Maine State House in Augusta Photo: Alexius Horatius(
Maine State House in Augusta Photo: Alexius Horatius(
Universal Paid Family Leave

As households have become increasingly dependent on two incomes, a movement has been growing for universal paid family leave (PFL), which would prevent many families from having to choose between earning a living and spending time with a newborn, caring for a sick relative, or recovering from a serious illness. Currently, the United States is one of the only developed countries in the world that doesn’t have a PFL policy, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Among the 185 countries surveyed by the International Labour Organization, the US and Papua New Guinea are the only two nations without a paid parental leave policy. In 2016, only 14 percent of private-sector workers in the US had access to paid family and medical leave, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Rep. Erin Herbig (D-Belfast) is hoping to move toward establishing a paid family leave system in Maine with her bill LD 1587, which will be heard by the Labor, Commerce and Economic Development Committee on Feb. 7.

“When I had my son Charles I was lucky to be surrounded by my family who could help me in my transition back to work, but not all Maine families have that luxury,” said Herbig. “I hear from families every day that struggle when they have a sick child, are caring for their aging parent or financially have to go back to work before they feel it is best for their new baby.”

As it’s currently written, Herbig’s proposal would allow employees and self-employed people to voluntarily contribute to a state-administered PFL program. However, Herbig says that she and Sen. Amy Volk (R-Cumberland Cty.) will be presenting an amendment that would turn the bill into a study to determine how much it would cost under an employee payroll contribution to create a sustainable paid family leave system.

Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), businesses with over 50 employees working more than 25 hours per week must provide at least 12 weeks of unpaid family leave. And under Maine law, employers with 15 or more workers are required to provide 10 weeks of unpaid leave, as long as the employee has been working at the same place for at least a year. But only 60 percent of workers actually qualify for unpaid leave, and nearly half of those who are eligible don’t take the time off because they can’t afford to, according to the US Department of Labor. 

 Back in September, national family leave advocate Ellen Bravo of the Family Values @ Work Consortium told The Free Press that while passing PFL in Maine is a challenge given the current political climate, she believes there is a good chance of passing PFL legislation in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and Oregon this year.

Prescription Drug Pricing Transparency

With the costs of prescription drugs in America continuing to skyrocket, on Feb. 5 the Judiciary Committee could potentially vote on a bill (LD 1406) that would require drug companies to be more transparent about their profiteering. The measure, sponsored by Sen. Eloise Vitelli (D-Sagadahoc Cty.), would require drug companies to disclose the cost of drug production, research and development and marketing and advertising. The bill would also allow the Attorney General’s office to investigate violators.

Last May, Steve Butterfield of the group Consumers for Affordable Health Care testified that the bill, which is based on a law passed in Vermont, will help Mainers know why their prescription costs keep rising. He cited a US Centers for Disease Control study that found 1 in 10 Americans do not take their prescriptions as prescribed because the drugs are unaffordable. And he noted that many patented drugs were developed with public money, such as the autoinjector in the lifesaving EpiPen, which was developed by the US Department of Defense. The EpiPen’s manufacturer, Mylan Pharmaceuticals, faced a fierce public backlash when it became known that it had increased the cost of the drug by 400 to 600 percent in the past decade.

“Why are some new drugs that come to market carrying price tags that are higher than the median price of a new home in our state? Here’s the only honest answer you should expect to hear to that question today: We don’t know. I can’t tell you,” Butterfield told the committee. “The industry is so opaque, and has gone to such lengths to shield itself from any kind of meaningful scrutiny or oversight, that understanding what goes into setting a drug price is nearly impossible…. LD 1406 presents you with an opportunity to take action that is available to you as state policymakers to help shed some light on this situation for your constituents.”

Attorney General Janet Mills also supported the bill and cited a study by the Government Accountability Office that found that more than 300 of the 1,441 generic drugs it studied had a price increase of 100 percent or more between 2010 and 2015.

