Call for Constitutional Convention Fails

On Tuesday, the Maine House voted 86 to 56 in favor of the State and Local Government Committee’s “ought not to pass” recommendation on a resolution that would have issued a call to convene the first Constitutional Convention since 1787 in Philadelphia. The resolution, which was partly copied from a template created by the corporate-funded conservative group the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), states that the scope of such a convention would be to propose amendments that would “impose fiscal restraints on the Federal Government, limit the power and jurisdiction of the Federal Government and limit the terms of office for its officials and for members of Congress.”

The resolution states that “the concentration of power at the federal level has had the effect of making federal officials less responsive to the will of the people” and that it is “more readily influenced by lobbyists, wealthy corporations and special interests in Washington, D.C.” The proposal also decries the federal government for creating “a crushing national debt through improper and imprudent spending.”

Under Article V of the US Constitution, states may call a convention to propose Constitutional amendments without Congress if 34 states, or two two-thirds, pass a resolution. Constitutional amendments approved at a convention would need three-fourths of the states, or 38, to ratify them in order to take effect.

Rep. Owen Casas (I-Rockport) said he supported the resolution because he wants term limits for members of Congress, to put checks on the president’s executive power, a repeal of the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision and a balanced budget amendment.

“I voted in favor of passage because I think that there are aspects of the federal government that I don’t like and think it unlikely that Congress will act to rein in their own power,” said Casas. “…This would limit the concentration of power that happens with long-serving politicians and the wealthy interests that fund their campaigns.”

So far, 28 states have passed similar resolutions, and with Republicans and conservatives controlling both legislative chambers in 33 states, Republicans have never been closer to the holy grail of the balanced-budget amendment. Maine’s resolution was opposed by a group of unlikely allies — from the liberal-leaning Maine Women’s Lobby and the Maine Center for Economic Policy (MECEP) to the late conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly’s son Andy Schlafly.

In testimony, MECEP policy analyst James Myall argued that a balanced-budget amendment would be “disastrous for Maine” as it could cost the state over $900 million a year in federal money, or about 38 percent of the federal funds that come to the state, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget & Policy Priorities. Maine is the 9th most dependent state on federal aid, according to federal figures.

Rep. Paula Sutton (R-Warren) also opposed passage of the resolution, but for different reasons than her liberal colleagues.

“I have deep concerns that a balanced-budget amendment, while it sounds wonderful ... I am concerned that it would cause great tax increases to a point that it would be detrimental,” she said in floor remarks.

Opponents of the Constitutional Convention Resolution also expressed concerns that if enough states passed the resolution, it could become a “run-away” convention with delegates making even more drastic revisions to the Constitution or even changing the number of states necessary to ratify amendments.

House Roll Call — Constitutional Convention Resolution Ought Not to Pass
House (86 Yeas, 56 Nays)

Anne Beebe-Center (D-Rockland) Y
Owen Casas (I-Rockport) N
Michael Devin (D-Newcastle) E
James Gillway (R-Searsport) N
Jeffrey Hanley (R-Pittston) N
Stephanie Hawke (R-Boothbay Harbor) N
Erin Herbig (D-Belfast) Y
MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox) N
Walter Kumiega (D-Deer Isle) Y
Deb Sanderson (R-Chelsea) Y
Abden Simmons (R-Waldoboro) N
John Spear (D-So. Thomaston) Y
Paula Sutton (R-Warren) Y
Stanley Paige Zeigler (D-Montville) Y
E = excused

Local Option Sales Tax Fails Narrowly

The Maine House voted 73-69 on Tuesday to reject a bill (LD 1522) that would authorize towns and cities to levy higher taxes on food and lodging. Under the proposal, which faces further votes in the House and Senate, towns would be able to impose the taxes only if approved by local referendum. Sixty-five percent of the revenue would go to the town itself, while a quarter would help fund the municipal revenue-sharing program to support other towns and 10 percent would go to finance regional economic development loan programs.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Sylvester (D-Peaks Island), said he submitted the bill because popular tourist areas and service-center communities collect the majority of the state’s tax revenue, yet the state has reneged on its obligation to remit the full 5 percent of revenue back to towns.

