Locals and politicians gathered in Augusta on on Jan. 12, 2019 for an anti-abortion rally.” Credit: CBS 13

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Droves of Mainers are expected to testify today about a controversial bill that would give MaineCare recipients access to state-funded abortion services, and force insurance providers to include abortions in their coverage for maternity services.

Maine lawmakers debate abortion issues every two years, but there is a new twist this session. A bill from Rep. Jay McCreight, D-Harpswell, and co-sponsored by 80 Democrats and independents in the Legislature, would mandate that the Department of Health and Human Services cover the cost of abortion services for Medicaid recipients no later than March 2020. Additionally, public and private insurance carriers already providing coverage for employees’ maternity services would be forced to pay for abortion care. The bill does leave room for religious employers to claim exemptions, but not exemptions based on religious or differing philosophical beliefs.

Maine, along with 34 other states and Washington, D.C., has adhered to the federal standard on federally funded abortion care, known as the Hyde Amendment, for more than 40 years. It ensures women access to abortion, but does not allow federal tax dollars to cover the cost of those services, except in cases of rape or incest, or if a woman’s life is threatened by her pregnancy.

The Hyde Amendment doesn’t exclude states, however, from using Medicaid funds to cover the cost of that care — an option that 15 states are currently utilizing, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and one that the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the state’s abortion providers are currently challenging before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

The ACLU early last year appealed to Maine’s high court, contesting a superior court decision against its 2015 lawsuit filed on behalf of the state’s abortion providers — Maine Family Planning, the Mabel Wadsworth Center and Planned Parenthood — claiming that low-income women who receive Medicaid benefits are disproportionately harmed by the federal rule.

Those groups today will argue that McCreight’s bill would ameliorate the discrimination of disadvantaged women they say is baked into Maine’s health care system. It will also ensure that one’s ability to “afford abortion care does not influence a patient’s private medical decisions about their pregnancy,” according to a joint statement from those groups.

Being that abortion is a constitutionally protected right, “access shouldn’t depend on your income. But when coverage for abortion is withheld, it undermines a patient’s ability to decide whether or not to continue a pregnancy,” said Oamshri Amarasingham, advocacy director of the ACLU of Maine.

For Carroll Conley, executive director for the anti-abortion Christian Civic League of Maine, it’s also about choice: “We really believe choice is being taken away from businesses and insurance companies with this bill,” he said. “Where’s their choice in the matter?”

Conley’s group and other opposing organizations, including Maine Right to Life, will dig in their heels on the measure, as they have in the past. “‘Access’ to abortion is not synonymous with ‘free’ abortions, especially when it involves other people’s money who did not request an abortion, did not receive an abortion, and who strongly oppose abortion,” said Teresa McCann-Tumidjaski, executive director of Maine Right to Life.

Expect Republicans to take the route of Sen. Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn, who said she will vote against the bill because she doesn’t think tax dollars should be used for abortion care, nor should private employers be forced to provide insurance coverage for such services.

Democrats and abortion-rights activists are emboldened by the fact that the new governor has a long record of supporting increased access to abortion. After eight years under Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who was not aggressively anti-abortion in his policies but who opposed expanded access, the people behind McCreight’s bill are hopeful that Democratic Gov. Janet Mills will advocate for and sign the bill. Earlier this month, the governor submitted a bill that would allow medical professionals other than physicians to perform abortions and — as attorney general and as a legislator — she has been a staunch supporter of abortion rights.

Today in A-town

A push for a local-option sales tax seems to have more momentum than ever with a Democratic-led Legislature poised to again short aid to cities and towns. While the abortion bill hearing will draw big crowds at the State House today, there are also hearings before the tax committee on proposals to enshrine a local-option sales tax that seem to have momentum this year because of the Democratic-led Legislature and Mills’ two-year budget proposal that would increase revenue sharing to cities and towns, but not to the 5 percent threshold in Maine law that lawmakers have failed to reach during the past decade.

Officials in Maine’s biggest cities have long asked the Legislature to allow them to charge local-option sales taxes, but it was never likely under LePage, whose administration cited many concerns with such proposals, including constitutionality. Business groups including the Maine State Chamber of Commerce oppose them.

Now, the Maine Municipal Association, the lobbying group for cities and towns, has made an optional tax of not more than 1 percent a major priority for this legislative session for the first time in its history. Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling and Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque — a Democrat and Republican, respectively, will hold a news conference in support of it today ahead of a 1 p.m. hearing. Listen here.

Other committees will air proposals to reopen a Machiasport prison and require a supermajority vote for referendums. The Mills administration has promised to reopen the shuttered Downeast Correctional Facility as a pre-release center, but Rep. Will Tuell, R-East Machias, and Sen. Marianne Moore, R-Calais, have proposed bills to fund the facility. They are up for hearings in the criminal justice committee at 9 a.m. Listen here.

