Gov. Janet Mills, surrounded by members of Maine’s native tribes, signs a bill to change the name of Columbus Day to “Indigenous Peoples Day.” (Photo courtesy of Maulian Dana)
Gov. Janet Mills, surrounded by members of Maine’s native tribes, signs a bill to change the name of Columbus Day to “Indigenous Peoples Day.” (Photo courtesy of Maulian Dana)
With May upon us, green shoots are sprouting up, the birds are chirping away and mountains of bills are piling up in the Maine House and Senate awaiting votes. In the past week, lawmakers moved a little more paper, including two bills that are important to indigenous Mainers.

Indigenous Peoples Day Bill Signed, Native American Mascot Ban Passes

Last Friday, Gov. Janet Mills, who has had a testy relationship with local indigenous tribes in the past, signed into law a bill that will change the name of Columbus Day to “Indigenous Peoples Day.” Maine is now the eighth state to make the name change in response to the widespread understanding that Christopher Columbus shouldn’t be celebrated for brutally subjugating indigenous people.

“My heart was so full to see all the Wabanaki Nations standing as one today as we made it a law that no longer will our state celebrate a man who saw indigenous people as a disease to wipe out,” wrote Maulian Dana, Penobscot tribal ambassador, on Facebook. “We are still here. Wabanaki strong. Kci woliwoni naka mesintalnapemak.”

The House voted 88-49 and the Senate voted 23-10 to pass LD 944, which would ban Native American mascots in public schools. The bill comes in response to a bitter controversy in Skowhegan over its former “Indian” mascot. In March, the Skowhegan School Board voted 14-9 to retire the mascot, siding with local tribes, who said it was disrespectful. The decision followed a petition drive to overturn the decision by referendum, but the SAD 54 school board voted last week to reject placing an advisory or survey on the June ballot about the “Indians” nickname, and imagery, according to the Waterville Morning Sentinel.

During the debate on LD 944 last week, Passamaquoddy Nation Tribal Rep. Rena Newell urged her colleagues to respect tribal members and ban Native American mascots to promote “cultural diversity and awareness” and “each other as equals, as individuals, as neighbors as belonging to one race, the human race.” But Rep. Jeff Hanley (R-Pittston) argued that, as an Irish-American, he is offended when the Irish are portrayed “as little drunk leprechauns” but, due to “free speech” concerns, he still wouldn’t support a bill to ban those images. All of the midcoast Democrats and independents in attendance voted to support the bill.

House Repeals Vaccination Exemptions

The Maine House voted largely on party lines last week to repeal philosophical and religious exemptions from mandatory vaccination for public school children. LD 798 would require that parents who want to opt out of these mandatory vaccinations must provide a note from a medical professional stating that receiving the vaccines would not be medically advisable. Maine ranks 7th in the nation for the highest non-medical exemption rates among school- age children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The bill came in response to several outbreaks of preventable diseases like measles and pertussis across the country. At 5.3 percent, Maine’s vaccine opt-out rate is more than double the national average, which is above the rate needed to retain the “herd immunity” standard, according to the CDC. This means that a certain percentage of children must be immunized to protect people who can’t receive vaccines for medical reasons. In 2018, Maine had the highest rate of pertussis, or whooping cough, in the country. Waldo and Hancock counties have the highest vaccine opt-out rates in the state as well as some of the highest rates of pertussis.

Testifying on behalf of the Maine Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Sydney Sewell pointed out that vaccine injuries are extremely rare and in his career he has only witnessed slight reactions after administering immunizations. He was among several medical professionals who spoke of the relative safety of vaccines, compared to the risk posed by opting out.

“You have in front of you a tough decision, but the safety and efficacy of vaccines is not the issue. It’s the conflict between public health and individual rights.” Sewell likened the measure to seatbelt laws. “What public health asserts is that exemptions are like allowing people both to not buckle up their kids AND drive 20 mph above the speed limit.”

Nevertheless, hundreds of parents of unvaccinated children testified against the bill, many citing debunked claims that vaccines cause autism and other health conditions. Among the vaccine skeptics is Sen. Dave Miramant (D-Knox County), who has submitted an amendment to the bill that would keep the religious exemption, but eliminate the philosophical exemption.

Roll Call LD 798 — Vaccine Exemptions, midcoast legislators
House (78 Yeas, 59 Nays)

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

Banning Vaping on School Grounds

The Maine House and Senate have both unanimously approved a bill (LD 152) that would ban the use of E-cigarettes on school grounds. Federal law prohibits the sale of vaping devices to minors, but they are readily available online for purchase. Last year, the USDA stated that the use of E-cigs among teens had reached epidemic levels.

“I’ve heard from students and teachers alike how concerned they are with the vaping epidemic in Maine schools,” the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Rebecca Millett (D-Cumberland County) said in a statement. “We need to be doing all we can to ensure the health and well-being of our children.”

Legislature Kills Bills to Weaken the Minimum Wage

On party-line votes, the Legislature has voted to kill two bills that would weaken the minimum wage. All of the Democratic and independent members of the midcoast delegation voted to reject LD 808, which would have established a lower minimum wage for people under 18 years of age. Proponents argued that young people don’t have the skills of adults and therefore should be subject to a so-called “training wage.” Opponents said the measure was just an attempt by businesses to exploit young workers. All of the Democratic and independent members of the midcoast delegation in attendance also voted down LD 1098, which would have created a lower minimum wage for rural parts of the state.

