Ban on Using Handheld Cell Phone While Driving

After several failed attempts over the years, the House and Senate passed a bill Tuesday that bans the use of a handheld electronic device, such as a cell phone, while driving. LD 1089 allows hands-free operation of a phone and allows a handheld device to be used for calling law enforcement or emergency services in the case of an emergency. The penalty for a first offense for violating the ban is a $75 fine, and the penalty for a second offense within a three-year period is a $150 fine. Violators could face up to $500 in fines and suspended licenses for subsequent violations. The bill now goes to the governor’s desk.

Testifying in support of the proposal back in April, Major Chris Grotton of the Maine State Police reported that distracted driving accounts for about 40 percent of all crashes in Maine, or about 14,400 distracted-driving crashes annually, despite increased enforcement efforts and public education campaigns and the state’s already-in-force ban on texting while driving.

“The current statute is difficult and at times impossible to enforce,” said Grotton of the texting ban. “An officer must be able to prove that a person is in fact texting while driving, yet when passing a vehicle and only observing the operator for a glance we have no way of knowing if that person is texting or simply dialing a phone number, programming a GPS, scrolling through a music playlist or finding a contact number in their phone, all of which are legal to do. If we have reasonable articulable suspicion to believe they are texting, we can stop the vehicle and ask questions to try and determine if they were in fact texting.”

Grotton added that people aren’t always truthful when police ask them what they were doing with their phone, and motorists are within their rights to refuse to allow law enforcement to look at their phones.

In opposition to the proposed handheld phone ban, House Republican Leader Ken Fredette (R-Newport) said it would discriminate against low-income people who can’t afford hands-free devices.

“I think we all understand that texting is a problem today,” he said. “I’m concerned about the underlying consequences here. We have many people and many vehicles today that do not have Bluetooth capability. Who does that burden fall upon? That falls primarily on the poor.”

Roll call — Cell Phone While Driving Ban (LD 1089)

House (85 Yeas, 60 Nays)

Anne Beebe-Center (D-Rockland) Y
Owen Casas (I-Rockport) Y
Michael Devin (D-Newcastle) Y
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
Abden Simmons (R-Waldoboro) N
John Spear (D-So. Thomaston) Y
Paula Sutton (R-Warren) N
Stanley Paige Zeigler (D-Montville) Y
Senate (21 Yeas, 14 Nays):
Dana Dow (R-Lincoln Cty) N
Dave Miramant (D-Knox Cty) Y
Mike Thibodeau (R-Waldo Cty) N

Increasing Salaries for Long-Term-Care Workers

The Legislature voted unanimously to pass LD 1466, which provides cost-of-living increases through enhanced Medicaid reimbursements to long-term-care workers. The bill also creates a commission to find solutions to the state’s direct-care labor shortage.

“More than 26,000 hardworking Mainers provide direct services to our elderly loved ones, but are currently paid salaries far below a living wage,” said Senate Democratic Leader Sen. Troy Jackson (R-Aroostook Cty.) in a statement. “If we care about our seniors, we have to care about the livelihoods of the people who take care of them.”

The wage increases, which have yet to be funded in the state budget, would apply to certified nurse aids, personal-support specialists and home health aids working in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities and visiting patients in their homes. Currently, the average wage for a personal-care assistant is $10.22 per hour, according to the Maine Council On Aging, which amounts to less than $23,000 per year if the employee works 40 hours per week and takes no vacations. The organization estimates that 53 percent of Maine direct-care workers rely on some form of public assistance. During the public hearing on the bill, several supporters noted that low MaineCare reimbursements are hindering recruitment efforts in the long-term-care field.

“We want to proactively address the needs of our growing elder adult population,” wrote Mollie Baldwin, director of Home Care for Maine. “They want to stay in their homes as long as they can. This is significantly less expensive for MaineCare than placing them in an institutional setting. We can’t do this without competent, qualified workers. Some of these workers aren’t that much younger or that much better off financially than the people they are taking care of.”

