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A look at the Legislature's unfinished business as the session winds down

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

The second session of the 130th Legislature is coming to a close and we’re emptying the notebook with a list of lawmakers’ unfinished business.

But first, the finished business: Gov. Janet Mills on Wednesday signed a $1.2 billion plan to spend the state’s budget surplus shortly after the Legislature enacted it with broad bipartisan majorities. An overview of big-ticket items can be found here.

The electoral and political implications of the spending plan are a bit foggy. The governor hopes the plan’s biggest outlay, $850 checks to more than 850,000 Maine tax filers, will provide some inflation relief. Polls show higher prices for gas, goods and heating are top of mind for voters and at least 12 other states are mirroring Maine’s mitigation approach with tax rebates or direct payments.

Mills framed the Maine plan as one of the most aggressive in the U.S.

“This represents one of the strongest, if not the strongest, relief proposals in the country," she said during a signing ceremony in the State House Hall of Flags on Wednesday.

Not everyone is happy about it. Progressive groups claim the direct checks are a wasted opportunity to invest in government programs. Some Republicans say the surplus, buoyed by one-time federal pandemic relief money, should have been used for permanent tax cuts even though the direct payments were an idea that they originally floated last year.

Whether such complaints resonate with voters is unclear. It’s also uncertain whether voters will reward Mills for making the payments a central feature of her surplus proposal. That might depend on whether the payments have the intended effect on mitigating inflation, or even if voters associate the payments with Mills when they go to the polls in November. The elapsed time between receiving the payments and the election could be a factor; former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who is challenging Mills this year, recently mused that the governor wouldn’t send the checks until the fall and closer to the election. But Mills says her administration is expediting the payments and that the first ones should be out the first week of June.

In the meantime, lawmakers and the governor have some decisions to make on some outstanding matters. And the fate of many of those bills depends on whether the Legislature’s budget-writing committee — and then the full House and Senate — votes to fund them during meetings on Friday and Monday.

Only $12 million of that $1.2 billion surplus remains unobligated. And there are 246 bills (totaling $1.3 billion in requests for funding) that will compete for a share of that $12 million.

Tribal relations

Maine’s Wabanaki tribes are the focal point of three high-profile bills this year, and the fate of two of the three is not yet settled.

For the Wabanaki, the priority bill is LD 1626, a sweeping proposal that would effectively give the tribes the same rights as their 570 counterparts across the U.S. It’s also a bill facing an anticipated veto by Mills, who has repeatedly raised concerns about its impacts.

Some have wondered whether ditching those misgivings could help Mills generate some enthusiasm for her reelection campaign among progressive activists who have made tribal sovereignty a moral and civil rights pursuit. But if Mills is thinking along the same lines, she isn’t showing it publicly. She has expressed the same reservations about the bill that she has from the get-go.

Instead, she has pushed for a compromise on one bill that would give the tribes exclusive access to the lucrative mobile sports betting market. Doing so has won the support of the tribes, but they’ve made it abundantly clear that it’s no substitute for the sovereignty bill. The compromise bill also angered established gaming interests, Hollywood Casino in Bangor and Oxford Casino, which in the past have combined to kill other competing gaming proposals. This bill, however, managed to make it all the way to enactment after the two casinos extracted concessions that would allow them to conduct in-person sports betting. The bill now has to win the approval of the Legislature’s budget writing committee, which shouldn’t be a problem given that the proposal’s anticipated revenues are projected to pay for startup costs to get an online sports betting regulatory scheme up and running.

Now settled is a bill aimed at improving the drinking water for 300 Passamaquoddy families near Eastport. The proposal received supermajority support in the House and Senate and Thursday the governor signed it.

“Members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik, like all people in Maine, deserve access to clean, safe drinking water. This legislation will build on our efforts to ensure that they get it,” Mills said in a statement. “I thank the Passamaquoddy people for their collaboration on this law, which demonstrates that we can make progress for all when we work together.”

Child welfare

Maine’s child welfare programs were once again in the spotlight this session following four abuse-related child deaths in a month last summer.

Unfortunately, this is not a new issue. Working with lawmakers, Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage increased staffing, improved training and made other changes within child welfare programs in response to two high-profile child deaths in 2017 and 2018. But the nonpartisan watchdog agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, said earlier this spring the programs continue to struggle under excessive workloads and inadequate training.

