Ranked Choice Voting Will Be in Place for Primaries

The Maine Secretary of State’s office has announced that  it will implement ranked choice voting for the June 12 primary elections. The office confirmed that it received  66,687 valid signatures, enough to put a measure on the June ballot that will ask voters whether they want to veto a law passed by the Legislature in October that would trigger a repeal of the voter-mandated ranked choice voting law. Because there are enough signatures to put the veto on the June ballot, the ranked choice voting law is now still in effect for U.S. Senator, U.S. Representative, Governor, State Senator and State Representative. 

“There’s just no stopping the Maine people,” said Committee for Ranked Choice Voting campaign manager Kyle Bailey. “During the coldest months of the year, the Maine people collected at least 66,687 valid signatures in 88 days to restore Ranked Choice Voting and insist on more voice and more choice in our democracy.”

In 2016, Mainers voted 388,273 to 356,621 to create an RCV system, which allows voters to rank candidates by numbers in order of preference — 1, 2 and 3. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round of tabulation, the last-place candidates are defeated and the votes that went to them are distributed to the second-choice candidates. The candidate with the most votes in the final round of tabulation wins. Last May, Maine’s Supreme Court issued an advisory opinion that the new election system is unconstitutional for state-level general elections (governor and state legislative seats) because the Maine Constitution specifically allows those candidates to be elected with a plurality, rather than a majority as the new law requires.  

In October, the Legislature voted to delay implementing the RCV law and automatically repeal it in 2021 if the state doesn’t pass an amendment to put the law into Constitutional compliance. If the people’s veto is successful, it would implement ranked choice voting for primary elections and federal elections, but not for general elections for state-level offices. The Secretary of State’s office announced that it is now preparing an implementation plan to outline the steps it needs to conduct the June 12 primary using the new system. 

Banning the PUC from Imposing New Utility Fees 

Without any debate, two-thirds of the Maine House managed to pass a bill (LD 1444) Tuesday that would overturn  a recent Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) decision to charge electric customers for the installation of new meters on the homes of solar customers. The measure would also increase the number customers who can participate in a community solar farm from 9 to 50 participants. The Senate also voted 28-5 to support the bill. 

“The bottom line is failure to adopt this bill would force Maine people and businesses who install solar to pay monopoly utilities new fees on the power they generate and consume onsite,” said Dylan Voorhees of the Natural Resources Council of Maine in a statement. “The cost of this complex, unprecedented new scheme will be borne by all ratepayers, unless the House and Senate work together to override the governor’s inevitable veto. We must prevent Maine’s anti-solar regulatory environment from getting worse. Municipalities across the state are eager to build larger, cost-effective solar farms that lower energy bills, but many are stymied by an outdated, arbitrary 10-meter limit.”

The vote comes on the heels of last week’s controversial decision by the PUC to reduce compensation to solar users for the power they produce. A provision in the new rules requires the installation of a second meter in the homes of solar users to measure gross electricity output in order to charge them additional transmission and distribution fees, even if the power is consumed on-site and never goes out to the grid. Solar technology companies have argued that the rules are overly complex and costly and will likely prohibit innovative inverter technology from being sold in the state. Central Maine Power estimated that the new meters would cost $660 each, although the Pittsfield-based solar installer Insource Renewables predicts it could cost up to $1,500 for each meter. 

“Getting rid of the gross metering provision alleviates most of the implementation issues that we have been trying to work out over the past eight months,” said Insource Renewables founder Vaughan Woodruff. 

However, a number of Republicans expressed concerns that the bill would hamstring the PUC from reducing solar incentives. “I did not support LD 1444 because it will incentivize more energy to be produced at a higher rate than market price thus driving up the costs for all rate payers,” wrote Rep. Paula Sutton (R-Warren) in an email. The measure will now go to the governor’s desk. 

Committee Votes for $45 Million Tax Break to BIW

The Legislature’s Taxation Committee voted 9-2 Tuesday to deliver a controversial $45 million tax break to Bath Iron Works. LD 1781 would provide the company with $3 million in tax incentives per year over the next 15 years on the condition that it keeps current employment levels and invests at least $200 million in the shipyard. The amended bill marks a decrease of $15 million from the original version, which would have renewed the 20-year, $60 million Shipbuilding Tax Credit enacted in 1997. The measure will now go to the House and Senate for a vote.

