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Politics roundup: Gun bills, Netflix tax

Max Zachau of Bowdoinham, Maine, speaks at a crowded anti-gun rally at the State House, Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024, in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
Max Zachau of Bowdoinham, Maine, speaks at a crowded anti-gun rally at the State House, Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024, in Augusta, Maine.

Maine lawmakers are plodding toward a mid-April adjournment with a slew of contentious issues to resolve, including gun safety and a new spending plan. Meanwhile, a divided Congress continues its obsession with the November election in its quest for historically unproductive governance.

The good news: Vinyl records continue their resurgence.

The bad: It might not be enough to save Maine from a new tax on streaming services.

Here’s your Pulse roundup …

Slow progress on gun bills

Lawmakers are in the middle of the most intensive discussion of gun laws in Maine in years, spurred by the mass shooting in October that left 18 dead. That debate is occurring at the same time that an independent commission is examining the events leading up to the Lewiston tragedy and the ensuing manhunt for the shooter.

But progress is slow. And it remains unclear what changes to Maine’s gun laws, if any, will survive before lawmakers are slated to adjourn for the year in mid-April.

The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee spent roughly five hours on Wednesday workshopping four gun bills. The committee did not vote on the measures, and is not expected to take up the bills again until next Thursday.

Gun safety advocates are pushing hard for bills that would impose a 72-hour waiting period on firearm purchases and ban “bump stocks” and other modifications that essentially convert a semi-automatic gun into a fully-automatic weapon.

But they face significant political headwinds (even after the Lewiston mass shooting) from gun owners’ rights groups and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who have rejected similar measures in the past.

A suite of proposals from Gov. Janet Mills could face better odds of passage given her influence and the involvement of David Trahan with the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, who is an influential voice on gun issues in Augusta.

One proposal would make it easier for police to take potentially dangerous individuals into protective custody in order to begin the “yellow flag” process to temporarily confiscate their guns. Family, friends and fellow Army reservists repeatedly raised concerns about Lewiston shooter Robert Card’s increasing paranoia, but he was never taken into custody.

Mills has also proposed requiring any private gun sellers who advertise a firearm in print or online to conduct a background check on would-be buyers. That is aimed at closing what gun safety groups insist is a gaping legal loophole that feeds a thriving, unregulated gun marketplace in Maine. Background checks would not be required for sales or transfers among family or friends.

“This is not a universal background check bill,” Michael Sauschuck, commissioner of the Maine Department of Public Safety, told committee members on Wednesday. “It is intended, however, to address the vast majority of these purchases.”

Meanwhile, the special commission investigating the Lewiston shootings is expected to issue an interim report by April 1 in order to give lawmakers time to consider any policy proposals. The commission is then expected to hold additional public meetings before issuing a more comprehensive report later this year.

Streaming tax: An act in three parts

Mills’ $71 million supplemental spending plan includes yet another proposal to tax streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu. And it’s running into the same rhetoric that helped sink two previous attempts for Maine to join the 25 states that already tax such services.

This week, legislative Republicans criticized the initiative as a cash grab amid a state revenue surplus. The tax has been introduced two previous times, including once by former Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

Like the two other streaming tax initiatives, Mills’ proposal effectively adds streaming services for television and music to the state’s 5.5% sales tax. The Mills administration has framed the proposal as creating equity between streaming services and other consumable goods while modernizing the tax code to stay apace with consumers’ shifting habits.

For music and television, that shift has resulted in a sharp pivot from cable television services and brick and mortar sales of albums, respectively. According to the Leichtman Research Group, major cable providers like Spectrum and Comcast lost 1.7 million subscribers just in the second quarter of 2023 while streaming subscriptions to cable TV replacements like YouTube TV continued to trend upward.

Meanwhile, physical music album sales accounted for just 11% of all sales in 2023, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. And that 11% was boosted by a resurgence in the sale of vinyl albums, which are, objectively, awesome (BTW -- The American Enterprise Institute has a fun visualization using RIAA sales data where you can watch sales of 8-track cassettes take a justifiable dive into oblivion while vinyl albums rise heroically after a sustained beatdown by CDs).

