HHS Committee Hears More Welfare Bills

Although the level of extreme poverty in Maine has spiked by 50 percent since the governor began cutting welfare programs in 2011, Republicans are hoping to prevent even more low-income people from receiving public assistance to purchase food, shelter and medicine with a series of bills to be heard by the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee on Monday, April 10.

Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Androscoggin), who is running against Sen. Angus King on a platform of “welfare reform,” will introduce a measure (LD 220) that would make families who have exhausted the 60-month lifetime limit on receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits ineligible to receive emergency shelter and food from the general assistance program. In 2012, University of Maine sociologist Sandra Butler surveyed more than 1,500 low-income families who lost TANF benefits due to the 60-month cap and found that 70 percent of respondents reported that they had gone to a food bank, about a third lost utility service, and 20 percent reported being evicted from their homes, had to relocate, lived in overcrowded conditions or were forced to stay in a homeless shelter. 

Brakey will also present LD 36, which would limit the amount of time an adult without children may qualify for general assistance to a maximum of 275 days every five years. The measure will likely have a particularly negative impact on chronically homeless people and people suffering from addictions as well as refugees fleeing war-torn countries who are waiting for their work permits to process. Then Brakey will present LD 219, which would make applicants for general assistance ineligible to receive the benefits for 120 days if they don’t use resources available to them before applying to the program. The committee will also hear LD 10, sponsored by Rep. John Picciotti (R-Fairfield), which would increase the penalty for falsifying a general assistance application from a 120-day ban on receiving benefits to two years. 

Private School Savings Accounts

On April 10, the Education Committee will hear LD 1131, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Hanley (R-Pittston), which would establish education savings accounts (ESAs) for parents to pay for tuition for private schools. The measure would fund the program by redirecting 90 percent of the funding that would otherwise go to pay public schools tuition into the savings accounts. On April 12, Rep. Karen Gerrish (R-Lebanon) will present LD 1132, which would set up ESAs for children with disabilities to attend other schools. 

Education savings accounts have been promoted by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s school choice group the Foundation for Excellence in Education as “an innovative way to bring customization to K-12 education.” However, opponents of ESAs worry that the policy allows public money to be funneled to religious schools and poor-quality education providers. Four states have established ESA programs since Arizona became the first state to create the program in 2011, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

Creating a Recall Procedure for State Officials

In recent years, activists in other states have been increasingly using state recall provisions to oust public officials they don’t like. In 2013, Colorado gun-rights activists used the recall to get rid of the state senate president for passing a gun-control bill, while in Wisconsin liberal activists were unsuccessful in recalling Republican Governor Scott Walker. For years Maine liberal activists have circulated petitions pressuring lawmakers to pass a recall bill so they can launch an initiative to throw out LePage. But while supporters argue that recalls are necessary to allow voters to hold unresponsive officials accountable, opponents say the tool can be abused by wealthy special interests. 

On April 10, the public will have the chance to weigh in on a proposal (LD 1125), sponsored by Sen. Justin Chenette (D-York Cty.), which would establish a procedure to recall federal, state and local elected officials. The measure will be heard in the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee room. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia permit the recall of state officials, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Indian Casino Bill

For years, local Native American tribes have been frustrated by the fact that Maine voters have allowed two casinos to operate in Maine, but have rejected every attempt by the tribes to establish their own casinos. The Passamaquoddies, for instance, have been unsuccessfully trying to get approval for a gambling facility since 1992.

On April 10, the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will hear a bill (LD 1201), sponsored by Rep. Benjamin Collings (D-Portland), which would authorize the state Gambling Control Board to accept casino operator license applications from federally recognized Indian tribes in Maine. The proposal would allow the tribe to operate table games and up to 1,500 slot machines at multiple facilities on tribe-owned land. Collings’ bill would also exempt the tribe-owned facilities from the law that prohibits casinos from being within 100 miles of an existing casino or slot machine facility. Finally, the measure would prohibit the state from licensing any new casinos or authorizing the expansion of existing casinos until the state’s four federally recognized Indian tribes have each been licensed to operate a casino.