One bill signed into law by Mills this year, LD 1960, will allow the Office of the Child Welfare Ombudsman to hire more staff and lengthens the term of the ombudsman. That nonpartisan office reviews and investigates complaints against Maine DHHS. Another new law, LD 1853, requires DHHS as well as two advisory panels that oversee child welfare and child deaths to report to a legislative committee every three months.

Other bills related to child welfare remain in legislative limbo, having passed both chambers but not yet received any funding.

One of those, LD 393, proposes $2.7 million a year to expand programs for at-risk families and “kinship” family members who take in child. Another as-yet-unfunded bill, LD 1850, would have earmarked nearly $1.9 million next year to expand “wraparound services” that connect families being investigated by DHHS with services to help avoid further escalation of the issues at home.

But lawmakers deadlocked on a bill that would have limited the number of hours that child welfare caseworkers could log. The bill, LD 1825, would have prevented DHHS from requiring caseworkers to put in more than 60 hours over seven consecutive days or 70 hours over eight consecutive days.

Utility accountability

The governor’s bid to crack down on the state’s two largest electricity providers, Central Maine Power and Versant Power, this week survived a vote in the Legislature that nearly killed it.

The reversal came after a contingent of House Democrats, many of whom previously supported a proposal to take over CMP and Versant and replace them with a nonprofit run by an elected board, dropped their opposition to a bill that some described in floor speeches as “lipstick on a pig” and “fake accountability.”

In their view, the governor’s bill didn’t go far enough. They withdrew their opposition after the Senate and House adopted amendments that could yield more frequent audits and a requirement that state regulators review whether the utilities’ procurement of goods and services is based on competitive bidding so that extra costs aren’t simply passed along to ratepayers.

Our Power, the group that’s trying to get the utility takeover on next year’s ballot, sent an alert to supporters just prior to the vote encouraging lawmakers to back the amended version of the accountability bill. The group also took credit for pushing for the improvements.

The internecine battle among House Democrats was rough, but the end result is a bill that the governor is likely to sign when, or if, it finally gets to her desk. A vote in the Senate on Monday will send it there if most Democrats remain united. The amended proposal originally passed the Senate, 20-14.

You have the right to an attorney...

One issue that remains very much up in the air involves how Maine provides attorneys to criminal defendants who can’t afford to hire their own lawyers.

Maine is the only state in the nation that doesn’t have a public defender system staffed by legal teams whose entire job is to represent lower-income defendants in court. Instead, Maine pays private attorneys to take on such clients through the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services.

But reimbursement rates are low and the ranks of attorneys willing to do the job is shrinking. The commission says it may soon not have enough court-appointed attorneys to fulfill the state’s constitutional obligation to provide representation to all defendants in the state.

In a bipartisan vote, the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee recommended spending more than $4 million of the state’s $1.2 billion surplus on increasing those reimbursement rates from $80 to $100 an hour. In a critical shift, the committee also endorsed spending nearly $1 million to hire five public defenders to represent clients in rural areas of the state.

This would be a first step toward the type of public defender system used by the other 49 states.

However, the $1.2 billion surplus spending plan that passed the Legislature this week had nothing in it for indigent legal defense. The omission triggered a last-second push to peel off $1.25 million from the $12 million that remains to be spent from the surplus.

There are more than 230 bills competing for a share of that relatively small pool of money.

In a show of support, Democrats, Republicans and independents on the Judiciary Committee urged their colleagues to devote money to the nascent public defender system. And the Maine Monitor reported that some Democrats and Republicans are negotiating to have their two caucuses split that $1.25 million price tag among their other priorities for those leftover funds.

“Until the deal is sealed, nothing is certain,” Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, said during a State House press conference on Wednesday. “Every single one of us are advocating to our leadership about how important this small measure is. But it isn’t an insignificant measure. It is still an important measure.”

The Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee is scheduled to meet on Friday to discuss which of the bills still “on the table” should receive funding.

Click here to subscribe to Maine's Political Pulse Newsletter, sent to your inbox on Friday mornings. Maine's Political Pulse iswritten 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.