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Here's a breakdown of all the moving parts in Maine politics this week

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

In this week's Pulse: Mills’ utility accountability bill divisions, Democratic or anti-vaxx ‘activists’?, ‘fact-finding’ trips to Europe, mutual admiration, and odds and ends in the Legislature.

Maine’s members of Congress have been in Europe as they observe the humanitarian fallout from the largest land war there since World War II.

The first Black woman could be confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court pending future votes by Maine’s two U.S. senators.

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The Maine State Police issued search warrants at properties owned by former gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler for undisclosed reasons, while a hotly contested race between Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and former Republican Gov. Paul LePage churned in the background.

The Maine Legislature entered its frenetic closing stretch with lots of jockeying for bills and attention that they hope will boost their reelection chances in the fall.

There were a lot of moving parts in Maine politics this week. As “The Big Lebowski” once said, “You know, a lotta ins, a lotta outs, a lotta what-have-yous. And, uh, a lotta strands to keep in my head, man. Lotta strands in old Duder's head.”

Here’s what we know...

Mills’ utility accountability bill divisions

It was clear from the outset that Mills’ proposal to get tough on Maine’s electricity providers would face headwinds.

Initially the proposal faced two-pronged opposition from the state’s two largest utilities, Central Maine Power and Versant Power, as well as the activist group that’s seeking to take over the assets of those same utilities and replace them with a nonprofit operated by an elected board.

But a three-way split over the proposal last week by the Legislature’s energy committee illustrated how the bill faces another complication: the 2022 election.

Several Democrats on the committee, including Sen. Mark Lawrence and Senate majority leader Eloise Vitelli, backed a modified version of the governor’s bill, which imposes financial penalties for poor performance, creates additional whistleblower protections and outlines a process that the Maine Public Utilities should follow to force CMP and Versant to divest their assets amid habitual poor performance.

Other Democrats, including those aligned with the utility takeover campaign trying to qualify for the 2023 ballot, backed an alternative proposal that they say is tougher on the utilities and would only permit them monopoly status for 20 years before forcing state regulators to determine whether that status can be extended.

Meanwhile, Republicans on the committee backed a third version of the bill that includes lifting the 100-megawatt cap on hydropower as required in the state’s renewable energy portfolio.

The 100-megawatt cap proposal aligns with a long-sought — and rejected — effort by LePage. LePage, of course, is trying to deny Mills a second term.

The three-way split could endanger Mills’ accountability bill if it divides Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.

But that’s a big if.

The Democratic division appears most acute in the House, but whether it’s decisive in floor votes could hinge on whether Democratic lawmakers believe so strongly in the utility takeover, or the asserted inadequacy of the accountability bill, that they’re willing to torpedo one of the governor’s policy priorities.

It’s also possible that some Republican lawmakers will back the governor’s bill. They also face constituent pressure to do something to hold Versant and CMP accountable. Some of them might view Mills’ proposal as the best chance to show voters that they did.

Democratic or anti-vaxx ‘activists’? 

It’s campaign season, which means email inboxes are filling up with “URGENT” appeals for donations and attacks on rival candidates.

The Maine GOP recently sent one such missive under the subject line “Mills failed on COVID... according to Dem activists.”

The email to supporters states that “Even Democrats are upset with Mills for how she handled COVID” and links to three short YouTube clips of exchanges Mills had with people during a virtual forum hosted by the Hancock County Democratic Committee.

But the three Democratic “activists” highlighted by the Maine GOP could also be described as anti-vaccine (or anti-vaccine mandate) activists. One of them participated in a Republican-organized “information session” for state lawmakers on COVID-19 that turned out to be a forum for health care workers opposing the Mills administration’s vaccination mandate for such workers.

Dr. Meryl Nass has had her license to practice medicine in Maine temporarily suspended while she is being investigated by the Maine Board of Licensure in Medicine over allegations that she spread COVID-19 misinformation, failed to follow proper procedures for telemedicine and admittedly lied to a pharmacist to obtain medications that have not been authorized to treat COVID-19.

The Ellsworth physician asked Mills whether she would allow COVID-19 patients the right to obtain “lifesaving drugs” — presumably ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine — and whether she would “stop the lawless behavior of the boards.”

Mills said she was aware of Nass’ case and that it would be inappropriate for her to weigh in.

“The board has made its decision based on the science and the facts in front of them and based on your conduct,” Mills said. Nass, who is affiliated with one of the nation’s most prolific national organizations casting doubts on COVID-19 vaccines, replied that the board has not held a hearing on the allegations against her before being muted by the forum moderator.