Mainers will have the opportunity in November to vote on a proposal by the Saipan-based investment firm Bridge Capital LLC to build a casino in York County. The firm’s vice chairman & director of business development, Shawn Scott, financed the 2004 campaign to build the Hollywood Slots Casino in Bangor, which he promptly flipped for $52 million, according to the Portland Press Herald. 

Food and Water Sovereignty

Senate Democratic Leader Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook Cty.) will present a measure (LD 725) to allow municipal governments to regulate local food systems and the transport of water for commercial purposes before the State and Local Committee on April 10. The proposal is supported by food-sovereignty activists who argue that food that is sold from the producer directly to the consumer should be exempt from state licensing requirements. Water-rights actvists are also strongly backing the bill.

“There is no food without water,” wrote the group Community Water Justice in a statement. “LD 725 will ensure that the state DOES recognize our communities’ ability to regulate our local food and water systems — and aims to protect our communities’ ability to regulate the commercial transport of water outside of our communities.”

However, the measure will likely face stiff opposition. In 2009, the Legislature considered a bill that would have allowed towns to decide whether they wanted bottled water corporations like Nestle to extract water in their towns, but the bill was defeated as opponents argued the measure was unconstitutional. 

The Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee will also consider another food-sovereignty bill next week. On April 13, Rep. Ralph Chapman (D-Brooksville) will submit a bill for a public hearing that would allow people preparing food in their own homes to sell directly to consumers or to sell homemade food at certain events without a license. 

State and Local Privatization Bills

The LePage administration has declared that one of its primary goals is to outsource as many state services to private contractors as it can. Last year, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that it was on track to release 100 to 125 requests for proposal (RFPs), compared to an average of 30 to 35 by the previous Democratic administration. However, some of the contractors the administration has employed have had a spotty track record, such as the controversial MaineCare ride broker that left thousands of low-income elderly and disabled people stranded in 2013 due to its incompetence. 

On April 10, Sen. Shenna Bellows (D-Kennebec Cty.) will present LD 1213, which would require that all privatization contractors on state projects pay employees at comparable wages to state employees and try to hire state employees who were terminated due to the privatization of services. The proposal would also allow state employees to submit a competing bid to the private contractor and would require state agencies to consider the loss of income-tax revenue as a result of awarding projects to out-of-state bidders when calculating the cost of a contract. 

The State and Local Committee will consider a measure (LD 1193) on April 10 that would set up a review process of all privatization contracts valued at over $200,000. The proposal, which is sponsored by Rep. Charlotte Warren (D-Hallowell), would give the state auditor the power to object to and invalidate a contract within 30 days of designating the bidder for failure to comply with statutory requirements. The measure would also allow the state auditor to seek a review of any privatization contract by the nonpartisan Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

Workers Compensation & Sick Leave Bills

The Labor, Commerce and Economic Development Committee (LCRED) will hear bills addressing the compensation insurance program for injured workers on April 10. LD 913, sponsored by Rep. Phyllis Ginzler (R-Bridgton), would reduce workers’ compensation insurance rates for businesses with fewer than 50 employees based on assessment of the relative risk to the insurer and the relative cost burden of the insurance on such small business employers. LCRED will also hear LD 1056, sponsored by Rep. Matthew Moonen (D-Portland), which would require insurers that provide basic property and casualty insurance to also provide workers comp coverage to domestic workers of the insured. 

The commitee will also hear another bill (LD1159) that would compel businesses with over 50 employees to provide paid sick leave to employees not covered by collective bargaining agreements. The measure would also require businesses with fewer than 50 employees to provide unpaid sick leave to their employees.

