January 5, 2013

Energy, education on tap for Maine lawmakers

By GLENN ADAMS, The Associated Press

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The House Chamber at the State House in Augusta, where education, energy and domestic violence will be at the top of Gov. Paul LePage's agenda as the Legislature returns for the 2013 session on Tuesday.

AP

AUGUSTA — Education, energy and domestic violence are at the top of Republican Gov. Paul LePage's agenda as Maine lawmakers prepare to return to work, while jobs and strengthening the state's economy are the buzzwords for majority Democrats.

But whatever items are on their want list, the state budget is bound to be a priority for the Republican governor and lawmakers as soon as they return to the State House on Tuesday.

First, they're going to have to find a way to agree on $35.5 million in immediate cuts. Then, they'll face the challenge of balancing a 2014-15 budget that now has a gaping revenue hole of close to $130 million, and finding tens of millions of dollars more to cover cost overruns for social services.

Pushing on in an area where he enjoyed considerable success last session, LePage plans to move forward with legislation that gives students in Maine's schools more options to find the educational settings that work best for them. Last session, the governor's bill to authorize charter schools became law, but it includes a cap the governor wants lifted.

LePage also plans to press forward in his campaign against domestic violence, in which he joined forces with Democrats last session to tighten the laws. One change restricted bail in domestic violence cases for defendants alleged to have violated a protection from abuse order.

Energy will be another priority as the governor tries to lower electricity costs by allowing more Canadian hydropower in the state and letting it count toward the state's requirement that portions of its energy mix be renewable.

The House Republican leader, Rep. Ken Fredette of Newport, is planning to introduce a bill aimed at easing the flow of natural gas from elsewhere in the Northeast into Maine in hopes of lowering energy prices. Details of that bill, and most others contemplated for the two-year session, have not yet emerged. But Fredette has said it could potentially lower power bills by $170 million per year in the state.

Another energy bill would streamline the permit process for tidal power.

While much has been said about lingering antagonism between LePage and the Legislature's new majority leadership, his administration maintains that it's willing to discuss the issues with Democrats anytime.

"The Democrats have an open line of communication with the governor's office," said LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett. "It will remain open and we'll be able to work together."

Democrats agree there have been communications between their aides and the governor's but say there are still problems getting through to LePage himself.

Nine of 10 attempts by Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, to meet with the governor have gone unanswered, and one request was answered but a meeting was later canceled, said Erika Dodge, spokeswoman for Alfond and the Senate Democrats.

Democrats have yet to refine their agenda for the session, but many of the details could flow from a Special Committee on Maine's Workforce and Economic Future that's being assembled. Alfond said part of its mission will be to pinpoint ways to close the gap between jobs that go unfilled and Mainers who lack the training to fill them.

Even before the new Legislature was seated, Democrats were talking about revisiting a health insurance overhaul that Republicans had implemented while they were in power. Among its provisions, the law adds a $4 charge to the monthly premium of every Mainer with private coverage to pay for a high-risk pool.

Implementation of the federal health care overhaul is a likely issue in the months ahead, particularly the part calling for expansion of Medicaid. Republicans, who've resisted implementing the law, say the state can't afford to expand the program that was just scaled back last session, but Democrats say the federal government would pay for most of the expansion anyway.

And the school shooting massacre in Connecticut last month is forcing another complex issue, gun violence prevention, to the forefront. Legislative leaders want a panel to analyze the issue, or perhaps hold a public hearing, to consider possible legislation. One lawmaker is already proposing to strengthen the law regulating concealed handgun permits for nonresidents.

LePage's state agencies had advanced a list of nearly 150 bills by mid-December for consideration, on topics as varied as a repeal of the commercial standard for white-cedar shingles and making convicted drug felons ineligible for welfare.

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