A new Maine Legislature is coming. Big problems will steer its early agenda
There will be plenty of ceremony when the 186 newly elected members of the Legislature assemble for the first time in Augusta next week, but pressing issues will likely dominate the early agenda of the 131st Legislature.
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, who won a second term after defeating her longtime nemesis, former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, will swear in the new slate of legislators on Wednesday. Lawmakers will also formally elect the Senate president and speaker of the House. But there won’t be much of a break-in period for first-time lawmakers because legislative leaders are expected to quickly begin work on several major issues facing the state.
The opening days or weeks of the 131st Legislature will also provide an early test of how well Democrats and Republicans work together. They’ll do so in a House and Senate with roughly the same power dynamics as the previous ones — a Democratic majority, but not a supermajority — but with a semi-new slate of leaders who have their own policy goals and personal ambitions. The early debates on energy prices, housing assistance and Maine’s crumbling indigent legal defense system could also test the new Legislature’s ability to work with the Mills administration.
Here are three hefty issues likely to come up early into the session.
Heating, energy assistance
Soaring electricity and home heating oil prices were discussed frequently during the 2022 campaign, but now the Mills administration and the Legislature will have to scramble to mitigate what many fear is a crisis with potentially deadly consequences.
The first attempt could come as early as Wednesday, the same day that lawmakers take their oaths.
Mills has repeatedly indicated that she will propose a bill that provides low- and middle-income Mainers some relief. As of this writing, her administration has kept specifics of the plan closely guarded. However, her proposal is expected to be released Friday, aimed at garnering quick bipartisan support.
The reason is as much functional as it is political.
While Democrats were able to retain their majorities in the House and Senate, they don’t have enough votes to pass emergency legislation on their own that can go into effect with the governor’s signature. And the dueling crises at hand definitely qualify as an emergency.
Beginning Jan. 1, the new supply rate for home and small-business customers in Central Maine Power’s electricity service area — a line item that makes up 60% of a consumer’s electricity bill — will spike by 49%. At the same time, Mainers who use home heating oil are also facing a sharp cost increase. While prices have fallen a bit in recent weeks, some heating oil prices previously hit $6 per gallon. That meant the cost to fill a 275-gallon tank went from roughly $850 last year to nearly $1,400. A warm fall may have lessened the pain a bit, but the temperate weather is not expected to last all winter.
There’s a narrow window for the Mills administration and the new Legislature to enact a bill before the worst of the cold weather arrives and also before electricity rates increase. That window just happens to open next Wednesday, swearing-in day.
If the governor’s proposal can get commitments of two-thirds support by next Wednesday, it’s possible the Legislature will enact it that same day. If it gets two-thirds support in the House and Senate — enough to qualify as an emergency — the bill could become law upon Mills’ signature.
It’s too soon to tell whether that’s going to happen, but lawmakers and the Mills administration have an obvious incentive to try. Legislators don’t typically return to Augusta until early January after taking office in early December, but the urgency of the energy cost crisis could prevail over tradition. Pushing the governor’s proposal through on Wednesday will also likely mean that the bill won’t be vetted in committee because the makeup of legislative panels hasn’t been decided yet by legislative leaders.
Maine’s system for providing free attorneys to low-income criminal defendants is also in crisis. And that’s a problem because the “right to counsel” clause in the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires that defendants have access to legal representation, regardless of their ability to pay for it.
This is not a new issue. Leaders of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, which is responsible for connecting low-income defendants with lawyers, has been warning for years that its pool of participating attorneys is shrinking. Unlike every other state, Maine relies almost entirely on private attorneys to represent “indigent” defendants.
Since the pandemic, however, the loss has been more like a hemorrhage as the number of participating attorneys has fallen from more than 400 to 160 as of this month.
The situation has gotten so dire that some defendants have been released from jail because there were no attorneys available to represent them during routine court appearances.
Over the summer, the commission asked lawmakers to convene an emergency session to approve $13 million to boost the hourly reimbursement rate from $80 to $150 in hopes of luring more attorneys back into the fold.
That never happened. But with the situation only worsening since the summer, lawmakers will be under pressure to do something more, whether as an emergency measure or as part of the typical budgeting process. The latter wouldn’t happen until late spring, however.
In the meantime, the commission is working to hire five state-employed public defenders (which is the way every other state handles indigent defense) by the end of the year. Commission Executive Director Justin Andrus has warned, however, that even five full-time public defenders can’t replace the hundreds of private attorneys who have dropped out of the program in recent years.
The indigent defense problem is an emergency, but don’t expect a quick fix from state lawmakers, who will have to decide if they want to provide more money at the current private attorney system, overhaul it completely, or a combination of both. That’s probably going to take time and negotiation.
Maine has been in the midst of a significant housing problem for the past several years, but the end of a federal program designed to help people pay rent and utilities costs is exacerbating the issue.
Right now the pressure is most acute in municipalities struggling to manage an influx of general assistance applications from people who will no longer receive assistance from the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program. The program began in March 2021 to provide housing assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s coming to a close, and that means people receiving it and still needing help are facing the prospect of homelessness or additional financial hardship.
General assistance is a potential fallback option, but the programs are administered by municipalities, and local officials have sounded the alarm that they might not have the staff to process a big wave of applications quickly enough to qualify for the state reimbursement. The state reimburses 70% of GA expenses, but only if municipalities process applications within 24 hours.
The federal assistance program provided roughly $285.5 million to nearly 34,000 Maine households, including 8,500 households that were receiving the benefit as of late October. While larger communities like Portland, Lewiston and Bangor have been affected, assistance was also provided in smaller ones like Presque Isle and Caribou.
