(Photo of Maine State Senate chamber by Dan Kirchoff)
(Photo of Maine State Senate chamber by Dan Kirchoff)
Democrats Submit “COVID-19 Patient Bill of Rights”

Last week, Democratic leaders in Augusta presented the so-called “COVID-19 Patient Bill of Rights” (LD 1), which would require insurance plans to cover COVID-19 testing and screening and vaccines. It would also eliminate co-pays for those services until after the governor’s state of emergency has ended. The measure would also allow patients to get up to 180 days of their medication while avoiding visiting a doctor and potentially being exposed to the coronavirus.

“To us, this bill is personal. It is about doing everything we can for people to put an end to the loss and destruction,” wrote Senate President Troy Jackson and House Speaker Ryan Fecteau in a January 14 op-ed. “The only way to move forward and successfully rebuild our state is to make sure Maine people can get what they need to stay healthy, recover from this virus and get the best protection available going forward.”

The health care provider MaineHealth offered “qualified” support for the measure, but expressed concerns that health care providers will be left to foot the bill for uninsured patients after the pandemic subsides.

Republican Calls Plastic Bans “Racist”

Maine’s new law banning the use of single-use plastic bags and Styrofoam containers was set to take effect on Earth Day last April, but implementation of the law has since been delayed until July 1 to help businesses comply with the law due to the ongoing pandemic. Last week, Republicans presented bills to repeal the ban, but received stiff resistance from a rare coalition of business and environmental groups.

One of the bills’ sponsors, Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham (R-Winter Harbor), argued that plastic bag bans discriminate against African immigrants and said that a recent Democratic proposal to require a racial impact statement with any proposed law should also apply to the plastic bag ban.

“Plastic bag bans are inherently racist. They unintentionally come from a place of White privilege,” wrote Faulkingham, who believes President Biden is a puppet of the Chinese Communist Party and is currently trying to launch a referendum to ban noncitizens from voting in local elections. “The law has prioritized conveniences taken for granted by affluent members of society and forgotten the poor, and homeless. Where does someone store their reusable grocery bags, when they don’t even know what homeless shelter they will be sleeping in that night? Let’s not punish the poor, the homeless, and those seeking refuge in our state. Many of these Mainers of color don’t own a car let alone a Suburban or pickup truck capable of lugging many paper bags. How would they transport them?”

In a joint letter to the committee, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Retail Association of Maine and the Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association urged the committee to stay the course with the law and reject attempts to repeal it.

Tightening Term Limits for Legislators

Back in 1993, nearly 70% of Maine voters voted for a referendum that imposed term limits for legislators and constitutional officers like attorney general, secretary of state and state treasurer. Under current law, state legislators are allowed to serve four consecutive two-year terms but may continue beyond eight years if they run for office in the other chamber or take two years off and run for their old seats.

Last week, Rep. Justin Fecteau (R-Augusta) presented LD 321, which would provide a lifetime cumulative limit of eight terms in the Legislature, for a total of 16 years in the House and Senate, regardless of whether those terms are served in one chamber or both. Speaking in favor of the bill, Fecteau said his goal is to respect the original intent of the law.

Penelope Hamblin of the League of Women Voters of Maine testified in opposition to the bill, arguing that term limits “violate the ultimate right of voters to choose the representative who best serves the needs of their district” and that “by disqualifying experienced, knowledgeable, and capable legislators, term limits make our government less responsive to voters, less accountable, and less effective.”

Bill to Establish Workplace Temperature Minimums

Last week, the Labor and Housing Committee heard a bill (LD 358) that would require the Board of Occupational Safety and Health (BOSH) to establish minimum temperatures and maximum temperatures in places of employment. Rep. Bruce White (D-Waterville), the bill’s sponsor, said he put in the bill after a retail employee complained to him that there was a problem with the furnace at work, but everyone was forced to stay in the building without heat.

