AUGUSTA — The Maine Legislature has closed the books on a lengthy and combative session during which lawmakers’ bitter political clashes with Republican Gov. Paul LePage often overshadowed legislating and policy debates.
But Democratic and Republican leaders alike say they’re proud of what the divided chambers were able to accomplish – even if the partisan animosity that permeated the Statehouse halls by the end of the session had nearly everyone looking forward to a much-needed break.
“It has been a challenging session,” said Assistant House Republican Leader Ellie Espling. “I don’t think any of it came easy.”
Despite that, Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves said he’s confident that the two parties will be able to work together when they return in January.
“Divided government is always hard, but we were able to stick it out,” he said.
Here’s a look at some of the winners and losers of the 2015 legislative session:
GUN-RIGHTS ADVOCATES: The passage of a bill that eliminates the requirement for a concealed handgun permit was a huge victory for gun-rights activists. The law, which will go into effect in October, will make Maine just the sixth state in the country to allow people to carry hidden firearms without a permit. House Republican Leader Ken Fredette called it a “game changer” for gun-owner rights.
SCHOOLS: The University of Maine System saw a $20 million boost and the Maine Community College System got an additional $8 million in the two-year budget lawmakers approved last month. Meanwhile, K-12 schools received an additional $80 million over two years. Despite that, the state continues to fail to fund 55 percent of local education costs, as mandated by law. That caused the credit rating agency, Moody’s, to declare last week that the state budget is “credit negative” for local governments “because they will continue to face a choice between cutting services or increasing property taxes.”
VETERANS: The Legislature eliminated the tax on military pensions, which supporters said was crucial to helping attract young veterans to live in Maine. Among the other measures approved this session that will impact veterans is a bill aimed at ensuring that former military service members receive grave markers even when there is no next of kin.
MANY FAMILIES: Roughly 580,000 families will see a tax cut under the new Maine budget, which lowered the state’s income tax rate and kept the sales tax at 5.5 percent instead of letting it revert back to 5 percent. The budget also boosts the homestead tax exemption from $10,000 to $20,000. But while many families will have more money in their pockets, an additional 120,000 are expected to see their taxes go up.
TRIBES: Frustrated by their relationship with LePage’s administration, two of Maine’s Native American Indian tribes abandoned their seats in the Legislature this session. The tribes also suffered another blow to their effort to bring a casino to their communities. The Legislature killed a bill that would have allowed a casino that would benefit the four federally recognized tribes to be built in northern Maine. Lawmakers also rejected a tribal bill that called for the shared management of fishing resources.
BOOZE DRINKERS: Powdered alcohol, or Palcohol, is expected to soon hit the shelves, but it won’t in Maine. With little opposition and debate, lawmakers banned the sale of powdered alcohol, saying they feared that it would be abused by minors. LePage vetoed another bill that sought to ensure that bars and restaurants were really using 16-ounce glasses when they were promising their customers a pint of beer. LePage’s veto was upheld by the Legislature.
ENERGY POLICY: LePage sought to form a Cabinet-level state energy department, arguing that Maine needs to elevate the importance of energy policy in the state. Currently, Maine’s Energy Office has just two staffers. Under LePage’s bill, $300,000 from Efficiency Maine Trust would have funded the new four-person energy department, called the Maine Energy Office, led by a commissioner. The House and Senate failed to come to an agreement on the bill and it died between chambers.
DOG LOVERS: Lawmakers upheld LePage’s veto of the “puppy mill” bill, killing the measure that was designed to crack down on the sale of dogs and cats born in out-of-state operations. Lawmakers also rejected a measure that sought to make the Labrador retriever Maine’s official state dog.