Next week, Democratic leaders will introduce a bill (LD 1) that would codify the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance protections in state law even if Congress repeals the federal law or a legal challenge to the ACA is successful. The bill comes in the wake of Federal District Court Judge Reed O’Connor’s ruling that the ACA is unconstitutional because Congress removed the “individual mandate” requiring everyone to purchase health insurance in the federal tax cuts package passed in 2017. Although the ACA law is still in effect while the case continues in the appeals process, state Democrats say they’re not taking any chances.

“I refuse to stand idly by as forces in Washington and elsewhere work to strip Maine people of critical coverage for pre-existing conditions and other essential health benefits like mental health and maternity and newborn care,” said Gov. Mills in a statement last month. “Maine can do more to strengthen its laws and align them with the protections guaranteed under the Affordable Care Act. That’s why my administration will move immediately, in concert with the Legislature, to help protect Mainers with pre-existing conditions, regardless of what happens at the federal level.”

LD 1 — which will be heard by the Health Coverage, Insurance and Financial Services Committee on Jan. 29 — would prohibit insurers from discriminating against patients on the basis of a pre-existing health condition. It would also ban annual or lifetime caps on the dollar value of benefits, require that children and young adults be allowed to stay on their parents’ health insurance policies until they turn 26 and mandate that health plans cover certain essential benefits.

Repealing the Anti-Solar Rule

Rep. Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham) has proposed a measure (LD 91) to repeal the Public Utilities Commission’s controversial gross metering rule that reduces the compensation utilities provide to solar producers for the energy they produce. The bill — which will be heard by the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee on Jan. 29 — would effectively restore the net energy billing (NEB) rule for solar customers.

The PUC’s rule has been wildly unpopular with the solar industry not only because it makes solar more expensive to install, but it also taxes solar producers for power that they use on site. Solar companies and environmental groups have filed a legal challenge to the rule and Democrats have attempted multiple times to repeal the law in the Legislature, only to be thwarted by Gov. LePage and House Republicans. However, this time the bill has a much better chance of passing as Gov. Janet Mills opposes the rule.

On the same day, Rep. Beth O’Connor (R-Berwick) will introduce LD 41, which would eliminate net energy billing for new customers after 2019 and gradually phase it out for existing customers. The bill would also prohibit utilities from requiring customers to meter the gross output of their solar projects, as the current PUC rule requires, and it would limit to 50 the number of customers who can participate on a community array. LD 41 would require that solar producers receive credits based on wholesale energy prices and would direct the PUC to procure 20 megawatts of large-scale community solar power at no more than 6¢ per kilowatt-hour or the average wholesale electricity rate over the preceding 12 months, whichever is less.

Regulating For-Profit Colleges

On Jan. 30, the Education Committee will hear Sen. Eloise Vitelli’s (D-Sagadahoc Cty.) bill (LD 103), which would require an annual review of for-profit colleges by the State Board of Education to ensure that they are meeting “adequate educational standards.” If the board finds that a for-profit college is not up to par, the bill allows it to terminate the authority of the college to grant degrees. For-profit colleges, typically offer courses exclusively online, have been the targets of several lawsuits due to their reputation of awarding useless degrees and saddling students with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.

Earlier this month, Career Education Corp., a for-profit college operator, agreed to forego collection of $556 million in debt owed by former students in order to settle a lawsuit with attorneys from 48 states over allegations of deceptive recruitment and enrollment practices. According to the Washington Post, prosecutors alleged that the company informed students only about the cost per credit hour without disclosing the number of required credit hours, lied about graduate employment and failed to disclose that some of its programs lacked the accreditation required by licensing boards. A recent study by the Center for Education Policy and Evaluation (CEPE) at George Mason University concluded that online education courses are often lacking in quality.

“Instead, on average, fully online coursework has contributed to increasing gaps in educational success across socioeconomic groups while failing to improve affordability,” wrote Associate Professor Spiros Protopsaltis, the CEPE director, and Professor Sandy Baum, a fellow at the Urban Institute and professor emerita of economics at Skidmore College. “Even when overall outcomes are similar for classroom and online courses, students with weak academic preparation and those from low-income and under-represented backgrounds consistently underperform in fully online environments. Success rates are lower and employers—in addition to students, faculty, academic leaders and the public—attribute lower value to online than to classroom degrees.”

The researchers wrote that there is a “strong body of evidence” to suggest that “frequent and meaningful interaction between students and instructors” is critical to increasing the quality of the online education experience and improving student outcomes and satisfaction. Recently, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo rolled out a plan to tighten regulation on for-profit colleges, including requiring them to report their funding sources and spend at least half their budgets on instruction as well as prohibiting them from operating with more than 80 percent of their funding from taxpayers, according to the news site Inside Higher Ed.

The Next Gen. Science Standards Return

Also on Jan. 30, the Education Committee will hear Rep. Mick Devin’s (D-Newcastle) bill to require the Maine Department of Education to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards for kindergarten to grade 12 as part of the state’s learning results. The bill would replace the current Maine science standards with the new set of standards developed by a consortium of 26 states, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Research Council, and the corporate-funded nonprofit Achieve, which is responsible for developing the controversial Common Core standards for English and math.

Supporters argue that the Next Gen. Science Standards foster deeper learning, emphasize better critical thinking skills and stimulate more interest in the material than the current science standards. In previous years, Gov. Paul LePage has vetoed the proposal, because he said it presented an unfunded mandate to schools and because the standards state that global warming is caused by human activity.

Reining in the Influence of Lobbyists

Sen. Justin Chenette (D-York Cty.) is once again trying to rein in the influence of lobbyists in Augusta. Under current law, the governor, legislators and constitutional officers are prohibited from soliciting or accepting contributions from lobbyists while the Legislature is in session. Chenette’s bill LD 54, which will be heard by the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Jan. 30, would simply ban elected state officials from accepting donations from lobbyists and their associates. On the same day, Chenette will also present LD 76, which would prohibit former legislators from being paid lobbyists for four years after their terms expire. Current law prevents former legislators from engaging in lobbying activities for a year.

The VLA Committee will also hear LD 95, sponsored by Rep. Norm Higgins (U-Dover-Foxcroft), which would clarify that legislative candidates must reside in the district that they seek to represent on the date of the candidate’s nomination for placement on the ballot. The bill also requires that candidates must reside in the district for three months preceding the general election, and, if elected, throughout their entire term in office.

Tax Exemption Bills

On Jan. 30, the Taxation Committee will hear a number of bills that would provide various tax breaks and credits to various groups and businesses. Sen. Erin Herbig (D-Waldo Cty.) will introduce her bill to provide a tax credit to businesses that employ apprentices participating in an approved apprentice program. The measure would also provide a partial credit for employers that employ an apprentice for fewer than 2,000 hours during a calendar year. Herbig says the bill is necessary because some employers don’t have enough resources to train workers.

The committee will also hear LD 22, sponsored by Rep. Margaret Craven (D-Lewiston), which would provide a sales tax exemption and a service provider tax exemption for nonprofit organizations with annual gross receipts of less than $40,000. Sen. Stacy Guerin (R-Glenburn) will introduce LD 71, which would reinstate income tax deduction for certain contributions to qualified tuition programs. Rep. MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox) will present her bill (LD 86) to provide a sales tax exemption for the commercial production of maple syrup and honey. Kinney’s family owns Kinney’s Sugarhouse in Knox.

Crossbows and Turkeys

On Jan. 30, Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee will once again consider a bill (LD 27), sponsored by Rep. Tim Theriault (R-China), to allow crossbows to be used during the regular archery-only deer hunting season. Back in 2013, John Hurt of the Maine Bowhunters Association said his group opposed a similar bill because allowing crossbows during bowhunting season would make landowners less likely to allow all hunters, including bowhunters, on their property. The Department of IF&W pointed out that increased crossbow hunting opportunities could result in an increase in the number of does killed, which could force the department to reduce the number of doe permits.

