Legislative committees in Augusta are finally wrapping up work on a range of bills for the short second session, and soon the full Legislature will begin voting on several initiatives including criminal justice reform, a proposal to create a consumer-owned electric cooperative, revising the Indian land claims settlement, workers’ rights and a $127 million supplemental budget.

Pot Growers of the State Unite

Last week, marijuana growers came out in force against an item in the governor’s budget that would provide over $649,000 to establish a new marijuana enforcement unit to crack down on illegal dealers that compete with licensed pot businesses. The new weed enforcement agents would be funded by marijuana tax and licensing revenue. However, opponents argued that the measure would defeat the purpose of the legalization law, which was to end the war on drugs.

Mike Barnett of the Maine Craft Cannabis Coalition said he and other marijuana growers understand that black market sales will continue, but they “do not want to see one single additional person incarcerated for marijuana in the state of Maine or, frankly, anywhere in the world unless that person is willfully selling tainted products to patients or consumers.”

Youth Activists Tell State to Shut Down Long Creek

On the same day, about 60 youth activists gathered outside the governor’s office to call on the state to shut down Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland and provide funding for in-home, community-based services for youth involved in the juvenile justice system. The ACLU of Maine has been calling on the state to shut down the youth incarceration facility ever since a transgender youth committed suicide there three years ago. The civil liberties group has filed a lawsuit alleging that Long Creek guards entered the cell of an 11-year-old boy with mental illness and brutally beat him, bashing his face against a metal bed frame and knocking out his front teeth.

A report released by the Children’s Center for Law and Policy found that Long Creek is chronically understaffed and ill-equipped to handle children with serious mental health needs. Another recent report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 9 percent of Long Creek inmates reported experiencing sexual victimization in 2018.

However, it doesn’t appear that the Mills administration will go so far as to shut down the facility. A report on the state juvenile justice system by the Center for Children’s Law and Policy that was submitted last week to the Juvenile Justice Task Force, a panel charged with studying the issue, did not call for closing the facility.

“They consistently said they are going to do something, which they are not,” organizer Abdul Ali told the Maine Beacon last week. “They’re giving an extra $2 million to the Maine Department of Corrections, but we don’t see any concrete recommendations to close down the facility and reinvest that money back into programs, specific diversion programs that break up the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Democrats Unveil Health Care Reform Package

Last week, Democratic leaders unveiled a new package of reforms aimed at reining in health care costs and protecting patients from surprise bills. LD 2110, sponsored by Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook County), would establish the Maine Commission for Affordable Health Care to monitor the growth of health care spending and set health care quality benchmarks. The proposal would also require the commission to establish spending targets on health care and prescription drugs for public payors. Democrats point out that similar commissions in Massachusetts and Vermont saved $7.2 billion and $7.3 million, respectively.

“With ongoing uncertainty at the federal level, it’s critical that we do everything we can at the state level to ensure stability and predictability for Maine families and businesses,” said House Speaker Sara Gideon (D-Freeport).

Another bill, LD 2096, would prohibit insurance companies from requiring patients to pay more than $100 out-of-pocket for insulin in the individual and small group markets. LD 2105 would prohibit hospitals from sending surprise bills to patients who were treated by an out-of-network doctor during an emergency situation and didn’t have the opportunity to choose a cheaper option.

Finally, LD 2111 would crack down on abusive medical billing practices by requiring health care providers to notify patients in advance about facility fees, alert patients when they have been referred out-of-network and bill patients within a reasonable time frame.

At the public hearing for the bills, Brenda Bonneville of Belfast recounted how her daughter went to an in-network primary care provider last year and was referred to a local specialist. The family later received a $9,500 out-of-network medical bill.

Jeff Austin of the Maine Hospital Association testified that his organization supports all of the “Patients First” bills except Jackson’s Commission for Affordable Health Care.

“This is not to say we don’t recognize or share the Senate president’s concern with health care costs. And we appreciate his previous efforts on behalf of hospitals, particularly last year where he helped find resources for rural doctors,” wrote Austin. “We simply believe that this bill is too big, has too many unknowns and is not really targeted to what Maine needs.”

