AUGUSTA — Lawmakers will return to the State House on Wednesday to take up anticipated vetoes of bills dealing with cellphones and cigarettes as well as to try again on bond measures that have divided Republicans.

Legislative leaders are hoping Wednesday is the final official gathering of a 2017 legislative session that was supposed to wrap up nearly a month and a half ago. That doesn’t mean lawmakers’ work for the year is done, however. The Legislature may come back for a special session in the fall devoted largely to marijuana legalization as the state gears up to begin regulating commercial cannabis growers and licensing the storefronts hoping to begin selling pot products next year.

Arguably the highest-profile veto from Gov. Paul LePage involves the latest attempts to tweak the “net metering” policy used by Mainers with solar panels on their homes. But lawmakers are also expected to reconsider bills that would prohibit drivers from using hand-held cellphones behind the wheel and increase the legal age to purchase tobacco in Maine from 18 to 21.

And there are a handful of other controversial topics that could come up during Wednesday’s session.

HAND-HELD VS. HANDS-FREE

Last month, lawmakers voted to add Maine to the 14 states that prohibit drivers from talking on a hand-held cellphone while operating a vehicle. Drivers would still be able to talk via hands-free devices under the bill, L.D. 1089, and could use a hand-held phone to contact emergency services. But those caught violating the law would face a $75 fine for a first offense, higher penalties for each subsequent offense and the possibility of a license suspension for multiple violations over a three-year period.

LePage has yet to deliver a veto letter to the Legislature but he said last week that he opposed the bill.

“There are all kinds of other issues that are out there in driving,” LePage said on Bangor-based WVOM-FM last week. “We have a distracted driver law. We have a texting law. If they’re not working, let’s figure out why they’re not working and make them work.”

LePage’s stance runs counter to that of the Maine State Police, which supported a ban.

Maine lawmakers have debated for years whether to ban hand-held cellphone use behind the wheel but this is the first bill to reach LePage’s desk. And odds are, LePage’s veto will stand after Wednesday’s floor sessions because the bill failed to pass the Legislature by the two-thirds majorities needed to override the governor’s objections.

BUYING TOBACCO

During his radio interview, LePage referred to two bills as examples of legislative attempts at “social engineering”: the cellphone ban and a measure to hike Maine’s legal age for buying tobacco.

The latter bill, L.D. 1190, would require that people be at least age 21 years old to buy cigarettes – either traditional or electronic – as well as other tobacco products. The bill would allow adults who are 18 years old by July 1, 2018, to continue purchasing tobacco, however.

Two other states, Hawaii and California, already set the legal age to purchase tobacco at 21 while laws to do the same recently passed in Oregon and New Jersey. Maine’s bill had strong support from health and medical organizations and passed both the House and the Senate by veto-proof margins, with votes of 31-4 in the Senate and 113-34 in the House.

But LePage said he believes 18-year-olds are old enough to make their own decisions.

“I’m not going to strap a gun to their shoulder and go fight a war if they can’t go buy cigarettes,” LePage told WVOM last Tuesday. “I’ll tell you, this is just sinful, it is absolutely sinful, and I believe that at 18 they are mature enough to make a decision. And I’m tired of living in a society where we social-engineer our lives.”

MORE BONDS

Lawmakers voted July 20 to send a $105 million bond bill for transportation projects to voters for consideration. But two other bond proposals – a $40 million student loan bill and a $55 million commercialization bill – stalled in the Legislature in the face of Republican opposition.

LePage had supported the student loan bill, which would have used bonds to help pay off the college debts of individuals who agree to live and work in Maine after graduation. It also enjoyed strong support from Democrats.

“The departure of young people hurts our state’s future, but student debt is a drag on our economy even when graduates choose to stay,” bill sponsor and Senate Assistant Minority Leader Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, said last week in his party’s weekly radio address. “With monthly loan payments in the hundreds of dollars, many young people are unable to save for their futures, and are putting off their dreams of homeownership, entrepreneurship or starting families. Debt forgiveness will put more money in Mainers’ pockets, so they can save for their first home, start a new small business or otherwise participate in our local economy.”

The measure is still in trouble with Republicans, however, despite LePage’s strong support.

“While we would like to do something in regard to student debt, this particular bill is not ready for prime time and there are components of it that we didn’t think were workable,” said House Minority Leader Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, a frequent LePage ally. “We want to have serious conversations over the summer and next session about how we can help with that.”

But Fredette says he is now supporting the other, $55 million bond measure to help Maine companies commercialize their products through research and development after discussing the specifics of the bill with LePage. “I’ll make the pitch to the caucus and I will vote for the bond, but we’ll have to see if others come along,” Fredette said.

SOLAR ENERGY

For the second straight year, the solar energy policy known as “net metering” or “net energy billing” is the focus of intense debate and lobbying.

The latest bill, L.D. 1504, would direct the Maine Public Utilities Commission to adopt new rules that would keep net metering solar energy incentives in place but would reduce them over time. Under net metering, homeowners with solar energy panels receive credit on their power bill for excess electricity they feed back into the grid. However, LePage and critics of the policy contend that net metering effectively forces all ratepayers to help pay the costs of solar energy systems.

Last month, legislative leaders delayed a vote on LePage’s veto of the bill. The delay has given both sides – with the solar industry on one side and Maine’s electricity utilities on the other – time to continue lobbying on the measure.

A more sweeping rewrite of Maine’s solar policy failed last year after several Republican lawmakers either switched their votes or did not vote on a LePage veto.

CONTROVERSIAL BILLS

Lawmakers could also attempt to revive some controversial bills that have failed to pass the Legislature so far.

For instance, lawmakers remain deadlocked on ranked-choice voting. While some support a proposed constitutional amendment to address constitutional concerns raised about the voter-approved law, others want to repeal it outright.

Some Republicans also want the Legislature to create a new crime banning “female genital mutilation,” a practice used in some countries that has its roots in cultural traditions but has no medical purposes. The practice is already prohibited under federal and state law, although supporters claim elevating the practice to its own felony offense would give state prosecutors an additional tool. Opponents said the bill could backfire by causing isolation or fear among Maine immigrants, especially if they were victims of female genital mutilation in their home countries.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH