Maine State House in Augusta. (Photo by Dan Kirchoff)
Maine State House in Augusta. (Photo by Dan Kirchoff)
Truancy & The Frances Perkins Center

The Legislature’s Education Committee will be holding a public hearing on Feb. 4 for LD 150, which would require 5- and 6-year-old children enrolled in public schools to be subject to the same truancy rules as older students. The measure, sponsored by Sen. Nate Libby (D-Androscoggin Cty.), would provide an exception for parents who choose to homeschool their children. Currently, the truancy law only applies to students over 7 years of age. Libby has submitted similar bills in the past, arguing that chronic absenteeism adversely affects graduation rates, proficiency and academic performance. In testimony supporting the bill last session, Lewiston schools Superintendent Bill Webster said that 25 percent of pre-K students, 20 percent of kindergarten students and 15 percent of first-grade students are chronically absent.

“We are working hard to improve these numbers,” he wrote. “One of our efforts is to engage community partners to assist families struggling to get their children to school. Families who are unsuccessful, however, are likely sealing the fate of their children to be not only unsuccessful in school, but also unsuccessful in life. In fact, the low graduation rate at Lewiston High School is significantly impacted by dropouts who developed poor school attendance habits in elementary school.”

Gov. Paul LePage vetoed that bill out of concerns that it would have interfered with the rights of parents.

Also on Feb. 4, the committee will hear LD 246, sponsored by Sen. Dana Dow (R-Lincoln Cty.), which would provide a one-time appropriation of $250,000 to the Frances Perkins Center in Damariscotta. Perkins, who once lived in Newcastle, was a labor rights advocate who served as Secretary of Labor during President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration. She was one of the chief architects of the New Deal, establishing Social Security, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration, various labor rights protections, unemployment benefits, welfare, the federal minimum wage and overtime laws that helped create the 40-hour work week.

Banning Books & Reopening DCF

Rep. Amy Arata (R-New Gloucester) will present her bill (LD 94) to remove public schools from the list of exceptions to the law prohibiting the dissemination of obscene material to minors to the Criminal Justice Committee on Feb. 4. Current state law prohibiting the distribution of obscene materials to minors makes an exception for libraries, art galleries, museums, private and public schools or universities as long as it’s for “purely educational purposes.” Arata’s bill does not strike the exception for private schools. Speaking to the Lewiston Sun Journal, Arata said she decided to submit the bill after her teenage son came home with the book “Kafka on the Shore” by Haruki Murakami.

“It was very, very specific and graphic,” she said.

The committee will also hear LD 128, sponsored by Rep. Will Tuell (R-East Machias), which would require the state to reopen the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport at a cost of $4.2 million in the first year and $5.7 million in the second year of the biennium. Last year, Gov. Le-Page abruptly closed the minimum-security facility and laid off its workers, sparking protests from area residents, public officials and local employers who relied on work-release prisoners. LePage argued that the facility needed to be closed because it was antiquated and the cost to house prisoners there was much more than at other correctional facilities.

Nonpartisan District Attorney Elections

Over in the State and Local Committee on Feb. 4, Rep. Richard Cebra (R-Naples) will present LD 42, which would require that district attorneys be elected on a nonpartisan ballot and that DA vacancies be filled without regard to political affiliation. DA candidates would also be prohibited from listing their party affiliations on nomination petitions. The same day, Rep. Mick Devin (D-Newcastle) will introduce a bill (LD 59) that would establish a procedure to recall an elected official of a plantation based on the official’s “neglect of duty or misconduct.” Devin represents Monhegan Plantation.

Doe Permits & Extending Hunting Seasons

Rep. David McCrea (D-Fort Fairfield) will introduce a bill (LD 175) that would extend deer hunting season by two Saturdays to the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee on Feb. 4. The committee will also hear LD 190, sponsored by Rep. Sherman Hutchins (R-Penobscot), which would provide that hunters 65 years of age and older who possess a valid senior resident lifetime hunting license must receive an antlerless deer permit. Sen. Russell Black (R-Franklin Cty.) will then present LD 265, which would extend the season for upland game — such as snowshoe hare, gray squirrel, ring-necked pheasant, ruffed grouse and bobwhite quail — by one additional day to the last Saturday of September.

