Legislature Shutting Down Amid COVID-19 Concerns, Mills Requires Insurance to Cover Testing

Legislative leaders have decided to wrap up the Maine Legislature’s second session early this Tuesday, March 17, in order to mitigate transmission of COVID-19, known commonly as the coronavirus. In a joint statement, Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook County), House Speaker Sara Gideon (D-Freeport), Senate Minority Leader Dana Dow (R- Lincoln County) and House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham (R-Oxford) said the Legislature will focus on passing bills related to the response to the pandemic and then adjourn until social-distancing methods are no longer necessary to contain the outbreak.

“Our priority is promoting and protecting the health and well-being of all Mainers and the people who work in the State House,” legislative leaders said in a statement. “As legislative leaders, we have decided to take the necessary precaution of suspending our legislative session as soon as possible.”

Lawmakers made the decision following reports that two cases of the potentially deadly virus were found in Androscoggin County and Portland. At a press conference March 12, Governor Janet Mills announced that while the virus had arrived in Maine, the state has a “a unique window of opportunity to delay an outbreak.”

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is updating its website with the most recent information about how many Mainers have tested positive for the coronavirus and where they are located geographically. As of noon March 16, there were a total of eight confirmed and nine presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 in Maine.

Mills said her administration would take a number of measures to contain the spread of the virus, including declaring a “health insurance emergency” and requiring private health insurance plans and MaineCare to cover the cost of coronavirus testing, suspending all nonessential out-of-state travel by state employees and recommending that nonessential indoor gatherings of 50 attendees or more be postponed.

On March 15, Mills announced that she would submit emergency legislation to temporarily expand unemployment insurance to individuals whose employment has been impacted by the coronavirus. The measure would revise eligibility requirements for the Unemployment Insurance program to include situations not typically covered, such as when an employer temporarily ceases operation due to COVID-19, an employee is temporarily quarantined or if a worker leaves employment due to risk of exposure or infection or to care for a family member. The proposal would also temporarily waive the one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits so that workers may obtain them immediately.

Mills said she has also requested that the Small Business Administration (SBA) provide economic support loans for small businesses to help them get through temporary revenue losses during the pandemic. The loans offer up to $2 million in assistance for small businesses and may be used to pay fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable and other bills that can’t be paid because of the impact of the public health crisis, according to the SBA.

However, the Mills administration did not address the economic security of the thousands of Maine workers who do not qualify for unemployment insurance. A 2018 analysis by the Maine Center for Economic Policy found that 45 percent of Mainers already do not have the financial means to handle an emergency like an unexpected car repair or sudden illness. Mills has also ruled out speeding up implementation of an earned paid leave law that would provide paid time off to 139,000 Maine workers, but isn’t scheduled to take effect until next year.

Meanwhile, the ACLU of Maine is urging elected officials to uphold civil liberties and ensure that vulnerable populations are protected during the public health emergency. In a letter dated March 11 to Governor Mills and the city managers of the state’s 15 largest cities, the organization called on state and local governments to protect people in jails and prisons; to declare health centers “immigration enforcement-free zones”; to support workers who lack paid sick leave; and to use voluntary quarantine measures over compulsory ones whenever possible.

“Right to Food” Constitutional Amendment Falls Short of Two-Thirds Threshold

A majority of the Maine House and Senate voted last week to pass a proposed constitutional amendment declaring that Mainers have “a natural, inherent and unalienable right to acquire, produce, process, prepare, preserve and consume and to barter, trade and purchase the food of their own choosing for their own nourishment, sustenance, bodily health and well-being.” While the measure failed to garner the two-thirds votes necessary for passage, the bill’s sponsor Rep. Craig Hickman (D-Winthrop) told The Free Press that he believes he can get a few more votes to pass it when it comes up for a final enactment vote this week.

Hickman has submitted similar measures in the past, arguing that government food safety regulations have hampered the growth of small farms in Maine. In a floor speech, Hickman noted that Maine imports 90 percent of its food and that 54 towns and cities across the state have already adopted similar Food Sovereignty Ordinances in an effort to stimulate local food production.