Tax Exemptions for Gold, Veterans, Baling Twine

The sales-tax-exemption bills keep coming in the Taxation Committee this session. LD 664, sponsored by Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Androscoggin Cty.), would provide a tax exemption for sales of gold and silver coins and bullion. LD 782, sponsored by Rep. Deb Sanderson (R-Chelsea), would create a sales-tax exemption for goods purchased by certain veterans’ facilities, but the bill doesn’t specify which ones. Rep. Russell Black (R-Wilton), who is a farmer, has sponsored a measure (LD 1023) that would provide a sales-tax exemption for baling twine used for hay. And Sen. Tom Saviello (R-Franklin Cty.) has submitted LD 1027, which would exempt from taxes the sales of prepared food by a civic, religious or fraternal organization at public or member-only events.

“Yes Means Yes” & Traffic Safety 

As public consciousness of sexual assaults on college campuses has grown in recent years, more and more schools have begun to encourage couples to obtain explicit consent before engaging in sexual intercourse. According to the advocacy group Affirmative Consent Project, consent is “voluntary, mutual, and can be withdrawn at any time” and there is no consent if the other person is “mentally or physically incapacitated or impaired” or if consent is gained through force, intimidation, or coercion. On April 10, Rep. Mattie Daughtry (D-Brunswick) will present a measure (LD 681) to the Education Committee that would make it mandatory for high schools to teach affirmative consent. The bill would also require colleges to make a note on a student’s transcript if the student has been convicted of sexual assault committed on the campus.

The next day, Daughtry will present LD 1130, which would require school units to provide at least one hour per year of traffic safety education to students in grades 2 through 12. The classes would provide safety instruction for pedestrians, bicyclists and motor vehicle operators.

Child Care for Low-Income People

Last year, the Maine Legislature overrode Gov. Paul Le-Page’s veto of a bill to require child care providers to undergo criminal background checks. Supporters of the bill argued that Maine had to pass a mandatory background check law in order to qualify for federal funding to provide child care for low-income families. However, Department of Health and Human Services representative Nick Adolphsen argued at the time that mandate was too costly for child care providers and would violate their right to privacy. 

 


But although the law passed over the governor’s objections, the Bangor Daily News reported last month that the LePage administration has opted not to spend at least $4 million of the federal child care funds.As the BDN reported, the number of Maine child care providers accepting state-funded vouchers dropped more than 60 percent between 2007 and 2015. And only half the providers in the state take the child care vouchers due to the low reimbursements. 

On April 10, the Health and Human Services committee will hear a pair of bills, LD 566 and LD 166, which would increase child care subsidies for recipients on public assistance. Rep. Heather Sirocki (R-Scarborough) will also introduce a measure that would remove the requirement that child care providers go through a background check.

Selling and Collecting Debt

The Insurance and Financial Affairs Committee will hear a measure aimed at reigning in unfair debt collection practices on Tuesday, April 11. LD 1199, sponsored by Rep. Heather Sanborn (D-Portland), would require entities that buy up debt to obtain a debt collector license from the state before collecting on the debt. The measure would also prevent debt buyers from obtaining a default judgment in a collection action due to the nonappearance of the consumer in court. Instead it would require debt buyers to provide “admissible evidence” in court to support their claim. Sanborn’s bill would also prohibit debt buyers from garnishing debtor’s wages to enforce a judgment obtained against the consumer in a collection action and it would make it illegal for a debt collector to collect a debt that has been “paid, discharged in bankruptcy court or for which the statute of limitations has expired.” 

A Hybrid Car Tax & Other Fees to Fund the Roads

With gas tax revenues decreasing due to more efficient cars on the road, the state has been looking at other ways to bring in revenue to fix the roads, rather than borrowing money every other year. Gov. LePage has argued that hybrid cars, which are powered by a combination of electricity and gas, are getting a “free ride on our roads” and should be taxed more to make up for the revenue that they’re not bringing in to state coffers. 

On April 11, Rep. Andrew McLean (D-Gorham), a co-chair of the Transportation Committee, will present a comprehensive bill (LD 1149) to help bring in revenue for the state’s Highway Fund. The measure would impose a $200 surcharge on the registration of hybrid motor vehicles, battery-electric motor vehicles and hydrogen-fuel-cell motor vehicles. It would increase the state gas tax from about 30 cents per gallon to 36.5 cents per gallon and would increase by $3 to $10 the fees for license examinations, temporary license plates, nondriver identification cards, issuance of duplicate registrations, titles, licenses and nondriver identification cards and transfers of registrations. Finally, it would set aside 10 percent of the sales tax revenue from transportation-related items — such as motor oil, batteries and tires — to be transferred to the Highway Fund on a monthly basis.