Lobster License Waiting List Bill

On Feb. 5, the Marine Resources Committee will consider a bill (LD 28) that would provide lobster licenses to anyone who has been on the waiting list for more than 10 years. According to the Portland Press Herald, 55 of the 248 people currently sitting on seven regional wait lists would be affected by the measure, which is sponsored by Rep. Jay McCreight (D-Harpswell). As the paper notes, most fishing zones were closed to newcomers 20 years ago to prevent overfishing and turf battles between lobstermen.

Increasing Compensation to Jurors

On Feb. 5, the Judiciary Committee will consider a pair of bills that would increase the daily compensation paid to people called to serve on juries. LD 279, sponsored by Sen. Paul Davis (R-Piscataquis Cty.), would increase the daily stipend from $15 to $50, and LD 9, sponsored by Rep. Donna Bailey (D-Saco), would raise it to $40. Judges often complain that people are increasingly skipping jury duty. Superior Court Justice Robert Mullen in Somerset County has gone so far as to order some of those people to come to court and answer questions or face fines or even jail time, according to the Press Herald.

Drugs in Vending Machines & Gas Pump Regulations

The new Innovation, Development, Economic Advancement and Business Committee will consider a bill (LD 37) sponsored by Rep. Maureen Terry (D-Gorham) that would allow over-the-counter medication to be sold in vending machines. The committee will then consider Rep. Pinny Beebe-Center’s (D-Rockland) bill (LD 88) that would require that the price of gas on roadside signs reflect the full price and prohibit gas stations from advertising a reduced price based on factors such as method of payment, participation in a rewards program or a discount for the purchase of other goods or services.

Medical Debt & Credit Scores

On Feb. 5, Rep. Chris Johansen (R-Monticello) will present a bill (LD 110) to the Committee for Health Coverage, Insurance and Financial Services that would prohibit collection agencies from reporting medical debt on consumer reports that would harm the patient’s credit rating as long as the person is making regular, scheduled payments. According to a 2018 survey by Consumer Reports, nearly 3 in 10 Americans had an unpaid medical debt sent to a collection agency, and of those individuals, 24 percent didn’t realize the bill was owed and 13 percent said they never received the bill in the first place. One-fifth of respondents said their credit score was negatively impacted by unpaid health care bills.

High-Speed Broadband & Renewable Energy

On Feb. 5, the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee will take up a bill (LD 173), sponsored by Rep. David McCrea (D-Fort Fairfield), that would increase funding to the ConnectME Authority from $1,000,000 to $5,000,000 to expand universal broadband and high-speed Internet into underserved rural areas. Sen. Dave Miramant (D-Knox Cty.) will also present LD 273, which would require utilities to purchase the electricity generated by renewable resources at a price per kilowatt-hour that is half of the average cost to generate electricity using a fossil fuel.

Pesticide Regulation Legislation

Rep. Bill Pluecker (U-Warren) is hoping to bring more of an environmental perspective to the Board of Pesticides Control, which overseas the use of pesticides and handles complaints. Under current law, the seven-member board must include one person with experience using chemicals for forest management, a person from the medical community, a University of Maine scientist, a commercial pesticide applicator and two members representing the public.

But because one of those people representing the public is Deven Morrill, a pesticide applicator from Lucas Tree Experts, four of the members of the seven BPC members are pesticide applicators. Pluecker’s bill would restore a provision that the two public members must have a demonstrated interest in environmental protection.

Open Primaries

Rep. Deane Rykerson (D-Kittery) has resubmitted a bill (LD 114) to create an open primary system for the elections for US Senator, Congress, governor, state senator and state representative. Under the proposal, which will be heard by the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Feb. 6, all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, must appear on the same ballot. Then all voters, including independents, would be eligible to vote in the open primary. The votes would be tabulated using ranked-choice voting and the two candidates who win the most votes would then appear on the general election ballot. If one of the two candidates who won the primary chooses to withdraw from the race 70 days before the general election, the bill would require that candidate be replaced with the candidate who received the third most votes in the open primary election. The measure would effectively repeal ranked-choice voting in general elections and the candidate who wins a plurality of votes would win.