Speaking in favor of the bill, Democrat Rep. Stephen Stanley, a retired millworker from Medway, expressed worry that BIW could end up like the shuttered Great Northern Mill in Millinocket. 

“To me, this is an investment, an investment for the workers of the state of Maine because I’ll tell you, without the workers you have nothing. Without investment, we have nothing,” said Stanley. “So I will be supporting this because I think it’s something that we as a state should be doing more of.”

BIW has argued that the company needs the tax breaks to stay competive with the heavily subsidized Ingalls Shipyard in  Pascagoula, Mississippi. In testimony it noted that General Dynamics has invested $500 million in BIW since 1996 and that it has a payroll of $350 million a year. A spokesman for Local S6 of the machinists’ union at BIW said its members were split on LD 1781 so it did not take a position on the measure.

 Opponents of LD 1781 question whether General Dynamics even needs the subsidies at all. BIW’s parent company General Dynamics is the fifth largest defense contractor in the world with $31.3 billion in revenues in 2016. The Providence Journal reported last year that the company has spent $10.3 billion on stock buybacks to enrich its corporate executives since 2013. General Dynamics has been by far the largest recipient of corporate subsidies in Maine, collecting nearly $203 million from the state and from the city of Bath since 1995, according to the nonprofit Good Jobs First. BIW’s workforce has declined from 7,500 in 1997 to about 5,600 workers today. 

Voting against the bill, Sen. Justin Chenette (D-York Cty.) said he was concerned that General Dynamics was providing adequate financial information to the committee.

“I am not very comfortable providing a taxpayer handout to a company that can afford it,” said Chenette. “They have not demonstrated a financial need and part of it is the lack of transparency around their financials.”

Rep. Ryan Tipping (D-Orono), the Taxation Committee co-chairman, lamented that states are in a “race to the bottom” as they rush to compete with each other to provide the most generous tax breaks to businesses. But he said the amended bill excludes BIW from taking advantage of other state subsidy programs, makes the tax credit non-refundable and provides stronger accountability measures to ensure the company maintains employment levels.

“I’ll be supporting the bill, but I have serious reservations,” said Tipping. “If anybody has any solution to getting fully out of the race-to-the-bottom approach that we find ourselves in again and again, I’m all ears.”

Meanwhile, longtime peace activist Bruce Gagnon of Bath has been on a hunger strike since Feb. 12 to protest LD 1781 and intends to continue fasting until it either passes or is defeated. “What keeps blowing my mind is to hear politicians say that this is a bad bill, but I’ve got to vote for it,” said Gagnon. “And I can’t help but wonder why do you even bother going to Augusta and sitting in that chair and making a vote when you can’t vote the way your conscience tells you?”

Anti-Immigrant Bill Returns

 White nationalist Rep. Larry Lockman (R-Amherst) will once again present a bill (LD 1833) on behalf of Gov. Paul LePage to compel towns and cities to require their local police to enforce immigration laws in the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee on March 13, at 1 p.m. The proposal follows President Donald Trump’s executive order that allows the federal Department of Homeland Security to deputize local law enforcement officials as immigration enforcement agents. While no town in Maine has a specific policy against cooperating with immigration authorities, Lockman’s bill would require towns to share immigration status information of detained individuals with federal immigration officials and prohibit towns from enacting ordinances that restrict enforcement of federal immigration law. 

“Maine needs to shut off the magnet that draws illegal aliens and terrorists to seek cover here,” Lockman said in a statement. “In the state’s premier harboring haven — Portland — career criminal aliens have murdered Maine people because the city has handcuffed and muzzled its own police department. These killers should have been deported long before they had a chance to kill anyone. The blood of those victims is on the hands of the Portland politicians who enable the harboring of criminal aliens.”

Numerous studies, done by groups ranging from the National Bureau of Economic Research to the conservative Cato Institute, have concluded that immigrants actually commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans.