While there are sizable numbers of anti-vaxx and vaccine-hesitant people of all political stripes in Maine, those sentiments clearly run strongest within Republican ranks. And the Maine Republican Party has portrayed Mills’ vaccination requirement for health care workers as a “job-killing spree” even though the mandate resulted in a very small percentage of workers being fired or leaving jobs.

‘Fact-finding’ trips to Europe

Three of Maine’s four members of Congress recently returned from trips to Europe to learn first-hand about the situation in Ukraine.

U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King traveled along with eight other senators to Poland and Germany, where they met with government and military leaders as well as Ukrainian refugees. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District joined a group of House members who traveled to Poland, Romania and Moldova.

APTOPIX Poland Russia Ukraine War
Petros Giannakouris
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AP
One year old Vlad with his mother Natasha are seen inside an indoor sports stadium being used as a refugee center, in the village of Medyka, a border crossing between Poland and Ukraine, on Tuesday, March 15, 2022.

All three members returned from their trips more resolved to help the Ukrainian people in the war against Russia, both through more (and faster) shipments of military supplies and with humanitarian assistance.

“One of the things that I am coming back with is wanting to determine just how long does it take from the time the Congress votes the money . . . to when it crosses the border into Ukraine, both for humanitarian aid and lethal aid?” King said during a press conference with other members of the trip. “We need to know exactly how that works and how fast it occurs because we don’t have weeks and months. We have hours and days.”

Collins, a Republican, said she was impressed with the surge of American troops to NATO countries.

“But it is not enough,” Collins said. “We cannot allow Putin to continue to bomb shelters, hospitals, homes, humanitarian corridors. We have to provide the Ukrainians with the means to prevent this bombardment. And that means not only giving them the MIGs (jet fighters) that the administration has held up, it means providing them with additional anti-aircraft defenses.”

Collins also called on the Biden administration to help Ukrainians with family in the U.S. to come to this country with temporary protective status. And on Thursday, Pingree co-signed a letter along with more than 60 House colleagues urging the administration to expedite the admission to the U.S. of Ukrainian refugees and, if necessary, increase the current cap of 62,500 refugee admissions from all nations.

Biden announced later Thursday that the U.S. will admit up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees. Pingree is slated to discuss her trip to Europe with Maine reporters Friday morning.

Mutual admiration

King this week credited the Biden administration for warning energy, finance and defense companies that they could face cyberattacks engineered by Russia.

King is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who has repeatedly warned that Russia might launch cyberattacks in retaliation for U.S. economic sanctions, and for supplying Ukraine humanitarian and lethal aid to repel the invasion. In an interview on CNN, he said the Biden administration was right to make these warnings public because it puts the targeted companies “on notice” that they need to “buckle down” their cyber defenses.

According to CBS News, the FBI warned five energy companies and 18 companies in defense and finance sectors that Russian hackers have been scanning the companies’ IT networks, potentially looking for vulnerabilities.

The companies were not named in the FBI alert obtained by CBS, which also reported that the Biden administration had privately briefed the companies about the threat.

King’s segment on CNN received an endorsement from White House chief of staff Ronald Klain. Klain tweeted that no one has publicly warned about, or worked to combat, cyberattacks more effectively than King.

Odds and ends

  • A last-minute proposal to offer tax rebates to homeowners and businesses struggling with sky-high electric bills is still a work in progress. This week, sponsor and Senate President Troy Jackson told a committee that he was narrowing the proposal to focus on medium-size businesses (as defined by CMP and Versant) but that residential customers probably can’t be included. Jackson pledged to come back with actual bill language next week.
  • Auburn Republican Rep. Laurel Libby’s bid to suspend Maine’s gas tax is going nowhere, at least for now. Libby attempted to introduce the bill to the Legislative Council, which is the arbiter for approving bills that are submitted after the session deadline. However, the council canceled its Thursday meeting and Libby is now claiming that Democratic leaders won’t circulate a ballot that seeks to get the bill introduced before the current session ends in April. As it turns out, the Republican State Leadership Committee is running ads in several states, including Maine, that blame Democratic controlled Legislatures for high gas prices. It’s a dubious claim given that gas prices are largely dictated by global commodities markets, but it’s still one that might resonate with voters this fall. 

Click here to subscribe to Maine's Political Pulse Newsletter, sent to your inbox on Friday mornings. Maine's Political Pulse is written by Maine Public by political correspondents Kevin Miller and Steve Mistler and produced by digital news reporter Esta Pratt-Kielley. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.