Joint Committee Hearings Get Under Way

The Legislature’s special Joint Committee on Marijuana Legalization Implementation will be holding its first public hearing on Tuesday, Feb. 28, at 1 p.m. in the Cross Building in Augusta. The committee was recently formed to develop policies to regulate the commercial sale of marijuana following passage last November of the referendum legalizaing the herb. Last month, the Legislature delayed regulations for retail pot shops and bars until February of next year, although it is now legal to grow and consume marijuana in a private residence. The 17-member joint committee will consider at least 50 bills to regulate pot, but the purpose of the first meeting will be just to receive public comments. As is always the case with legislative hearings, those who cannot attend are invited to email written testimony that will be distributed to committee members. 

Another Referendum-Weakening Bill

The Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will consider a number of Republican proposals to weaken the ability of voters to launch citizen referendums in the hopes of preventing future progressive reforms like the recent minimum-wage hike and the tax surcharge on wealthy households. On February 27, VLA will consider another  amendment, LD 564, which would require that the number of signatures on a referendum petition be at least 15 percent of the total vote for president cast in the state in the last presidential election. Under the current law the number of signatures required for a citizen initiative to qualify is equal to 10 percent of the total vote for governor cast in the last election, which was just over 61,000 votes. With 745,684 Mainers voting in the last presidential election, LD 564 would require citizen initiatives to collect at least 111,852 signatures.

On the same day, VLA will hear a number of bills involving campaign finance, ethics and absentee voting. LD 543, sponsored by Rep. Louie Luchini (D-Ellsworth), would  prohibit political action committees (PACs) from compensating a legislator or the lawmaker’s immediate family or household or a business owned or operated by the legislator for services provided to the committee. The measure would apply only if the legislator is a principal officer or treasurer of the committee or is one of the individuals primarily responsible for raising contributions or making decisions for the committee. Over the past few years a number of lawmakers have faced withering criticism for using their PACs — which often include contributions from individual donors, political organizations, businesses and lobbyists — to pay themselves. In 2014, the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting reported that former Sen. John Tuttle (D-Sanford) used $17,251 from his PAC on himself and his family. Last year, the organization reported that Rep. Diane Russell (D-Portland) used her PAC to pay herself $7,747 for fundraising services. Both Tuttle and Russell lost their elections.

The committee will also hear LD 413, sponsored by Sen. Justin Chenette (D-York Cty.), which would prohibit the governor, legislators, constitutional officers and the staff or agents of the governor, members of the Legislature and constitutional officers from soliciting or accepting contributions from a lobbyist, lobbyist associate or employer. Current law only bans such contributions while the Legislature is in session, but Chenette’s proposal would apply the law to the entire year.

Rep. Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford) will also present LD 439, which would allow voters to automatically receive absentee ballots for each statewide election, rather than having to request one each time. 

Later Start Times for School?

In recent years, sleep researchers have released studies showing that students would benefit from schools starting a little later in the morning. According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), adolescents need an average of 9-1/4 hours of sleep each night to maximize their learning potential and aid in brain development, but teens generally average about seven hours of sleep per school night. NSF notes that young people who don’t get enough sleep can be at risk of behavioral problems, depression, substance abuse and impaired cognitive function. 

On Tuesday, February 28, at The Pitch in Warren, RSU 13, Five Town CSD, MSAD 28 and MSAD 40 will be holding a community forum for parents featuring sleep specialist Dr. Andrew Filderman to discuss the option of having later school start times at Camden Hills Regional High  School, Oceanside High School, Medomak Valley High School, Medomak Middle School, Oceanside Middle School and Camden-Rockport Middle School. The following day, the Legislature’s Education Committee will hold a public hearing for LD 468, sponsored by Rep. Mattie Daughtry (D-Brunswick), which would mandate that all high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. and that extracurricular activities do not start after 7:30 p.m. on school nights.  

Race & Ethnicity Classes, I.A. & Home Economics

Under current law, students must be taught about Maine Native American studies as well as about the “environment and the natural, industrial and economic resources of Maine and Maine’s cultural and ethnic heritage.” Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland), who is president of the Portland chapter of the NAACP, will introduce a bill to the Education Committee on Feb. 28 that would allow the study of race, ethnicity and culture in Maine to be taught in local schools. Sen. Tom Saviello (R-Franklin Cty.) will also present LD 412, which would add home economics and industrial arts to the list of courses required for a high school diploma.

