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Here are the major takeaways from the 2nd session of the Maine Legislature

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 131st Legislature enacted a series of bills expanding and protecting abortion rights, but fell short of advancing an amendment to the Maine Constitution that would further safeguard access to the procedure from those who oppose it.

Lawmakers also poured millions of dollars into various housing programs and homeless shelters, although it’s not yet clear whether those initiatives will mitigate a housing crisis that shows few signs of abating.

Democrats, in full control of the State House since 2019, jousted with Republicans on spending, climate change, renewable energy, abortion, guns and LGBTQ issues. But they also fought bitterly with Democratic Gov. Janet Mills over tribal sovereignty, workers’ rights and, this year, how to spend the state’s revenue surplus.

Republicans, again mired in the minority, fully embraced the cultural battles that have come to define the party since the Trump presidency, but they notched precious few legislative victories that might bolster their attempts in November to reclaim the House or Senate.

And in gun-friendly Maine, a horrific mass shooting altered the state’s gun politics, but by how much? And for how long?

While lawmakers will return to the State House next week to take up the governor’s vetoes, the 131st Legislature has already left its imprint on some of the issues and challenges confronting the state. It will take more time to fully assess whether the bills it enacted will improve the problems lawmakers sought to address. In the meantime, there’s politics and also a legislative election that could change the power dynamic in the State House. What follows is a breakdown of highlights that might affect both.

On guns, a shift

Gun safety activists have long been thwarted in the Maine Legislature, which has historically acted to make gun laws more permissive. The Lewiston mass shooting undoubtedly changed that dynamic.

Democrats passed several bills that have previously failed, including a three-day waiting period to purchase firearms that stalled just last year.

The governor, whose own proposal to expand background checks and create a network of crisis prevention centers sought to straddle the competing interests in Maine’s gun politics, reluctantly allowed the waiting period proposal to become law without her signature. She also vetoed a bill that would ban devices that can make a semiautomatic firearm fire nearly as quickly as a machine gun.

Gun safety advocates cheered their long-sought progress. But the big question is whether there will be any electoral fallout for Democrats? In the past, it has been the National Rifle Association that has helped facilitate the backlash. The group’s local chapter has already told its members to remember the “anti-gun politicians” who voted to pass the aforementioned bills.

But don’t sleep on the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, which has vowed to challenge the constitutionality of the waiting-period law and grades legislators. Its director, David Trahan, has also floated the possibility of a people’s veto, which could assist Republican enthusiasm this November, just as past gun control referendums have previously.

Some polls suggest that Democrats might have public opinion on their side in pursuing the bills that they have. And Maine lawmakers have an easy contrast with Republicans when it comes to responding to, or preventing, gun violence. Take Iowa, where lawmakers responded to a school shooting by passing a law this year that arms teachers and staff, a proposal that Maine Republicans introduced last year.

Red flag, full stop

Family members of the deranged gunman who carried out the Lewiston massacre warned police about his deteriorating mental health and arsenal of firearms. So did fellow Army reservists and the psychiatric facility he was sent to just a few months before his deadly rampage.

But nobody took his guns.

The reason why remains the subject of much debate, which initially appeared to steer legislators toward enacting a red flag law. Such laws allow family members to petition the courts to confiscate a loved one’s firearms if they’re deemed a threat to themselves or others.

While Maine has a version of an extreme risk protection order law, it’s distinct from any other in the U.S. because it requires that weapons seizures must first be initiated by law enforcement, who must take a person into protective custody and then obtain a mental health evaluation.

Law enforcement officials have complained that the process is cumbersome and gun safety advocates argue that it closes off a valuable avenue for families who might not want to interact with law enforcement.

But lawmakers were reluctant to push for a red flag bill. Mills didn’t propose one and instead settled for a tweak to the yellow flag process. And such a proposal was conspicuously absent from legislative Democrats’ original slate of gun safety priorities.