Sen. Dave Miramant (D-Knox Cty.) will then introduce his bill (LD 272) to require that all elections be conducted by mail. The bill would create a commission to make recommendations and propose legislation to implement a vote-by-mail law. Washington, Oregon and Colorado currently do voting entirely by mail. Supporters argue that it’s more convenient, gives voters more time to study the candidates and issues, saves money and increases turnout. Opponents have expressed concern about the reliability of the postal service.

The VLA Committee will also hear LD 256, sponsored by Sen. Justin Chenette (D-York Cty.), which would tighten restrictions on political action committees (PACs) used to fund campaigns. Under current law, PACs are prohibited from paying legislators and any businesses they own if they are involved in raising money or making decisions for the PAC. Chenette’s bill would also bar PACs from making loans or gifts to businesses owned by the legislator and commingling PAC funds with personal funds.

Intervening in a Shooting Range Dispute

Rep. Patrick Corey (R-Windham) is wading into a controversy involving a dispute between a shooting range and its disgruntled neighbor. On Feb. 6, the IF&W Committee will consider Corey’s bill to shield the gun club from laws prohibiting the discharge of firearms near homes. According to WGME News 13, the Northern York County Rod & Gun Club in West Newfield had Corey put in the bill in response to a dispute with a man named Anthony Garrity, who bought a piece of land 150 feet away from the shooting range. Garrity has complained that the gun club does not have an appropriate buffer zone and that he’s felt unsafe walking near his home. Knowing that state law prohibits the discharge of firearms within 100 yards of a building, Garrity built a small cabin on the land to stop the shooting. LD 79 would allow the discharge of a firearm on a shooting range within 100 yards of a building if the shooting range was operating prior to the erection of the building.

Also on Feb. 6, the IF&W Committee will hear LD 121, sponsored by Rep. Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford), which would direct IF&W to create a public awareness program focused on firearm safety and gun violence prevention. Sen. Dave Miramant (D-Knox Cty.) will then present a bill (LD 258) that would require IF&W to establish a corps of volunteer specialists who could be deputized to help out in search-and-rescue missions. Camden Selectman Marc Ratner asked Miramant to submit the bill because he had experience working with a similar program in California.

Cops with Needles, Weed & Driving, EMT Surveillance

Sen. Scott Cyrway (R-Kennebec Cty.) will be pushing the boundaries of the 4th Amendment on Feb. 6 when he presents a bill (LD 264) to allow EMTs and trained law enforcement officers to draw blood samples from drivers who have been involved in fatal accidents to test for the presence of drugs and alcohol. The bill, which will be heard by the Criminal Justice Committee, would also shield those law enforcement officers from any liability in drawing blood from motorists. The courts have been somewhat mixed on the constitutionality of taking blood from motorists. The US Supreme Court has ruled that police must have a warrant before subjecting DUI suspects to blood tests if they don’t consent to it. But it also ruled that laws making it a crime to not submit to breathalyzer tests are permitted. At the same time, courts in at least seven states have ruled that it is constitutional to blood-test unconscious motorists without a warrant, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The Criminal Justice Committee will also consider LD 141, sponsored by Rep. Patrick Corey (D-Windham), which would make it a traffic infraction to consume marijuana or possess an open container of pot while driving. The bill is based on the same law that makes it an infraction to have an open container of alcohol while driving. Sen. Dave Miramant will then introduce LD 159, which would require ambulances to be equipped with surveillance cameras when transporting patients in an emergency situation. Miramant said he is sponsoring the bill for a constituent who was concerned that a prisoner transported from Maine State Prison to the hospital died en route.

“She had a couple questions about whether they use their full skills and ability when they transport someone who is a prisoner,” said Miramant.

On the same day, Sen. Scott Cyrway (R-Kennebec Cty.) will present LD 262, which would increase the penalties for assaulting a law enforcement officer, and Rep. Will Tuell (R-East Machias) will introduce a measure (LD 134) designed to give police more influence in shaping state criminal laws by requiring that at least one member of the Criminal Law Advisory Commission (CLAC) be a member of law enforcement. The attorney general is charged with appointing nine members to CLAC, which advises the Legislature on changes to criminal laws. Under current law, CLAC must be composed of members with experience in the prosecution or defense of criminal cases or “by reason of their knowledge of the criminal law.” Two members must be knowledgable in juvenile law.

