(Photo of Maine State House by Dan Kirchoff)
(Photo of Maine State House by Dan Kirchoff)
The Maine Legislature was off to a bit of a rocky start this year as legislative leaders grappled with how to conduct business during the pandemic. As with most statehouses around the country, Democrats and Republicans have been battling it out over whether or not to hold in-person hearings and how to enforce mask mandates.

Maine Republican COVID deniers have blatantly flouted mask mandates, by going maskless in the State House or trying to pass off plastic spit shields that only partially cover the mouth, like those worn by food service workers, in lieu of cloth face coverings. Rep. Ricky Long (R-Monticello), who organized the “anti-lockdown” protests last spring, opted for a plastic face shield that he lifted up over his forehead like a welder’s mask. While that may have protected lawmakers from contagious diseases emanating from his eyebrows, it was obviously pretty useless in preventing COVID transmission.

As Mainer magazine reported last month, even Capitol Police Chief Russell Gauvin had succumbed to far-right COVID conspiracies, sharing views that “face masks make you stupid,” cause health problems and “dehumanize” wearers, making them docile and susceptible to authoritarian control. As a result of the lack of proper mask rules and enforcement, a committee clerk recently resigned for fear of becoming infected, according to the Bangor Daily News.

But since then, the governor and legislative leaders have cracked down somewhat on the anti-maskers. The Mills administration put Chief Gauvin on administrative leave pending an investigation into his extremist online behavior. Last week, the Legislative Council, a committee that includes 10 legislative leaders from both parties, voted unanimously to ban the spit shields but still allow various plastic face shields as an alternative to cloth masks. Under the new policy, lawmakers who choose face shields must wear the kind that wrap around the sides of the face and fully cover the mouth and nose.

The federal Centers for Disease Control does not recommend face shields as a substitute for cloth face coverings because they have large gaps along the face where respiratory drops can escape. A nurse friend compared the face shields and spit guards to her kids putting water on their tooth brushes and saying they brushed their teeth.

Business & Progressive Groups Prepare for Battle Over Business Tax Breaks

As Maine workers and small businesses continue to struggle through the economic wreckage left by the pandemic, legislators are gearing up for a fight over how to balance the needs of employers and employees. The most contentious issues at the moment are the state budget and whether to eliminate state taxes on Paycheck Protection Program relief money that businesses received during the pandemic.

Governor Janet Mills has released an $8.4 billion biennial budget plan that avoids making deep cuts to balance the budget in large part because of emergency short-term federal funding provided in the stimulus bill passed by Congress in December. While the proposal does provide some additional funding for Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, nursing homes, addiction treatment and services for adults with disabilities, the overall budget is largely flat-funded. In a statement, House Majority Leader Michelle Dunphy (D-Old Town) called the proposal a “responsible approach” but added that legislators would also be looking at potential revenue sources to fund public schools and municipalities that have seen their funds depleted during the pandemic.

“As House Democrats, we will look at how we may be able to increase items like revenue sharing and the state’s share of public education funding to give more support to our municipalities,” said Dunphy.

The Maine Service Employees Association (MSEA-SEIU), which is an affiliate of the union federation I work for, argued that the budget does not make up for years of cuts, particularly during the LePage administration when Republicans paid for their tax cuts for the wealthy by slashing public pensions, state services and anti-poverty programs.

“The past two decades of hiring freezes and low wages have hurt public services. The State of Maine cannot continue the path of austerity,” said MSEA President Dean Staffieri. “Essential workers have guided our Great State of Maine through this pandemic, often at great risk to themselves and their families, while corporate profits and incomes for the wealthy have soared.”

At the same time, Governor Mills is trying to figure out how to reduce state taxes on the Paycheck Protection Program loans that businesses received during the pandemic. Under federal law, the loans aren’t taxed, but they are taxable under state law. In a statement last week, Mills said she would prefer to treat the loans as non-taxable, but that the revenue from these taxes are projected to bring in $100 million in revenue needed to balance the state budget.

While Democrats in Congress are pushing for a large federal aid package to bail out state and local governments, a deal has not yet been reached. Instead, Mills said she would “explore” whether federal funding may exist to help Maine provide the same beneficial tax treatment to PPP funds that the federal government has.

