Gov. Paul LePage
By Michael Shepherd
State House Bureau
AUGUSTA — Potential battles between lawmakers and Republican Gov. Paul LePage began coming into focus Monday as the Legislature released a list of all submitted bills, including measures from Democratic leaders on issues such as borrowing and charter schools.
During the first week of the legislative session, early this month, Democrats outlined general goals such as work force training, education investments, and research and development.
All of it, they have said, is aimed at strengthening Maine's middle class. The bill titles released Monday hint that prominent Republicans and Democrats have much to agree on -- and disagree with the governor on.
The House Democratic Office said 1,780 bills were submitted for this session, down from an average of just over 2,000 for the first sessions of the preceding nine Legislatures. The number is expected to shrink as bills are dropped or merged.
Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz, R-Augusta, and Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, have submitted bills that would move the state toward meeting its statutory mandate to give 5 percent of revenues to municipalities in sharing agreements.
LePage's biennial budget proposal would eliminate revenue sharing, totaling $400 million over the next two budget years. Katz, a former Augusta mayor, opposes that.
"I'm certainly sensitive to the burden this would place on larger communities as well as very small towns," Katz said. "For those of us who don't think eliminating revenue sharing is a good idea, it's incumbent upon us to come up with other alternatives, and that's the challenge in the months ahead."
A bill from Alfond would go further, putting the revenue sharing target in a compact and making it difficult for the state to break.
Revenue sharing has been raided routinely over the past four years to balance state budgets, according to the Maine Municipal Association, which said $44 million was taken out for this fiscal year.
"It's not a fair deal if we keep raiding it," Alfond said. "Just like when we talk about businesses, they need to have the sustainable and predictable ways to plan for the future. Why wouldn't we do the same for our communities?"
As Democrats tout research and development and education investments, House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, said he has submitted three bills proposing more than $27 million in higher-education bonds.
The bill titles released Monday show that lawmakers have proposed 33 general fund bonds, a number that's sure to be pared down. The borrowing would need approval from voters and LePage.
Fredette said his proposals are targeted: $15 million for upgrades to Maine community colleges, $7.9 million for a new agriculture building at the University of Maine and $4.5 million toward a new science facility at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.
"It is focused on students and it's focused on what the economy needs," he said. "More importantly, as a Republican putting your name on a bond, it shows that we understand there's a need -- an unmet need (in the economy) -- and we're willing to work with Democrats."
House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, submitted a bill "to provide tax fairness" to middle-class and working families. He said the bill's language hasn't been finalized, but the proposal will examine state and local tax burdens to ensure that taxes are based on "ability to pay," not leaning too heavily on property taxes.
Some bills signified a fight with executive authority, or LePage himself.
Berry, for example, submitted a resolve that would "ensure that bonds are issued in accordance with the vote of the electorate," an apparent response to LePage's decision not to issue bonds that voters supported until the state reduces its debt. Resolves have the force of law but do not directly change state statutes.
Berry said the resolve would make issuance of bonds mandatory if the state meets certain market and debt service standards. He said governors could refuse only under "very extenuating circumstances."
"Should it be within the powers of a governor, any governor, to be able to hold that up for arbitrary reasons?" he said. "This is an effort to correct the situation that we find ourselves in today."
Assistant Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, submitted a resolve proposing a constitutional amendment to prohibit governors from receiving a pension unless that governor serves two terms.
That's an apparent shot at LePage's gubernatorial pension, which was a political football in the last Legislature. Many liberals complained about LePage exempting his pension while proposing state pension reform.
Alfond also has submitted a bill that would put a moratorium on virtual charter schools.
The state's Charter School Commission hasn't approved any virtual schools, to LePage's chagrin. He issued a strongly worded news release in June after the commission rejected applications for two, and condemned the commission after it rejected four of five charter schools' applications this month.
"I thought there should be a moratorium until the state charter commission has time, without any pressure from legislators or the executive, to come back with best practices and a strategy for full-time, virtual, online learning," Alfond said.
State House Bureau Writer Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 370-7652 or at:
Maine Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland
Newly-elected Speaker of the House Mark Eves, D-North Berwick
The House Chamber in the State House in Augusta on Jan. 4.