement and I am going to keep working to make it better until it is time for the final vote,” Golden said. “And when that vote comes, we are going to look at the whole and make a final decision.”

There is also stark division within that small contingent of moderates over aspects of the bill.

For instance, Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey cheered the inclusion of a measure to repeal a provision that capped deductions for state and local taxes paid by property owners. Enacted in 2017, the provision hits particularly hard in states where property taxes and property values are so high that even middle-income families end up exceeding the current $10,000 cap.

“This agreement to address the cap on our State and Local Tax (SALT) deduction will effectively eliminate the undue burden for nearly all of the families in our districts who’ve been unfairly double taxed for the last four years,” Gottheimer said in a statement along with two colleagues from New Jersey and New York. “This fix will put money back in the pockets of hardworking, middle class families in our districts and help ensure that our local communities can continue making the investments that we need.”

But Golden singled out the SALT provision as an example of bad policy in the bill that still needs “significant improvement.”

“It’s atrociously bad policy,” Golden said. “It is a tax break for millionaires. Like 90 percent of the beneficiaries of this tax break is going toward the wealthiest households in America. And yet my Democratic colleagues claim this bill is going to be paid for by raising taxes on the super-rich.”

Some progressive House members, meanwhile, are leery that the moderates who pledged to eventually support the bill will actually do so.

“What if the CBO score is not to their liking?” Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a New York Democrat who opposed unpairing the two bills, told The Washington Post. “What if the lobbying efforts that have been taking place over the last several months continue and someone decides they no longer want to support the BBB at the current level — if at all?”

Golden’s hesitance on the $1.7 trillion social spending plan is just the latest example of ways that the two-term congressman has frustrated the far-left wing of Maine Democrats – and potentially boosted his standing with independent and moderate Dems in the more conservative 2nd District.

He voted against Democrats’ $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package in March, against a high-profile gun control bill and split his vote on the two articles of impeachment during President Donald Trump’s first impeachment in 2019. Golden subsequently voted in Jan. 2021 to impeach Trump for his role in the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

For his part, Golden said he believes the debate over Build Back Better has distracted from other, pressing issues. He said his constituents are more concerned about how the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is affecting their lives, about the economy, their kids’ safe return to school and rising inflation.

“I know that the majority of my constituents support the approach that I have taken here, a bipartisan approach and a very well thought-out approach to building an infrastructure bill,” he said.

A bipartisan group is trying to put an initiative on the 2022 ballot that would effectively revive the bill that Mills vetoed this year.

“National interest” transmission projects

The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed by the U.S. House last week will divert more than $1.3 billion into Maine’s highway and bridge program.

It also includes another $1 billion for programs and initiatives for water systems, high-speed internet and electric vehicle charging stations.

However, there are additional elements of the bill that will have an unknown effect on Maine, including a provision that appears to give the federal government more authority to authorize “clean electricity” transmission projects over state objections if those projects are dubbed by the U.S. Energy Department as being in the “national interest.”

E&E News dubbed the provision as a “big climate win” because it allows the federal government to potentially override state rejection of transmission projects that are deemed of regional benefit.

On its face, the Central Maine Power corridor that Maine voters last week voted to scuttle seems to qualify. While the 1,200-megawatt project satisfies a contract between Massachusetts, CMP and Hydro-Quebec, it’s been framed by proponents as having a regional benefit in reducing greenhouse gas emissions -- a claim disputed by opponents.

Additionally, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm endorsed the project prior to last week’s referendum and she used Twitter to encourage voters to vote “no” on Question 1.

Still, it’s unclear if the provision in the infrastructure bill will have any effect at all on the CMP corridor, which is already the subject of legal and regulatory battles.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills supports the project. Anthony Ronzio, a spokesman for the governor’s energy office, said the Mills administration is aware of the corridor provision in the infrastructure bill, but does not have any details about its implications.

Even if the infrastructure bill does little to affect the CMP corridor, it might diminish concerns that last week’s referendum will become a blueprint to defeat future projects.