But in written testimony, Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) lobbyist Patrick J. Plues said his organization opposes the bill because it would place “burdensome reporting requirements on drug manufacturers and that the information would not be useful to patients. Further, certain economic and investment-backed data is subject to both federal and state trade-secret protections, and state abrogation of these protections could threaten the broader business economy in Maine,” wrote Plues. “This is especially concerning, given that the information provided to the Attorney General is envisioned to be made public in its entirety.”

In 2011 a team of researchers from Boston University and Norwegian Radium Hospital Research Foundation and the National Institutes of Health published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that found that in the previous 40 years, 153 new FDA-approved drugs, vaccines, or new indications for existing drugs were discovered through publicly funded research. It noted that more than half of the drugs had been used in the treatment and prevention of cancer or infectious diseases.

Notifying Victims of Prison Escapes

On Feb. 5, Rep. Erin Herbig will present a bill (LD 1705) that would require law enforcement to notify a victim of a crime if the perpetrator escapes from prison. The measure, which will be heard by the Criminal Justice Committee, would also allow the victim to be present at all trial proceedings that are public unless the court determines that the fair administration of justice requires the exclusion of the victim. According to Herbig, the bill is part of a larger reform effort that includes a constitutional amendment, known as “Marsy’s Law,” which would provide a series of rights to crime victims.

On the same day, Sen. Nate Libby (D-Androscoggin Cty.) will present LD 1782, which would require county sheriffs to provide in-person visitation at county jails between a prisoner and a visitor of the prisoner, with exceptions for prisoners that pose a security risk, in which video-visitation would be substituted. Two weeks ago we wrote about a similar bill (1414) that is currently tabled in the Criminal Justice Committee. Proponents of the bill say in-person visitation helps rehabilitate prisoners because it allows them human contact with their loved ones, but the Maine Sheriffs Association opposed LD 1414 for fear that it would lead to more drug trafficking in jails between visitors and inmates.

Increasing Penalties for Fentanyl

Also on Feb. 5, the Criminal Justice Committee will hear LD 1783, sponsored by Rep. Karen Gerrish (R-Lebanon), which would make it a Class A crime, punishable by up to 30 years in prison, to deal the synthetic opioid pain reliever fentanyl. It’s already illegal to sell fentanyl, but the bill would make it a Class A crime to traffic over 6 grams of fentanyl powder or more than 270 individual baggies, even for a first-time offense. Fentanyl is known to be up to 100 times more potent than morphine and has been blamed for numerous deaths in Maine. According to the Maine Attorney General’s office, more than one Mainer a day died of drug overdose in the first six months of 2017, for a total of 185 deaths. According to researcher Dr. Marcella Sorg of the University of Southern Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, there was a nearly 40-percent increase in drug overdose deaths in 2016 over the previous year and 84 percent of them were caused by opioids.

Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative Renewal

The Marine Resources Committee will hear a bill (LD 1791) to renew funding for the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative to promote Maine lobster. According to the Portland Press Herald, the state Lobster Advisory Council voted unanimously in December to renew the $2.2 million program, which is funded by license surcharges on lobstermen and wholesalers. In its monthly newsletter, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association urged its members to support reauthorizing the program because the industry “cannot afford to stop marketing, given the expansion in landings and markets for Maine lobster.” However the Press Herald noted that some lobstermen reportedly oppose the measure because prices are down and they don’t believe they’re getting their money’s worth from the marketing campaigns. The MLA says it will work with the collaborative and the Legislature to improve accountability of the program.

Medicaid Reimbursements to Hospitals

For years, Maine hospitals, particularly those in rural areas that are heavily dependent on Medicare and Medicaid, have struggled to stay afloat due to low government reimbursements. On Feb. 6, the Health and Human Services Committee will hear LD 1778, sponsored by Rep. Erik Jorgensen (D-Portland), that would increase the Medicaid reimbursement rate to rehabilitation hospitals using existing hospital reimbursement resources.