According to the Maine Healthcare Association, which represents most of the nursing homes and assisted-living facilities in the state, 76 percent of their assisted-living residents rely on MaineCare and more than 80 percent of their nursing-home residents rely on either MaineCare or Medicare.

“Each week, about 6,000 hours of MaineCare-approved care goes unmet, not because there is no funding, but because there are no workers to offer the care,” wrote Jess Mauer, co-chair of the board of directors of the Maine Council on Aging (MCOA), back in April. “In addition, as facilities cannot maintain an adequate staff-to-resident ratio, they have to leave beds unfilled, resulting in a growing waiting list for MaineCare nursing-home beds across the state. Consider that 36 percent of nursing homes have refused new admissions in the last 60 days. This quite literally leaves older adults with no care options.”

Legislature Votes Down Safe Injection Space Bill

The Maine House voted 98 to 47 to defeat a bipartisan bill (LD 1375) that would have allowed people to consume drugs in licensed and medically supervised injection sites. The centers, which are common in Europe, permit drug users to use their own personally acquired illicit drugs while medical staff is available to dispense clean needles, provide counseling and prevent overdose deaths. The bill would have exempted clients and staff from criminal liability.

Speaking in favor of the bill, Rep. Karen Vachon (R-Scarborough) admitted that the bill is a “radical paradigm shift,” but that the harm-reduction program has been successfully implemented in Vancouver, British Columbia.

“These people have no place to go,” said Vachon. “A life of trauma, isolation, rejection and neglect has brought them to this place. In this place, the least ones are supervised by health professionals, they’re educated about overdose prevention and safe injection practices, offered safe needle exchange, are tested for HIV and hepatitis C. They receive counseling, birth control and first aid. Here they are accepted as they are, not judged.”

A 2011 study published in the medical journal The Lancet found that fatal overdoses had dropped by 35 percent in the vincity of Vancouver’s supervised safe injection site during its first two years of operation. In 2016, Vancouver Coastal Health, which runs the site, began a new pilot project to test drugs coming into the facility and found that 86 percent tested positive for the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, which has been blamed for numerous overdose deaths in Maine. In a September press release, clinic supervisors said the results will help users take precautions, such as carrying the antidote naloxone, reducing their dosages, not using when alone, or seeking treatment.

Speaking against the proposal to set up a similar facility in Maine, Rep. Deb Sanderson (R-Chelsea) expressed concern that it would send the wrong message to young people: “As the mother of a very, very, very impressionable 14-year-old daughter, if I were to continue to tell her, do not do drugs, she would immediately come back to me and say it’s okay to do it there, why can’t I do it here?”

Health and Human Services Committee Co-Chair Rep. Pattie Hymanson (D-York), who is a physician, said that while she voted against the bill, she believes that public support will gradually build for such facilities.

“I think this idea needs to percolate from communities,” she said. “And I will help that percolation in the next few years.”

Roll call — In Favor of Safe Injection Sites (LD 1375)
House (47 Yeas, 98 Nays)

Anne Beebe-Center (D-Rockland) Y
Owen Casas (I-Rockport) Y
Michael Devin (D-Newcastle) N
James Gillway (R-Searsport) N
Jeffrey Hanley (R-Pittston) N
Stephanie Hawke (R-Boothbay Harbor) N
Erin Herbig (D-Belfast) N
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
Karl Ward (R-Dedham) N
Stanley Paige Zeigler (D-Montville) N
Senate (9 Yeas, 26 Nays):
Dana Dow (R-Lincoln Cty) N
Dave Miramant (D-Knox Cty) Y
Mike Thibodeau (R-Waldo Cty) N

House Defeats Subsidies for Filmmakers

The Maine House voted 92-53 last week to reject a bill (LD 1450) that would have provided generous subsidies to companies that make films in Maine. The proposal, which earlier passed the Senate 33-2, would have reimbursed 25 percent of the wages paid by production companies to local employees and 20 percent to non-resident employees provided that the production company spends at least $25,000. Supporters of the proposal argued that several films set in Maine have actually been shot in other states or in Canada where tax incentives are more favorable. Others said it would help boost tourism. Speaking in favor of the bill on the House floor, Rep. Norman Higgins (R-Dover Foxcroft) noted that Maine Media Workshops in Rockport could attract more filmmakers to live in Maine if the incentives were there.

