Credit: Photo courtesy of Ron Lovaglio

AUGUSTA, Maine — More than 560 new Maine laws are going into effect on Thursday, making large and small changes from barring the use of handheld devices while driving to bumping up the number of liquor stores in certain cities and towns.

Some of the biggest changes made in the Maine Legislature this year — including a new law that will allow doctors to prescribe life-ending medication to terminally ill patients and that bans single-use plastic bags at large retailers — won’t be fully implemented until 2020 or later. Here’s a guide to some of the changes that take effect today.

New traffic laws are among the highlights, including the handheld device change with an expensive ticket for violators and car seat changes. The most ink has been spilled on the handheld device change, which will put Maine among a group of more than 20 states that has banned the use of handheld devices while driving. Texting while driving has been illegal since 2011 and this new law effectively bolsters that one.

Violation of the new law will come with a hefty fine. Maine’s judicial branch released a new fine schedule on Wednesday pegging it at $230 for first-time violators and $325 for repeat offenders. Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement the amount with more than three times what he intended and said the judiciary has agreed to review it.

Parents of young children should also take note of changes to car seat laws. The major changes will require most children to ride in rear-facing seats until age 2. Those weighing less than 55 pounds must use child restraint systems in accordance with manufacturer regulations.

Maine laws around abortion have loosened after the failure of one people’s veto effort. Gov. Janet Mills and the Democratic-led Legislature made it a priority to loosen laws around abortion after winning the 2018 election. The major change was a bill that would cover abortions under the MaineCare program and require insurance companies to cover abortion if they also cover prenatal care with an exception for religious employers.

That law took effect Thursday after the Christian Civic League of Maine failed to get enough signatures to put it on the March ballot. Maine will join more than a dozen other states that allow this kind of public funding. Another change allows nurse practitioners, physician assistants and certified nurse-midwives — not just doctors — to perform abortions.

The bills were supported by abortion-rights groups including Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and opposed by anti-abortion groups including the civic league, whose leader said Wednesday it may try to repeal the Medicaid law at referendum.

Mainers must stay at the scene after their dog injures someone and will be entitled to refunds after buying certain young, sick dogs and cats. One change came after a Gardiner woman was charged and attacked by two dogs whose owner put the dogs back in his car and left her alone. He faced civil charges and the dogs were euthanized.

Now, anyone who leaves the scene after their dog hurts someone without securing medical attention for the person and reporting the incident to law enforcement will be charged with a misdemeanor. They can only leave to secure the animal after getting help for the person, reporting the incident and giving their contact information to police or the victim.

In another change, if a dog or cat is purchased with a life expectancy of less than one year, the buyer can get a refund of the purchase price from the seller while keeping the dog. That bill was originally in a tug-of-war battle between animal welfare activists and breeders, but a provision applying to older dogs was struck from the ultimate bill.

Candidates for district attorney and sheriff have to meet stricter standards to be qualified for the office. The change for district attorneys was motivated by Seth Carey, a Republican who won a 2018 primary in a western Maine prosecutorial district despite a suspended law license and a history of legal issues. He lost the general election and was barred in December from practicing law for three years.

The new change will require district attorneys to be in good standing with the bar and that they have not been suspended from practicing law within the last 10 years. Any attorney who is suspended or disbarred while serving in the office will automatically lose their position.

Sheriff candidates now must have at least two years of supervisory experience in law enforcement, corrections or a combination of both. The previous law required five years of supervisory experience, but not necessarily in law enforcement or corrections.

Bigger cities and towns are now allowed to have one or two more liquor stores. A new law changes how many liquor stores allowed in a municipalities. It will allow Portland to go from 10 to 11 licensed stores. Seven stores will be allowed in municipalities with populations between 15,000 and 20,001 and six in towns between 10,000 and 15,000, up from five each now.

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...