More Mining Bills

The Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee will take up a couple of proposed regulations on metallic mineral mining on April 11. LD 159, sponsored by Rep. Bob Duchesne (D-Hudson), would prohibit the mining of massive sulfide ore deposits on state lands. Rep. Ralph Chapman (D-Brooksville) will also present LD 244, which would prohibit mining in state park or public lands unless two-thirds of the Legislature vote to allow it. 

Landlord vs. Tenant

On Wednesday April 12, the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will hear a number of bills to address landlord/tenant laws. LD 1102, sponsored by Rep. Nathan Wadsworth (R-Hiram), would make it a class E crime of “unlawful damage by a tenant” if, at the end of the lease, the rental unit has sustained over $1,000 worth of damage over the amount of the security deposit and the tenant does not pay the landlord within 60 days’ notice of damage.

VLA will also hear LD136, sponsored by Sen. Scott Cyrway (R-Kennebec Cty.), which would expand the causes for a seven-day notice of termination of tenancy to include: violence, a threat of violence or sexual assault against other tenants, their guests, the landlord or the landlord’s employees or agents; an unauthorized occupation of the premises; or the provision of false information on the tenant’s rental application.

On the same day, Sen. Nate Libby (D-Androscoggin Cty.) will introduce LD 819, which would establish a commission to study the adequacy of housing safety laws. The commission would examine landlord and tenant relations and rights, the eviction process, bank foreclosure actions on abandoned property, and rental housing fire safety issues. It would then submit its recommendations for potential legislation to VLA next Decemeber. 

Making Election Day a Holiday

With only 58 percent of eligible voters casting ballots in this past election and 37 percent voting in 2014, some election reformers have been leading the push to make election day a national holiday so that more people would have time to make it to the polls. While Maine actually has the second highest voter turnout in the country with nearly 73 percent last November, Rep. Dillon Bates (D- Westbrook) will present LD 1141, which would make Election Day a state holiday. It’s unknown how many businesses would observe Election Day. Maine is also one of three states that celebrates Patriot’s Day (that’s “Patriots’ Day” in Massachusetts and Wisconsin) on the third Monday in April, but other than state offices, few businesses close on that day.  

Domestic Violence & Economic Abuse

On April 12, Sen. Scott Cyrway (R-Kennebec Cty.) will present a measure (LD 80) to the Judiciary Committee that would amend the laws regarding protection from abuse orders. The bill would require courts to sentence a person upon a second conviction of violating a protective order or court-approved consent agreement to a minimum of 14 days in jail and a year’s probation. A third violation would result in a definite 60-day jail sentence and two years’ probation.

The committee will also hear a measure (LD 1120), sponsored by Rep. Jessica Fay (D-Raymond), to direct the Maine Commission on Domestic and Sexual Abuse to study the effect of economic abuse, which is when an intimate partner exerts their control over the other partner’s access to a job, education and financial resources in order to force them to depend on the perpetrator. Fay’s bill would direct the commission to study enforcement of laws to prevent economic abuse and to provide relief to victims of economic abuse as well as the potential programs to provide legal remedies, including the reimbursement of attorney’s fees.

Good Samaritan Law for Reporting Drug Overdoses

On April 12, Rep. Barbara Cardone (D-Bangor) will present LD 1079, which would exempt from arrest or prosecution a person who in good faith seeks medical assistance for another person suffering a drug overdose or who is experiencing a drug overdose and is in need of medical assistance. The proposal, which will be heard by the Criminal Justice Committee, would ensure that the person who reports the overdose may not be arrested for drug possession if the grounds for arrest are obtained as a result of the person seeking medical assistance.

