I fully expect we’ll see an aggressive schedule and considerably faster pace in the second session of the 128th Legislature, which begins Jan. 3, than the slow-starting first session. I think we’ll start to see committees hold public hearings/work sessions on the carryover bills as early as the first week in January. They have only four months and they have quite a work load ahead of them.
There are a number of significant controversial issue, including some that MFPC is particularly interested in, like Tree Growth and biomass. In fact, a lot of the action for us this session will be in the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee because there are many bills relating to energy and utility issues, from hydropower to the Renewable Portfolio Standard. It’s too early to say which bills will be most important, because many are just titles right now, but I just know that energy is going to be huge. That committee already had a pretty sizeable workload before we even got the new bills.
Funding for LD 8, the bill to arm rangers, is still on the Appropriations table, and is likely to get caught up with a lot of other bills and state programs in THE top issue this session — how to fund the Medicaid expansion that voters just approved.
The language of the referendum was silent on the funding source because supporters didn’t want to create controversy and therefore lose votes. But now that it has passed and is supposed to take effect – enrollment starts in July – legislators have to come up with some significant money to fund it. We don’t know exactly how much because there are differing opinions between the Office of Fiscal Policy Review, which advises the Appropriations Committee, and the Department of Health and Human Services
There also are a lot of unanswered questions right now, such as how many people will enroll, how quickly they’ll enroll, what eligibility will look like, what the federal match will be and what the federal resources designated to the state will be.
The governor has said it can’t be funded with new taxes or the rainy day fund. I have to believe legislators aren’t going to raise taxes because they’re all running for reelection and no legislator wants to be on the side of supporting a tax increase before a re-election campaign.. So where would the Medicaid expansion funding come from? A concern for MFPC, along with other interest groups, is whether the Legislature might sweep money from other accounts and programs to come up with the funding. We’ll be keeping a sharp eye on this process.
Ranked choice voting is another tricky issue still hanging out there. Many people are frustrated with the citizen-initiated referendum process, especially after the amount of money spent on the casino question that failed this past November. So if there was ever any appetite to do something about the process, you’d think it would be now. However, there is little interest or support within the Senate Democratic caucus to pass a constitutional amendment or a bill tightening up the referendum process. Historically, when voters approve a citizen-initiated referendum, the Legislature has been very nervous about doing anything to impact the will of the people but between rank choice voting and the implementation of legalized marijuana initiatives, we have seen the leadership in the Legislature take steps to block or amend those bills voted on by the citizens.
Just a quick note about the upcoming election. Many more Republicans than Democrats will be termed out after this session – seven in the Senate compared to one Democrat, and 14 in the House, compared to seven Democrats. (Legislators termed out in 2018.)
Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Aroostook, recently told me Democrats are way ahead in the race to field candidates in every district. But of the 21 Senate candidates registered of Dec. 20, 16 were Republicans and five were Democrats. In the House races, 34 Republicans have registered so far, 19 Democrats, five unenrolled, and two Libertarians. The deadline is not until March 15, so it’s really not an accurate depiction right now. The Senate Republicans do have some big shoes to fill with their term-limited vacancies, but they also have significant shifts of folks from the House running for the Senate, including Jeff Timberlake, Russell Black and Ellie Espling. Maine Senate candidates. Maine House candidates. (Source: Maine Commission on Governmental Elections and Election Practices.)
Whether there are term-limit vacancies or somebody leaving the Senate to run for governor – and there are several with 25 currently registered gubernatorial candidates – the Republicans have done a really good job of getting folks to shift over. So while the Democrats may seem to have the advantage on paper, it’s a long time until the next election – Nov. 6, 2018 – and who knows what can change? Any number of things could impact people’s perception or opinion of whether they’re likely to vote or what candidate they support.
The good news is that with legislators eager to get on the campaign trail and reluctant to face angry voters, it will help us defeat bad bills and make it more likely the session will adjourn close to the April 18th statutory adjournment.