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Gearing up for the new year... and the 2022 legislative session

The Maine State House is seen at sunrise, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
The Maine State House is seen at sunrise, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.

In this week’s Pulse: Lawmakers prepare for a hefty 2022 legislative session; why Maine is flush with money right now; broad bipartisan support for welfare reform (again); and tribal-state relations.

As the calendar rolls over to 2022, state lawmakers are preparing for a legislative session with no shortage of meaty issues – from what to do with $800 million in additional revenue to child welfare reform, improving tribal-state relations and marijuana policy changes.

The 2022 legislative session, which officially kicks off next Wednesday, January 5th, will look similar to last year’s in terms of pandemic-related adjustments. Senate President Troy Jackson and House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, both Democrats, have scheduled two, in-person gatherings of the full Legislature in January with more coming later.

But for the second year, all committee meetings (where most work occurs) are to be held virtually, at least initially. Legislating via Zoom isn’t sitting well with everyone. But regardless of whether lawmakers gather at the State House or in a virtual committee room, they’ll have until April to consider more than 200 bills that were “carried over” from the 2021 session along with more than 150 new bills.

Further muddying the political waters, 2022 is an election year for all 186 members of the Legislature as well as Democratic Gov. Janet Mills. So it seems unlikely that Republicans – regardless of the platitudes about bipartisanship – will want to give Mills major policy victories as former Republican Gov. Paul LePage seeks to defeat her in November.

But here is a roundup of a few of the major – or noteworthy – issues that we expect to be watching in Augusta over the coming months.

Extra money – and lots of it

Despite the pandemic, Maine is flush with money right now.

Maine’s nonpartisan Revenue Forecasting Committee recently projected that the state will take in $822 million more during the 2022 and 2023 budget years than originally projected.

While the committee warned that economic uncertainty around the pandemic makes those projections even squishier than normal, it’s clear that lawmakers will be in the enviable position of deciding what to do with excess tax collections rather than making cuts because of too few.

The debate over how to proceed – and how cautious of an approach to take given that economic uncertainty – will likely define much of the 2022 session.

The Mills administration is expected to submit a “supplemental budget” in January laying out the governor’s vision for what to do with the additional money. Mills has yet to provide any details other than say she “would like to examine ways we can use this additional revenue to provide direct financial relief” to Mainers paying substantially more for gas, heating oil, electricity and groceries.

Potential options include:

  • Direct payments to taxpayers, similar to the $285 checks that went to more than 500,000 working Mainers over the last two months.
  • Income tax cuts, either temporary or permanent
  • Reducing Maine’s sales tax (currently 5.5%)

Sen. Cathy Breen, a Falmouth Democrat who co-chairs the budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, said Democrats worked with Republicans last year to earmark $150 million for those $285 checks to Maine residents who worked during the pandemic.
And with everyone concerned about the impact of inflation, Breen said Democrats are willing to consider additional measures this year – up to a point.

“We are always willing to discuss and negotiate over any of that,” Breen said. “I would say that a permanent tax decrease is something that we are not interested in only because in the last budget we finally reached 55 percent for school funding and we finally got back to 5 percent for revenue sharing.”

Breen said those were important steps to reduce pressure on property taxes, adding “I don’t think anybody wants to potentially go backward on either of those.”

Sen. Jeffrey Timberlake, the Republican leader in the Senate, said his caucus is concerned about the economic plight of nursing homes, many of which faced severe financial challenges prior to the pandemic. But the big priority will be returning money to taxpayers, although he said it’s too early to say how.

“I think the money should go back to the people,” Timberlake said. “It’s the people’s money and it’s there because of over-taxation. So we need to address this problem we are continually having by taxing people.”

But November’s election is likely to loom large.

LePage is already campaigning on a pledge to cut income taxes, as he did during his two terms.

Mills and her Democratic allies appear likely to tap some of that $800 million projected surplus to offer some sort of relief to taxpayers. The questions are how far are Democrats willing to go – and will Republicans support efforts that could undermine LePage’s attempts to paint Mills as a tax-and-spend liberal?

Child welfare

There is broad bipartisan support for (once again) changing Maine’s child welfare programs in the aftermath of a string of child deaths linked to abuse.

More than a half-dozen bills have been introduced during this short legislative session aimed at strengthening child welfare programs.

Three of the bills, L.D.s 1755, 1812 and 1824, seek to bolster Maine’s Child Welfare Ombudsman office that responds to complaints about DHHS and reviews child welfare cases. The bills would provide additional funding to hire more staff at the tiny agency, which produces annual reports on child welfare programs, as well as increase its independence.

“By law, the department can’t share a lot of information, so our ability to provide oversight is limited,” the sponsor of one bill, Sen. Chip Curry, D-Belfast,recently told the Portland Press Herald. “What’s clear to me now is we also need a stronger ombudsman office. We need to staff it up and make sure they have the independence to go where they need to go, find the information they need to find and engage on both of those missions.”

