Legislature passes bill to keep open veterans’ homes, Senate tables bill to double inspection fee

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A bill to keep veterans’ homes in Machias and Caribou open was passed by the Senate and signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills on March 31.

The bill directs the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to make supplemental payments to Maine Veterans’ Homes in fiscal years 2021-2022 and 2022-2023. The money is conditioned on the organization keeping open veterans homes in Caribou and Machias.

Other provisions within the bill include reporting requirements for Maine Veterans’ Homes. LD 2001 requires the organization to report efforts to seek funding and information related to proposals to close existing veterans’ homes or open new ones to the governor’s office and to the legislature’s Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs. 

It also creates requirements for the Maine Veterans’ Homes board of trustees to follow when considering closing homes and orders the creation of a stakeholder group for the purpose of developing a plan for the continued operation of the Machias and Caribou homes.

Following a unanimous 33 to 0 vote in the Senate to enact the bill, which the House of Representatives voted to enact two days earlier, Mills quickly signed the bill into law.

“I am proud to sign this bill into law. Our promise to Maine veterans is that we will stand by them, just as they stood by us in their service to our state and our nation. The veterans who live in the Caribou and Machias homes, along with their families and the hardworking, compassionate staff, all deserve for these facilities to stay open,” said Mills via a press release.

A day before the Senate acted on the bill, the legislature’s Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs voted to exempt the bill from the appropriations table so it could go into effect as soon as it was signed. The bill, according to Sen. Cathy Breen (D-Cumberland) is funded through the pending supplemental budget.

During its March 31 session, the Senate also tabled LD 2032, which would double the fee for noncommercial motor vehicle inspections, raising it from $12.50 to $25. The House voted two days earlier to enact the bill. Mills has said she will veto the bill, which did not receive a public hearing, if it is enacted.

The Senate also voted to enact LD 1744, which raises the registration fee on commercial pet food from $80 to $100 per product and deposits 60% of money raised in the Animal Welfare Fund and 40% in the General Fund.

The legislature also killed LD 2014, a bill that would have allowed Sunday hunting. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives voted to accept the majority ought not to pass report from the Committee on Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

The House voted to enact a bill that would restore funding for the Tobacco Prevention and Control Program to previous levels, an emergency bill providing one-time funding for grants to be allocated to fisherman affected by the lobster fishery closure, and a bill that would allow municipalities without home rule authority to use ranked-choice voting in local elections. All three bills will need to be passed by the Senate, which is scheduled to meet again on April 5, in order to be enacted.

The House also voted to enact an emergency resolve intended to increase government oversight of the child welfare system. LD 1853 requires the child welfare advisory panel and the child death and serious injury review panel, as well as the DHHS, to submit quarterly reports to the legislative committee with subject matter jurisdiction over health and human services.

Members of the House also debated several pieces of legislation, including a bill that sought to create affordable agricultural homesteads by removing income requirements from residential construction and preventing municipalities from setting minimum lot sizes for agricultural land to more than double the minimum lot size for residential land. 

The majority report from the Committee on Labor and Housing (LBHS) recommended LD 1884 should not pass. After a debate that saw Rep. Bruce Bickford (R-Auburn) rise three times to speak in favor of passage of the bill, the House voted to accept the ought not to pass report from the LBHS committee.

During the House’s March 31 session, Bickford also rose to speak in opposition to several other pieces of legislation.

Bickford objected to a motion to pass to be enacted LD 1704, a bill that would allocate 50% of revenue collected from the estate tax to the Housing Opportunities for Maine Fund to be used for the construction of affordable housing.

“The problem with dedicated funding is that the legislature and the next chief executive, whoever he or she may be, can raid those funds. Those funds can be used for anything they so chose because we cannot bind them,” said Bickford.

The House voted 73 to 54 to enact the bill, which will now be sent to the Senate.

Bickford also spoke in opposition to LD 1283, a bill that clarifies that the sales tax exemption for sales to nonprofit housing development organizations applies only to nonprofit organizations building projects for people with income less than 120% the median income in the area, adjusted for family size. Bickford said the bill “picks winners and losers” and also argued for-profit organizations should be treated the same as nonprofit organizations.

The House voted 72 to 55 to enact the bill. It will now be sent to the Senate.

The House also voted to recall LD 1758 from the governor’s desk. The bill, which the Senate passed to be enacted on March 29, stipulates that DHHS cannot require licensed mental health facilities or substance use disorder treatment facilities to obtain written informed consent from a client during a public health emergency at either the state or federal level. Instead, the bill allows facilities to obtain either verbal, electronic, or written consent.

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