Maine Democrats in the Legislature are planning to pass a bare bones biennial budget on a partisan, majority vote on Tuesday. Spending bills typically need a two-thirds majority to pass, as this is meant to force both parties to negotiate and compromise on spending, but in the era of hyperpartisanship, Republicans have increasingly utilized the two-thirds rule to drag out negotiations to the brink of shutting down the government in order to force big concessions.

However, the law also allows the majority party to pass a budget by a simple majority vote if the governor signs the bill by April 1st. According to Democratic leaders, putting off passing a biennial budget to “the final hour” would be “reckless” and could jeopardize public health and the economic recovery. Democrats say that a budget maneuver is also necessary so that schools will know how much funding to expect, which will allow them to plan to open five days a week in the fall.

Many Democrats are still seething at Republicans for moving the goal posts in their demands for tax breaks in the supplemental budget that passed earlier this month. Some also remember when Governor LePage and Republicans shut down the government in 2017 to demand even more concessions after Democrats agreed to LePage’s key demand to repeal a voter-approved law that taxed the rich to fund education.

Rep. Valli Geiger (D-Rockland) expressed similar sentiments in her support for a majority budget.

“If we do not pass a majority budget, then the negotiations will be between the Republican leadership and the governor to the detriment of progress on issues that affect ordinary men and women, children — judicial reform, health care, and systematic racism,” said Geiger. “There is also deep concern that there will be no agreement leading to a government shutdown. After the year we’ve had, Maine does not need this.”

Republicans are infuriated by the maneuver, calling it a “sham budget” that will “end bipartisanship” and “silence voices calling for tax relief.” But Rep. Jeff Evangelos (U-Friendship), a progressive-leaning independent, also blasted Democrats for the decision, saying that it will poison the atmosphere in Augusta for years to come.

“Had Paul LePage and the Republicans tried such a stunt, we all know the Democrats would be screeching to the high heavens. Yet all we hear from the Democrats are soothing Orwellian justifications for this abuse of power. Why are the Democrats doing this? It’s simple, because they can … As Lord Acton once said, ‘Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ Democrats better think long and hard about the consequences of this abuse of power.”

However, Evangelos did acknowledge that in 2012 former Governor Paul LePage and Republicans actually did ram through a majority supplemental budget that eliminated Medicaid coverage for thousands of low-income Mainers after striking a deal with Democrats not to make those cuts in the previous biennial budget.

“LePage did this and the Dems were furious,” he said. “To be clear, this is not a small supplemental, it’s an $8.3-8.4 billion dollar two-year budget.”

According to the Bangor Daily News, 20 Maine budget bills have passed by majority votes since 1950, but nearly all were short-term adjustments that were not under a threat of a government shutdown. Meanwhile, Democrats say they will wait to pass any new spending initiatives until the state receives its share of the federal stimulus money and lawmakers receive a revised revenue projection.

Committee Hears Proposal to Ban Hydrofluorocarbons

The Environment and Natural Resources Committee is considering a measure (LD 226) that would ban appliances that use hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) — potent greenhouse gases that are known to accelerate climate change. HFCs are found in air conditioners, aerosol sprays, foam insulation, solvents and flame retardants. They first came on the market in the 1990s as an alternative to ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), but environmental groups have since come out against HFCs due to their impact on the climate.

“Nationally and globally, HFCs are the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions, which could double within 20 years if we do not act soon,” said Beth Ahearn of the Maine League of Conservation Voters. “This bill will replace climate warming HFCs with climate-friendly alternatives, where available, beginning in 2021.”

Ahearn noted that Belfast-based GO Lab is currently refurbishing the Madison paper mill to make fiber insulation from wood chips as an alternative to foam insulation. Wood fiber insulation is made from the mountains of residual wood chips that pile up daily at lumber mills. A similar bill passed a committee vote unanimously last session but was never voted on by the full Legislature due to the pandemic.

However, Ron Howard, manager of Brodis Wild Blueberries in Hope, said the cost of new freezers to comply with the proposed law would be cost-prohibitive for his business and urged the committee to grandfather in existing freezers or to compensate farmers who would have to upgrade their equipment.

Committee Considering Miramant’s Straw Ban Bill

The Environment and Natural Resources Committee is considering LD 607, sponsored by Sen. Dave Miramant (D-Knox County), which would ban the sale and manufacture of single-use drinking straws, splash sticks and beverage lid plugs. Under the proposal, customers would pay a 5-cent fee if they want non-plastic single-use straws, splash sticks and lid plugs.