Another bill, L.D. 1834, would require the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee to conduct ongoing monitoring of DHHS child welfare programs. Other measures seek to increase the number of child magistrate judges and limit the hours worked by child caseworkers.

The slew of bills follows four child deaths in less than a month over the summer, three of which resulted in criminal charges against parents. In response, the lawmakers directed their independent watchdog agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, to launch investigations, which are ongoing.

And DHHS hired a national nonprofit, Casey Family Services, to assist with its own investigation and conduct an external review. But some lawmakers said the resulting reportdid not delve deep enough.

Unfortunately, these are not new issues for lawmakers.

It’s only been a few years since the last round of legislative investigations and policy changes aimed at strengthening child welfare programs following two high-profile child deaths that led to murder convictions of parents or caregivers. Since then, the state has hired dozens of additional caseworkers and supervisors, increased training and improved transparency within the agency.

But the Casey Family Services report found the pandemic had worsened staffing issues and called for improved coordination between child welfare staff and outside partners when abuse or neglected are suspected.

Tribal-state relations

After years of escalating tensions between Maine state government and tribal nations, a task force released a lengthy plan in early-2020 to overhaul the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act.

The report recommended sweeping changes that would have given tribes much broader authority on issues such as taxation, gambling, criminal justice and use of natural resources. But despite significant momentum in the Legislature, the overhaul effort fell victim to the pandemic when the Legislature adjourned early and never returned.

Tribal leaders want lawmakers to take up the latest version of the effort, L.D. 1626, to overhaul a failed agreement that they say administration after administration has used to treat them like municipalities or wards of the state rather than sovereign nations.

At its core, the more than 40-page bill would repeal many aspects of the 1980 agreement and, instead, would grant the tribes “the rights, privileges, powers, duties and immunities similar to those of other federally recognized Indian tribes” across the country.

The bill is sponsored by Democratic Assistant Majority Leader Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross of Portland and has the support of other legislative leaders, including Senate President Troy Jackson.

It is unclear whether lawmakers will have the appetite – or time – to take on the complex suite of issues during a shorter legislative session, however.

Granting tribes the authority to open casinos or other gaming establishments remains controversial in Maine, despite most tribes enjoying that authority nationwide. Municipalities have raised concerns about tribes’ abilities to acquire new territories in the bill. And Mills as well as Attorney General Aaron Frey have raised numerous objections to the proposal.

Other noteworthy issues on the legislative agenda:

  • Shortage of health care workers –  There is also bipartisan support for attempting to address the shortage of health care workers, which predates the pandemic but has ​been exacerbated by it. Part of that discussion will likely take place in the Appropriations Committee as lawmakers discuss financial incentives to recruit and retain workers. Other bills will focus on training, working conditions, etc… 
  • Elections and election integrity – Maine has avoided the “election integrity” battles that have played out in Arizona, Georgia, Texas and other states since the 2020 election. But a bill sponsored by Democratic lawmakers, including House Speaker Fecteau, aims to tighten Maine’s rules on ballot custody and tampering with election equipment. The bill, L.D. 1779, is a response to the fishing-expedition voter fraud “audits” that Trump supporters pursued in Arizona and other states (and that some Republican lawmakers in Maine wanted here).
  • More marijuana policy tweaks –  Expect more efforts to tighten or re-write Maine’s complex regulatory structures around marijuana, particularly recreational cannabis. Some within the cannabis industry want the state to impose the same “track and trace” requirements on medical marijuana that is applied to recreational pot to prevent it from being illegally diverted to the black market, either in Maine or other states. But many smaller medical marijuana caregivers said the requirement would be too burdensome.
  • COVID restrictions – Democratic leaders serving on the Legislative Council defeated every Republican attempt to introduce (or re-introduce) bills seeking to rein in the governor’s powers during a pandemic or other emergency. Expect more attempts in some form.
  • Bills stuck in limbo –  Mills is currently sitting on two bills that passed the Legislature in July but that she has yet to act on because Maine allows her to hold bills until the Legislature returns. One of those bills, sponsored by independent Rep. Jeff Evangelos of Friendship, would create a study commission to examine reestablishing parole in Maine. Mills, a former attorney general and prosecutor, has expressed strong reservations about the bill.
  • Child care workforce – Child care workers are also in high demand but long hours, low pay and training requirements have discouraged many from entering the field. Lawmakers are expected to discuss ways to grow the child care workforce.
  • Affordable housing – Legislation is expected to be introduced based on recommendations from a commission that examined affordable housing issues in the state. Those recommendations include eliminating single-family zoning restrictions to encourage multi-dwelling lots, reducing regulatory barriers for multi-family housing developments and incentivizing communities to create more affordable housing.

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