“The problem is they attend the workshops and they tend to leave,” said Higgins. “Maine is not viewed in their minds as a state that is particularly supportive…. I think it’s important for us as we move into a new world and a new age that we find opportunities to support the development of economic opportunities in those areas.”

However, Taxation Committee Chair Rep. Ryan Tipping (D-Orono) argued that the subsidy was too lavish, given that it would also apply to out-of-state employees.

“I believe this would create film jobs in Maine,” he said. “I believe it would create film production in Maine, just like I believe that if the state took upon itself to reimburse any industry for 25 percent of employee wages then we would have that industry in Maine. I just do not think that, especially at this time with reviewing all of the credits on the books, that adding a direct reimbursement of out-of-state wages is in the state’s best interest.”

Tipping pointed to a 2015 report by the state of Maryland that recommended repealing the state’s film production tax credit because the program is expensive and the jobs dry up as soon as the production is finished. Between 2012 and 2016, Maryland reported that it had provided $62.5 million in tax credits, but only received a fraction of the tax credit amounts back in revenues to the state and local governments.The report called the film tax-incentive competition between states “expensive” and “unhealthy.”

Roll call — Film Subsidies (LD 1450)

House (53 Yeas, 92 Nays)

Anne Beebe-Center (D-Rockland) N
Owen Casas (I-Rockport) Y
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) N
Abden Simmons (R-Waldoboro) N
John Spear (D-So. Thomaston) N
Paula Sutton (R-Warren) N
Stanley Paige Zeigler (D-Montville) Y
Senate (33 Yeas, 2 Nays):
Dana Dow (R-Lincoln Cty) Y
Dave Miramant (D-Knox Cty) Y
Mike Thibodeau (R-Waldo Cty) Y
E = Excused



Making It Harder to Launch a Citizen Referendum

The Maine House has delivered the two-thirds votes necessary to send a proposed Constitutional amendment to voters. The measure (LD 31) would require that the signatures on a citizen petition consist of voters from each of the state's two congressional districts, and that the number of signatures from each congressional district be not less than 10 percent of the total vote for governor cast in that congressional district in the previous election. The Senate has yet to act on the bill.

Under current law, the number of signatures a citizen initiative needs to qualify must be equal to 10 percent of the total votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election, which is about 61,000 signatures. If voters approve the Legislature’s amendment, the number of signatures required would be 31,942 from District 1 and 29,181 from District 2, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

The amendment was one of several Republican bills aimed at weakening the citizen initiative process, and it came in reaction to the number of progressive referendums that passed in November. Assistant House Republican Leader Ellie Espling (R-New Gloucester), the amendment’s sponsor, argued in testimony that “it should be challenging to put something on the ballot.” She said that voters in the more liberal city of Portland “have very different opinions about issues” than voters in the northern, more conservative, 2nd Congressional district.

“Ballot measures serve the people well when answering big, broad-based questions, but they do not serve people well when the writers attempt to get into the minutia of law,” wrote Espling. “LD 31 would ensure that folks outside of Portland are asked if they want a question on the ballot.”

The bill was also supported by the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, which hopes to make it more difficult to collect signatures for another anti-bear baiting and hounding referendum. However, Rep. Pinny Beebe-Center (D-Rockland) said the petition process doesn’t need to be changed.

“I think that good referendums do get a geographical spread with their signature collections. I think that is part of what gives them credibility,” she said. “I think it is the out-of-state efforts and slap-dash efforts that go to Portland and try to get a small geographic area to meet their numbers. I thought the bill was in reaction to questionable efforts — not to the authentic efforts.”

Roll call — to Change Citizen Initiatives (LD 31)
House (107 Yeas, 36 Nays)

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

Presidential Tax Returns & Leg Humping

Last week, on a vote of 91 to 53. the House defeated a bill that would have forced presidential candidates to release their tax returns in order to qualify on the Maine ballot.

