Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash.

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Maine lawmakers were up late on Tuesday taking key votes to initially approve bills that would radically change the 2020 presidential election through a presidential primary switch and adding ranked-choice voting.

All of that late-night action came on the planned penultimate day of the legislative session, which is scheduled to end today, alongside approval of bills to enshrine sports betting and ban the use of handheld devices while driving. A push for local taxes was punted to next year.

Maine looks to be getting a presidential primary. What’s more surprising is that it could be a ranked-choice race in 2020. Big changes could be afoot for Maine’s 2020 presidential election after action that lawmakers took on Tuesday. First, Democrats on the budget committee agreed to use part of their half of $6 million set aside in the two-year budget to fund a bill that would make the state switch from presidential caucuses to a March primary that will cost the state $122,000 next year. It will face a final action today.

That change has been in motion since 2016, when the state Democratic and Republican parties held messy caucuses amid relatively high turnout. However, turnout sharply increase in a primary. In Maine’s last presidential primary in 2000, 2.5 times more people turned out.

However, the Senate also gave initial 20-14 approval along party lines to a bill from Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, that would expand Maine’s first-in-the-national ranked-choice voting system, now used in all federal elections and primaries for state office to those new presidential primaries and presidential general elections. It faces further action.

This would be more straightforward in general elections, where electors will have to vote for the ranked-choice winner. Its use in primaries would apply a party election, so new sets of internal Republican and Democratic rules would be determining factors in how the method is applied.

Sports betting and banning e-cigarettes for minors and the use of cellphones while driving all look to be sailing toward passage. Maine is close to enshrining one of the most liberal sports betting systems in the nation after both chambers endorsed a bill on Tuesday that would allow online and mobile sites to operate independently of in-state facilities such as casinos and off-track betting parlors while paying a higher tax rate.

That was the main sticking of the debate over sports betting, which was allowed after a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision, but the Senate approved it in a 19-15 vote and the House approved it without a roll call. It looks to have a smooth trip to passage, but things could change.

Also finding overwhelming support on Tuesday was a bill to ban the use of handheld devices while driving, a long-standing crusade of Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, a former secretary of state. Now, Maine prohibits texting while driving, but that has been criticized as being difficult to enforce. This bill would ban calls while driving unless they’re hands-free or emergencies.

New local taxes will not be happening this year. One of the top legislative efforts for cities and towns this year was getting the right to establish local-option sales taxes after years of state underfunding of aid to municipalities. A bill from Rep. Mike Sylvester, D-Portland, to allow a local-option meals and lodging tax of no more than 1 percent initially passed the House before failing in the Senate and lawmakers have agreed to carry it over to 2020.

Golden, Pingree look to block regulations on lobstermen

Maine’s U.S. representatives are trying to block a plan that looks to protect the endangered right whale by sharply reducing vertical lobstering lines. That plan, which could lead to a 50 percent reduction in vertical lines, was developed by a Maine task force after federal regulators at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said they would step in to protect right whales if state interests didn’t come up with a solution.

Maine’s congressional delegation has already protested the plan being forced upon the state, saying it will have a large impact on the lobstering industry, it isn’t proven that it will reduce whale deaths and that other states won’t necessarily be subject to the same requirements.

U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of the 2nd District announced on Wednesday that he’s introducing an amendment to a funding bill that would effectively block the regulations until they are reviewed. The Democrat said in a statement that the federal government “needs to use sound science and reliable data to make its policies.” The measure is also backed by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from the 1st District.

Today in A-town

Legislators will try to do everything they haven’t gotten done by the end of the day. The plan right now is for the 2019 session to finish by Wednesday’s end. Lawmakers would need to cast two-thirds votes in both chambers to stay in past midnight — unless the right people don’t notice from the floor when the clock strikes 12 a.m., which actually happened last year.

There are busy calendars in the House and Senate and no committee meetings scheduled, which means the bodies can focus on moving legislation between the chambers. We’ll have stories on the biggest items today — which could include many aforementioned items and the expected passage of a compromise replacement for a so-called “red flag” bill and recreational marijuana rules — and come back tomorrow with a summary of the day.

Reading list

— A jury took less than three hours to determine that the man who shot a Somerset County deputy is guilty of murder. After closing arguments on Tuesday, the jury of six women and six men deliberated for less than three hours before returning a guilty verdict for John D. Williams, who shot Cpl. Eugene Cole in April 2018. The fact that Williams shot and killed Cole was not disputed in the seven-day trial. Rather, Williams’ defense team argued that he was so impaired by drugs at the time he couldn’t have formed the intent to kill Cole when he pulled the trigger. Prosecutors say they will seek a life sentence for Williams.

— The voting streak for Maine’s senior senator reached 7,000. On Tuesday, Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins cast her 7,000th consecutive roll-call vote. The four-term senator from Maine hit that milestone with a vote to advance President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead a foreign aid agency. The streak began in 1997. The record for consecutive votes was once held by Collins’ idol, Maine Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, who cast 2,941 consecutive votes between 1955 and 1968 until recovery from hip surgery ended her streak. The late Sen. William Proxmire, D-Wisconsin, who broke Smith’s record, holds it now with 10,252 votes between 1966 and 1988. One active senator, Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has more consecutive votes than Collins, casting more than 8,000 votes since 1993.

— The president amplified familiar themes during a kickoff rally for his 2020 re-election campaign. During his speech in Orlando, Florida, Trump took jabs at some of his favorite foils — Democrats, immigrants and the media — as he revved up his campaign for a second term. He painted a disturbing picture of what life would look like if he loses in 2020, accusing his critics of “un-American conduct” and saying Democrats “want to destroy you and they want to destroy our country as we know it.” Trump never really abandoned campaign mode, filing for re-election on Jan. 20, 2017, the day of his inauguration, and held his first 2020 campaign rally in February 2017 in Florida. Tuesday’s speech came amid media reports about leaked internal polling that indicates he has a tough fight ahead.

Island hopping

Why stop at Monhegan or Vinalhaven when the people of Arranmore have rolled out the red carpet for you?

As their population has dwindled to 469, residents of the island off the coast of County Donegal in Ulster, Ireland are beckoning Americans to move there. They’ve got high-speed internet and can boast being the first Irish island to get electricity under the Rural Electrification Scheme.

Arranmore’s Community Council created a promotional video and sent an open letter to the world — although its main target is Americans and Australians — inviting folks to become permanent residents of their lovely island.

“Traditional industries such as fishing and farming just aren’t enough of a draw to keep young people here anymore. It’s been a challenge for people to work here. Until now,” the letter states.

The letter also claims that Arranmore offers “seafood to rival the tastiest New England clam chowder.”

Sound familiar? How do you say “Welcome home” and “Open for business” in Gaelic?

My wife saw media reports on Arranmore’s courting of new residents and said she was tempted by it. Notably, she made no mention of whether she would take me with her. Here is your soundtrack. — Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd 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.

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...