April 20, 2013

LePage signs bills despite earlier threats

Glenn Adams / The Associated Press

AUGUSTA — With roughly half the 2013 legislative session over, dozens of bills have become law, but the real heavy lifting is yet to come.

Among the hundreds of bills still moving through the process in the State House are two major issues: passing a two-year state budget that faces a huge revenue shortfall and resolving a $484 million Medicaid debt to the state's hospitals. They must be dealt with in the weeks before the scheduled mid-June adjournment. After a week's spring break, lawmakers return to Augusta in the coming week for House and Senate sessions.

Gov. Paul LePage has been pressing for quick action on the hospital debt since his plan to pay the state's $186 million share with revenues from future liquor sales remains under review in committee. His proposed $6.3 billion, two-year state budget, which faces a revenue shortfall exceeding $800 million - also is in committee. The Appropriations Committee must find a way to fill the budget gap.

Pushing earlier in the session for immediate action on his hospital plan, the governor went so far as to threaten to veto any bill that arrived on his desk before legislation to resolve the debt was finalized.

His veto of a bill to bar anyone younger than 18 from using commercial tanning beds held, but of the more than 50 bills sent to his desk, he signed more than half and let the rest become law without his signature.

The new laws touch on issues from fishing for baby eels to driving with an expired license. One he signed allowed people to drink earlier on St. Patrick's Day, a Sunday.

Separate new laws that touch on sensitive American Indian sovereignty issues will allow the Penobscot Nation to issue 48 elver fishing licenses to its members, 40 more than permitted now. The other limits the Passamaquoddy Tribe to issuing 200 elver licenses this year, with 50 of them restricted to dip-net users on the St. Croix River.

Recent legislative action lets courts require that offenders convicted of domestic violence complete batterers' intervention programs as part of their sentences. Motorists stopped with expired licenses also will be able to get permits from police allowing them to drive home or to a motor vehicles bureau to renew their licenses.

LePage has said he has not made up his mind on a bill to increase the state's $7.50 hourly minimum wage in stages to $9 by 2016, and then boost it annually to account for inflation. The bill awaits a final Senate enactment vote, pending a review of its fiscal impact.

Other pending bills that could cause flare-ups in the weeks ahead would establish licenses for mid-level dental hygiene therapists and make Maine's wealthier residents bear a larger share of the tax burden.

Also prominent on the to-do list is action on a series of bills to prevent gun violence. One would ban magazines that carry more than 10 rounds of ammunition and another would restrict gun ownership for psychiatric issues, increase the minimum age for concealed-handgun permits from 18 to 21, require background checks for all non-family gun sales and add firearm safety course requirements for gun buyers.

Gun rights activists and gun control activists have been visible and active as the debate draws closer, but key lawmakers have said final action could await federal action.

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