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As the Maine GOP embraces inflation tack, obscure “fee” bills meet a quiet demise

Sen. Richard Bennett, R-Oxford, standing, R-Kennebec, talks with Sen. Russell Black, R-Franklin, in the Senate chamber at the State House, Tuesday, April 12, 2022 in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
Sen. Richard Bennett, R-Oxford, standing, R-Kennebec, talks with Sen. Russell Black, R-Franklin, in the Senate chamber at the State House, Tuesday, April 12, 2022 in Augusta, Maine.

In this week's Pulse: obscure “fee” bills fall, Golden pushes stock-trading ban, sanctions from the Russian Foreign Ministry, and what’s still pending in the legislature.

Two obscure bills that generated a lot of noise met a quiet demise this week amid worries from Maine Democrats that inflation could harm them in the November election.

Democrats in the Legislature scuttled a bill that would have doubled the motor vehicle inspection fee for most drivers in order to fund a conversion to a new electronic system. They also recalled an enacted bill previously sent to Gov. Janet Mills that would have hiked the annual product fees on pet food manufacturers by $20 in order to fund the state’s increasingly busy animal welfare division.

There were few publicly stated reasons for reversing course, but there is a fear that both bills will play into inflation concerns among voters. Republicans and aligned interest groups certainly hope that’s the case as they eye demolishing Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.

That’s why the Maine GOP and affiliated campaign committees leaned into the so-called pet food tax bill, posting photos and videos of forlorn pups and kittens next to bowls of suddenly more expensive food.

In reality, the proposed fee increase might not have been noticed by consumers; it would have raised an additional $280,000 annually for the animal welfare division. If the fee hike was passed on by food manufacturers to consumers, it might have yielded price increases of pennies or less.

The fees assigned to food manufacturers go to the agency that enforces animal welfare laws. It investigates complaints and seizes and cares for animals (e.g. feeding them) when owners are ensnared in criminal cases that might include the abuse or neglect of animals. The same division built an emergency shelter for the more than 100 animals that were taken from a home in Solon in 2019. Liam Hughes, director of the Animal Welfare Program, told lawmakers in January that his agency’s costs have tripled over the past five years.

Hughes’ agency might get that extra money in a change to the state’s budget, but he won’t from the original bill. That’s because it appears to have met the same fate as the proposal to double the motor vehicle inspection fee for most Maine drivers.

The vehicle inspection issue is a bit different. Maine is one of about a dozen states that requires annual vehicle inspections, and there are people — and lawmakers — who would love to make the requirement less frequent, or ditch it altogether. The opposition is rooted in the belief that the inspection sticker is little more than a cash cow for the state that provides little public safety benefit.

In fact, an offshoot of that sticker skepticism was the genesis for the updated fee proposal. Rep. Richard Cebra, R-Naples, last year submitted a bill that sought to exempt new vehicles from inspections for two years, but the proposal instead became a study commission that in turn recommended the proposed fee increase. (That’s a heckuva journey for a bill that originally aimed to suspend the existing fee, right?)

Cebra voted against it, but 26 of his GOP colleagues in the House joined Democrats in supporting it last week.

Still, the GOP framed the proposal as another fee increase proposed by tone-deaf Democrats as their constituents’ bank accounts wither from crippling inflation. Mills, who is up for reelection this year and is perhaps more acutely attuned to the GOP narrative, vowed to veto the proposal. This week Democrats in the House joined the Senate in defeating it.

Nevertheless, the anti-fee fever struck another obscure bill dealing with the viciously contentious topic of ... public notaries.

LD 2023 affected all 23,000 of them by formalizing online notarization and shortening from seven to four years the length of time before notaries must renew their commissions. It also creates separate licenses for people who want to perform marriage ceremonies because, right now, Maine is one of only three states where notaries are automatically eligible to also moonlight as wedding officiants.

The bill also does not deal with fees at all, according to Secretary of State Shenna Bellows. But Republicans argued the bill would increase the fees that notaries pay from $50 every seven years to $100 every four years — presumably because a notary who wanted to also perform marriages would now have to also obtain a wedding license.

Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, called that “a major fee increase on the people of Maine.” And Sen. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, compared it to the vehicle inspection fee bill.

“I think that’s gone away now because there was an uproar,” Timberlake said. “This is a fee increase — no other way to phrase it.”