First State in Nation to Ban Disposable Styrofoam Containers

Gov. Janet Mills has signed LD 289, sponsored by Rep. Paige Zeigler (D-Montville), which prohibits food establishments from serving food or drinks in disposable polystyrene containers. The House voted 87-51 and the Senate voted 23-10 in favor. The bill exempts foam coolers and ice chests used for processing and shipping seafood and excludes hospitals and Meals on Wheels from the law. The ban is supported by environmental groups, who argue that the non-biodegradable foam containers can’t be recycled and pollute the environment. Business groups opposed the bill out of concern that it might harm their members’ bottom lines.

Senators Dave Miramant (D-Knox County) and Erin Herbig (D-Waldo County) voted for the bill, while Sen. Dana Dow (R-Lincoln County) opposed it. In the House, all of the midcoast Democrats and independents supported the bill, and all of the local Republicans opposed it.

Representative Holly Stover (D-Boothbay) has sponsored a bill, LD 1532, that would also ban single-use plastic bags statewide. That bill has not yet gone to the House for a vote.

Roll Call LD 289 — Styrofoam Ban, midcoast legislators
House (87 Yeas, 51 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 (I-Friendship) Y
Jeffrey Hanley (R-Pittston) N
MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox) N
Ann Matlack (D-St. George) Y
Cloe Maxmin (D-Nobleboro) Y
Bill Pluecker (I-Warren) Y
Holly Stover (D-Boothbay) Y
Stanley Paige Zeigler (D-Montville) Y
Senate (23 Yeas, 10 Nays):
Dana Dow (R-Lincoln Cty) N
Erin Herbig (D-Belfast) Y
Dave Miramant (D-Knox Cty) Y
U= unenrolled; X = absent;  E = excused

Senate Lifts Penalties on Underage Prostitution

The Maine Senate voted 26-7 last week to pass LD 548, which would prohibit minors from being charged with the crime of prostitution. Testifying in support of the bill, Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers argued that juveniles charged with prostitution shouldn’t be considered criminals, as many are victims of sex trafficking.

“Branding a juvenile victim of human trafficking a prostitute is stigmatizing and traumatic and truly unnecessary,” wrote MACDL Executive Director Tina Nadeau. “When juveniles, the majority of which are female and LGBTQ+ juveniles, engage in commercial sex, there are so many other factors at play, including histories of sexual abuse, mental health issues, substance abuse disorders, unstable living situations, and family violence. These children do not benefit from criminalization of the situations into which they have been forced into participating.”

However, Sen. Scott Cyrway (R-Kennebec County), who is a retired law enforcement officer, argued that the bill would send a message that’s it’s okay to engage in sex work.

“I understand not wanting to charge a juvenile with a crime, but this [law] discourages juveniles from continuing prostitution as a lifestyle,” said Cyrway in a floor speech last week. “This is a bill to legalize juvenile prostitution.”

Senators Miramant and Herbig voted for the bill, while Sen. Dow opposed it. The bill now goes to the House.

Mills Ends Use of Photo IDs on EBT Cards

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services announced last week that it has discontinued the use of photos on Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards for the supplemental food assistance program. The LePage administration implemented the controversial policy over objections from the federal government, which argued that it was in violation of several federal guidelines. At the time, the Food and Nutrition Services charged that state officials were misleading recipients into believing that the photo I.D. was mandatory when it was purely voluntary.

“Ending this program will help eligible Mainers purchase food and other necessities while reducing state costs and burden,” said DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew in a statement.

In a press release, the department noted that it previously collected photos for EBT cards through the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, who oversees the bureau, agreed with the department’s decision to discontinue use of driver license photos on EBT cards, saying the change will make it easier for people to get the benefits they need.

DHHS noted that EBT cards are issued to households, rather than individuals, and cited a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities which found that SNAP household members, including children and seniors, have been wrongly denied grocery purchases because they were not pictured on the EBT cards.

Next Week, Public Hearing on Single-Payer Bills

On Thursday, May 9, the Legislature’s Health Coverage, Insurance and Financial Services Committee will hold a public hearing on several bills to create a state single-payer health care system. As more and more people become fed up with our ludicrously expensive and confusing private health insurance system, groups like Maine All Care and others have been holding meetings across the state to drum up support for a state or federally run health insurance system like ones so many other industrialized nations have. However, it remains to be seen how much a state-run single-payer system would cost.

Sen. Geoff Gratwick (D-Penobscot County) will present LD 52, which would establish a program to provide all Maine residents with “access to an affordable health benefit plan covering essential health benefits.” The bill would create a state “Health Care Trust,” which would have the authority to determine essential health care benefits, negotiate with providers, and reimburse providers for health care costs. MaineCare members would be automatically enrolled in the plan and all other Maine residents would be eligible to enroll on a voluntary basis. The bill doesn’t have a price tag yet, but it proposes potential funding sources, including payroll taxes, transaction taxes and available federal funding. The Health Care Trust would be overseen by a board of trustees.

The committee will hear several other single-payer bills, a proposal to allow Mainers to enroll in the health care plans available to state workers (LD 109), and a propsal to establish a multi-state conference to draft a proposal for a nonprofit health insurance cooperative for middle-income earners and small businesses. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 56 percent of Americans support Medicare for All, but the level of support fluctuated depending on how the question was asked.