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So far Maine lawmakers are long on big ideas, but short on public details

Snow covers the lawn outside the State House in Augusta, Maine, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.
Robert F. Bukaty
Snow covers the lawn outside the State House in Augusta, Maine, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.

Maine lawmakers have started the 2023 legislative session by introducing an unusually high percentage of placeholder bills that purport to tackle big issues, but are void of any details that might inform the public of their purpose, price tag or impact.

It's a trend that some observers worry could short circuit transparency and participation in the lawmaking process.

As of Thursday, 125 of the 450 bills that have been printed so far – or 28 percent – are placeholders whose intent can only be gleaned from the title because they have no proposed language.

While that percentage could fall as more bills emerge from the drafting office, the number of so-called “concept drafts” introduced in recent weeks is outpacing the 2021-22 session. And last session’s total was more than double the number in each of the previous five legislative sessions , according to an analysis by Maine Public Radio. The analysis reviewed search data provided by the Legislature’s website.

Although defenders of “concept drafts” say they can lead to more collaboration, particularly on complex issues, critics contend that they can actually discourage participation in the legislative process because interested parties often don’t see the full language of a bill until just prior to a public hearing.

“This is a lot of power that the Legislature has,” said Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, a veteran lawmaker who is pushing to prohibit most concept drafts. “It affects people’s lives. It affects the way we live, it affects the things that are important to us. And we owe it to the public to make sure that they have their voices heard.”

Every session, a small percentage of these placeholder or concept draft bills are introduced by lawmakers who want to tackle an issue but who are still either hashing out the details or working on specific language.

Sometimes these are fairly inconsequential, likethe 2019 bill to clarify whether Maine’s state bird should be a black-capped chickadee or a boreal chickadee. (The bill was rejected so the contentious issue remains unresolved.).

More often, however, “concept drafts” aim to address major, complex issues – such as improving access to health care, lowering energy costs, reforming Maine’s criminal code or addressing the worsening housing crisis.

They show up in the Legislature as little more than a title – such as this year’s “An Act to Reform Education.” The one-line summary of LD 241 is equally unhelpful to the curious: “This bill would reform education.”

It then falls to the bill’s sponsor, non-partisan legislative staff or members of the committee that received the empty bill to either craft specific language or to let the concept remain just that – a short-lived idea on paper. In past instances, concept drafts are among the first to be jettisoned by committees because they were interpreted as a waste of time, or a sign of tepid interest by the bill sponsor.

But that’s changed as concept bills have become more consequential.

Concept drafts can also put the public or interested parties at an initial disadvantage, particularly if the specifics don’t emerge until the day of the public hearing. Oftentimes, the details are hashed out by lawmakers, legislative analysts and lobbyists during subsequent work sessions – or in private discussions that are closed to the public. And unlike public hearings, committee work sessions can be scheduled and changed with little public notice.

“Without the language, it’s pretty hard to know what your position is going to be,” said Dana Connors, the outgoing president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

Connors said the Chamber first flagged this issue for legislative leaders and committee chairs last session after seeing a surge in concept drafts. In some cases, language wasn’t available until the work session, which Connors said makes it nearly impossible for someone to speak to the content of the proposal.

He said the prevalence of concept drafts this year is “kind of getting out of hand” so he plans to raise his concerns again during the Chamber’s annual “leadership summit” with legislative leaders and lawmakers this week.

“It’s not my intent to criticize anybody,” Connors said. “It’s just to simply point out that we’ve got something at hand that needs attention and needs a sense of priority so that it doesn’t become a practice.”

On the first day of session this year, Bennett proposed changing the rules to prevent concept drafts except for budget bills, which are typically hundreds of pages long and are crafted over weeks or months.

“We’ve jury-rigged this klutzy system that doesn’t work for the public, it doesn’t work for the Legislature and it ends up wasting a lot of time and resources,” Bennett said.

Senate President Troy Jackson, a Democrat from Allagash, said he’s certainly noticed the glut of concept drafts so far this session. But Jackson says that may be more about timing – that concept bills are easier for the drafting office to release quickly – and that, in the end, there will be about the same number of concept drafts this session as in previous years.

It’s on his radar, however.

