(Cartoon by Greg Kearney)
(Cartoon by Greg Kearney)
Sen. Dill Switches Vote to Save Vaccine Bill

The Maine Senate reversed course last week and voted 18-17 to eliminate both non-medical exemptions for man-datory childhood vaccination. Previously, the Senate voted 18-17 to preserve the religious exemption in LD 798, which put the fate of the bill in jeopardy, as the Maine House voted to eliminate both the philosophical and religious exemptions. However, Sen. Jim Dill (D-Penobscot County) switched his vote to support the House version of the bill and said he hoped Gov. Janet Mills would convene a task force to consider drafting legislation to broaden the medical exemption for mandatory vaccines for children.

“I voted the way I did the first vote to get people to take notice as we go forward,” said Dill. “I believe that medical exemptions need to be broadened, not necessarily to actually exempt, but perhaps to space scheduled vaccinations based on reactions and not necessarily on a doctor.”

All three of the midcoast senators — Sens. Dana Dow (R-Lincoln County), Dave Miramant (D-Knox County) and Erin Herbig (D-Waldo County) — voted against the bill.

Midcoast Delegation Split on National Popular Vote Bill

The Maine Senate voted 19-16 last week to support LD 816, which would bypass the Electoral College by requiring Maine to pledge its electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the popular vote. If passed, Maine would join 14 states and the District of Columbia in the National Popular Vote compact, comprising 172 electoral votes. The legislation would trigger member states to cast their votes to the popular-vote winner only once states totaling at least 270 electoral votes have joined the compact. Sen. Dave Miramant (D-Knox County) voted for the proposal while Sens. Dana Dow (R-Lincoln County) and Erin Herbig (Waldo County) voted against it.

“We’re not in the 1700s anymore. Sometimes we change the laws because we live in a modern century. This one needs to be changed,” said Miramant in support of the bill. “Right now people think we have one person one vote and we do, except for the presidential election. One person, one vote — it should be that way for every election.”

Supporters of the bill argue that the compact is a much easier way to get rid of the Electoral College than an amendment to the Constitution, which would have to be first passed by Congress with a two-thirds majority and then ratified by the states. The momentum for the National Popular Vote compact has grown following the elections of two presidents, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, who both won the Electoral College, but lost the popular vote.

Last week’s vote infuriated conservatives, who say it’ll give more power to states with larger populations.

“Our system was established so small states like Maine aren’t dominated by big states like New York,” said former senator Eric Brakey of the conservative Free Maine Campaign. “And this really gets to a fundamental question: What is America? Is America one big city to be centrally planned from Washington, D.C.? Or are we a collection of societies, composed of different peoples with varied interests, that all need to be represented at the table?”

Former Gov. LePage was much more direct in his criticism of the National Popular Vote earlier this year when he explained it in racial terms.

“What would happen if they do what they say they’re gonna do, white people will not have anything to say,” he told a radio station in February. “It’s only going to be the minorities who would elect.”

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LD 816 — Nat’l Popular Vote, midcoast legislators
Senate (19 Yeas, 16 Nays):
Dana Dow (R-Lincoln Cty) N
Erin Herbig (D-Belfast) N
Dave Miramant (D-Knox Cty) Y
U= unenrolled; X = absent; E = excused

Houses Fail to Garner Supermajority for State ERA

Republican lawmakers once again blocked a proposed constitutional amendment to ban sex discrimination from receiving the two-thirds vote necessary for passage. If passed with a supermajority, LD 433 would be sent to voters with the question: “Do you favor amending the Constitution of Maine to prohibit the denial or abridgment by the State or any political subdivision of the State of equal rights based on the sex of an individual?” The measure is currently tabled in the Senate and faces further votes in the House. Gov. Mills is a strong supporter of the state Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and testified in support of the bill in person back in March.