Recovery advocates and the ACLU supported a similar bill last session, but Gov. LePage vetoed it, arguing that the best way to get people off of drugs is to throw them in jail. Maine is the only state in New England, and one of only two on the East Coast, that does not offer some sort of immunity for people who report a drug overdose, according to the Portland Press Herald. 

Republicans Attack Conservation Land Tax Status

In 2014, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that land conservation serves a charitable purpose and can therefore be exempt from property taxes in its decision of Francis Small Heritage Trust, Inc. v. Town of Limington. The case stemmed from Limington’s decision to deny the land trust’s request for property tax exemptions, but the court eventually determined that the land met the same standards as a public park in that it preserved open space, protected plants and wildlife and permitted multiple forms of public access and recreation. 

On April 12, Rep. Joel Stetkis (R-Cannan) will attempt to reverse the court decision with LD 727, which would specify that holding land primarily for conservation or public access purposes is “not a benevolent or charitable purpose,” which would allow municipalities to tax the land parcels. Gov. LePage has supported similar measures in the past and described land conservation as a kind of class war by the rich against the poor. 

On the same day, the Taxation Committee will hear LD 1076, sponsored by Rep. Sheldon Hanington (R-Lincoln), which would require the state to reimburse towns for any property tax revenue lost through the purchase of conservation land with Land for Maine’s Future funds. 

Subjecting Union Negotiations to Open Meetings Laws

Over in the LCRED Committee on April 12, Rep. Nathan Wadsworth (R-Hiram) will present a measure (LD 772) that would make negotiations between public employers and a public-sector employee union subject to Freedom of Access requests. Under the proposal, all negotiations must be open to the public. According to the anti-labor Freedom Foundation, 11 states allow some form of public access to the collective bargaining process. Twelve states allow the government to close the process, while Maine is one of three states that allow the sessions to be closed at the request of a single party. Eight states have a closed collective-bargaining process. 

On the same day, Assistant House Democratic Leader Jared Golden (D-Lewiston) will present a bill (LD 1004) that would increase the fine on employers for violating state wage and benefits laws to $500 for the first violation and $2,500 for each subsequent violation. 

Another Anti-Cell-Phone-While-Driving Bill

Over the past several years, the Legislature has defeated a number of bills that would prohibit the use of a cell phone while driving. Nevertheless, Sen. Bill Diamond (D-Cumberland Cty.) isn’t giving up. On Thursday, April 13, Diamond will present LD 1089, which would prohibit drivers from using cell phones or other mobile handheld devices unless the device allows for hands-free operation. The penalty for violating the proposed law would be $75 for the first offense and $150 for the second offense. 

Pink Veteran’s Plate for Female Veterans?

Maine currently has 24 different vanity plates drivers can choose from, with four especially for veterans, including the standard veteran plate as well as ones for disabled veterans and Purple Heart recipients. On April 13, Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Androscoggin Cty.) will introduce LD 1115, which would create a special pink license plate for women veterans.

Bringing Guns to School

A few years ago, the Legislature passed a law that prohibits employers from preventing employees from keeping guns in their cars at work as long as the cars are locked. On April 13, Senate Republican Leader Garrett Mason (R-Androscoggin Cty.) will submit a bill to the Education Committee to allow gun owners to have a firearm in their cars on school property as long as they’re only dropping off or picking up a student.

Repealing Professional Licensing

Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Androscoggin Cty.) plans to go before the LCRED Committee on April 13 to try to get rid of all licensing, permit, certification or other occupational authorization requirements for 24 occupations in the state. LD 1036 would direct the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation to propose legislation to remove licensing requirements for wood measurers, electrical helpers, dietetic technicians, arborists, funeral attendants, underground oil storage tank inspectors, cathodic protection testers, sign language interpreters, animal control officers, guides, casino employees of slot machine facility or casino facility, weighers, taxidermists, animal breeders, teacher assistants, debt collectors, auctioneers, fire alarm installers, aestheticians, veterinary technologists, security guards, massage therapists, mobile home installers, and packers.