“Now, with the Biden administration in place, I am asking my departments to take a fresh look at whether there may be any newly available federal funds that would allow Maine to maintain our balanced budget and adopt the same additional benefit the federal government is offering to the numerous entities that received PPP,” Mills said in a January 27 statement.

Republicans immediately came out with guns-a-blazing, accusing the governor of holding businesses hostage until Democrats in Washington decide to give direct federal aid to states.

“Ridiculously, the administration suggests that not taxing these rescue funds creates a $100 million hole in the supplemental budget — even though there were no rescue funds to tax until a few months ago when Congress allocated the money,” said Senator Rick Bennett (R-Oxford County). “How could they have planned tax funds that they didn’t know were going to exist?”

Sarah Austin of the liberal-leaning Maine Center for Economic Policy called the new tax break on PPP grants “poorly targeted” to help small businesses and pointed out that the program also provided a lot of money to large corporations that would have been profitable without the relief money. She noted that half of the state’s PPP recipients received average loans of $9,000, while about 270 businesses, making up the top 1% of recipients, received $2 million on average.

“Businesses that struggled to turn a profit, or that experienced losses, will have little tax liability to reduce in 2020, while those businesses that were still profitable have the most to gain by getting the double write-off of potentially millions in PPP loans and the expenses they funded,” wrote Austin on MECEP’s blog. “Instead, the double-dipping tax cut sought by business groups would deliver significant benefits for larger businesses, including legal and lobbying firms, chain car dealerships, real estate developers, and large-scale property managers.”

At this time, there don’t appear to be any proposals on the table to cut taxes on unemployment benefits, which are subject to a 10% federal tax and a 5% state tax.

Committees Hold Hearings on Ranked-Choice Voting, Racial Profiling & More

Next week, legislative committees will be holding public hearings on a number of bills involving election reform, voting rights, labor rights and racial justice. On February 8 in the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, House Speaker Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford) will present LD 148, which would allow voters to request that election clerks automatically send them absentee ballots for every election.

On the same day, Sen. Dave Miramant (D-Knox County) will introduce a Constitutional Amendment (LD 10) that would apply ranked-choice voting to elections for governor, state senator and state representative. Republicans have been dead against ranked-choice voting and have unsuccessfully tried multiple times to repeal the law, most likely because former Governor Paul LePage was able to win his election with a plurality and former Congressman Bruce Poliquin lost in a ranked-choice election. However, there was a recent election where Republicans would have benefited from RCV. In November, Democratic Rep. Richard Evans (D-Dover-Foxcroft) won an election in his uber-conservative district with just 36% of the vote because his Republican challenger, Chad Perkins, and former Republican Rep. Norm Higgins, who ran as an independent, split the conservative vote.

Over in Labor and Housing on February 10, Rep. Amy Roeder (D-Bangor) will present a measure (LD 225) that would require employers to pay employees their unused earned vacation pay when they leave employment. The Maine AFL-CIO, which is my employer, submitted the bill because many Mainers who lost their jobs in the pandemic learned that their employers didn’t have to count unused earned vacation pay as wages, so they were penalized for not using it.

On the same day, the committee will hear LD 99, sponsored by Rep. Maggie O’Neil (D-Saco), which would require the state to divest itself of investments in the fossil fuel industry. Former Rep. Brian Jones (D-Freedom) sponsored a similar bill in 2014, but the measure died without ever getting a roll call vote. Proponents of divesting of fossil fuels argue that it’s an effective strategy to wean the country off of fuels that are causing climate change. At the time of Jones’ bill, State Treasurer Neria Douglass said it would be difficult to “tease out of our investment portfolio, especially one sector that crosses into many investment tools.”

On February 11 in the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) will present a measure aimed at gathering the information necessary to examine how prevalent racial profiling is in Maine. LD 132 would require all law enforcement agencies to collect information about the race, color, ethnicity, gender and age of people stopped for each traffic violation. The bill directs the Maine Attorney General to report the information, along with analysis and any recommendations, to the Legislature. The bill comes in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd last spring, when activists and lawmakers called for police accountability in their treatment of people of color. As the Portland Press Herald reported in June, while most Maine law enforcement agencies keep some basic statistics about the race of the people they arrest, there is no regular evaluation of how race plays a role in policing and justice outcomes at a statewide level.