“While our state and our nation unquestionably have made great progress in effectuating equal rights for women and men, that change has been piecemeal, intermittent and impermanent,” said Mills. “While I will not have the privilege of signing the bill, it being a constitutional resolve, I cannot wait to accompany the five adult women whom I proudly call my daughters, and my two little granddaughters, to the polls to cast my vote so that they, and their uncles, cousins and friends, will be fully protected in our most sacred document and have the equal opportunity under the law that we have come to expect and demand.”

In 1974, Maine became the 31st state to ratify the federal ERA. But by the time the deadline for ratification came in 1982, the amendment had fallen three states short of the 38 states needed for ratification due to strong opposition from conservative women led by activist Phyllis Schlafly.

A year after the ERA’s failure, the Maine Legislature unanimously passed the state version of the ERA, but voters overwhelmingly rejected the amendment, 63 to 37 percent, after LL Bean heiress Linda Bean financed a campaign to spread the message that it would force the state to recognize same-sex marriage and to pay for abortions for low-income women, a policy that the Legislature has just passed. Echoing similar sentiments last week, Republican women legislators like Reps. MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox) and Amy Arata (R-New Gloucester) led the opposition against the proposal.

“An equal rights amendment is completely obsolete and unnecessary. Women hold positions of power nationwide, including that of CEO, judge, presidential candidates, senator, representative and governor of Maine,” said Arata in floor remarks. “More females than males graduate from college and achieve academic honors. Women live longer than men. The fact that I stand here today as an elected representative is an example of female equality. We are not so fragile that we need a law to tell us that we are equal.”

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LD 433 — Equal Rights, midcoast legislators
House (87 Yeas, 54 Nays)
Anne Beebe-Center (D-Rockland) Y
Scott Cuddy (D-Winterport) Y
Michael Devin (D-Newcastle) E
Jan Dodge (D-Belfast) Y
Vicki Doudera (D-Camden) Y
Jeff Evangelos (I-Friendship) Y
Jeffrey Hanley (R-Pittston) N
MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox) N
Ann Matlack (D-St. George) Y
Chloe Maxmin (D-Nobleboro) Y
Genevieve McDonald (D-Stonington) Y
Bill Pluecker (I-Warren) Y
Holly Stover (D-Boothbay) Y
Stanley Paige Zeigler (D-Montville) Y
U= unenrolled; X = absent; E = excused

House Falls Short of Votes to Allow Expansion of RCV

The Maine House last week also failed to garner the two-thirds votes necessary to pass LD 1477, which would propose a constitutional amendment to allow the Legislature or voters by citizen referendum to elect governors and state legislators using the ranked-choice voting system. The Maine Supreme Court has advised that RCV is likely not constitutional for state-level elections as currently the Maine Constitution requires that those offices be elected by a plurality, not a majority.

“The three general elections for Governor, State Senate, and State House need not be exceptions in which the Legislature stubbornly insists that citizens have less voice and less choice,” wrote Kyle Bailey of the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting in testimony.

However, Rep. Sherman Hutchins (D-Penobscot) expressed a common Republican view that the system, which allows voters to rank their choices in order of preference, is too confusing for voters to figure out.

“I for one have had quite a few people say that they really don’t understand it very well,” said Hutchins, who voted against the bill. “I know I don’t understand it very well.”

Legislature Votes to Cap Enrollment in Online Charter Schools

The Maine House voted 87-53 and the Maine Senate voted 19-15 to cap the number of students enrolled in for-profit, online charter schools. Currently, there are two so-called “virtual” schools in Maine, Connections Academy and Maine Virtual Academy, which enroll about 820 students in grades 7 through 12. The original version of LD 513 would have capped the enrollment at current levels, but the Legislature’s Education Committee reached a compromise to limit the number of students who can attend the online charter schools to 1,000 in order to accommodate students currently on waiting lists for the two schools.

Unlike brick-and-mortar schools, virtual schools allow students to take online courses from their home computers and communicate with teachers via email, telephone and internet chat. Parents act as “learning coaches” to oversee students.