Tax Breaks for Public Employees & Soldiers

Currently, under the federal windfall elimination provision, public employees who have government pensions and do not pay into Social Security lose the Social Security benefits they accrued from previous jobs. On Feb. 6, the Taxation Committee will hold a public hearing on LDs 162 and 276, sponsored by Sen. Shenna Bellows (D-Kennebec Cty.) and Sen. Dave Miramant, which would provide an income-tax exemption on those retirement benefits. The same day, Sen. James Dill (D-Penobscot Cty.) will present LD 72, which would provide an income-tax exemption for soldiers on active duty. Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroos-took Cty.) will then introduce LD 268, which would provide a tax credit for landowners who hire logging contractors with a workforce comprised of at least 75 percent US residents.

Atlantic Time Zone Bill Returns

Once again, the State and Local Committee will take up a bill that would move Maine into the Atlantic Time Zone, joining with Maritime Canada and Puerto Rico. LD 144, sponsored by Rep. Christopher Kessler (D-So. Portland), would direct the Secretary of State to request that the U.S. Secretary of Transportation place Maine in the Atlantic Time Zone. Supporters of the measure argue that Maine is too far east to be in the Eastern Time Zone and that moving to Atlantic Standard Time would provide a little more light at the end of the day in the winter. Last session, the Legislature passed a measure that would have asked voters if they would approve of eliminating Daylight Saving Time and moving Maine into AST if Massachusetts and New Hampshire adopt similar measures. But Gov. LePage vetoed it stating that it would put Maine “out of sync with the rest of the Eastern Seaboard.”

Increasing the Length of Legislative Terms

The State and Local Committee will also consider a constitutional amendment (LD 58), sponsored by Rep. Catherine Nadeau (D-Winslow), that would increase the length of terms for state senators and House members from two years to four years beginning in 2022. The bill will likely face stiff headwinds as it takes two-thirds of the Legislature to pass a constitutional amendment. Last session, the House voted a similar measure down, 76-64.

The Ban-the-Box Bill Returns

The State and Local Committee will again hear a bill (LD 170) that would prohibit state employers from including questions about criminal history on employment application forms. The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Bettyann Sheats (D-Auburn), would provide an exception from the law for positions that disqualify applicants with criminal histories such as law enforcement officers, corrections officers, child protective caseworkers or child development services worker positions. The measure also exempts private-sector jobs as well as school districts and municipalities.

According to the National Employment Law Project, 33 states and 150 cities and counties have adopted so-called “ban-the-box” laws or policies that prohibit asking about criminal history on job applications. Proponents of ban-the-box laws argue that people with criminal records unfairly face job and housing discrimination, which prevents them from turning their lives around. Republicans opposed a similar bill last session out of concern that it would put an unfair mandate on employers. 

Barring Employers from Asking About Previous Pay

Rep. Mark Bryant (D-Windham) has sponsored a bill (LD 122) that would prohibit employers from inquiring about a job applicant’s wage and salary history until after a job offer has been made along with the terms of the compensation. The measure, which will be heard by the Labor and Housing Committee on Feb. 6, would also bar employers from requiring that a prospective employee’s pay history meet certain criteria. Under the proposal, employers who violate the law could face between a $100 and $500 fine and could also be subject to a civil action.

The bill is part of an effort to fight wage discrimination as proponents say that salary history questions exacerbate the gender pay gap. In signing a similar law in 2016, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said that it would “create a more level playing field in the Commonwealth and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to earn a competitive salary for comparable work.” A more watered down version of the bill passed in Maine last session, but LePage vetoed it.

Funding for Coworking Spaces

Rep. Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford) has sponsored a bill (LD 138) to provide $300,000 for the expansion of collaborative workspace businesses. The bill — which will be heard by the the Committee on Innovation, Development, Economic Advancement and Business on Feb. 7 — would give preference to applicants with projects in towns and counties with high unemployment rates. Last session, Fecteau submitted a similar bill, which passed the House, but died in the Republican-controlled Senate.

“Collaborative workspaces are without question becoming an integral component of the economy,” said Fecteau in testimony at the time. “Collaborative workspaces provide opportunities for start-ups to grow without the expense of costly and perhaps unnecessary traditional office space. In addition, professionals in these spaces often share ideas, best practices, and expenses.”