AUGUSTA, Maine — After a successful appeal, an effort to aid victims of human trafficking will make it to the Legislature for debate next year, but a high-profile effort to legalize and regulate marijuana statewide will have to wait.
A bipartisan panel of legislative leaders from the House and Senate on Thursday approved 28 more bills to be added to the agenda for the Legislature’s second session, which begins in January.
The Legislative Council — the 10-member panel composed of House and Senate leadership, plus presiding officers — decided appeals on about 100 bills from more than 70 lawmakers whose proposals were rejected at an earlier meeting in October, when only about a quarter of roughly 400 bills were accepted.
The second, shorter session of each legislative biennium is typically reserved for emergency and time-sensitive bills, though the meaning of those constraints is broadly interpreted.
Though there are lawmakers from both parties whose bills were rejected, the harshest criticism over the Legislative Council’s decisions have come from Republicans, who have complained that the majority-Democrat body accepted a bill to expand Medicaid but denied every welfare reform bill along party lines.
Democrats had criticized those welfare reform efforts by House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, as politically minded bills that would undercut the state’s safety net for the poor. It’s no surprise, then, that the Democrat-controlled Legislative Council once again rejected Fredette’s three welfare reform bills.
Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, pointed to a recently revealed $1 million no-bid contract to study the state’s welfare programs, which was awarded by the governor to a controversial Rhode Island consulting outfit, The Alexander Group.
“Gov. [Paul] LePage is bringing in his million-dollar man from the conservative right to gut programs that help struggling families get back on their feet again,” said McCabe, who had initially voted for Fredette’s bills on Oct. 30. “I’ve reconsidered my vote because this is clearly a coordinated political effort.”
Fredette said his bills had nothing to do with the governor’s study and that the Legislature needed to act on its own, but that didn’t help him win the votes necessary to win his appeal. LePage is authorized to bypass the Legislative Council in bringing bills to the floor of the House or Senate, and Fredette has said he believe the governor will submit the bills on his behalf.
“Democrats can’t hide from this important debate about the sustainability of Maine’s welfare system,” added Fredette. “The taxpayers and the truly needy, who are seeing the safety net stretched too thin, are too important to be subjected to the disastrous effects of the failed liberal welfare state of the past.”
Other rejected bills that saw approval on appeal included a proposal by Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, that would erase prostitution convictions for victims of human trafficking.
Democrats had taken a beating for initially rejecting the measure and the appeal was approved unanimously, despite concerns raised by Assistant Senate Majority Leader Anne Haskell, D-Portland, that the effort could run afoul of Maine’s separation of power.
In the Pine Tree State, the authority to grant pardons belongs to the governor. Volk said that pardoning a criminal does not make the person suddenly innocent in the eyes of the law, whereas vacating a conviction does.
“Vacating means that a victim should not have been convicted, that a miscarriage of justice took place,” she said. “One life shattered by this terrible crime is one life too many.”
Senate President Justin Alfond said GOP outrage over the bill’s initial rejection was blown out of proportion. At the first screening, lawmakers had only the bill’s title to judge. Since then, he said, Volk had reached out to the Legislative Council to make her case and explain the bill’s intent.
“It’s unfortunate that some Republicans made this bill a political football,” he said. “We’ve learned a great deal about this bill in the interim and by moving this bill forward, lawmakers can further vet this issue.”
Other bills that had drawn attention include one by Portland Rep. Diane Russell, a Democrat, whose third attempt to legalize and regulate the recreational use of marijuana by adults was again rejected on Thursday.
Russell’s proposal came hot on the heels of a successful referendum in Portland to decriminalize the recreational use of pot by people over 21 years old. She argued the time had come to take a statewide look at legalization.
“I’ve been saying for years, ‘This issue is coming, this issue is coming,’” she said. “Now that we’ve had the Portland vote, the issue is actually here.”
While many votes were cast along party lines, Russell’s bill split the partisan caucuses on the Council. Two Democrats, Alfond and House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, joined three Republicans — Fredette, Senate Minority Leader Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, and Assistant Minority Leader Roger Katz, R-Augusta — in opposing Russell’s bill.
Fredette said he wanted more information about the relationship between marijuana use and the use of other drugs, and suggested the bill would be better suited to the first regular session of the next Legislature.
Katz questioned whether the Legislature should make a decision on marijuana at all, and said he preferred a referendum on the question.
“Isn’t this one of those issues, like gay marriage was, where we ought to have the whole state vote on it?” he said.
Other bills of interest that gained approval Thursday were a bill by Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, to provide housing assistance to homeless veterans, and another by Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, to provide better access to a drug that can halt a heroin overdose in its tracks and potentially save lives.
Among the bills rejected for a second time were a proposal by Rep. James Gillway, R-Searsport, to establish the Maine School of Marine Science, Technology, Transportation and Engineering in Searsport; a bill by Katz to prohibit cloud computing companies that contract with Maine schools from selling student data; and a bill by Rep. Brian Jones, D-Freedom, that would establish a five-year expiration date on any future tax expenditure programs.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.