After next week’s break, legislative pace will speed up

Next week may be legislators’ last chance to relax in a session where leadership has set a blistering pace since Jan. 3. Monday is Presidents Day and it’s also school holiday week, so there’s very little on the legislative calendar. But when legislators get back to business Feb. 26, they’ll be facing a deadline that will be tough to meet. Leadership has directed committees to get all bills reported out of committee the second week in March.

The intention is that unless a bill is truly an emergency and/or has consensus and is worthy of consideration by the Legislature, then let it go. This will then allow the Legislature to focus on the big items on the agenda, including ranked choice voting; marijuana regulations; whether Maine should stay coupled to the federal tax code in light of the recent changes, and – the biggest of all – how to fund the Medicaid expansion that was approved by voters last November.

Legislators face a pretty short turnaround time – probably just three to four weeks – to sort those issues out in order to make their statutory adjournment April 18.

Our big issues, including Tree Growth Tax, are still pending. The hearing on the Tree Growth report in Taxation Thursday (see Executive Director Patrick Strauch’s column) started the process. 

We’ve had some success with the bills that have been worked so far. For example, LD 1759 An Act To Rename the Coast of Maine Wildlife Management Area was unanimously voted OTP in the IFW Committee and approved in the House and Senate,

We’re engaged in a dialogue and a conversation with the ACF Committee and other stakeholders about LD 1747 Resolve, To Establish a Task Force To Examine Agricultural Issues. There’s an interest to come up with a plan to promote the blueberry industry, similar to what was done by the maple syrup task force a few years ago, but it may morph into a Maine-made labeling kind of conversation. The charge and duties of the task force, as well as its membership are being discussed by the committee right now and has yet to be voted out of committee.

There are several bills pending in the EUT Committee regarding energy issues, biomass and alternative energy sources and we don’t have a clear sense of the committee’s direction as of yet. These complex bill decisions are typically saved for consideration last as they tend to be very involved and technical, but we anticipate that they will be hammered out in the next three weeks or so.

LD 897 An Act To Authorize a General Fund Bond Issue To Encourage Efficient Biomass Thermal and Power Projects in Maine is still tabled in Appropriations, along with every other bond proposal. The revenue projections are out for January and were up, which is great. But when talking to leadership there’s no real consensus or clear understanding if there will even be a bond package, because they have to fund the Medicaid expansion and the governor has made a pledge of no new taxes and no borrowing from rainy day. Our concern is that the Appropriations Committee will sweep balances in accounts in an attempt to pay for the Medicaid expansion legislation that needs to be funded as well as whatever surplus we have in the current biennial budget (if we have one). Voters passed the Medicaid expansion with a pretty good margin. Legislators don’t want to go home and run for election taking a position that is contrary to what the voters expressed at the ballot box last November. So that’s going to be the top priority – funding that Medicaid expansion — even before bonds.

One important factor in how things go, of course, is the governor, who has made it very clear he’s not going to take a lame duck approach in his final year and intends to work diligently right up to the time a new governor is sworn in. Read BDN story on his State of the State address.

An example of that is his recent position on wind energy. He’s been a vocal critic of wind energy throughout his administration and has attempted to limit the ability for wind project expansion. On Jan. 24, Gov. LePage issued an executive order prohibiting state agencies from issuing permits “related to wind turbines” in western and coastal Maine, on coastal islands and along “significant avian migratory pathways.”

The moratorium would remain in place until a new Maine Wind Energy Advisory Commission reports on wind power’s economic impact and recommends potential regulatory changes. The task force meetings wouldn’t be public, nor would the public be invited to participate. The Conservation Law Foundation filed a legal challenge on Jan. 30th.

On Jan. 29, he introduced LD 1810, An Act To Amend the Laws Governing Expedited Permitting for Wind Energy Development. It’s similar to a bill last session, having to do with visual impacts in the expedited area. Last session he was talking about taking the visual impact to infinity and beyond, but this year’s bill just proposes taking it from eight miles to 40 miles.

The bill has been referred to the EUT Committee in the House and is pending reference in the Senate. We will participate in the public hearing when one is scheduled.

Finally, the one question everyone is asking is if the Legislature will adjourn on time. They’ve got a huge agenda. Trying to find Medicaid expansion funding alone is going to be significant. Couple that with the federal tax implications and marijuana implementation and I’d be surprised if they adjourn on time.

But then again, most of them are running for office and they can’t solicit money from the lobby or their clients for contributions to their individual campaigns or political action committees until they’re out of session.  Last session when they delayed their final sine die to August, it really cost them in their fundraising efforts.

So, as with so much at the Legislature, we will just have to wait and see … and then hang on!