AUGUSTA, Maine — The 2016 session’s end is in sight for the Maine Legislature, with a month to go until scheduled adjournment.
The year started with deep contention between lawmakers and Gov. Paul LePage, the Republican who easily weathered an impeachment effort in January and has railed against lawmakers at town hall-style meetings across the state for months.
The Legislature has mustered some compromise, perhaps most notably on bills that addressed Maine’s drug crisis and conformed Maine to federal tax changes while providing millions in school funding. More of that could be in store over the next month.
But the divided Legislature will fight, especially in an election year. There could be gridlock on a many issues, including an effort to get a measure on the 2016 ballot to rival a citizens initiative that would raise Maine’s hourly minimum wage to $12 by 2020.
Those are only the headline-grabbers that the Legislature has yet to decide. Among other matters still to be addressed is an overhaul of the state recycling system and dozens of less prominent issues.
The Legislature may be poised for modest consensus on other bills, including on the drug crisis.
Maine’s opiate crisis has been a point of consensus already for the Legislature, and for good reason. The state set a record for overdose deaths in 2015 with 272. Nearly all were caused by heroin, fentanyl or pharmaceutical opiates.
In January, legislators and LePage passed a $3.7 million bill to hire 10 new state drug agents, fund a detox clinic in northern or eastern Maine and expand addiction treatment. But that bill was criticized by some for not going far enough, and they looked to other bills for more help.
One, from Sen. David Woodsome, R-North Waterboro, would raise methadone treatment rates under MaineCare from $60 to $72 per week. It passed in the House of Representatives this week without a roll call vote, a signal of broad support
On Friday, the LePage administration and the Maine Medical Association told a legislative committee that they had reached an agreement on a bill to limit opioid prescriptions, raising its proposed limits from three to seven days for acute pain and from 15 to 30 days for chronic pain, with exemptions for cancer, hospice and certain other types of patients.
Long lines in Maine’s Democratic presidential caucuses earlier this month also spurred Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, to submit a bill to make Maine a primary state for the first time since 2000.
Currently, parties handle caucuses. A statewide primary was estimated in 2012 to cost $1 million. But LePage has backed the switch and Republican leaders have said they’re open to the idea, which would boost voter participation.
Alfond spokesman Mario Moretto said the bill should be introduced on the Senate floor this week and is being circulated with an “open jacket,” allowing unlimited co-sponsors and indicating significant interest. So this could happen in the session’s waning days.
But political fights may be on tap ahead of the 2016 campaign season on welfare, the minimum wage and taxes.
Earlier this month, Democrats released a welfare reform agenda that called for bans on using cash assistance to buy lottery tickets and other items. It includes changes aimed at increasing accountability in the system and transitioning recipients to work — but in a different way from what LePage has advocated.
It was maligned by Republicans, who said Democrats were trying to capitalize on conservative arguments for electoral reasons after opposing similar bills in the past. Republicans attributed LePage’s resounding re-election and the party’s legislative gains in 2014 to voter support for stricter welfare policies.
While Republicans may work with Democrats on the bans, Mary Mayhew, LePage’s health and human services commissioner, said the administration is “adamantly opposed” to the rest of their plan, calling it “a massive piece of legislation at the last minute.”
There’s also rancor over procedural moves: Democrats used one last week to quash a LePage bill to force cities and towns to share information about immigrants. Two days later, a Republican cast a committee vote ensuring a longshot legislative vote on a proposal from business groups to put a smaller minimum wage increase on the ballot next to a $12 proposal in November. House Democrats thought they had blocked the alternative minimum wage proposal hours earlier with a floor vote.
Both parties angrily accused the other of devious political gamesmanship. Similar antics are likely as adjournment and campaign season near.
LePage has also renewed a longstanding push to eliminate the estate tax, but it would cost $14.2 million in its first full year of implementation and Democrats will likely stand against it, with the liberal Maine Center for Economic Policy calling it “bad for Maine.”
Other more under-the-radar bills — including major changes to Maine’s trash system — haven’t been acted on yet.
Other bills awaiting action have gotten less attention, but their impact could be more significant than those that have triggered headlines and sparked partisan conflict.
Recent estimates have put Maine less than 20 years from running out of landfill space, and a bill from Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, proposes a large overhaul of the state’s solid waste system. It passed a committee earlier this month, but it’s still awaiting legislative action.
LePage and Alfond have also teamed up on three student-focused bills that would establish a $10 million, no-interest student loan program for students who study science, technology, engineering or mathematics and live and work in Maine and expand tax credits for students.
And for you roller derby people, the bill from Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, that would legalize the sport that the bill’s backers say has been illicitly played in Maine because of a legal quirk, has passed the House and awaits Senate action.
BDN writer Christopher Cousins contributed to this report.