Maine State House Chamber (Photo by Dan Kirchoff)
Maine State House Chamber (Photo by Dan Kirchoff)
Eliminating “Double Dipping” Restrictions

For years, former Gov. Paul LePage railed at the practice of “double dipping,” which is when a public employee — such as a teacher, principal or superintendent — retires and then goes back to work to collect both a salary and retirement. Back in 2011, the Legislature passed a law stating that public employees collecting retirement could only receive 75 percent of their prior salary after returning to work and were prohibited from working for more than five additional years after retiring. On April 22, the Labor and Housing Committee will consider a measure (LD 1354), sponsored by Sen. Susan Deschambault (D-York Cty.), that would eliminate this anti-double dipping provision.

Support for 911 Dispatchers

Working as a 911 dispatcher is an extremely stressful and often traumatic job. In many parts of the state, particularly in Portland, there are dispatcher shortages and emergency response workers are forced to work extremely long hours due to short staffing. On April 22, the Labor and Housing Committee will hear a bill that aims to make the occupation more desirable. LD 1395, sponsored by Rep. Mike Sylvester (D-Portland), would add dispatchers to the categories of participating local district employees for which a special retirement plan is available.

The “Red Flag Bill” Returns

Democrats are once again pushing for a so-called “red flag” bill that would create a process to temporarily confiscate guns from individuals believed to pose a threat to themselves or others. On April 22, the Judiciary Committee will hear Sen. Rebecca Millett’s (D-Cumberland Cty.) bill, LD 1312, which would allow law enforcement, family members or household members to petition a court for an “extreme risk protection order” to require a person to temporarily surrender their firearms to police for up to a year if they can prove to a judge that the person poses a danger to themselves or others. Violators would face up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine.

Last year, then-Attorney General Janet Mills said such a law might have made a difference in the case of Andrew Leighton of Falmouth, who killed his mother just before she and his father were to have him committed for mental health treatment. According to the Portland Press Herald, a clerk at Cabela’s in Scarborough refused to sell Leighton a gun because he was behaving erratically, but a different clerk at the same store sold him a gun the next day. Mills said that even patients who are involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility are not necessarily prohibited from having a firearm even though they pose a risk of danger and have severe and persistent mental illness.

However, gun rights groups expressed concern that the law could be used arbitrarily and violate a gun owner’s Second Amendment right. Gun Owners of Maine President Todd Tolhurst said the bill would give disgruntled ex-lovers the power to ask a judge to order their former partners to surrender their guns.

Prohibiting Future Governors from Unilaterally Cutting Medicaid

Former Commissioner Mary Mayhew was able to do a lot of damage to the state’s social safety net by administrative fiat. Rep. Patty Hymanson (D-York) has a proposal to prevent future executive branch officials from unilaterally attacking health insurance programs for the most vulnerable. On April 22, the Health and Human Services Committee will take up LD 615, which would prohibit DHHS from cutting enrollment in Medicaid and the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program without authorization from the Legislature.

Funding Education at 55 Percent

During the great budget showdown of 2017 when Gov. LePage shut down state government, the Legislature repealed the 3-percent tax on households earning over $200,000, which was supposed to fund the state’s share of the cost of education at the voter-mandated target of 55 percent. The move outraged progressives who had fought hard to pass the measure at the ballot box the previous November. On April 22, Sen. Dave Miramant (D-Knox Cty.) will present a bill (LD 259) to the Education Committee to fund education at 55 percent, but it doesn’t have any funding mechanism attached. It’s highly unlikely that Gov. Mills will restore the 3 percent tax as she boxed herself in during the 2018 campaign by making a pledge not to raise taxes. Her current budget blueprint only raises the state’s share of education funding to 50.71 percent.

Banning “Free Speech Zones” on College Campuses

The Education Committee will jump into the culture wars on April 22 with a bill (LD 665) that would prohibit so-called “free speech zones” on college campuses. LD 665, sponsored by Rep. John Andrews (R-Paris), would allow any person who wishes to engage in free expression to do so freely as long as they don’t disrupt the functioning of the college or university. It would prohibit the institution from designating an area on campus for free speech activities or creating policies that restrict expressive activities to a particular outdoor area of campus.

The bill appears to be a version of the “Free Right to Expression in Education Act” (FREE Act), which is model legislation crafted by the far-right Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank that receives funding from the billionaire Koch Brothers and the Walton Family Foundation. The organization argues that “freedom of speech is dying on our college campuses” and that students need to be “confronted with new ideas, especially ideas with which they disagree.” It cites several situations where conservatives have been banned from college campuses and shouted down by students.

Tax Breaks for Veterans

The Taxation Committee on April 23 will once again hear several bills that would give tax breaks to military veterans. Some of the bills would increase the homestead property tax exemption from the current $6,000 to between $10,000 and $100,000 for disabled veterans. Others would allow disabled veterans to receive a property tax exemption of up to 100 percent of the value of their their homes.