The ACLU of Maine lobbied hard last session to defeat a similar measure as it argued that it would lead to police racial-profiling people perceived to be “foreign” and would undermine the trust between the immigrant community and police, making non-citizens less likely to report crimes or provide evidence. Furthermore, opponents say that local police aren’t trained to interpret complicated immigration laws. 

President Donald Trump’s executive order requires that non-citizens who commit even minor offenses be deported, which has affected a number of immigrants in Maine. Most recently, Haitian immigrant Lexius Saint Martin, who arrived legally in the US when he was 11 years old, was deported back to Haiti for a 10-year-old drug conviction for which he already had served time in jail. He left behind his pregnant wife Mindy and his two sons  Donovan, 5, and Marcus, 2, according to the Waterville Sentinel. 

State Revenues Exceed Forecasts

Revenues into the state’s General Fund will exceed original estimates by $128.5 million in the current budget cycle, which ends in July 2019, according to the state Revenue Forecasting Committee’s March report. The committee revised its estimates upward by $38.9 million for fiscal year ’18 and $89.6 million for FY19. The committee credited the good news to an improving economy and the federal income tax cuts passed by Congress in December. 

RFC reported that the consumer price index was slightly down while total personal income was up slightly in 2017. The committee reported in-migration into Maine has been stronger than previously predicted but that it is still concerned about the demographic situation in the state and how it will impact Maine’s workforce in the future. In a statement, state Republicans took credit for the revenue outlook.

“After years of budget deficits under Democrat leadership, it is encouraging to now see surpluses that are the direct result of reforms made by Republicans in the Maine Legislature,” said Senate President Mike Thibodeau (R-Waldo Cty.). “I am certain that we would not have seen these impressive revenue figures had we not repealed the job-killing surtax on Maine’s small businesses during the previous session. Nevertheless, far-left groups, funded by out-of-state interests, continue their efforts to write tax policy in Maine via referendum. We need to remain vigilant against these misguided efforts so we can continue to grow Maine’s economy and bring our young people back home.”

The liberal-leaning Maine Center for Economic Policy noted that while the forecast exceeds previous forecasts, with the exception of FY19, the annual increases represent only 1 to 2 percent of General Fund revenues. It added that the annual growth in the General Fund revenue is “projected to remain relatively tepid.” MECEP Executive Director Garrett Martin said that the improved revenue projections means there is money to make badly needed investments in the state rather than “squandering it” on more tax cuts and more austerity. 

“Gov. Paul LePage is expected to propose state-level adoption of several parts of the Trump Tax Plan when he unveils his tax conformity legislation on Thursday [March 8),” said Martin. “This will likely include massive new tax breaks for profitable corporations and the wealthiest handful of Maine families. While tax breaks for corporations and wealthy estates are nice for shareholders and heirs to large fortunes, they divert precious public resources away from the things that help Maine’s economy and communities — things like access to health care, strong schools, robust public infrastructure and public services that help families thrive. The revenue identified in today’s forecast should be appropriated for the benefit of all Mainers, not squandered on giveaways for a few special interests.”

Legislature Opposes Offshore Drilling

Last week, the Maine Legislature voted unanimously to pass a resolution requesting that President Trump exclude Maine from potential offshore oil and gas drilling. Rep. Mick Devin (D-Newcastle) said in a statement that he submitted the resolution in response to the Trump administration’s decision to lift a moratorium on offshore drilling and exploration in the Atlantic and Arctic Outer Continental Shelf regions last year. 

 “Over 45,000 jobs are associated with our coastal economy, which includes over 5,000 commercial fishermen,” said Devin. “The risks are too high to place that many jobs in jeopardy. Maine must protect one of the world’s premier natural resources — the Gulf of Maine. Nobody comes to our coast to eat a chicken sandwich. We need to close the door on offshore drilling immediately, and I hope the president will agree.”

Members of Maine’s Congressional delegation have all expressed opposition to offshore drilling. Both Reps. Bruce Poliquin and Chellie Pingree have co-sponsored a bill to prohibit drilling off the coast of New England. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King sent a letter in January to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke stating that “the potential harm posed by oil and gas exploration and development off Maine’s shores far outweighs any potential benefit.”