The Maine Legislature Is Back In Session And Facing A Multitude Of Issues

Jan 8, 2020

The Legislature is back in session and has a lot of work to do between now and April 15, when lawmakers are supposed to adjourn. Maine Public's Mal Leary, from Augusta, spoke with Nora Flaherty  to talk about the multitude of issues before lawmakers. 

Flaherty: Mal, is this session facing more challenges than past legislatures?

Credit Maine Public File

Leary: Well, probably not in terms of major issues that they have before them. But when you look at the number of bills that they have, it's going to be a really big challenge. Over 400 bills from last year's session were carried forward to this session. Add to that hundreds of new bills from individual lawmakers, bills from state agencies and bills from Governor Mills. That's a lot of measures they have to consider and act on within this timeframe, which isn't a lot of time. Now, a lot of the measures are, I'd call them, kind of housekeeping -- like they have to have a bill in to change the charter of a local water district. But some are going to generate a lot of discussion and a lot of debate.

Okay, so what is the big issue that's likely to dominate the session?

Well, like past sessions, it almost always is money. And it's probably going to be that again. Republicans are making it clear they do not want to spend the, let's call it extra state money, on new and expanded programs. They want it stashed away in the state's reserve accounts, the rainy day fund, so to speak, so that if we have any future downturn in the economy, the impact can be minimized. Now, there's over $100 million in extra revenues this year. A little over $20 million of that is what's called one-time money by the Revenue Forecasting Commission. We haven't seen the governor's supplemental budget, but typically there's some shifting around of existing funding. And there's also some new money used to meet needs that have increased since the original budget was passed. And boy, let me tell you, there are several bills that individual Democrats have introduced that will cost something if they're passed, dealing with a wide area of issues, from corrections, to the drug crisis to children's services.

Okay, so spending on new programs, saving money for a rainy day, there's always fights about money. But what about borrowing money? I see there are numerous hearings on bonds this month.

Bonds are going to be a battle. They seem to be one every year. They carried over, and hope you're ready for this one, from last year, they carried over a request for $2 billion in bond proposals, and therefore just about anything you can think of, from broadband expansion to highways, transportation, to funding the land for Maine's future program, and just about anything else you can think of. As you mentioned, there's another group of bonds proposed this session. Again, Republicans have some leverage on bonds. Bonds need a two-thirds vote to send to the voters. They have the final say. Last year's session, they only supported one bond issue that was for transportation, and that was approved by the voters in November.

Speaking of transportation, is that another area where we might see some conflict among lawmakers?

Well, I certainly was expecting some conflict there. Because there were several proposals floating around. Some of them calling for a gas tax increase to try to get at the more than $200 million backlog and needed projects to repair bridges and roads. But this afternoon, the Legislature's Transportation Committee basically punted, and said, Well, we need to do more work on this, we've got scores of recommendations of how some other states are dealing with this issue, and we need to look at it some more and come back to the next session of the Legislature with some recommendations. Now whether the whole Legislature is willing to go along with that is a big question, because the Department of Transportation will be looking at a shortage in that backlog building up, unless they get some money this year from a bond issue, or from some sort of new source of revenue. So that's an issue that's up in the air. but not as controversial as it might have been.

Well, it's the most wonderful time of the year and I guess we'll probably be talking to you several more times as the legislative session develops. 

Ed note: this is a transcribed interview that has been edited for length and clarity.