Student Debt Relief Bills

One rare issue that Gov. Paul LePage and Democrats appear to agree on is that something needs to be done about the high student debt loads Maine graduates carry. The average debt load for graduates of four-year colleges in Maine is nearly $31,000, which is sixth highest in the country, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. Graduates from the University of Maine and University of Maine Augusta have average debt loads of about $33,875 and $30,827, while graduates of Colby, Bates and Bowdoin come out with an average of $21,958, $18,929 and $25,503 in debt. On Feb. 27, the Taxation Committee will hear LD 330, sponsored by Rep. Victoria Kornfield (D-Bangor), which would provide an income tax credit to employers who make up to $1,000 in matching contributions on behalf of an employee to a college savings program. 

Exotic Pets, Invasive Plants, Life Jackets & Fishing 

On Feb. 28, the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee will hear a measure to require that individuals importing “exotic wildlife,” defined as “any fish or wildlife that is not native to the state,” must apply for a special permit. LD 305, sponsored by Sen. Scott Cyrway (R-Kennebec), would also require the animal be fitted with a tracking device and would compel the owner to alert the state and all landowners “within range of travel of the wildlife” in case the wildlife escapes. 

The committee will hear LD 359, sponsored by Rep. Phyllis Ginzler (R-Bridgton), which would require that owners of boats operating on lakes and ponds purchase a special “invasive aquatic plant and nuisance species sticker” to go on the boat’s bow to help fund a state program aimed at preventing the proliferation of invasive aquatic plants and other invasive species. On the same day, IF&W will hear LD 342, which would require people to wear a life jacket when canoeing. Also on Feb. 28, IF&W will hear a measure (LD 425) that would establish a limited fishing season in October to allow people to catch and release fish. The committee will also hear LD 547, which would require a special permit to use eels, suckers, lampreys or yellow perch as bait.

Labor Protection Bills

On Feb. 28, the Labor, Commerce & Economic Development Committee will be hearing a measure that would regulate employer agreements that prohibit employees from working in the same or similar profession within a certain time period of leaving an employer and within the same geographic area. Known as “noncompete clauses” (NCCs), the contract agreements are generally used to prohibit ex-employees from using or handing over trade secrets or confidential business information to a competitor. LD 487, sponsored by Rep. John Schneck (D-Bangor), would prohibit NCCs from being imposed on low-wage employees and would require that employers include in job postings that job candidates sign a NCC and that they notify prospective employees of the NCC clause and provide a copy of the agreements before offering the job. The measure would also compel employers to provide extra compensation to employees who agree to sign an NCC agreement; restrict NCCs to only situations where it’s necessary to protect trade agreements or confidential information; limit duration of NCCs so that they have to be renegotiated or agreed to after a certain time; and allow employees “harmed by the unlawful use” of an NCC to sue employers.

Approximately 40 percent of Americans have signed NCCs and 20 percent of American workers are bound by them, according to a report in PBS News Hour. Last year, the sandwich chain Jimmy John’s came under fire for forcing its employees to sign NCCs, which prevented workers from taking jobs with rival fast-food businesses and working at a store that derived 10 percent of its revenue from sandwiches within two miles of the Jimmy John’s shop. In June of 2016, the company eventually dropped its controversial policy in New York after New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman called the practice “unlawful,” according to CNBC.

LCRED will also hear a bill aimed at providing legal support for employees who have been “harmed psychologically, physically or economically by exposure to abusive work environments.” LD 466, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook Cty.), would make employees and employers liable for creating an “abusive workplace” and would also make employers “vicariously liable” for the abusive conduct of their employees. 

Geomagnetic Storm Legislation

Geomagnetic storms are when there is a major disturbance in the Earth’s magnetosphere caused by an exchange of energy from solar wind into the space surrounding the planet, according to to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

“During storms, the currents in the ionosphere, as well as the energetic particles that precipitate into the ionosphere add energy in the form of heat that can increase the density and distribution of density in the upper atmosphere, causing extra drag on satellites in low-earth orbit,” according to NOAA’s website. “The local heating also creates strong horizontal variations in the ionospheric density that can modify the path of radio signals and create errors in the positioning information provided by GPS. While the storms create beautiful aurora, they also can disrupt navigation systems such as the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) and create harmful geomagnetic induced currents (GICs) in the power grid and pipelines.”

Most notably, a severe geomagnetic storm knocked out power in Quebec for nine hours.

On March 1, Rep. Ralph Chapman (D-Brooksville) will introduce LD 255, which would direct the Maine Public Utilities Commission to take measures to prevent disruption from a geomagnetic storm by installing electromagnetic pulse and intentional electromagnetic interference detectors at substations on the state’s electric grid, among several other initiatives. The Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee will also hear LD 529, sponsored by Rep. Dean Rykerson (D-Kittery), which would give the PUC the authority to require utilities like Central Maine Power to take action to negate the potential effects of geomagnetic disturbances and electromagnetic pulses.

