AUGUSTA — Maine’s Legislature may adjourn in less than three weeks, allowing lawmakers to get to work on re-election campaigns. That hasn’t stopped Gov. Paul LePage from introducing major proposals this month regarding education, energy, welfare fraud, and tax and spending reforms.

And lawmakers still must negotiate two controversial budget proposals.

It’s not unusual for work to pile up at the end of a legislative session. But it’s clear that the governor and Republicans in the Legislature hope to take advantage of the final flurry of action before elections that could change the balance of power in Maine’s State House.

“It makes sense for them, in terms of policy, to push as many of these things as they can,” said Jim Melcher, associate professor of political science at the University of Maine in Farmington. “It’s almost like, ‘The store is closing in 10 minutes, please bring your final purchases up to the register.’ “

It makes sense for Democrats, on the other hand, to try to put off big decisions and hope to have more influence in the next session, he said.

Republicans have a 77-74 majority in the House with one independent, and a 19-15 majority in the Senate with one independent.

“You’ve got control of, really, both houses at stake” in November, Melcher said.

Sen. Richard Woodbury of Yarmouth, the lone independent in the Senate, said the legislative session before an election is always more political, especially in the final weeks.

“People are laying the political context for their upcoming campaigns,” he said.

LePage’s energy and education reform bills are “pretty big things to bring forward at this point,” Woodbury said, but lawmakers have introduced late bills, too.

For example, Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, proposed a controversial mining deregulation bill last week, with the support of the LePage administration.

“Last-minute introduction of bills, when everyone is busy with other things, is a (legislative) strategy,” Woodbury said.

Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s press secretary, said LePage is not planning strategy around the possible outcome at the polls on Nov. 6. “The governor has made it clear he … doesn’t base his decisions on the next election,” she said.

And, she said, the administration is not trying to rush bills through while lawmakers are busy.

The budget proposed last week, for example, was delayed while legislators dealt with a shortfall in the health and human services budget, she said. LePage wanted lawmakers to approve MaineCare spending cuts before he proposed other budget changes, including some tax cuts in his latest plan.

“We have some fiscal issues that need to be taken care of, and that takes precedence,” Bennett said.

Bennett also said the governor’s education and energy reform bills were submitted to the Revisor of Statutes for processing in February but weren’t finalized for committee review until this month.

House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, said the governor has submitted some “fairly complicated” bills lately, but the Legislature still has enough time to give them the attention they need.

“Bills that are contentious tend to come up at the end” of a session, he said. “It’s still our hope to be finished the first week of April.”

Lawmakers could work longer, if necessary, or adjourn and reconvene later.

Democratic leaders say the late introduction of major policy changes leaves the public and the Legislature with too little time for thorough reviews.

“It’s just mysterious why they had to wait so long,” after talking about energy and education reform for a year, said House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono. “The fact that they’re all coming at once seems coordinated. … We don’t need to rush on some of these things.”

The major issues still facing lawmakers are:

Energy. The LePage administration has proposed a reform package of four bills that are now before the Legislature’s Energy and Utilities Committee. Controversial proposals include low-interest loans for super-efficient electric heaters, which would shift money away from conservation programs, and an effort to attract cheaper hydroelectric power from Canada.

Education. The administration has proposed a reform package of four bills that are now before the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. The proposals would allow students to choose their own schools no matter where they live, provide state-funded tuition to private religious schools, set new teacher-evaluation standards and improve technical education programs.

Restructuring the Department of Health and Human Services. A bill submitted by the administration last week would eliminate nearly 50 jobs in a streamlining of the agency that oversees MaineCare, social services and child protection services, among other things.

Income tax. A controversial proposal to reduce Maine’s income tax rate was tabled last year, but revived this week by Republican supporters. The bill, passed by the Senate on Monday, would use any future surpluses to gradually reduce the state’s highest income tax bracket from 8 percent to 4 percent.

Democrats say the bill would commit future legislatures to income tax cuts without saying how to pay for them.

LePage added fuel to that partisan fire by saying he would ultimately like to phase out the income tax.

Budget changes. Lawmakers are still working on two major proposals to change the state’s budget. One that has been debated for months would reduce health and human services spending by about $100 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1, with cuts that include dropping thousands of people from MaineCare.

The latest proposal, presented last week, includes tax cuts for retirees as well as more spending cuts, such as eliminating state funding for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: [email protected]