Rep. Joshua Morris, R-Turner, has also proposed a constitutional amendment that would enshrine a 60 percent threshold to pass a referendum. It’s virtually assured not to pass in the Democratic-led Legislature, but the 9 a.m. hearing before the voting committee should make for interesting conversation. Listen here.

Reading list

— A two-term state representative is resigning today because of health problems. Rep. Dale Denno, D-Cumberland, will give up his seat to focus on treatment of lung cancer, which was detected last fall. “It has become apparent that it is no longer realistic for me to continue in my current role as state representative, and I only want the best representation for the people of House District 45,” he said Tuesday in a prepared statement announcing his resignation. Denno is the third Democrat elected to the House last November to leave his seat. Aaron Frey of Bangor chose not to be sworn in after he won a fourth term because legislators elected him to be Maine’s attorney general. Jennifer DeChant, D-Bath, resigned Feb. 1 to take a private-sector job. Rep. Joe Perry, a Democrat, won the March 12 special election to succeed Frey. Voters in Bath will elect DeChant’s successor April 2. A special election to fill Denno’s seat will likely be held in June. We wish Denno a speedy recovery.

— Lewiston police found no reason to charge the city’s former mayor with violations of election law or other criminal wrongdoing. On two separate occasions earlier this month, Heather Berube took to the public forum of City Council meetings to make allegations of potentially criminal behavior by Republican Shane Bouchard, who resigned as mayor earlier this month amid controversy sparked by those allegations. Berube said she leaked damaging emails to Bouchard from his Democratic opponent in the 2017 mayoral race. She accused him of then passing the emails to a conservative news website, which posted the emails and, some say, tipped the election. Bouchard’s attorney said the former mayor is “grateful” and that he is calling on the Lewiston City Council to take steps to prevent others from using public meetings to air “wildly defamatory allegations.” Androscoggin County Sheriff Eric Samson separately told the Sun Journal on Tuesday that his office also found no crime was committed after investigating additional claims by the woman that Bouchard engaged in unspecified misconduct while working as a wrestling coach at Oak Hill High School.

— A coastal Maine town is having trouble hiring police officers so it might disband the department. With its last full-time officer leaving, Thomaston is down to a police chief and one part-time officer. That’s got town officials considering whether to dissolve the police department and simply rely on the county sheriff for coverage. In June, voters in the town of about 2,800 will decide whether to continue funding an independent police department or to dissolve the department and contract with the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, which would provide four full-time deputies with dedicated coverage of the town.

— A western Maine town voted to sell a garage to a Fox News host. Less than two weeks after conservative commentator Tucker Carlson backed away from his plans to expand “the northernmost bureau of Fox News,” the Bethel Citizen reports that Woodstock residents voted unanimously at their annual town meeting on Monday to sell the former town garage to Carlson for $30,000. Carlson, who vacations at Christopher Lake, also known as Bryant Pond, in town, has paid $2,500 per year to rent space in the basement of the town’s library from which he has broadcasted during the summer.

A chance of a ghost

BDN writer Emily Burnham’s story about Caroline Colvin, who made history by becoming the first female department head at a U.S. university, mentions that her ghost apparently haunts a residence hall that bears her name at the University of Maine.

“In the mid-1980s, the dorm became co-ed, and that’s when male residents reported a female figure with 1920s-style clothing appearing in the hallways and speaking their names, according to Elizabeth Tucker’s book ‘Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses.’ Apparently Colvin’s ghost wanted to make sure the young men were behaving themselves around the women.”

Despite the fact that Maine can claim one of the world’s most celebrated modern horror writers and is known for being a cold, dark, often unwelcoming place, we don’t have a deep trove of ghost lore. In 2016, the BDN did a series on Maine ghosts, and I was struck by the dearth of apparitions with political affiliations. When it comes to spirits, the state’s political world focuses on consumption, not hauntings.

Maine needs a State House ghost, and I’ve got the perfect candidate.

The job should go to our old pal Chris Cousins. His ghostly presence muttering “do something for goodness’ sake” — in much more colorful terms — might be a perfect antidote to the frustrating pokiness, zigs and zags associated with “legislative time.” During late-night legislative sessions, his ghostly presence could appear in his favorite chair on the third floor, suggesting that lawmakers engage in pushup contests, or scowling through the windows of rooms in which party leaders were holding closed caucuses that should be public. Mischievously, he’d replace the annoying bell system that summons lawmakers to session with a carillon that tinkles Billy Joel or peals Loverboy.

He’d be one of those ghosts who treats common folks well while scaring the daylights out of anyone who even contemplates abusing power — a regular State House Beetlejuice.

Does anyone in Augusta have a Ouija board I could borrow? Here is your soundtrack. –– Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd, Alex Acquisto and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to receive Maine’s leading newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings. Click here to subscribe to the BDN.

To reach us, do not reply directly to this newsletter, but email us directly at mshepherd@bangordailynews.com, aacquisto@bangordailynews.com, and rlong@bangordailynews.com