Reinstated Family Unification as a Priority

Following the tragic deaths of two young girls at the hands of their caregivers last year, Gov. Paul LePage successfully passed a bill through the Legislature that shifted the state policy away from family reunification as a priority for children involved in the child protective system. On April 23, Rep. Lori Gramlich (D-Old Orchard Beach) will present LD 187, which would repeal the law and restore family rehabilitation and reunification as a priority under the laws governing child protective services. The Judiciary Committee will hear the bill.

Regulating Opioid Companies & Funding Drug Treatment

The Judiciary Committee will also take up a bill that would more heavily regulate opioid medication manufacturers. LD 793, sponsored by Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook Cty.), would prohibit pharmaceutical companies from falsely advertising that their opioid medication does not have abuse liability or has a lower abuse liability than another opioid medication. It would also prohibit them from distributing a quantity of opioid medications that is not medically reasonable and failing to report orders that are not medically reasonable. The proposal would apply retroactively to 1985.

And on April 26, Sen. Jackson will present LD 1429, which would establish the Opioid Use Disorder Prevention and Treatment Fund to support opioid use disorder analysis, prevention and treatment. The program would be funded by a 2¢ fee per morphine milligram assessed against prescription opioid drug manufacturers for opioid drugs. The proposal will be heard by the Health and Human Services Committee.

Marijuana Banking & State Bank Bill Returns

Although medical marijuana is legal in Maine, it is still illegal under federal law, so banks are hesitant to do business with pot growers for fear of running afoul of federal regulators. On April 23, Rep. Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham) will present a bill (LD 1402) to the Health Coverage, Insurance and Financial Services (HCIFS) Committee that would allow credit unions to procure private insurance in lieu of share insurance from the National Credit Union Administration to allow them to do business with medical marijuana dispensaries and caregivers.

Every session since 2011 lawmakers have introduced bills to establish a state-run bank and this year is no exception. Under such a proposal, the state’s revenue would be withdrawn from private financial institutions and deposited in a public bank to leverage low-interest loans to small businesses, support partnership loans with community banks and fund public infrastructure projects. The proposal is modeled after the Bank of North Dakota, which has had a state bank for over 100 years.

But this year, instead of sponsoring the perennial state bank bill, Sen. Dave Miramant (D-Knox Cty.) will present a proposal (LD 1472) to the HCIFS Committee that would create a special commission charged with developing the legal and organizational framework for the establishment and oversight of a state-owned bank.

Allowing Woods Workers to Organize

On April 24, Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook Cty.) will introduce a bill to the Labor and Housing Committee that would create an exemption to anti-trust laws to allow loggers and wood haulers to band together and bargain collectively over rates, benefits and working conditions. Currently, roughly 200 loggers and wood haulers in the North Woods are working with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers to organize for better wages and working conditions, but by law they are considered independent contractors and not subject to collective bargaining laws. Loggers have complained about working 16 to 20 hours a day while struggling to make ends meet because they’re not getting fair rates for their labor.

Protection from Foreclosure Abuse

On April 24, the Judiciary Committee will take up a pair of bills aimed at protecting homeowners from abusive tactics by mortgage holders during foreclosure precedings. Under Maine law, borrowers are allowed to challenge the legality of foreclosure in court. If the court rules in favor of the lender, then the borrower has a three-month redemption period to stop the action in order to come up with the money. Maine’s Foreclosure Diversion Program also provides for mediation between lenders and borrowers in foreclosure, with the goal of working out a repayment plan that works for both parties.  

However, as The Free Press has reported in the past, national mortgage servicers operating in Maine have repeatedly missed foreclosure mediation deadlines, acted in bad faith in processing loan modifications and even forced homeowners into default through improper escrow charges because lucrative fees that mortgage servicers charge delinquent homeowners have given servicers more incentive to foreclose than to modify the loans. Following the mortgage meltdown of 2008, the nation’s largest banks were forced to pay out billions of dollars in legal settlements due to these kinds of fraudulent banking practices.

LD 1327, sponsored by Sen. Ned Claxton (D-Androscoggin Cty.), would require mortgage servicers to act in good faith when dealing with homeowners and it would allow courts to sanction them for failing to do so during mediation. The bill also requires an order of sanctions to identify the name of the mortgage servicer so that, when a servicer is found to have acted in bad faith, the court may take into account previous misconduct in fashioning a sanction sufficient to deter future misconduct.

The committee will also hear LD 907, sponsored by Rep. Mattie Daughtry (D-Brunswick), which would require mortgagees to send a mortgagor in a foreclosure action the Right to Cure Notice by both certified mail, return receipt requested, and ordinary mail. And Rep. Anne Carney (D-Cape Elizabeth) will present LD 1405, which would provide that a mortgagee may execute a waiver of foreclosure only with the written consent of the mortgagor.

Tax Breaks for Solar Panels

The Taxation Committee will hear a number of bills on April 24 to provide tax breaks for renewable energy projects. LDs 564, 922 and 1191 would provide a property tax exemption for solar panels. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, 29 states offer tax exemptions for solar panels.