Also on Jan. 30, the IF&W Committee will hear LD 33, sponsored by Rep. Will Tuell (R- East Machias), which would establish a special youth hunting day during Thanksgiving week for junior hunting license holders to harvest one turkey.

Preventing Tip Pooling With Non-Service Employees

Over in the Labor and Housing Committee on Jan. 30, Rep. Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford) will introduce LD 81, which would clarify that an employer may take an employee’s tips as long as the tips are pooled among other service employees and not pocketed by the employer. Fecteau says he is submitting the bill because he is concerned about a proposal US Department of Labor (DOL) that would allow employers to share tips with non-service employees.

“My bill would ensure Maine law continues to ensure that there was a limit to a tip pooling arrangement to sharing between just service employees as is current Maine law, regardless of any future US DOL rule changes,” he said.

The committee will also hear Sen. Erin Herbig’s bill (LD 75) to allow workers to receive both their vacation pay and unemployment benefits. In 2011, Republicans changed the law so that employees with more than four weeks of vacation time due to them are disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits. When she proposed a similar bill in 2017, Herbig said that it’s a very common situation.

“Imagine you are loyal to your employer and don’t take any vacations,” said Herbig. “Meanwhile, your coworker takes every vacation day available to him. Then, you both get laid off. Your co-worker gets to receive his unemployment check immediately. You however are told that the vacation time you have earned and rolled over for years is being taken away from you in exchange for an unemployment check.”

Drug Prevention & Teacher Retirement

On Jan. 30, the Education Committee will hear LD 29, sponsored by Rep. Jay McCreight (D-Harpswell), which would implement the state’s Opiate Task Force recommendation to create a working group to evaluate existing substance use prevention programs in schools and examine other programs that have been shown to be effective. The measure would also direct the group to look for funding resources and determine how prevention programs should be incorporated into school curricula. The work group would include representatives of educational, law enforcement and public health organizations.

The same day, Rep. Paul Stearns (R-Guilford) will present his bill (LD 55) to repeal the LePage-era law that puts half of the responsibility for paying teacher retirement costs on local school districts. Municipalities have long complained that forcing school districts to shoulder the burden of teacher retirement costs presents an unfunded mandate on municipalities and causes higher property taxes. Gov. LePage dumped teacher pension costs on towns back in 2013 in order to fill a budget hole created by his income tax cuts, which primarily benefitted the wealthiest taxpayers.

Microgrids & Beverage Container Ban

Rep. Mick Devin (D-Newcastle) has resubmitted his bill (LD 13) to allow the construction of microgrids, which are localized groupings of on-site electricity generators that are capable of operating in conjunction with the traditional electric grid or disconnecting from it and running autonomously as an electrical island. The measure — which will be heard by the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee on Jan. 31 —would direct the Public Utilities Commission to approve a petition to operate a microgrid if if it deems the project is in the public interest.

Also on Jan. 31, Rep. Vicki Doudera (D-Camden) will present LD 102, which would ban single-use beverage containers except those that contain at least 15 percent recycled plastics. The bill would then gradually increase the amount of recycled plastic required in each beverage container to 20 percent in 2022 and 25 percent in 2024. LD 102 would also prohibit the sale of single-use plastic beverage containers with a plastic beverage cap unless the cap is composed of the same plastic as the beverage container. The bill would also require that caps either be tethered to the container or include an opening in the cap to allow users to consume the beverage with the cap screwed on.

“At least seven new bills will address plastic pollution, and I’ve submitted one to address one of the most common kinds of plastic pollution: plastic bottle caps,” wrote Doudera in an email. “My bill is a ‘connect the cap bill’ which tethers plastic bottle caps to the bottle to reduce littering, and sets recycled content standards for plastic beverage bottles.”