As it turns out, Mills is also reducing the tax on cable service providers like Spectrum and Charter by a half of a percent by eliminating the 6% provider tax and taxing cable services under the 5.5% sales tax. So, under the governor’s proposal, TV and music streaming will be taxed at the same rate as cable TV subscriptions and the physical sale of albums -- to the extent that the latter exists anymore.

That means a $20 per month streaming service will include a tax of about $1.10. The Mills administration estimates that the streaming tax will produce about $10 million in annual state revenue, although that would be offset if the Legislature also goes along with the governor’s plan to exempt all nonprofits from the sales tax.

Competing proposal complicates Golden’s Ukraine-border bill

It has been roughly two weeks since 2nd District U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, D-Maine, unveiled the Defending Borders, Defending Democracy Act, a multipronged bill that would provide U.S. aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan while also implementing an array of changes to slow the influx of migrants at the southern border.

The rollout received a fair amount of national attention, including on CBS’s Face the Nation, which hosted Golden and the bill’s Republican co-sponsor, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick.

But it has been a slog getting the bill to a vote.

Golden and Fitzpatrick are trying to use a process called a discharge petition to advance the bill. It’s designed to bypass Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson, who has refused to put the bill on the floor for a vote. Johnson is also blocking a proposal mirroring the recently passed compromise in the U.S. Senate that garnered 70 votes. The Senate bill was the result of a deal that originally included a slate of immigration reforms that Republicans demanded as a condition for foreign aid, but they ultimately torpedoed it at the behest of former President Donald Trump. (Johnson vowed to block that, too.)

But Rep. Hakeem Jeffries is urging Democrats to revive the Senate bill in the House using the same process that Golden and Fitzpatrick are. And that appears to be putting a ceiling on support for Golden’s bill.

In order to use the discharge petition process and circumvent the House Speaker, who controls what issues are considered by the full chamber, a bill needs the signatures of 218 House members. As of Thursday, only 14 members had signed onto the Golden-Fitzpatrick bill, while 177 members had signed the proposal backed by Jeffries.

In a statement, Golden said he and Fitzpatrick are trying to broaden support by contemplating changes.

“The reality of the moment is that in our divided government, any solution on border security and aid for Ukraine is going to need Republican votes in the House. My bill with Rep. Fitzpatrick is the only bipartisan proposal with Republican support,” he said. “It would stem the unprecedented flow of migrants and fentanyl across our southern border and support Ukraine in stopping Putin’s march across Europe. We are working hard to broaden support from the middle out to get the 218 votes needed for passage, and we are urging leadership in both parties to recognize the path forward won’t go through either party alone. It’s time to get real and make a deal.”

Challengers to King

U.S. Sen. Angus King will likely face two major-party challengers this November as the independent seeks a third term representing Maine in DC.

Democrat David Costello of Brunswick qualified for the November ballot this week after submitting enough petition signatures from registered voters. An Old Town native, Costello has worked in government and politics in Maine, Maryland and at the federal level for several decades.

Demi Kouzounas, a dentist from Saco who served as chairwoman of the Maine Republican Party for six years until last year, has also announced that she will challenge King. Kouzounas is expected to submit her signatures to the secretary of state’s office on Friday.

A former two-term governor, King handily won a three-way race in 2012 to replace retiring Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe. King is one of three independents in the Senate, but he caucuses with the Democrats and has sought to carve out a role as a moderate dealmaker in the polarized Senate. He was reelected in 2018 with 54% of the vote in another three-way race.

At this point, he is the clear favorite this fall given his consistently high approval rating, name recognition and the advantage that traditionally comes with incumbency.

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week by State House correspondent Kevin Miller and chief political correspondent Steve Mistler, and produced by digital editor Andrew Catalina. 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.