“As more people become informed about industrial agriculture through documentaries like ‘Food, Inc.’ and the writings of Wendell Berry,” said Hickman, “we seek nutrient-dense food from our neighbors and friends, small food producers and homesteaders who produce wholesome food free from chemical preservatives, soy fillers, antibiotics, artificial flavors and colors, clever rearrangements of corn, and who knows what else.”

However, Rep. MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox) urged Republicans to oppose the bill because seed companies worry it would encourage people to start bartering patented seeds.

L D   7 9 5   —   R I G H T   T O   F O O D   A M E N D M E N T

House (93 Yeas, 49 Nays)
Anne Beebe-Center (D-Rockland) Y
Scott Cuddy (D-Winterport) Y
Michael Devin (D-Newcastle) E
Jan Dodge (D-Belfast) Y
Vicki Doudera (D-Camden) Y
Jeff Evangelos (U-Friendship) Y
Jeffrey Hanley (R-Pittston) N
MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox) N
Ann Matlack (D-St. George) Y
Chloe Maxmin (D-Nobleboro) Y
Genevieve McDonald (D-Stonington) Y
Bill Pluecker (U-Warren) Y
Holly Stover (D-Boothbay) Y
Stanley Paige Zeigler (D-Montville) Y
Senate (21 Yeas, 14 Nays)
Dana Dow (R-Lincoln Cty) N
Erin Herbig (D-Belfast) Y
Dave Miramant (D-Knox Cty) Y
U= unenrolled; X = absent; E = excused

Microgrid Bill Passes the House

The Maine House voted 85-54 last week to pass LD 13, which would allow communities to establish microgrids. A microgrid is a localized grouping of on-site electricity generators, like solar panels, that is capable of operating in conjunction with the traditional electric grid or disconnecting from it and running autonomously as an electrical island. Microgrid operators can adjust how much power it takes in from the main grid depending on how much electricity prices fluctuate throughout the day.

Rep. Mick Devin (D-Newcastle), the bill’s sponsor, wrote in testimony last year that the goal of his proposal is to improve the reliability and resilience of Maine’s power grid to cope with severe weather events. However, the major utilities have been skeptical of Devin’s proposal. A lobbyist for the utility Emera Maine said the company supports the concept of microgrids but expressed concern that the proposal would allow entities other than the investor-owned utilities to run microgrids.

L D   1 3   —   M I C R O G R I D S

House (85 Yeas, 54 Nays)
Anne Beebe-Center (D-Rockland) Y
Scott Cuddy (D-Winterport) Y
Michael Devin (D-Newcastle) E
Jan Dodge (D-Belfast) Y
Vicki Doudera (D-Camden) Y
Jeff Evangelos (U-Friendship) Y
Jeffrey Hanley (R-Pittston) N
MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox) N
Ann Matlack (D-St. George) Y
Chloe Maxmin (D-Nobleboro) Y
Genevieve McDonald (D-Stonington) Y
Bill Pluecker (U-Warren) Y
Holly Stover (D-Boothbay) Y
Stanley Paige Zeigler (D-Montville) Y
U= unenrolled; X = absent; E = excused

Committee Passes Bill to Tighten Requirements on State Privatization Schemes

During the LePage years, the former Republican administration caused several high-profile boondoggles when it outsourced formerly public services to private vendors. When the Department of Health and Human Services outsourced its brokering system for MaineCare rides, hundreds of seniors and people with disabilities ended up stranded. In 2016, the state outsourced a bridge painting job in Portland to a company with no understanding of how to properly remove toxic lead paint. The same year, the LePage administration outsourced the administration of various welfare programs to the company Fedcap, which has been sued over a dozen times for workplace discrimination, wage, disability and personal injury disputes. And on and on.