Mattress, Carpet and Battery Recycling Bills

Current Maine product stewardship laws require companies to assist with the end-of-life management of several items, including mercury thermostats and fluorescent lamps, paint, cell phones and rechargeable batteries in cell phones, laptops, power tools and portable electronics. On March 1, Sen. Tom Saviello (R-Franklin Cty.) will present three separate bills — LD 349, LD 375 and LD 385 —  that would create free statewide recycling programs for discarded mattresses, carpets and discarded nickel-cadmium and small sealed lead-acid rechargeable batteries. The three proposed product stewardship programs, which will be considered by the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, would be funded by new taxes on mattresses, carpets and batteries. Currently, only California, Rhode Island and Connecticut have such programs, according to the Product Stewardship Institute.

The Deadline for Subsidizing Natural Gas Pipelines

Proponents of subsidizing the extension of interstate natural gas pipelines into New England to serve gas-fired electric plants have been relatively quiet since last summer, when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court struck down the mechanism allowing the state to take part in a regional pipeline subsidy scheme. But the plan could get a boost if fuel prices go back up and another cold winter causes gas demand to spike. Under current Maine law, the MPUC may execute publicly financed contracts with gas pipeline companies up until December 31, 2018. On March 1, Sen. Mark Dion (D-Cumberland Cty.), co-chair of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, will be presenting a bill (LD 344) that would extend the date until the end of 2020. 

Penalties for Corpse Violators 

Sen. Roger Katz (R-Kennebec Cty.) is hoping to increase penalties for violating human corpses. Katz’s bill, LD 346, would increase the crime of abusing a corpse from Class D to Class C, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Corpse abuse is defined in Maine law as when someone “intentionally and unlawfully disinters, digs up, removes, conceals, mutilates or destroys a human corpse, or any part or the ashes thereof.” In 2014, the law received attention after three men were charged for illegally moving the ashes of two buried relatives from a cemetery in Standish to a family plot in Limington, according to the Portland Press Herald. Back in 2005, two men in Readfield were sent to prison after being found guilty of burglary and corpse abuse after they broke into a crypt and stole a couple of skulls, according to the Kennebec Journal. 

Also on March 1, the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee will hear LD 449, sponsored by Sen. Troy Jackson, which requires automatic life sentences for defendants convicted of murder as a result of domestic abuse. 

Seaweed Advisory Board

The same day Rep. Mick Devin (D-Newcastle) will present LD 369, which would set up a Seaweed Avisory Council to advise the state on managing seaweed, to the Marine Resources Committee. Devin says he put in the bill because he’s concerned that as seaweed harvesting has increased in the midcoast, over-harvesting threatens the nursery habitat of a number of marine species. 

The Deer Hunting Bills

Under current law, most hunters must apply to enter a lottery to receive a special “any deer” permit to hunt antlerless deer. On March 2, Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee will hear LD 279, sponsored by Abden Simmons (R-Waldoboro), which would give military veterans priority when issuing any-deer permits. LD 325, sponsored by Christina Riley (D-Jay), would require the state to exempt veterans from the antlerless deer lottery and simply issue them permits. LD 340, sponsored by Rep. Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham), would allow veterans disabled from a service-related injury who hold antlerless deer permits to choose the wildlife management district where they may take an antlerless deer as long as the district is opening to hunting antlerless deer. Sen. Paul Davis (R-Piscataquis Cty.) will also present LD 509, which would require that at least 10 percent of antlerless deer permits issued in a wildlife management district be issued to hunters over age 70. 

The committee will also hear LD 341, sponsored by Rep. Nathan Wadsworth (R-Hiram), which would limit deer hunters to harvesting only deer with more than three tines of one inch or longer along the main beam of either or both antlers. Finally, the committee will hear LD 62, which would repeal the law prohibiting the baiting of deer. It is currently against the law to place salt or food to entice a deer or to wait in a stand or blind overlooking salt, grain, fruit, nuts or other foods known to be attractive to deer during hunting season. Baiting bears is perfectly legal, though. 

LePage’s Hydro Bill

Rep. Beth O’Connor (R-Berwick) once again is sponsoring a bill supporting Gov. LePage’s priority of incentivizing Canadian hydroelelectricity in Maine’s energy mix. LD 532, which will be heard by the Energy Utilities and Technology Committee, would allow large subsidized hydro plants to be considered in the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) that require utilities to purchase at least 30 percent of the state’s energy from renewable sources, including wind, solar, biomass and smaller-scale hydro. While the governor insists that the bill would help incentivize Quebec to sell cheaper hydro power to Maine, opponents worry that it could flood out the energy market and push out local power producers and cost jobs. But the measure has never received much support from majority House Democrats, and it’s unlikely it will have any momentum this year either.