The Legislature’s Health Coverage, Insurance and Financial Services Committee will hold work sessions on the bills in the coming weeks.

The Return of LePage? We’ll See

A few weeks ago, former Governor Paul LePage once again made news headlines for announcing that he might run for governor against Governor Janet Mills in 2022. But, of course, the former Republican governor has been making this claim since Maine’s first female governor was elected in 2018, and he has a habit of making these pronouncements just to get his name in the news. Back in 2017, LePage repeatedly dropped hints that he was considering running for U.S. Senate, only to drop that idea after his wife, Ann, objected.

Currently, LePage is a resident of Florida and votes there, so he would have to become a resident of Maine to run for governor again. But perhaps the biggest barrier to running is the fact that he’s lately been really PO-ing his base over his support for Central Maine Power’s proposed transmission corridor through western Maine. In an interview on WVOM radio on February 19, LePage said that he may not run if the CMP corridor is defeated in a citizen referendum by the voters. Five days later, the Bangor Daily News revealed that last year the Spanish corporation paid him $7,500 to advocate for the controversial project.

The former governor’s advocacy has infuriated many far-right Republican activists on social media and they’re now accusing LePage of being in the “swamp.” Many are supporting alt-right Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro, who considered running for governor in 2018 and is rumored to be weighing a run next time. On Twitter last year, Isgro blasted CMP as “the most disliked corporation in Maine” and said it “has abused Mainers with awful practices like over-billing struggling families.

“Why are we engaged in secret negotiations & palm-greasing to give them a deal that will damage our environment to benefit Massachusetts? Bad deal!”

This Week’s Public Hearings and Work Sessions

Committee to Hear Mills’ Bill to Phase Out of Hydrofluorocarbons

Governor Janet Mills has proposed a bill that would have Maine join Rhode Island and Massachusetts in phasing out the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are greenhouse gases known to accelerate climate change. In a press release, Mills said the synthetic gases that are most often used as a refrigerant in appliances like air conditioners are known as “climate super-pollutants” that are hundreds of thousands of times more harmful to the climate than carbon dioxide.

LD 2112, which will be heard by the Environment and Natural Resources Committee on March 4, would begin the phase-out of products containing HFCs in 2021.

Bellows to Present Bill to Establish “Spaceport Complex” Council

On Thursday, March 5, Sen. Shenna Bellows will present a measure that would establish the Maine Spaceport Complex Leadership Council to lead the development of a spaceport complex in the state. The council would be a partnership of private space flight commercial interests and government and academic entities that would seek investment in a launch site capable of sending small rockets carrying nanosatellites into low-Earth orbit, according to the Maine Space Grant Consortium (MSGC), a NASA-funded nonprofit. The Innovation, Development, Economic Advancement and Business Committee will hear the proposal.

MSGC argues that Maine is well-poised to take advantage of the multi-billion-dollar satellite industry because its geographic location and “potential overwater launch allow easy access to polar orbit.” It notes that Maine already has existing infrastructure for launch sites at Brunswick Landing and the former Loring Air Force Base.

Committee Considers Bill to Raise Wages for Home Health Aids

On March 4, the Health and Human Services Committee could vote on a bill (LD 2109) that could raise wages to as much as 125 percent of the minimum wage for direct support professionals, who provide personal care support such as cooking, bathing, housekeeping and help with administering medications to seniors and people with disabilities. The measure was supported by workers, elder advocates, home care agencies and the families of clients. Direct support worker Earlina Brown told the committee last week she has found it difficult to pay the bills because of the low wage at her job.

“I have been tempted to leave direct care work and work any fast food job just so I can make more money,” Brown said, according to the Portland Press Herald. “One thing that holds me back is, ‘Who will take care of my clients?’ If the state does not take action immediately, we would face a mass exodus of direct care workers.”

The bill is one of the recommendations of a special commission established by the Legislature to address workforce issues in the long-term care field. The measure would also direct the MaineCare program to take into account the costs of increasing the minimum wage, earned paid sick leave and other labor costs in its reimbursement rates for personal care services. The bill comes as Home Care for Maine, the state’s largest home-care provider, has announced that it will close on April 30, leaving 600 low-income people without services. In various news reports, the agency said low state reimbursements haven’t kept up with increases in the state’s minimum wage.