Last week, the Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee voted 5-4 to pass a bill (LD 1458) that would require contractors to meet several criteria proving that privatization is in the public interest before receiving a contract to take over duties previously handled by state employees. The measure would create a process to ensure that the quality of the service is maintained and that the cost of the service, including loss of income tax revenue, would be cheaper under privatization. It would also require that private contractors have a proven record of compliance with state and federal safety health, discrimination and environmental laws.

“This bill will help restore trust for Mainers that government works for them, and that taxpayer funds are being spent responsibly,” said Sen. Shenna Bellows (D-Kennebec County), the bill’s sponsor, in a statement. “There are times that privatization may be appropriate in a given instance, but there should be safeguards.”

The bill faces further votes by the full House and Senate.

Bill to Eliminate Waitlists for People with Disabilities Passes Committee

The Health and Human Services Committee unanimously passed a measure (LD 1984) that would provide funding to eliminate the waiting lists for home and community-based services for adults with intellectual disabilities, autism, brain injuries and other related conditions. For years, families of adults with severe disabilities across the state have struggled to find care for their adult children with cognitive and intellectual disabilities as the state has failed to properly fund community-based services. Currently, there are roughly 2,000 people in Maine on a waiting list for these services.

In written testimony on the bill, Hillary Steinau of Camden said her 21-year-old son Alex has become one of the adults on the waiting list after graduating from high school.

“Though he is considered ‘young’ there are many who are in their late 20s or older who have been waiting in the ‘queue’ for their rightful place in line for help they need to be successful members in their communities. Many have been languishing for 10 years,” wrote Steinau. “Sady too many parents have had to quit their jobs and stay home with their disabled adult, who cannot care for themselves. Many parents are aging and worry, ‘What will happen to my son when I can no longer take care of him/her?’”

LD 1984 faces votes in the Maine Senate and House in the coming week, but it remains to be seen whether the Appropriations Committee will provide funding for the measure in the Governor’s supplemental budget.

House Passes Pluecker’s Bill to Set Efficiency Standards on Appliances

The Maine House voted 86-54 to pass Rep. Bill Pluecker’s (U-Warren) bill (LD 1750) to apply California energy and water standards for new products like computers, hot food holding cabinets, portable electric spas, water coolers, faucets, shower heads, sprinklers, toilets and urinals starting in 2022. Used products would be exempt from the law.

“This bill will save Maine ratepayers approximately $15,000,000 annually in 2025 and up to $38,500,000 in 2035,” said Pluecker. “Savings only increase over time. As new appliances are installed, the rate of savings increase.… This bill is taking money out of the hands of utility companies and putting it back in the hands of our citizens.”

Republicans like Rep. Dick Campbell (R-Orrington) opposed the bill out of concerns that it would be an unnecessary government intrusion into the free market. Campbell also argued that the state doesn’t have a water shortage like California so water efficiency standards are unnecessary.

“I have confidence in the consumer to buy the right piece of appliance or water fixture for themselves,” he said. “I rely on the retailer to put that product on the shelf and I rely on the retail sales people to sell it and show the benefit and life cycle of savings. So … I know [LD 1750] is not necessary.”

Legislature Passes Bill Commemorating First Labor Strike in Colonial America

Last week, the House and Senate unanimously passed a joint resolution commemorating the first labor strike over working conditions in what become the United States. The strike began in 1636 on Richmond Island when fishermen working for English merchant Robert Trelawny ceased working and left the island to protest the withholding of their wages for over a year. The resolution reads in part:

WHEREAS, the Richmond Island strike deserves to be honored and remembered as part of Maine’s long and proud tradition of working class struggles in this year of our bicentennial celebrations; now, therefore, be it RESOLVED: That We, the Members of the One Hundred and Twenty-ninth Legislature now assembled in the Second Regular Session, on behalf of the people we represent, take this opportunity to recognize and honor the courage and resolve of the Richmond Island fishermen in furthering the cause of workers’ rights.”

In full disclosure, I wrote the resolution.