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Lawmakers rush to finish work with one week left in second session

With one week left in the legislative session and work on the supplemental budget still unfinished, both the Senate and the House of Representatives are scheduled to meet Monday through Friday this week.

Monday, April 11

During the first of five sessions this week, the House of Representatives finally killed a bill that would have doubled the state’s motor vehicle inspection fee, from $12.50 to $25. Following a Senate vote to indefinitely postpone the bill on April 7, the House voted in concurrence Monday, officially killing LD 2032.

The Senate passed several emergency measures, including a bill that makes supplemental appropriations and allocations for the Highway Fund and the state government for fiscal years 2022 and 2023, along with a bill that allows outdoor stadiums and pool halls to sell spirits. Both will be sent to Gov. Janet Mills’ desk where they will be immediately enacted if they receive her signature.

The Senate placed on the special appropriations table a bill to re-establish the commission to study the availability of housing in the state. LD 1240 recreates the Commission to Increase Housing Opportunities in Maine by Studying Zoning and Land Use Regulations, which submitted a report to the current legislature at the beginning of the second session. 

The bill creates the Commission to Increase Housing Opportunities in Maine by Studying Land Use Regulations and Short-Term Rentals, and directs it to review data on low-income and middle-income housing shortages. The commission is required to submit a report to the Committee on Labor and Housing by November 2, 2022. The bill was placed on the special study table pending final passage in the Senate on April 12.

The legislature has yet to take up LD 2003, a bill sponsored by Speaker of the House Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford) incorporating recommendations from the previous housing commission. 

By a vote of 75 to 52, the House voted to advance LD 1523, a bill that would create the Trust for a Healthy Maine to receive funds the state receives from the tobacco Master Settlement Agreement.

Before the chamber’s vote to pass to engross the bill, Rep. Kathy Javner (R-Chester) spoke in opposition to it, citing issues she believes exist between it and the state constitution.

Rep. Patricia Hymanson (D-York) also spoke in opposition to the bill, saying it “takes away funds for the legislative branch and gives it to the executive branch.”

Several members spoke in favor of the bill. Rep. Victoria Morales (D-South Portland) said the bill is supported by the state’s “entire public health community” and compared the function of the trust that the bill would create to the Efficiency Maine Trust.

“This fund must be protected and it must be used to prevent disease, as it was intended,” said Morales. 

Rep. Beth O’Connor (R-Berwick), who said she’s seen the Fund for a Healthy Maine be raided too many times during her time in the legislature, also spoke in favor of the bill.

“Frankly, it should stop being a slush fund,” O’Connor said.

Tuesday, April 12

LD 1523 continued to advance through the legislature on April 12, with the Senate voting 22 to 11 in favor of the bill.

Prior to the vote, Sen. Trey Stewart (R-Aroostook) made a motion to recommit the bill to committee, citing constitutional concerns. The motion failed by a vote of 13 to 20. 

“We still have this lingering problem, which is that one legislature cannot bind a future legislature to whatever its endeavors are. Really the only way to implement a substantive change in that regard is to enshrine something into the constitution that would require a more robust process in order to make any changes to whatever direction we decide to go in,” said Stewart.

Stewart also said he wanted to offer an amendment to the bill from the floor, but was unaware such a motion had to come from the committee to which the bill was referred. Instead, Stewart made a motion to refer the bill back to committee. 

Both the House and the Senate still need to vote to enact LD 1523 before it goes to the governor’s desk for signature.

The Senate also placed LD 1579 on the special appropriations table, pending final passage. The bill, which sets goals for 100% vehicles purchased and leased by the state and municipalities to be hybrid electric and zero-emission by 2035, was passed to be enacted by the House on April 11 following much debate. 

A number of Republicans, including Reps. Nathan Wadsworth (R-Hiram), Steven Foster (R-Dexter), Sherm Hutchins (R-Penobscot), Mark Blier (R-Buxton) and Laurel Libby (R-Auburn), spoke in opposition to the bill.

“We have about 20 vehicles that would have to be replaced under this bill. We’re a conservative community where we take old police cruisers and pass them down. We’d have to replace all these vehicles. We’re looking at a $1.4 million price tag to our community. I heard there’s no fiscal note,” said Foster, who also called the bill an unfunded state mandate on municipalities.

Rep. Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham) spoke in favor of the bill and noted that language in the bill applicable to municipal purchasing of vehicles directs them to purchase zero emission vehicles to “the extent practicable.” Berry also said moving toward electrification of state vehicle fleets will save the state economy money and may save Maine’s environment for future generations. 

LD 1673, a bill that would designate certain Maine communities as “service center communities” and ensure at least 10% of available housing in those communities is affordable, was placed on the Senate’s special appropriations table pending final passage. It was passed to be enacted by the House on April 11.

Both chambers on April 12 also advanced LD 1772, a bill that would amend the portion of the Freedom of Access Act that covers remote meetings. The bill would remove the expectation that a remote meeting policy adopted by a public body include that members be physically present. The bill would allow a public body to limit public attendance at meetings to solely remote participation if there is an emergency or urgent situation.

The House voted 80 to 55 to engross the bill. The bill was passed to be engrossed under the hammer in the Senate. Both chambers will have to vote to enact the bill for it to head to Gov. Janet Mills’ desk for signature. 

LD 1129, which the legislature recalled from the governor’s desk last week, was passed to be engrossed again by both the House and Senate. Both chambers voted to adopt a new amendment to the bill, which clarifies that properties with restrictions on their permitted uses may not be considered to properties without those restrictions for the purpose of valuation. It still needs to clear additional hurdles to reach the governor’s desk.

The Senate removed LD 574, a bill that amends the Maine Food Sovereignty Act to clarify the definition of a direct producer-to-consumer transaction, from unfinished business. It had been tabled pending acceptance of the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry’s ought not to pass report.

The Senate voted to adopt an amendment that allows municipal ordinances to define direct producer-to-consumer transactions and also clarifies that farmers’ markets in municipalities that adopt ordinances under the Maine Food Sovereignty Act can impose more stringent requirements on sellers. 

The actions put the Senate in non-concurrence with the House, and the bill will return to that chamber for another vote.

Budget Negotiations

The Committee Appropriations and Financial Affairs (AFA) met on both April 11 and April 12 to vote on initiatives from the governor’s proposed supplemental budget.

During its April 12 meeting, the committee voted primarily on various departmental positions the governor requested in her budget proposal. It was the first meeting this session in which the committee did not vote unanimously to move line items into the budget. 

Rep. Amy Arata (R-New Gloucester) said during the committee’s April 12 meeting that she was voting against moving some new positions into the budget because she was concerned about the increase to the baseline of the General Fund.

Arata also said she had noticed vacancies in some departments and would have supported a transfer of funds instead.

The AFA committee has not yet voted on a number of proposed initiatives in the governor’s budget proposal, including direct relief checks for taxpayers.

The committee is scheduled to meet once more this week, on Wednesday, April 13.