AUGUSTA — The Legislature will take up at least 100 new bills in its next session, including proposals to expand Medicaid insurance for low-income Mainers, overhaul the troubled MaineCare rides program, lengthen the penalty period for a prior drunken-driving conviction and lift bans on select pesticides in medical marijuana cultivation.
Lawmakers will also consider a bill by House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, that would beef up a rent and property-tax credit program adopted in June but criticized for providing significantly less relief to low- and middle-income residents than the program it replaced.
Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, will have a chance to advance a bill that would change the way the state distributes federal anti-poverty education funds to schools.
The list, approved Wednesday by the Legislative Council, is expected to grow as lawmakers whose proposals were rejected appeal those decisions in November. Additionally, Gov. Paul LePage and state agencies can submit bills during the session that begins Jan. 7. The governor’s authority to introduce bills virtually at will likely means new life for Republican proposals that were rejected by the Democratic majority, including two welfare reform bills sponsored by House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport.
The council, composed of the 10 legislative leaders, considered nearly 400 bill titles during a four-hour session at the State House. The proposals that made the cut run the gamut, including education funding, tax exemptions, natural gas development and changes to health care laws. While some of the proposals are tailored to narrow constituencies — one would reduce the number of members on the Stonington Sanitary District Board — others may play into the 2014 election, including Eves’ proposal to expand Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act.
Eves’ bill will be Democrats’ third attempt to expand Medicaid during the 126th Legislature, prompting Republicans who oppose it to say the latest proposal violates a rule preventing duplicative legislation. Democrats are confident they have a way — and the votes — to get around that provision.
Republicans say Mainers want welfare reform, meaning they will continue their public push for Fredette’s bill to require welfare applicants to show that they have applied for at least three jobs before even qualifying for cash assistance. Currently, welfare recipients must show that they’re looking for work to continue receiving benefits.
With Democrats in the majority and LePage in the governor’s office, Medicaid expansion and Fredette’s bill face challenges. But getting roll call votes on the bills may be as important to the parties as passing them.
Electoral considerations may have been a factor in the Legislative Council’s decision to allow a bill by Rep. Michael Devin, D-Newcastle, to require schools to allow firefighters, police and military recruiters to wear their uniforms on campus. The bill is similar to a military recruiter bill that became a flash-point last session. The bill was poised to pass but ultimately failed after Democrats accused Republicans of using a proposal already mandated in federal law to cast them as anti-military. Many Democrats saw political jeopardy in opposing the bill, a sign that Devin’s proposal may sail through next year.
Other proposals include a proposal by Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, to lift restrictions on select pesticides in the growing of medical marijuana. Details of Saviello’s bill are not yet public, but the proposal is related to a case this year in which four of the state’s eight medical marijuana dispensaries were fined $18,000 by the Department of Health and Humans Services for using pesticides on plants.
The Portland Press Herald, after requesting an analysis from the Maine Board of Pesticides Control, found that five of the nine pesticides the growers used contain active ingredients that are safe for many uses and federally approved for tobacco.
Other approved measures include a bill by Rep. Lori Fowle, D-Vassalboro, that would extend the Veterans Property Tax Exemption to veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The proposal exempts $6,000 of property value from the assessments of those who served during those wars. It would take effect when the veterans turn 62 or are deemed 100 percent disabled as a result of their service.
Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, won support for action on a bill to study a pilot program that would allow prospective college students to bypass traditional college loans. The so-called “pay forward, pay back” model was adopted in Oregon. It allows students to draw from a dedicated no-interest fund to pay for college. Those who do would then pay 3 percent of their salaries for the next 24 years that they work. The state would likely have to borrow to capitalize the fund, but the designers of the Oregon model believe it will eventually sustain itself.
Rep. Timothy Marks, D-Pittston, will sponsor a bill that would authorize the courts to review 15 years of a resident’s driving history to determine the penalty for a drunken driving conviction. Currently the Bureau of Motor Vehicles considers only the previous 10 years of driving history to calculate a license suspension.
Mark’s bill would also make a third drunken-driving conviction in 15 years a felony offense, rather than a misdemeanor.
The council, in a party line vote, rejected a bill by Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, that would help victims of human trafficking by allowing courts “to vacate their prostitution convictions.” Volk’s bill is among those that may be appealed.
The bills will be vetted by the Legislature during the second session. The shorter session is technically reserved for emergency measures, but lawmakers have historically interpreted the term “emergency” broadly.
The Legislature considered 1,574 bills during the first session.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:[email protected]Twitter: @stevemistler