Delaying Proficiency-Based Diplomas

On February 7, the Education Committee will consider a bill (LD 166) to delay the implementation of proficiency-based learning standards until the 2021-2022 school year. Under current law, schools across the state are required to implement a proficiency-based learning system by the 2020-2021 school year to ensure that high school graduates show that they have mastered a certain set of skills in math, science, English and social studies, as opposed to simply finishing the courses. By 2023, students must master all of the aforementioned skills, plus two additional content areas of the student’s choice, and by 2024 students must fulfill an additional three content areas of their choice. Finally, for the 2024-2025 year, students must demonstrate proficiency in meeting standards in all content areas.

But while some schools have begun implementing proficiency-based learning standards, many have struggled in figuring out how to set up the system. According to a 2016 report by the Maine Education Policy Institute, the challenges have included selecting the appropriate grading scale to measure competency, developing a standards-based reporting system, assessing student work-study habits, getting buy-in from the public, and aligning the expectations with local beliefs and practices.

On the same day, Rep. Victoria Kornfield will present LD 1697, which would allow students to avoid certain high school math requirements by pursuing “alternative pathways.”

Resolution Calling for Congressional Term Limits

On Feb. 7, the State and Local Committee will consider a resolution asking Congress to call a Constitutional Convention for the purpose of proposing an amendment to impose Congressional term limits. Under Article V of the US Constitution, states may call a convention to propose Constitutional amendments without Congress if 34 states, or 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. There hasn’t been a Constitutional Convention since 1787 in Philadelphia. The proposal does not set an exact number of years for the term limits.

According to the national advocacy group US Term Limits, which is pushing for the Constitutional Convention, only Florida and Alabama have so far passed the resolutions, but the group is also targeting Maine, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Missouri, New Hampshire, Vermont, Texas, Tennessee and Utah. The term-limits movement picked up steam in the early 1990s as a way of getting rid of career politicians, and several states, including Maine, passed term limits on state legislators by referendum during that time.

However, critics of the policy say it only empowers lobbyists and entrenched staffers because lawmakers end up getting term-limited as soon as they develop institutional knowledge. Last year the Legislature defeated a separate measure to call an Article V Constitutional Convention for the purpose of passing a balanced-budget amendment. At the time, opponents 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.

Travel Vouchers for People with Disabilities

The Health and Human Services Committee may vote on Feb. 7 on a bill (LD 1481) to develop a travel voucher transportation pilot project for people with disabilities in rural areas. Testifying in support of the bill last May, Maine Developmental Disabilities Council Director Rachel Dyer wrote that many people living with disabilities in rural parts of the state don’t drive and don’t have access to transportation. She noted that while transportation is available to access medical services and through some limited public transit services, it is still in short supply.

“The lack of transportation options in many communities is a major barrier to employment and limits access to the types of civic, social and recreational opportunities that are necessary for full community engagement,” wrote Dyer. “Travel vouchers are an effective, cost-effective tool for rural communities to increase individual choice and control related to supports. MDDC encourages the Committee to support a pilot of travel vouchers as a means of increasing access to the types of activities and relationships that provide meaning to our lives and that anyone with a car generally takes for granted.”

Rick McCarthy of the Maine Transit Association noted that one of its members, Waldo CAP, has developed a travel voucher program for seniors and people with disabilities using a combination of grants and Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) funds. He said that Waldo CAP created the voucher program because its bus transportation program does not serve everyone’s needs as it’s limited to certain service hours and geographic locations. As one Waldo CAP client quoted in McCarthy’s testimony said, the travel voucher program “has improved my quality of life to give me the opportunity to access the community with dignity and independence since losing my ability to drive.”

However, then-Department of Labor Director of Policy Julie Rabinowitz said her department had several concerns about the bill because the proposal lacked details about how it would be set up.

Lead Testing

The Health and Human Services Committee may also vote on Rep. Jared Golden’s (D-Lewiston) bill to require the state’s visiting nurses to provide free home lead test kits to parents of young children living in homes built before 1978. In testimony, Golden wrote that because Maine has the oldest housing stock in the country, it also has problems with lead poisoning. He noted that at the time, 18 children at the B Street Health Center in Lewiston had high or very high lead levels in their blood.

“Lead poisoning in children can have critical and lifelong effects,” wrote Golden. “It damages brain development and lowers a child’s IQ, leading to lower lifetime earnings and increases in special education costs. It is also very age dependent. The younger the child, the more serious the impact.”

Golden noted that the state has an education program for lead poisoning, but it needs people to actually go into homes with testing kits to identify at-risk kids before they are poisoned. However, Sheryl Peavey, chief operating officer of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the CDC opposed the bill because it doesn’t believe lead dust kits have been proven to be effective. She said that the state began a year-long pilot project through its home visiting program that offers lead testing and educational outreach about lead poisoning. She said the CDC also offers free home lead dust tests through an annual targeted mailing program for between 11,000 and 13,000 families with infants.

Banning Banks from Maxmizing Overdraft Charges

For years, banks have been reordering withdrawal transactions by processing them from the largest to smallest, as opposed to the order they come in, to maximize the overdraft fees paid by customers. In a 2016 white paper published in the University of North Carolina’s Banking Institute, Tanisha M. Edwards describes it this way:

“Imagine a consumer had $100 in her checking account and made several purchases throughout the day. The consumer started the day off with a $5 cup of coffee, paid $50 for a phone bill, $40 for gas, and, with only $5 remaining in her account, $100 for groceries. For the last transaction, the consumer accepted the $34 overdraft fee for the single transaction that created a negative balance. However, if instead of processing the transactions in chronological order, the bank were to debit her account for the $100 transaction first, the consumer must accept three overdraft fees — paying the bank $105 in overdraft fees instead of $35.”

On Feb. 8, Sen. Michael Carpenter (D-Aroostook Cty.) will present a bill (LD 1753) that would prohibit banks and credit unions from posting withdrawal transactions by amount from largest to smallest or posting withdrawals in a manner that incurs “avoidable overdraft coverage fees.” The Insurance and Financial Affairs Committee will hear the proposal.

Education & Training for Low-Income Parents

Under the state’s Parents as Scholars (PaS) program, low-income families receiving cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program can get a waiver from TANF work requirements and still receive benefits if they attend college. Although the program does not pay tuition, it assists with transportation costs and child care needs. However, under TANF, only families who are earning below 85 percent of the state median income are eligible for PaS and many other low-income families are left out either because they have exhausted the 60-month TANF time limit, they earn too much or other circumstances.

On Feb. 8, the Health and Human Services Committee will hear a bill that would create another education program for low-income parents who earn below 185 percent of the poverty level ($37,297 per year for a family of three) who are ineligible for TANF. LD 1774, sponsored by House Speaker Sara Gideon (D-Freeport), would also create education, training and support service programs for people receiving food assistance that would be operated in a partnership between educational institutions, community organizations and the state.

Reining in Biomass Subsidies

Despite the Legislature’s approval of a $13.4 million taxpayer-funded bailout of the state’s ailing wood-to-electricity industry, the French-owned company Stored Solar, which owns biomass plants in West Enfield and Jonesboro, has struggled to pay loggers what they’re owed for deliveries. As the Quoddy Times reported in December, Stored Solar still owed loggers about $400,000.

Sen. Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook Cty.), a logger himself, has sponsored a bill (LD 1745) to prohibit the Public Utilities Commission from paying any more subsidies to Stored Solar. LD 1745 would require the PUC to distribute the remaining subsidies to the logging contractors who haven’t been paid yet. It would also direct a utility to enter into a contract with the biomass company that offered the next most competitive bid for the bailout money, but would not pay out subsidies until after the loggers are paid. The bill would direct the PUC to request the Attorney General’s office to investigate Stored Solar and recover from the company an amount equal to the amount of funds distributed to contractors, which would be transferred to the state’s rainy-day fund. The Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee will hold a public hearing on the bill on Feb. 8.

Making It a Crime to Send Images of Genitals

The Judiciary Committee will hear a bill (LD 1788) on Feb. 8 that would make it a crime of harassment to send images or videos of a sexual act, of sexual contact or of genitals without the consent of the person called or contacted. The measure, sponsored by House Speaker Sara Gideon (D-Freeport), would also add violations to the perpetrator if there is a protection-from-abuse order to protect a minor.