It's Friday, and that means it's time once again for Maine's Political Pulse. Maine Public Radio's Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz talks with our political team, Mal Leary and Steve Mistler, about Maine's new Legislature. It's just getting to work in earnest for its first regular session, which is expected to run until sometime in June. The session is likely to handle some 2,000 pieces of legislation, and most of the bill titles were disclosed this week.
So let's start with the process. Mal, these are "titles bills" that every legislator had an opportunity to submit - it's kind of a once-in-two-year opportunity for the rank and file. Correct?
MAL LEARY: That's correct. Cloture was December 31st. But it's important to note, because some of the reporting on this has been an error, the bills that have been submitted by legislators aren't all the bills that will be considered this session. We've not seen the bills yet from the judiciary. We've not seen the bills from departments and agencies, which have a separate process by which to send bills to the Legislature for consideration. And then, of course, the governor can put a bill in at any time. It's likely that some of her major policy initiatives are going to come later in the session, not earlier in the session. Under the regulations and rules of the Legislature, every single bill is going to be considered. So, there will be a public hearing and it will be considered, even though some of them are duplicative and some of them clearly won't go anywhere.
And, of course, the other thing about it at the moment - although these will eventually be fleshed out - is all we have are titles. So, Steve Mistler, there's a lot we don't know about many of these bills, especially like the ones - and there were a few of these – titled an "Act to Make Changes to the Laws of the State."
MAL LEARY: I love that one.
STEVE MISTLER: That's right. They're all very nebulous. I mean, some of them you can get the idea where people are going. For example, there’s over a dozen bills that mention the words “opioid” or “addiction.” That's an obvious reference to the opioid crisis and proposals that aim to deal with that, but what we don't know is the substance of those proposals. Stepping back a little bit, one thing it was striking to me was just the number of proposals from Democrats, which reflects, I think, the fact that there's just a lot of pent up demand from Democrats to push a lot of big ticket items that, frankly, have stalled over the last eight years under Gov. LePage. Now we have an opportunity to push some of these things. The list runs the gamut from energy, taxation, health care, labor issues, voting and education. It's quite a diverse list of topics.
MAL LEARY: And, like we've seen in the past, Irwin, there's going to be almost a second budget process from the bonds. We've gotten dozens of bond titles, and other titles that could have a bond in them that we don't know yet. So, last time around under LePage, who had over a billion dollars in bond requests that last year - something tells me were going to top that. And the reality is there's only so much money available to pay the debt service. So, there will be a limit on the number of bonds. So that whole process is separate from the budget process, but it could be very important for some of the initiatives, particularly of Gov. Mills, as she talks about expanding broadband – investing more in broadband. And one of the ways that's been talked about there is a substantial bond issue.
And there are other items here too. In fairness to the legislators that will deal with major topics, many of which we could have anticipated - for instance, there will be measures proposing constitutional amendments dealing with ranked-choice voting - and, looking at the bill titles, the proposals kind of come from both sides.
STEVE MISTLER: The Republicans – frankly, they seem to have, comparatively, very few requests compared to the Democrats, but they have seemed to focus on the citizen’s initiative. A lot of these are leftover bills from the previous years when they were responding to sort of a proliferation of using this citizen’s initiative process by progressive groups to push things like legalizing marijuana or raising the minimum wage, etcetera, and Republicans have tried to push back on that to almost sort of make it a little bit harder for ballot initiatives to actually get on the ballot. What's interesting about that is the fact that, usually, the ballot initiative is a great tool for the party that's out of power, and that is Republicans in this instance. That's why Democrats used it, especially in the last few years, because even though they weren't completely in the wilderness in the Legislature - they were able to hold the House - they couldn't get a lot, or much of anything, past Gov. LePage's veto. And then, just real quick, you mentioned the ranked-choice voting, which would basically get a constitutional amendment out to voters to make sure that it could be used in gubernatorial races, which it currently is not - that is among one of the proposals I've seen, or at least the bill titles. That's going to be difficult to get that passed because of reasons we've discussed before, which is that the GOP has galvanized its opposition to ranked-choice voting, if it hadn't before. Democrats, who are generally supportive of ranked-choice voting, don't have a super-majority in the Legislature to get a constitutional amendment to voters to even consider. Maybe there's some movement among Republicans to go along with it, but I haven't seen any indication of that yet.
Here's one final question for you guys: For folks out there - especially if they listened to us this long - they may actually be really interested in following a particular piece of legislation. How can citizens track where these bills are sent to committee, when their public hearings come up, what they ultimately will say?
STEVE MISTLER: The best tool that I would suggest is the Maine Legislature's website. Right now, these bills have what's known as an L.R. number. That will go away once they are referenced to the committee, and they'll be ascribed an L.D. number. And that's the best way to track the proposal, is through the L.D. number. And you just punch that number in and you can find out what action the Legislature has taken on it. For the lay person, that's exactly how they can do it. And I would recommend it. It's a public website. They're paying for it. So they should definitely use it.
Steve Mistler there, along with Mal Leary. Willis Ryder Arnold produced this feature for broadcast. An extended version of Maine's Political Pulse will be available later Friday at mainepublic.org, or you can download it from wherever you get your podcasts.