However, a representative for the Maine Department of Labor testified that BOSH, which is essentially a state-level version of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, only has the authority to enforce health and safety laws in public-sector workplaces. OSHA oversees the private sector, and neither agency has a standard for temperatures.

Shielding School Recordings from Freedom of Access

Last week, the Judiciary Committee heard a bill that would prevent the press and the public from obtaining audio and videos of schools under the Freedom of Access Act. This would include recordings made by security cameras and recordings of classes. Testifying in support of the measure, Rep. Jan Dodge (D-Belfast), a retired teacher, said remote learning during the pandemic has created the need to protect student privacy.

“The videoing of classes, Zoom discussion groups and hybrid learning are a few of the examples of new situations where student privacy is lacking the protection of the four walls of a traditional classroom,” she wrote.

The ACLU of Maine testified that while the organization is concerned about “hyper-surveillance” in schools, it opposed the bill because the organization believes it could end up shielding schools from accountability. Meagan Sway, policy director for ACLU of Maine, said Maine schools have occasionally used the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to deny access to videos showing assaults on students by school resource officers and other authority figures.

“When that happens, our freedom of access law is the best method that ordinary citizens can use to unearth the truth,” wrote Sway. “This bill would take away an important tool that is not often used, but is sometimes necessary.”

Last year, a seventh-grade teacher in Bangor became a target of online vitriol after a parent shared a video lesson the teacher gave about racial privilege and identity in a pro-Trump Facebook group, in violation of school policy.

Forcing CMP Shareholders to Cover the Cost of Storms

For years, Rep. Seth Berry (D-Bowdoin) has been waging a war against Central Maine Power over scandals involving overbilling customers, its opposition to solar energy and lackluster response to storms that have knocked out power. Berry has proposed replacing privately owned electric utilities with a consumer-owned utility, saying the for-profit business model of investor-owned utilities costs ratepayers more and prioritizes profits over customer service and the environment.

Last week, Berry presented LD 285, which would prohibit investor-owned utilities like CMP from raising rates on electricity customers to pay for costs associated with extreme weather events. In his testimony, he wrote that the current business model forces customers to shoulder all of the risks while ensuring guaranteed profits for utility shareholders.

The costs of risks associated with severe weather, he wrote, “are often avoidable with proper, proactive hardening of the grid. Risk and responsibility need to go hand-in-hand. We are paying a monthly rent that bakes in shareholder profits as well as corporate taxes. The utility company’s risk is part of the privilege of any ownership, and especially a monopoly ownership of such an important service in our daily lives, which has been conditionally allowed by law and by regulatory consent.”

The Maine Public Utilities Commission opposed the measure, saying Berry’s bill raises “constitutional issues,” and that the measure “may create an undesirable disincentive for utilities to incur costs in the course of providing what may be crucial services during the declaration of a ‘disaster.’”

“An Unalienable Right” to Eat Cats and Dogs?

Last week a legislative committee considered a constitutional amendment that declares that all individuals have a “natural, inherent and unalienable right to grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume the food of their own choosing for their own nourishment, sustenance, bodily health and well-being.” Similar “food sovereignty” bills have been submitted over the years, but have failed to garner the two-thirds majority in both chambers needed for passage.

Local food activists argue that the measures are necessary to prevent government food safety regulations from hampering the growth of small farms. Fifty-four towns and cities across the state have already adopted food sovereignty ordinances in an effort to stimulate local food production. When the Legislature considered a similar amendment last year, Rep. MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox) urged Republicans to oppose the bill because seed companies worry it would encourage people to start bartering patented seeds.

Last week, animal welfare groups joined the opposition out of concern that it could allow food producers, hunters, trappers, and fishermen to be exempt from animal welfare and cruelty laws if they invoked the amendment in court.

Katie Hansberry of the Humane Society of the United States added that “the inclusion of the terms ‘raise,’ ‘harvest,’ and ‘of their own choosing’ could also result in a constitutional right for the consumption of species that are not viewed as food animals, such as cats and dogs or some wildlife species.”