Democrats eventually submitted a red flag bill, but it never had a chance. It was introduced in the final weeks of the session and never came up for a vote.

The reason why isn’t entirely clear, but there was a robust defense of Maine’s yellow flag bill in Augusta, which arguably received a big assist from the commission investigating the Lewiston tragedy. In its interim report the commission argued that the law should have been used. The report was released earlier than expected and just as lawmakers were debating the gun safety bills. It contained no policy recommendations, although those might come when the commission releases a full report later this year and likely well after this legislature can act on it.

Abortion rights on offense

While abortion rights have been a dominant national issue for quite some time, it took center stage in Maine after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2022 overturned the longstanding Roe v. Wade decision that had prohibited states from outlawing the procedure for nearly 50 years.

The result is a balkanization of abortion laws as Republican-led states enact restrictions or total bans, while Democratic-led states expand and protect access. The latter has been the case in Maine since Democrats rode the repeal's backlash to secure new majorities.

Maine Democrats have been aggressive on this front, enacting a slate of abortion protections while expanding access to later in a pregnancy.

It was unsuccessful this year advancing a constitutional amendment that would enshrine abortion rights and better shield a rollback in access that might come if the GOP ever wins control of state government. That’s because Republicans uniformly opposed it and their votes were needed to send the amendment to voters for final approval.

While Democrats criticized Republicans for opposing the amendment, they and their abortion rights allies are banking on its demise having some electoral utility this November.

“What is clear in this moment is that we have 75 champions of reproductive liberties in the Maine State House. And we have 65 elected leaders who have shown they either don’t care what their constituents want, or they are afraid to see the results of Mainers directly casting ballots on whether to protect reproductive autonomy as an explicit right in this state,” Planned Parenthood Action Fund said in a statement after the amendment failed.

The same group spent nearly $1 million supporting pro-abortion Democrats in 2022.

Rare veto backlash

Gov. Mills has vetoed 46 bills during her two terms in office, and so far, every single one of them has been sustained by the Legislature.

While supporters of the defeated bills have undoubtedly grumbled after the governor has rejected their legislation, most of the time it’s done in a polite or muted way.

That was decidedly not the case when the governor vetoed her own proposal to allow farmworkers to earn the state’s minimum wage. Sen. Mike Tipping, D-Orono, called the governor’s vetoing of her own bill “beyond ridiculous,” an assessment backed by Senate President Troy Jackson. The AFL-CIO, a federation of labor unions, called the veto “shameful” and an “embarrassment.”

Even former lawmakers chimed in to express their dismay, including former House Speaker Ryan Fecteau. Fecteau briefly worked for the Mills administration after he left office in 2022.

Given that a report conducted as a precursor to the bill showed that most farms in Maine are already paying their workers the minimum wage or more, the anger directed at Mills might seem puzzling.

Part of it appeared to stem from her rationale that the bill was amended so that farmworkers could sue their employers over wage violations, a right that labor groups noted that farmworkers already have and would have lost if the bill didn’t include it.

Additionally, the governor, who has made efforts not to alienate business groups, has sometimes had a tense relationship with organized labor. Labor unions are also staunch allies with Democrats, often holding the key to their political ambitions.

The GOP’s referendum on Democrats

Given Democrats’ rock-solid majorities in both the House and the Senate, Republicans returned to Augusta this year with realistic expectations about achieving their partisan priorities during an election year.

Instead, Republicans made it clear early on that they planned to turn the 2024 session into a referendum on Democrats headed into November.

“We must recognize the truth of where we are at, including the harsh reality of life under total Democrat control,” Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart of Presque Isle said during the Republican response to the governor’s State of the State address in late January. “Together, we can lift the veil from our eyes and recognize that we are in control of our own future. We have the tools to reshape our trajectory and make sure that the next generation will be better off than our own. That all starts with this November’s election.”

It is, of course, too early to tell whether Republicans can achieve their lofty goal of flipping control of the Legislature or at least narrowing the gap between the two parties. They’ve lost ground during the past two legislative elections.