In testimony, the Mills administration expressed “questions and concerns about the legislation” and said it wouldn’t support changes until it had performed a review of MaineCare reimbursement rates.

Funding Behavioral Health Services at Reproductive Health Clinics

On March 5, the Health and Human Services Committee will take up a bill (LD 1946) that would provide $150,000 in funding for reproductive health clinics like Family Planning and Planned Parenthood to provide behavioral health services. In written testimony, a representative for Family Planning — which has clinics in Rockland, Belfast and Damariscotta — wrote that the organization is often the only health care provider its patients see.

“Most are low-income, rural and face numerous barriers to accessing other forms of health care, including mental health services and substance use treatment,” wrote Cait Vaughan of Family Planning. “Providers like Maine Family Planning and Planned Parenthood … [are] known for being trauma-informed, non-judgmental and creating spaces of safety for honest communication with patients. We are thus uniquely positioned within the state’s landscape of care, and currently under-utilized as settings to screen for mental and behavioral health needs and deliver services.”

Committee Could Vote on Proposed Vape Ban March 5

The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee is scheduled to take up a measure to ban nicotine vaping devices on March 5. LD 2052, sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Millett (D-Cumberland County), would only allow e-cigarettes and nicotine liquid to be sold in Maine if the federal Food and Drug Administration rules that using them is an effective way to quit smoking and if it develops regulations for the manufacture, testing, sale and use of the devices.

Testifying in support of the bill on February 5, Millett expressed concern that a whole generation of kids is getting hooked on nicotine vaping. She said that there is evidence to suggest that inhaling the tiny particles in the aerosol from the devices can cause cardiovascular problems.

“Research indicates e-cigarette users’ susceptibility to bacterial and viral infections in their respiratory systems. E-liquids have been found to contain at least 60 chemical compounds as well as heavy metals in the aerosol such as copper, tin, nickel, cadmium and lead,” she wrote

The Maine Centers for Disease Control agreed that e-cigarette use is “dangerous and has many adverse short- and long-term health effects.” But while Millett expressed skepticism that smokers are using e-cigarettes to quit smoking, several members of the public testified that they have helped them to do just that.

“I am 32 years old and I am using my vape to quit smoking and it works great for me,” wrote Jennifer Carballo of Rockland. “My personal opinion is that vaping is safer to use around my children than the cigarettes. I feel it is my right at my age to vape. Please do not take that right away from all of us who enjoy vaping!!”

Energy Committee to Vote on Consumer-Owned Cooperative Bill

The Energy, Utilities and Technology (EUT) Committee will likely vote on a bill (LD 1646) that would replace the state’s foreign-owned, for-profit utility monopolies, Central Maine Power and Emera Maine, with a not-for-profit consumer-owned utility. Proponents of the bill argue that a public utility would provide cheaper electricity and be more accountable to customers, unlike the Spanish-owned CMP and the Canadian-owned Emera, which are legally obligated to turn a profit for their multinational investors.

Rep. Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham), the bill’s sponsor and chair of the EUT Committee, noted recently that both CMP and ENMAX, which intends to buy Emera’s Maine holdings, are largely or entirely owned by oil-rich foreign governments in Qatar, Norway and Canada.

Berry argues that his proposal would also allow the state to meet its goals of reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. The EUT chair has been critical of CMP for lobbying against pro-solar legislation and is strongly opposed to the company’s proposed transmission line through western Maine. Supporters of the bill are also hoping to harness the widespread public anger at CMP over allegations of overbilling and mismanagement. A recent report by energy consultant London Economics International that was commissioned by the Maine Public Utilities Commission to study Berry’s proposal concluded that a consumer-owned utility would lead to higher bills in the near-term but save money in the future.

Central Maine Power has called the proposal “unconstitutional” and threatened to sue the state if it passes the law. Republicans on the committee are also strongly opposed to the bill, though Berry says he’s working on an amendment.