LD 1422 would have required candidates for president and vice president to disclose the previous five years of their federal income tax returns and would have directed the Maine Secretary of State to post the information on the state website. Nearly all the local Democrats in attendance and Rep. Owen Casas supported the bill, while all the Republicans and Rep. John Spear (D - So. Thomaston) opposed it.

The proposal came in response to President Donald Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, making him the first presidential candidate in 40 years to refuse to do so.

“The information in an income tax return is hugely relevant for voters’ evaluation of the candidates,” wrote Paul Seamus Ryan of the progressive advocacy group Common Cause back in April. “Learning the sources and amounts of candidates’ income reveals potential conflicts of interest and can shed light on policy priorities.”

Speaking against the measure from the House floor last week, Rep. Lance Harvell (R-Farmington) called the bill “gesture politics” and then told a rambling story about campaigning in his district to illustrate his point.

“My first recognition of this for myself on how degraded I had become was campaigning a couple of years ago,” he said. “I stopped by a constituent’s home and I go up with my pamphlet and my handshake. And her little dog, to put it another way, was having his way with my leg. And I recognized that as a normal human it would be to give the little rascal a boot, but that might cost me a vote so I shamed myself, handed her my pamphlet, shook her hand and on my way back to my vehicle I couldn’t decide whether to take a shower or smoke a cigarette. But this is gesture politics.”

He added that forcing presidential candidates to release their tax returns would just be a way for their opponents to make political hay.

“The reality is, in 2016, this president didn’t put his tax returns out, every single voter knew it,” said Harvell. “He didn’t violate the Constitution and they said, ‘Whatever.’”

Democrats Defeat Punitive TANF Bills

House Democrats have once again defeated a Republican bill (LD 886) that would have prohibited low-income families from withdrawing Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits in other states using electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards. The bill would have made exceptions for beneficiaries withdrawing cash in New Hampshire as well as individuals fleeing domestic violence. Speaking in favor of the bill, Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Androscoggin Cty.) cited Department of Health and Human Services data from between 2011 and 2015 that showed a handful of TANF withdrawals from areas in vacation spots in Florida and other states.

“What can we discern from this data? At a minimum, out-of-state spending in places like Florida, Hawaii, California and Las Vegas suggest some cash-welfare recipients are not using their taxpayer-funded benefits to help return to work,” said Brakey at the public hearing on the bill.

The data also showed that 98 percent of all EBT transactions during that four-year period occurred in Maine and about a half of one percent were made outside of New England. Speaking against the proposal, Danna Hayes of the Maine Women’s Lobby noted that families in poverty often travel to other states to attend funerals, care for aging relatives or attend job interviews.

“Punishing others who have completely appropriate and necessary reasons for using benefits for a short period of time in another state is the wrong way to target any actual abuse and does nothing to move people out of poverty,” wrote Hayes.

All of the midcoast Democrats also voted down LD 268, which would have required TANF recipients to keep a receipt for every transaction they make using TANF benefits and would allow the state to audit 2 percent and deduct improper purchases from the next month’s allotment. Republicans and Rep. Owen Casas (I-Rockport) supported the measure.

Dems Kill Attempts to Roll Back the Minimum Wage

The Maine House voted on nearly straight partisan lines to kill several attempts to repeal parts of the minimum wage law that Mainers voted 420,892 to 337,486 to approve in November. Under the new law, the minimum wage increased from $7.50 to $9 per hour this year and is scheduled to increase by $1 a year until it reaches $12 by 2020. After that, the wage would be pegged to inflation, increasing at the same rate as the cost of living.

Democrats and independents have strongly supported the new law, arguing that working people can’t survive on poverty wages and that the will of the voters should be honored. Republicans have stated that increasing the minimum wage hurts business owners and that voters didn’t know what they were voting for.

All of the local Democrats and Rep. Owen Casas voted against the minimum wage roll-back bills and all of the local midcoast Republicans in attendance voted to support them.