Some local officials have asked the state to change the GA processing law to give municipalities more time to process GA applications. That might be a quick fix for the Legislature, which could sunset the extended processing period to help get through the current crunch.
However, there’s a funding component to consider if GA programs see an explosion in applications. That’s already happening in some southern Maine municipalities. Additionally, Portland has warned that the end of the federal assistance program will hamper the city’s ability to help asylum seekers, who are prohibited by federal law from working until their asylum application has been in process for more than 180 days.
Mills and members of Maine's congressional delegation support changing that law, but there has been little movement in Congress to do so.
Fate of Wabanaki bill
Meanwhile in Congress ... a bill supported by the Wabanaki tribes in Maine has two potential pathways to becoming law in the final weeks of the congressional session, although neither path will be easy.
Among the many issues hanging over this lame duck Congress are an annual defense spending authorization bill as well as the budget – or appropriations – bills that actually fund the federal bureaucracy.
Maine’s two House members, Democratic U.S. Reps. Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree, were able to use their committee positions to attach a bill, entitled the Advancing Equality for Wabanaki Nations Act, to the defense spending bill and one appropriations bill. The question now is whether Congress will pass either one, and if so, whether the Wabanaki measure will still be attached by the end.
Golden introduced the bill last winter as part of the yearslong quest by tribal leaders to undo or rewrite aspects of a 42-year-old legal document between their nations and the state of Maine. In a historic appearance, leaders of the four tribes – the Penobscot Nation, the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Mi’kmaq Nation and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians – testified before a congressional committee this year in support of the bill.
Because of the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, tribes in Maine have been largely excluded from federal tribal policy changes on everything from health care and criminal justice to gambling. Golden’s bill, which is co-sponsored by Pingree, would allow the tribes to benefit from all future federal laws or policies that also apply to other federally recognized tribes.
As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, Golden was able to tack his Wabanaki bill onto the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, which tells the military how many planes and ships it can buy and how much to pay military personnel. These “riders” are common in Congress, where unrelated provisions are attached to must-pass larger bills in hopes that they’ll get through the House and Senate.
Likewise, Pingree was able to include the language of the Wabanaki bill in a budget bill that was produced by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies. Pingree chairs that subcommittee.
The full House passed the NDAA and the appropriations bill. But the Senate has yet to take up their versions of the bills and it’s unclear whether it will.
In a written statement, Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis credited Golden and Pingree with advancing the bill and urged Collins and King to do the same.
“All we are asking is for our Senators to agree with the House,” he said. “This legislation is prospective, allowing us in the future to benefit from federal laws passed for tribal nations like the 570 other federally recognized tribes in 49 other states. This legislation will merely begin the process of ensuring the tribal nations in Maine are treated like the other federally recognized tribes.”
While Golden and Pingree are strong supporters of the Wabanaki equality bill, Sen. Angus King has come out against it and Sen. Susan Collins has said she’s still studying the issue. King serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee that produced its version of the NDAA, while Collins is a high-ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. As such, the two could have sway over House-Senate negotiations on the two bills.
Finally, Gov. Janet Mills opposes the Wabanaki bill because she says any changes to the 1980 settlement agreement need to be negotiated between the state and tribal leaders. As we’ve reported many times before, Mills was instrumental in defeating a bill this year in the Maine Legislature that would have made sweeping changes to the 1980 agreement.
Leftovers from the notebook
- The White House ordered 200 live Maine lobsters for an extravagant state dinner hosted by President Joe Biden for France President Emmanuel Macron and between 300 and 400 other guests. The White House pool reporter described the dish as “bright poached Maine lobster that is dolloped with American Osetra Caviar from California white fish sturgeon.” While the presence of Maine lobster as a featured entree is a point of pride for Maine, it also prompted state pols to remind the Biden administration that the Maine lobster industry is facing severe federal regulations. Mills tweeted she was glad lobster was on the White House menu, but she also urged Biden “to recognize that all Maine lobstermen want is the opportunity to continue providing this product for people to enjoy without the Federal government crushing them under the weight of burdensome, scientifically-questionable regulations.” Rep. Golden offered a more pointed critique, tweeting, “If the Biden White House can prioritize purchasing 200 Maine lobsters for a fancy dinner, (Biden) should also take the time to meet with the Maine lobstermen his administration is currently regulating out of business.” Sen. Susan Collins, who attended the state dinner, used a tweet to criticize the retailer Whole Foods, which recently announced it would no longer sell Maine lobster. “If Maine lobster is good enough for the White House to serve, it’s good enough for every seafood retailer—including Whole Foods—to sell,” she tweeted.
- The Maine Ethics Commission this week fined a national Democratic group nearly $11,000 for sending mailers and digital ads designed to bolster Democratic legislative candidates without disclosing the group’s top three donors. The group, American Leadership Committee-Maine, was financially backed by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, a national group that backs Democratic legislative candidates. The fine is among one of the largest stemming from a 2015 law enacted by voters that requires political groups to list their top three funders in printed, digital and video ads. The DLCC’s top three funders in Maine were the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Emerging American Majorities and the American Federation of Teachers.
- While there has been some speculation about whether independent U.S. Sen. Angus King, 78, will retire from politics at the end of his current term, it looks like the former two-term governor will seek a third term in the U.S. Senate in 2024. His spokesperson, Matthew Felling, said in a statement that King, “feels great, has been an active driver in one of the most productive Congressional sessions in years, and he feels there is still plenty of work to be done.” Felling said King is expected to make an official announcement when campaign season begins next year.
Maine's Political Pulse was written this week by State House correspondent Kevin Miller and chief political correspondent Steve Mistler, and produced by digital reporter Esta Pratt-Kielley. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.