Farmington bust shadows marijuana program

The federal conspiracy case against multiple defendants in the Farmington-area is reigniting a debate over the rules governing the state’s medical cannabis program.

The criminal case involves a dozen defendants, including current and former law enforcement officials and a Franklin County assistant district attorney, who are alleged to have played some role in what the U.S. Attorney's Office says was a $13 million operation that used Maine's medical marijuana program to grow and sell cannabis in the illicit market, sometimes out of state.

The case loomed over a meeting this week of the state Marijuana Advisory Commission, which can recommend changes to the state’s medical and recreational cannabis programs.

At issue is whether the state’s Office of Marijuana Policy, or OMP, should adopt a track-and-trace requirement in the medical program, as it already has for recreational purveyors and growers. OMP last year proposed doing just that, but it was met with widespread opposition from smaller medical growers, who worried that tracking cannabis across their supply chains would be burdensome and costly. There are also questions about whether such a system would do much to contract or eliminate the illicit market.

Pushback from medical growers and caregivers prompted the Legislature to abandon the tracking system initiative last year, but the Farmington case has prompted some to encourage OMP to reintroduce it.

Advocates for tracking medical cannabis will undoubtedly be bolstered by comments from OMP Director Erik Gundersen during Tuesday’s meeting of the advisory panel. Gundersen said flatly that his office does not have the tools to track whether medical cannabis is making its way into the illicit market, as it is alleged to have done in the Farmington case, and that he suspects there are other illegal operations exploiting a program that was created a decade ago and become more permissive ever since.

"When we get reports of, come across, see, follow-up on what is obvious, illicit activity -- which is quite frequent -- that's a direct handoff to local law enforcement and it's really a coin flip if there's any type of follow-up with the Office of Marijuana Policy," Gundersen said when asked by assistant attorney general John Risler whether he had the tools to fight the illicit trafficking of medical cannabis.

The tension centers on large and smaller participants in the medical program. To put it simply, the larger ones often have investor backing, which means they’re better positioned to absorb regulatory measures such as a system that tracks cannabis crops from seed to sale. The smaller purveyors are, in some cases, quite literally family- or individual-owned businesses whose profit margins might be quite small in some instances. There’s also fear among smaller operations that the larger ones are pushing for crop tracking as a way of forcing them out of business and to garner more market share. That’s one reason why smaller caregivers reacted so forcefully to last year’s attempt to implement track-and-trace. Sen. Brad Farrin, R-Norridgewock, a member of the advisory panel and the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, said this week that he received several angry phone calls and threats when the Legislature considered the program last year.

More blowback is expected if the Legislature takes a second look at it during the legislative session that starts in January.

FEC rule: Foreign donors can influence ballot campaigns

It’s well-known by now that Hydro-Quebec, a company wholly owned by the government of Quebec, spent more than $21 million trying to convince Maine voters not to scuttle the CMP corridor project.

That spending was made possible by a loophole in Maine election law that allows foreign-owned corporations to electioneer in ballot campaigns. Gov. Janet Mills in June vetoed a bill that would have closed the loophole.

A recent ruling by the Federal Elections Commission could open the door further to foreign influence in ballot campaigns. The ruling, first reported by Axios, concerned a complaint in Montana that a Canadian subsidiary of an Australian mining company violated federal law by making donations to the Montana Mining Association to fight a ballot initiative that would have added requirements to obtain hardrock mining permits. The FEC ruled that the donations were permitted under federal law because it, like the Maine law, is mostly silent on foreign electioneering in ballot campaigns.

The ruling raises a lot of questions about whether foreign-owned companies can now electioneer in redistricting referendums -- not an issue in Maine, but it is elsewhere -- or other ballot campaigns that shape domestic policy. The ruling does not override states who pass specific laws to outlaw foreign electioneering on ballot campaigns, but only seven states have such bans.

Maine is not one of them — yet.

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