Testifying in support of the measure, John Kosinski of the Maine Education Association said that because human interaction is limited in virtual education, teachers miss out on important cues and body language that allow them to discern if students are actually learning the content. He also pointed to Maine Charter School Commission evaluations showing that both of Maine’s virtual schools failed to meet student attendance standards.

But Rep. Scott Strom (R-Pittsfield) said that his son flourished while attending Maine Virtual Academy and was well-prepared to attend high school.

“There’s a reason why these schools have waiting lists,” said Strom. “The students like them. The parents like them, and I think we should support that and not put a cap on these schools. Let the market determine whether they’re doing a good job.”

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LD 513 — Online Schools, midcoast legislators
House (87 Yeas, 53 Nays)
Anne Beebe-Center (D-Rockland) X
Scott Cuddy (D-Winterport) Y
Michael Devin (D-Newcastle) E
Jan Dodge (D-Belfast) Y
Vicki Doudera (D-Camden) Y
Jeff Evangelos (I-Friendship) Y
Jeffrey Hanley (R-Pittston) N
MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox) N
Ann Matlack (D-St. George) Y
Chloe Maxmin (D-Nobleboro) Y
Genevieve McDonald (D-Stonington) Y
Bill Pluecker (I-Warren) N
Holly Stover (D-Boothbay) Y
Stanley Paige Zeigler (D-Montville) Y
Senate (19 Yeas, 15 Nays):
Dana Dow (R-Lincoln Cty) N
Erin Herbig (D-Belfast) Y
Dave Miramant (D-Knox Cty) N
U= unenrolled; X = absent; E = excused

House Overwhelmingly Votes Against Requiring Police in Schools

The Maine House voted 126-26 last week to reject a measure (LD 1182) that would have required schools to submit to at least two unannounced visits per week from members of law enforcement. Rep. Jeff Hanley (R-Pittston) was the only member of the midcoast delegation in attendance to vote for the bill. Rep. Sherman Hutchins (R-Penobscot), the bill’s sponsor, said the goal of the bill was to add a “level of protection” for schools and “build a personal relationship with the students and faculty.”

“Providing a safe learning environment for our students is one of the most important things we do as a legislature,” Hutchins said in testimony. “I truly believe that this idea would be a step in the right direction to ensuring safe schools while building a better relationship between law enforcement and people in the community.”

But Tina Nadeau, executive director of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, argued that the presence of police in schools is directly correlated with feeding the school-to-prison pipeline.

“Law enforcement presence in schools can have unintended consequences for students, including higher rates of suspensions, expulsions, and arrests that funnel children into the juvenile justice system,” she wrote. “The threat of Big Brother looms large in this proposed legislation.”

Senate Endorses Bill Requiring that CDC Directors Be Qualified for the Job

After years of hiring public health officials with questionable credentials, the Maine Senate has unanimously endorsed a bill (LD 1277) that would require the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to have a certain standard of credentials.

“The fundamental role of the director of the CDC is to protect public health,” said Sen. Sanborn. “It should go without saying that the person in that role should have the necessary credentials. I’m grateful to my colleagues for supporting this commonsense measure.”

LD 1277 would require the Maine CDC director to have or be eligible for licensure as a physician or advanced practice registered nurse or have a degree in public health from an accredited school of public health. It would also require the director to have significant experience in administration of public health, human services, or both.

For several years under the LePage administration, directors with questionable credentials were appointed to head the CDC. Former CDC Director Sheila Pinette, a self-employed physician who resigned following a scandal involving employee harassment and document shredding that eventually led to a $165,000 legal settlement with two former employees, came under criticism for her lack of public health experience when LePage appointed her. She was succeeded by Ken Albert, an attorney and former nurse, and then Sheryl Peavey, a marketing consultant.

Gov. Mills has been gradually trying to rebuild the CDC’s tattered infrastructure by hiring more employees after LePage eliminated about a quarter of the agency’s workforce, including public health nurses, epidemiologists, laboratory positions and chronic disease specialists, according to the Portland Press Herald.