Testifying in support of the bill, Sarah Nichols of the Natural Resources Council of Maine argued that plastic causes climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions and often ends up causing harm to public health and the environment.

“By 2050, the greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could reach more than 56 gigatons — which is 10-13% of the entire remaining carbon budget if we are going to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century,” she said.

However, business groups said the ban would harm small retail and food service establishments that are already reeling from the pandemic, and the short phase-in of the ban is not long enough for them to find alternatives. Miramant said he would convene a stakeholder group of environmental, business, and disability rights groups to try to hammer out a compromise.

Committee Kills Bill to Allow Fly-by-Night Companies to Sell Health Insurance in Maine

A legislative committee has rejected another bill to allow unlicensed insurance companies to bypass state consumer protection laws and sell health insurance in Maine without a state license. For years, Republicans promoted these bills as a way for Mainers to purchase cheaper health insurance across state lines because, they argued, the state’s consumer protection laws make insurance more expensive than other states with less regulation.

Maine passed a similar law in 2011, but the Maine Bureau of Insurance was unsuccessful in finding any out-of-state insurance carriers to sell plans in Maine because insurance carriers have to establish contracts with a network of local doctors and hospitals, and Maine’s older, and therefore costlier, population makes it an unattractive place for insurance companies to do business.

The bill’s sponsor, Senator Trey Stewart (R-Aroostook County), urged the committee to kill his own bill after learning that history. Veteran Tea Party activist Pete “The Carpenter” Harring, of Washington, told the committee that he could “not think of any logical reason why a legal aged grown adult cannot decide for themselves and purchase health insurance from whomever and wherever they want.” Perhaps he should talk to some insurance companies and find out why.

Sealing Criminal Records for Marijuana Crimes

The Judiciary Committee is currently considering a bill (LD 216) that would seal criminal records involving minor marijuana crimes. Testifying in support of the bill, Michael Kebede of the ACLU of Maine pointed out that adult use of marijuana is now legal under state law. However, many Mainers still have criminal records for minor marijuana convictions from before the plant was legalized.

“A criminal record, and in some cases a civil adjudication, can prevent people from continuing their education, [or] getting housing, a professional license, credit, investments, and other features of a stable, dignified life,” said Kebede. “Criminal records have prevented millions across the country, and thousands across Maine, from moving on with their lives, pushing them into second-class status even after they completed their sentences.”

However, Julia Finn, a representative from the Maine Judicial Branch, said that, while it seems logical to seal that those prior convictions, it would be extremely difficult and time consuming to compare what is currently permitted in law to all of previous drug laws that Mainers could have been convicted under. She also pointed out that Maine didn’t have a computerized system until 2001 and the bill would require staff to hand search for all of those convictions in leather-bound docket books.

Committee Votes to Raise Legal Marriage Age to 18

Last week, the Judiciary Committee voted 7-5 to recommend passage of a bill (LD 622) that would prohibit marriage for anyone under the age of 18. Last session, the Legislature increased the legal marriage age from 15 to 16 years of age with a parent’s consent. Lateshsha Collick, who testified with the national anti-child marriage group Unchained At Last, described the abuse she suffered being married at 15 in Missouri.

“My parent consenting to my marriage as well as the state of Missouri allowing such an act was detrimental to my well-being,” said Collick. “I was physically and mentally abused by my adult husband and I struggled financially for years. Please put an end to this harmful and degrading act.”

However, Republicans on the committee argued that the measure was an attack on individual liberty and parental rights. Sen. Lisa Keim (R-Oxford County) said the bill was a result of people from out of state “pushing a perspective,” but that she had seen no evidence that children in Maine were being coerced into abusive marriages. Rep. Jeff Evangelos (U-Friendship) proposed a compromise that the legal marriage age be raised to 17 with parental consent because 17-year-olds can enter the military with a parent’s permission. But Democrats rejected the proposed amendment.

According to Unchained At Last, 30 minors were married in Maine between 2017 and 2019, and 25 of them — 83% — were girls wed to adult men. A total of 820 minors were married in Maine between 2000 and 2019. Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands currently have laws to prevent all marriage before 18 without exceptions, and similar bills are pending in 11 other states.