“These towns and cities bear the brunt of the infrastructure costs of the incoming hordes from away,” he said. “My own humble island off the coast of Portland has 1,000 residents year-round, but on a good, hot summer day that number can swell between 4,000 and 6,000. No one covers the cost of the extra water, police, trash pickup or emergency calls but the city.”

However, retailers and the hospitality industry opposed the local option sales tax out of concerns that it would hurt business. Rep. Gay Grant (D-Gardiner) said the state should focus more on a statewide tax reform policy rather than special revenue options for certain towns.

“It pits urban and rural communities,” she said. “We will have winners and losers.”

While the state is obligated to dedicate 5 percent of tax revenues to towns, Gov. LePage and the Legislature have cut revenue sharing by 60 percent in recent years and the governor has proposed to cap it at 2 percent in his latest budget.

House Roll Call — Local Option Sales Tax
House (69 Yeas, 73 Nays)

Anne Beebe-Center (D-Rockland) Y
Owen Casas (I-Rockport) Y
Michael Devin (D-Newcastle) E
James Gillway (R-Searsport) Y
Jeffrey Hanley (R-Pittston) N
Stephanie Hawke (R-Boothbay Harbor) N
Erin Herbig (D-Belfast) Y
MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox) N
Walter Kumiega (D-Deer Isle) Y
Deb Sanderson (R-Chelsea) N
Abden Simmons (R-Waldoboro) N
John Spear (D-So. Thomaston) Y
Paula Sutton (R-Warren) N
Stanley Paige Zeigler (D-Montville) Y

House Votes to Fund Well Water Testing/Education

In a strong bipartisan vote, the Maine House voted 117-25 to fund a program to support more testing for toxic chemicals in private water wells. The program would be funded by a fee on water tests. Supporters of the bill noted that naturally occurring arsenic is common in local bedrock and that one in 10 Mainers could be drinking from a contaminated water well, according to a study by researchers at Dartmouth College. Exposure to high levels of arsenic has been linked to cancers and lower IQs and learning disabilities in children, according to the American Cancer Society.

“When I first learned about this, I thought this problem existed in third-world countries, not in Maine,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Karen Vachon (R-Scarborough). “I was shocked when I learned that in my hometown of Scarborough, 38.5 percent of drinking water wells are contaminated with arsenic at a level that the US EPA has determined to be unsafe to drink.”

Last session, House Republicans upheld a veto of a similar measure as the governor argued that the bill was “unnecessary.” In 2015, the LePage administration rejected a request by Maine Center for Disease Control to reapply for a two-year $300,000 federal grant to improve testing and treatment of drinking water wells before the program’s existing federal funds ran out. At the time, Commissioner Mary Mayhew dismissed the concerns because “the state should not be competing with Maine businesses by using taxpayer dollars to hand out free products and services to people who can afford to pay for them.”

Rep. Gary Hilliard (R-Belgrade) noted that one of the major arguments about the last bill was the state was already using some federal grant money to provide educational outreach about testing wells.

“Well guess what? The state is no longer even applying for those funds, therefore education is at an all-time low,” said Hilliard in floor remarks.

House Republican Leader Ken Fredette (R-Newport) said that water contamination is “one of the most understated issues facing public-policy makers in the state of Maine,” but voted against the bill because he said it isn’t fair to fund it by taxing people who are “doing the right thing by having their well water tested.”

House Roll Call — Arsenic Testing of Well Water
House (117 Yeas, 25 Nays)

Anne Beebe-Center (D-Rockland) Y
Owen Casas (I-Rockport) Y
Michael Devin (D-Newcastle) E
James Gillway (R-Searsport) Y
Jeffrey Hanley (R-Pittston) N
Stephanie Hawke (R-Boothbay Harbor) N
Erin Herbig (D-Belfast) Y
MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox) Y
Walter Kumiega (D-Deer Isle) Y
Deb Sanderson (R-Chelsea) N
Abden Simmons (R-Waldoboro) Y
John Spear (D-So. Thomaston) Y
Paula Sutton (R-Warren) N
Stanley Paige Zeigler (D-Montville) Y