While Democrats will once again argue that abortion is on the ballot this year, voters should expect to hear Republicans talk a lot about “the left’s” push for an electric vehicle mandate. State environmental regulators spiked that proposal to require car manufacturers to sell an ever-increasing percentage of EVs earlier this year after intense public blowback stoked by Republicans.

GOP leaders have also made it clear their plans to continue hammering Democrats on solar energy subsidies that are borne by all electric ratepayers. Lawmakers rejected a bill that would have limited natural gas pipeline expansion in Maine but Republicans continue to bring it up.

Localizing the national border issue, Republicans are accusing Mills and Democratic lawmakers of skewed priorities for approving tens of millions of dollars to house asylum seekers at a time when many Mainers are struggling to find affordable housing. And Republicans will, no doubt, accuse Democrats of taking away Mainers’ Second Amendment rights by passing the gun bills discussed above.

It's unclear whether those arguments will resonate more with Maine voters this year. But the just-ended session certainly gave the GOP more campaign fodder.

Offshore wind and ‘the upside down’

There was a proxy fight over offshore wind in the Legislature that spawned internal fighting among environmentalists, opportunistic politicking among offshore wind opponents and left some Democratic lawmakers apparently unsure where to stand, at least for a time.

The bill, LD 2266, would have provided an exemption from the state’s regulatory protections of coastal sand dunes to a offshore wind power manufacturing facility and terminal proposed for Sears Island. The Mills administration chose the 941-acre island in Penobscot Bay over nearby Mack Point – which already hosts a shipping terminal and industrial facilities – because the state-owned land reportedly offers easier access without dredging.

The bill was strongly opposed by local groups like Citizens to Protect Sears Island as well statewide organizations such as the Sierra Club. They accused the Mills administration of ignoring its own climate goals by attempting to wipe out a small section of coastal dunes and developing an undeveloped island.

But other environmental groups, such as the Natural Resources Council of Maine, supported the bill because they maintain moving forward with an offshore windpower manufacturing facility – either at Mack Point or Sears Island – is important to addressing climate change.

Meanwhile, groups such as the New England Fishermen’s Stewardship Association, which oppose development of offshore wind in the Gulf of Maine, hitched their wagon to the environmental impacts. And Republicans typically opposed to the Mills administration’s “clean energy” agenda accused the administration of trying to “destroy” the environment on Sears Island.

More than a dozen House Democrats initially voted against the bill – a top priority for the Democratic Mills administration as well as labor unions – only to flip to supporting it later on.

Slow but steady progress for tribes

After ending last year’s legislative session on a decidedly frosty note, Wabanaki leaders and Mills appeared to hit reset this year. The result was another partial but significant step forward for tribal leaders in their sovereignty campaign.

Lawmakers approved a bill, LD 2007, that gives tribal courts exclusive jurisdiction over some crimes if they are committed on tribal territory and by tribal members. But tribal and state courts would have concurrent jurisdiction in cases where a crime is committed by a non-tribal member on tribal territory.

The changes, which were negotiated between tribal leaders and the Mills administration, were among nearly two dozen recommendations from a task force several years ago that proposed overhauling the controversial 1980 legal agreement between the state and tribes. Those recommendations have formed the backbone of the sovereignty and self-government push that has, at times, been blocked by Mills.

“While this bill handles one subject area of those recommendations, criminal jurisdiction is highly significant to our nations and our people,” Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Bryant said after Mills signed the bill. “Having this expanded jurisdiction helps our communities protect our people and enhance our peace, prosperity, and safety.”

It could also benefit Mills politically among Democrats who have been frustrated and, in some cases, infuriated by her opposition to the broader sovereignty measures. Mills has consistently said she was willing to engage in piecemeal negotiations with Wabanaki leaders on self-government issues, and this latest compromise now adds to the that list of incremental changes.

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week by State House correspondent Kevin Miller and produced by news editor Andrew Catalina. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.