AUGUSTA — Maine lawmakers won’t be debating bills to defund Planned Parenthood in the next legislative session, nor will they try to liberate the Land for Maine’s Future program, which has been handcuffed by Gov. Paul LePage’s refusal to release bond money.
But the Legislature will hear bills to improve ferry safety, delay implementation of new educational assessment tests in public schools, and give preference to Maine vendors and American-made products when issuing state funding.
These were among the measures considered Thursday when top lawmakers from both parties met in Augusta to vote on which bills to allow into the second session of the 127th Legislature, which convenes in January.
Moving swiftly and without debate, the 10 House and Senate leaders that make up the Legislative Council sifted through about 400 bill titles submitted by lawmakers over the past few months.
Unofficially, just 32 of those bills were voted in, or about 8 percent, and another 18 were tabled. However, sponsoring lawmakers will have a chance to appeal any decisions to the council next month.
On Thursday, leaders voted only on bill titles. Details of those bills have not been ironed out because lawmakers don’t typically invest time in legislation until they know it will go forward.
The makeup of the Legislative Council this year – five Republicans and five Democrats – set up a political dynamic in which only bipartisan bills would move forward. The number of bills that resulted in a 5-5 party line vote (6 votes are needed for passage) reached well into the dozens and perhaps provided a glimpse into the tone of the next session.
However, both parties were diplomatic after the Legislative Council meeting.
“On issues such as economic development and honoring the will of Maine people by supporting voter-approved conservation projects, we are laser-focused on the issues that matter for our state,” said Senate Democratic Leader Justin Alfond of Portland. “We have high expectations for this session. In divided government, we need to come together, not get bogged down in partisan games.”
House Republican Leader Ken Fredette of Newport and assistant leader Ellie Espling of New Gloucester struck a similar tone.
“House Republican leadership followed the Constitution today in voting for bills they deemed to be of an emergency nature,” they said in a joint statement. “At the same time, we were careful to focus our votes on bills that would keep us within current budgetary spending levels. At the end of the day, we believe in setting priorities consistent with a smaller, more efficient state government.”
SESSION IS FOR ‘EMERGENCY’ BILLS
Each Legislature is divided into two sessions. The first session of the 127th Legislature wrapped up in June. The second session, deemed the emergency session, convenes in January and should run for about four months.
All bills submitted for the second session are supposed to fit the definition of an emergency, but that’s a subjective term. Another factor that plays into bill selection for the second session is its proximity to elections, which often means more partisanship and political posturing as lawmakers look ahead to their fall campaigns.
Among the bills approved for submission Thursday were an act to provide ballistic vests to all law enforcement officers; an act to modernize and consolidate court facilities; an act to amend Maine’s death certificate disclosure law; an act to create stability in the control of pesticides; an act to protect and promote access to shooting ranges; and an act to allow college graduates to claim educational opportunity tax credits to help with student loan repayment.
The bills that were approved by the Legislative Council, as well as any that get in on appeal, will be added to the 176 bills that were held over from the last session. Among those are several bills that call for additional welfare reform, more than two dozen bond proposals and measures to reduce energy costs for businesses and homeowners.
FOCUS ON SOLUTION TO PROBLEMS
LePage may submit bills at any point during the legislative session. How the governor approaches this coming session remains to be seen, but he has been highly critical of lawmakers, including those in his own party, during recent town hall meetings around the state.
LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said Thursday that the governor is keeping tabs on bills and will continue holding town hall gatherings to share his vision and hear directly from Mainers.
“We hope lawmakers are listening to their constituents just as closely as the governor does,” she said. “If lawmakers are serious about meaningful policy, every single one of these bills ought to represent a solution to a problem rather than be a political playbook.”
Bennett did not respond to a question about whether LePage, who promised to veto all bills in a dispute with the Legislature in the last session, plans to continue that practice when lawmakers reconvene.