Golden pushes stock-trading ban

Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of Maine’s 2nd District continues to push to prevent members of Congress from trading or even owning stocks while they are in office.

Golden has been part of a small but growing number of lawmakers — many facing potentially tough reelection fights in tight House districts — calling for a ban on stock trading. The campaign follows numerous high-profile incidents involving ethically questionable, but not necessarily illegal, health care stock deals early on in the pandemic by members of Congress who, given their positions, had more insights into what was happening with the disease and in the pharmaceutical industry than the general public.

This past week, Golden co-led a letter along with Virginia’s Rep. Abigail Spanberger, another moderate Democrat, to the top members of the Committee on House Administration. The letter, which was signed by 15 other Democrats and two Republicans, urged the leaders to “advance strong legislation to ban members of Congress from directly owning or trading stocks while in office.”

The group also called on Congress to close loopholes in current law by also preventing ownership or trading of stocks for members’ spouses and dependent children, and to resist temptations to exempt stocks that a member owned before their election.

“Americans across the political spectrum support banning members of Congress from trading stocks,” reads the letter. “If we seek to write off their concerns with a toothless gimmick, they will see through it and continue to mistrust their elected officials.”

Golden had also led a similar letter in January to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. The letter drew national attention and was viewed by some as a way for some Democrats facing tough reelection races to put daylight between themselves and Pelosi.

It’s an uphill battle, to be sure, given the fact that Congress is basically a massive millionaires club. An analysis of congressional financial disclosures by the government watchdog group OpenSecrets.org found that, in 2018, the median net worth of members of Congress was just over $1 million.

Golden does not appear to be part of that elite club. He reported between $70,000 and $225,000 in assets in 2020 but much more than that in liabilities in the form of a mortgage, car loans and student loans.

His potential opponent once again this November, former Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin, reported several million dollars in assets as well as income of between $368,000 and $3.2 million (above his $174,000 congressional salary) in 2017, but no liabilities.

File under ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Democratic U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Golden of Maine and other members of the House have been sanctioned by the Russian Foreign Ministry.

The move is presumably in response to votes Pingree and Golden recently took that provided $13.6 billion in humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine, which Russia is currently invading.

Pingree called the Russian response a “badge of honor to be sanctioned by Putin’s murderous regime.”

“I saw with my own eyes the brutal consequences of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, and I will not back down from supporting the Ukrainian people,” Pingree said in a statement, referring to her recent visit to the Ukraine border with Poland.

Still pending…

The Legislature is supposed to adjourn by Wednesday. As always happens, some of the thorniest issues have been left to the very end of the legislative session.

Here’s an abbreviated list of some of the issues still hanging out there as lawmakers head into the final week (maybe) of the 2022 legislative session:

  • The budget — At about 3 a.m. Friday morning, the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee reached agreement on  on what to do with the state’s estimated $1.3 billion surplus. It approved Mills’ proposal to return half of that money to taxpayers as $850 checks. Most Democrats appear supportive of that plan, although progressive activists and groups want more given to lower-income Mainers or for the money to be spent on social services. Republicans, meanwhile, want all Maine taxpayers to receive $850 checks. The agreement reached Friday would send checks to roughly 850,000 Mainers who meet the specific income thresholds. Single tax filers making up to $100,000 a year qualify, as do people making $150,000 who file as head of household. Couples making up to $200,000 a year and filing jointly also qualify. There are numerous other provisions in the surplus spending plan, which the Legislature is expected to vote on early next week.
  • Tribal sovereignty — One of the highest-profile and most significant issues of the session, LD 1626 is the product of a yearslong conversation with tribal leaders to restore the sovereignty of the four Indian tribes in Maine. But the fate of the complex bill, which deals with taxation, natural resources, land use and criminal justice, remains uncertain as of Thursday afternoon. The House voted 81-55 on Thursday to pass the bill. But Mills has expressed serious concerns and is expected to veto it.
  • Tribal sports betting — The governor has been skeptical of the tribal sovereignty bill and instead backed a proposal that would give the tribes access to the mobile sports betting market. The bill has received backing in committee, but some lawmakers and gambling interests are fighting it. The Senate is expected to take initial votes on Friday. 
  • Utility accountability — The governor’s effort to keep closer tabs on Maine’s electricity providers is meeting resistance from activists who want to take over the companies and replace them with a nonprofit run by an elected board. The proposal has not yet moved to the legislative calendar, but is expected to next week. 

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.

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