Maine State House Chamber in Augusta (Photo: Dan Kirchoff)
Maine State House Chamber in Augusta (Photo: Dan Kirchoff)
The Maine Legislature will return to the State House next week for another session of public hearings, debate and general wonkery. There probably won’t be too many explosions when the governor doesn’t get her way — no yelling at reporters, voicemail messages calling lawmakers homophobic slurs, or manic impromptu performances with little squeaky pig toys in the Hall of Flags. No, that governor is long gone, probably lounging around his pool in Ormond Beach, Florida, and posting unhinged rants about his replacement on social media. So, while there may be some fireworks this year at the State House over budget matters, it’s likely it’ll be just another boring session. In other words, Augusta might actually get some more work done.

Requiring Hospitals to Treat Patients with Mental Health Problems

For several years, the country has struggled to address the mental health crisis. Here in Maine, patients suffering mental health emergencies have faced long waits for help and even been forced to languish for days in emergency rooms until beds open up. In September 2018, the Portland Press Herald reported that two Lewiston hospitals illegally rejected patients with mental health issues who arrived in emergency rooms.

On January 13, the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee will take up a measure that aims to hold health care providers accountable for not accepting patients with serious and persistent mental illness. LD 1822, sponsored by Rep. Drew Gattine (D-Westbrook), would set up a process that would allow patients who are repeatedly denied access to mental health services to file a civil suit for injunctive relief against their providers.

Studying Marine Debris

Old fishing gear, soda cans and plastics are just some of the bits of trash in the ocean that are killing marine life and posing a threat to human health. On January 14, the Marine Resources Committee will hear Rep. Mick Devin’s (D-Newcastle) bill, LD 936, that would establish the 13-member “Commission To Study the Effects of Freshwater and Marine Debris” to examine how marine debris affects Maine’s freshwater and ocean and coastal ecosystems, habitats and species. It would then report its findings back to the Legislature along with suggested legislation to address the problem.

$165 Million Worth of R&D and Aquaculture Bonds

The Appropriations Committee will take up two bond proposals on January 14 that would invest money in research and development. LD 455, sponsored by Sen. Louie Luchini (D-Hancock County), would ask voters to approve $65 million to invest in research into Alzheimer’s, dementia and other diseases of aging. Jackson Labs in Bar Harbor does extensive research on these diseases and would likely be the prime recipient of these funds if approved.

The Appropriations Committee will also hear LD 602, sponsored by Sen. Jim Dill (D-Penobscot County), which would ask voters to borrow $50 million for biotechnical and biomedical research and forest products research. Then, Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook County) will present LD 1705, which would borrow $50 million to facilitate the growth of commercial fishing and aquaculture through research and development and workforce development.

Public-Sector Right-to-Strike Bill

On January 15, the Labor and Housing Committee will once again take up LD 900, which would give teachers and other public-sector workers the right to strike. The measure would apply to municipal, county, university and community college employees, but not to workers in critical public safety roles like police and firefighters. Under current law, it is illegal for public employees to strike, and they can actually be thrown in jail for exercising this right.

Testifying in support of the bill last year, third-grade teacher Beth French of Searsport argued that teachers face many challenges, such as working long days for low pay with very little support from administrators. Giving them the right to strike, she argued, would ensure that their voices are heard.

“I don’t EVER want to have to strike. Ever,” she wrote to committee members last year. “But, I know that a strike, as a very last resort, is a highly effective tool in the process of protracted negotiations. Allowing educators the right to strike would positively change the dynamics of the negotiations process, making this a more fair process for teachers.”

LD 900 previously passed the committee on a party-line vote, but the bill faces long odds as Governor Janet Mills has stated her opposition to granting public employees the right to withhold their labor. In full disclosure, my employer, the Maine AFL-CIO, lobbied in favor of this bill.

Banning Non-Disclosure Agreements

Also on January 15, the Labor and Housing Committee will consider LD 1529, sponsored by Rep. Thom Harnett (D-Gardiner), which would prohibit employers from forcing employees or applicants to sign confidentiality agreements when negotiating monetary settlements over harassment in the workplace. The measure would only allow these non-disclosure agreements if the employee requests them.

The widespread use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) made headlines at the height of the #MeToo movement in 2017 when it was reported that sexual predator Harvey Weinstein paid his victims for their silence. Shortly after the news came to light, both California and New York passed laws restricting the use of NDAs.

Testifying in support of LD 1529 last year, Elizabeth Ward Saxl of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault argued that it’s time to examine workplace policies that enable harassment to go unchecked.

“Mandatory NDAs limit victim self-determination which is counter to a trauma-informed approach and complicates the path to healing,” she wrote. “lt is critical that Maine workplaces empower survivors and support a survivor’s choice whether or not to enter into an NDA in cases of discrimination or harassment.”

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men experience some form of sexual harassment during their lifetime. A 2018 study published by the National Women’s Law Center found that more than one in three women who filed charges alleging sexual harassment also alleged retaliation.

LD 1529 previously passed the committee, but Governor Mills had some concerns about the specific language in the bill so legislative leaders agreed to hold it over until this session, according to the Bangor Daily News.

Allowing Mental Health Sick Days for Students

As the country deals with a crisis of youth depression, anxiety and suicide, on January 15 the Education Committee will consider a bill (LD 1855) that would allow students to take excused absences for mental and behavioral health issues. A number of other states, including Utah and Oregon, have passed similar laws, according to The Washington Post. Suicide has become the second leading cause of death among teens and young adults, with the suicide rate increasing by 56 percent from 2007 to 2017 among people ages 10 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Transitioning School Buses to Electric Power

On January 15, Sen. Eloise Vitelli (D-Sagadahoc Cty.) will present LD 1894, which would direct the Department of Education to set a goal to transition the public school bus fleet to 100 percent all-electric by 2040. The bill, which will be heard by the Education Committee, would also require the department to set aside a percentage of available resources for the purchase of electric small school buses as replacements for older buses. A number of states — including Massachusetts and Vermont — have been developing pilot programs to demonstrate the feasibility of using electric school buses.