The House voted 79-69 to defeat a bill (LD 778) that would have eliminated the requirement that the minimum wage automatically increase with inflation starting in 2021. The Senate voted 18-17 to pass the measure. The House also voted down Sen. Dana Dow’s (R-Lincoln Cty.) bill, LD 831, which required Maine’s minimum wage to be equal to the average 2017 minimum wage of all of the other New England states starting in 2018. Under that proposal, next year, Maine’s minimum wage would have been reduced from $10 per hour to $9.59 per hour. The GOP-controlled Senate voted 18-17 to pass the bill. The House also defeated another Republican bill (LD 1609) that would have reduced the minimum wage to $11 per hour in 2021 and would have eliminated the cost-of-living adjustment.

Anti-Union Bill Defeated

The Maine House has defeated another so-called “right to work” bill (LD 65) that would have prohibited workers from being required to join a labor union or pay union dues or fees as a condition of employment. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Larry Lockman (R-Amherst), said in a floor speech that the measure was about “personal freedom and individual liberty.”

“Let’s set Maine workers free from the shackles of compulsory unionism and make our great state the first in New England to become a magnet for liberty-loving entrepreneurs and good-paying jobs,” said Lockman. “Let’s let freedom ring in Maine workplaces.”

The bill was opposed by unions, which argued that such bills are designed to undermine the power of collective bargaining. Maine State Employees Union attorney Tom Feeley said in testimony that workers have the right not to join unions, but they still must pay the cost of collective bargaining because they benefit from it with better wages and benefits. He noted that state and federal law requires bargaining agents to represent both members and non-members alike during collective bargaining negotiations and in the contractual grievance and arbitration process. However, he added, non-members are not required to support the union’s political activities, so unions are legally obligated to keep strict accounting of their expenditures to ensure that they only charge non-members for the cost of representation.

A 2015 study by the Economic Policy Institute concluded that full-time workers in so-called “right-to-work” states make $1,558 less per year and are less likely to have health insurance or a pension. All of the midcoast Democrats opposed the “right-to-work” bill and all of the Republicans and Rep. Owen Casas (I-Rockport) supported it.

Legislature Passes “Previous Pay Question” Ban

The Maine House and Senate passed a bill (LD 1259) that prohibits employers from seeking information about a prospective employee’s past salary before offering the applicant a job. The legislation also prohibits employers from forbidding employees to discuss wages amongst themselves. The bill now heads to the governor’s desk.

In a statement, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Cathy Breen (D-Cumberland Cty.), said that the bill would help fight the gender pay gap by requiring employers to pay a fair market rate rather than using past pay as the benchmark. The median annual pay for women working a full-time job in Maine is about $36,000, compared to $46,000 for a man, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families. Supporters of the bill argued that the “previous salary question” perpetuates the gender wage gap, because the female applicant may have been paid discriminatory wages in the past.

“This vote shows that the Maine Senate is serious about ending wage discrimination — whether it is caused by explicit bias or unintentional but widespread business practices,” said Breen. “Workers should be paid a market-based salary that reflects their education, experience, qualifications, credentials and work ethic, regardless of whether a previous job underpaid them because of their gender — or any other reason.”

However, Republicans largely opposed the bill because they said it would be an additional burden on small business. Rep. MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox) said she used to be a long-haul trucker and was never discriminated against in the male-dominated field.

“I did the job well, I became a trainer of new drivers within less than a year of driving because I was good at my job,” she said. “I was not discriminated against, and I earned more pay than some of my male counterparts. As a business owner … this will pose unintended consequences on business owners who may say just the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time.”

Roll call — “Previous Salary Question” Bill (LD 1259) Motion: Pass the Bill
House (79 Yeas, 68 Nays)

Anne Beebe-Center (D-Rockland) Y
Owen Casas (I-Rockport) Y
Michael Devin (D-Newcastle) Y
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
Abden Simmons (R-Waldoboro) N
John Spear (D-So. Thomaston) Y
Paula Sutton (R-Warren) N
Stanley Paige Zeigler (D-Montville) Y
Motion: Defeat the Bill
Senate (13 Yeas, 22 Nays):

Dana Dow (R-Lincoln Cty) N
Dave Miramant (D-Knox Cty) N
Mike Thibodeau (R-Waldo Cty) Y