“We are just going to make sure we look at it and tell members that to take the time to sit down with the analysts and flesh out their ideas more as opposed to taking the more simple route of a concept draft,” Jackson said in an interview. “At this point, I don’t know that we’re in a problem or anything like that. But what I really want to make sure is, as often as possible, the public knows what a bill is about, that it goes to the right committee and that it gets a timely hearing.”

During the last legislative session, roughly 10 percent of the more than 2,000 submitted bills were concept drafts. More than 90 of those 200-plus bills would have cost money to implement – and 68 of those became law, sometimes with hefty price tags attached.

Jackson and House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, are co-sponsors of one concept draft that could grow into a major policy initiative. LD 2 is titled “An Act to Address Maine’s Housing Crisis,” and that as-yet-unwritten bill could become the vessel for any policy recommendations that emerge from a special housing committee created by the House speaker and Senate president.

Jackson said concept drafts can be useful and he opposes Bennett’s push to eliminate them.

“We’re not going to get rid of concept drafts, at least not while I’m a presiding officer,” he said. “What I want to do is to make sure we are as judicious as possible.”

Two parties, opposite directions

The 2022 election was a study in contrasts for the Maine Republican and Democratic parties and so are their subsequent retooling of leadership.

The Maine Democratic Party recently elected to promote Bev Uhlenhake to chairperson after formerly serving as the party’s vice chair. It’s a move that illustrates activists’ satisfaction following an election resulting in the reelections of Gov. Janet Mills, U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden. Democrats also preserved their majorities in the legislature, which is where Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, has returned after he helped guide the party during the 2022 election as its chairman.

Meanwhile, Republicans ousted GOP chairwoman Demi Kouzounas and replaced her with Joel Stetkis, the former assistant minority leader in the Maine House.The move by the Maine GOP follows a brutal election in which Mills clobbered former Governor Paul LePage by more than 13 percentage points and the GOP’s lackluster efforts in congressional and legislative contests.

The GOP shakeup is intriguing for a number of reasons, one being that it suggests LePage and his close advisors appear to be losing their grip on the party. The former governor has long been an influential force among party activists and his rise and subsequent popularity aligned with conservatives’ embrace of Donald Trump and the MAGA movement that came with it. As a result, the Maine GOP effectively consented to his bid for a third nonconsecutive term last year by not fielding any potential primary challengers.

LePage, however, did not prevail against Mills, nor could he save Kouzounas from the election backlash despite reportedly lobbying on her behalf. His inability to influence the Maine GOP chair election coincides with speculation that Trump’s influence among Republicans might be waning. But like Trump, skepticism about LePage’s political future should not be viewed as the party rejecting MAGA or its accompanying views and rhetoric. After all, in an ideological sense, Stetkis and LePage/Kouzounas probably rank similarly on the MAGA meter, if one existed. The key question is whether the leadership shakeup is merely a change in personalities, or one that will yield better election outcomes.

“Rife with fraud”

The Maine Office of Attorney General is weighing criminal charges stemming from a failed ballot initiative that would have blocked noncitizens from voting in municipal elections.

It’s not clear who is at the center of the investigation, but a spokesperson for the AG’s office confirmed to Maine Public last week that it is underway, then declined further comment. The probe stems from a referral by the Secretary of State’s Office, which found during its review of signatures that at least one petition submitted by the We the People political action committee was “rife with fraud.” The We the People PAC is controlled by Maine House minority leader Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, but there is no indication that he’s the focus of the AG’s investigation.

The referendum did not qualify for the ballot because election officials’ review of qualifying signatures found that 40% of the submitted signatures were not valid. More than 66,000 signatures were needed to qualify for the ballot.

Secretary of State Shenna Bellows mentioned the criminal probe during an orientation meeting with the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee last week. She declined to comment further because the investigation is now in the hands of the AG’s office.

Mills’ budget address

The governor will deliver her State of the Budget address to a joint convention of the Legislature Feb. 14.

The speech is expected to be a public pitch for the governor’s $10.3 billion spending plan, which was released in early January. The timing suggests that Mills will use the speech to highlight overlooked aspects of her proposal or to highlight other initiatives that might be supported by its passage.

The address is scheduled for 7 p.m. and will be carried live on Maine Public television.

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.

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