Monday, March 10, 2014
Susan M. Cover
AUGUSTA — Lawmakers will return to the Capitol on Wednesday to face a $438 million budget gap that could grow larger, along with dozens of bills on everything from rail service to firewood to high school graduation rates.
Legislative leaders say they want all the work done by early to mid-April.
The return of lawmakers to Augusta signals the start of the second session of the 124th Legislature. Once they adjourn in April, legislators will hit the campaign trail to run for their seats again or, in two cases, strive for a promotion to the Governor's Office.
Before then, the state budget will take center stage, legislative leaders said.
''It will be the big item before us; there's no question about it,'' said House Majority Leader John Piotti, D-Unity.
Public hearings on the budget begin Tuesday as members of the Appropriations Committee take testimony on a $30 million budget adjustment.
Also Tuesday, the medical-marijuana task force will meet for what is expected to be the final time to help implement the expansion of the law approved by voters in November.
Then on Thursday, hearings begin on the governor's proposal to cut $438 million from the two-year budget, a process scheduled to continue through Jan. 14.
Piotti cited cuts to school funding, human services and revenue sharing with cities and towns as contentious areas.
''The easy stuff, I think we got it years ago,'' he said. ''Every dollar that we have to find at this point is not an easy dollar.''
Yet despite the difficulty ahead, Assistant House Minority Leader Phil Curtis, R-Madison, said legislators are ready to come back to work.
''I think it really will be kind of upbeat and optimistic,'' he said. ''We realize we've got a challenge and most people view a challenge as an opportunity to roll up their sleeves and do something.''
Beyond the budget, Curtis said he anticipates taking up energy and environmental issues.
Piotti said legislators will also consider changes to the state's dairy stabilization fund and school consolidation.
Other bills in the hopper include L.D. 1638, which would require railroad companies that receive money from the state to provide adequate service for moving goods.
''The most efficient way to move large quantities of products over land is by rail,'' the bill's sponsor, Rep. Stacey Fitts, R-Pittsfield, said in a written statement. ''In many other parts of the country, rail service is a part of the answer to energy dependency needs.''
Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, is sponsoring a bill that would prohibit the transportation of firewood into the state. There is an exception in the bill for wood marked as ''kiln dried'' or wood certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, is sponsoring a bill that establishes the goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate by the 2015-16 school year.
Senate Minority Leader Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said fewer bills will be considered because of the budget crisis.
''The fiscal environment isn't conducive to new programs or expansions,'' he said. ''We continue to be in a period of contraction.''
At the same time the Legislature cuts the budget, it also should consider borrowing additional money to help give the economy a boost, said Senate Majority Leader Phil Bartlett, D-Gorham.
In June 2009, lawmakers approved a $150 million bond package to pay for transportation, ''green'' energy, higher education, economic stimulus and conservation.
Voters in November approved the first chunk of money and will be asked again in June and November to approve additional installments. Bartlett said he'd like to discuss whether the state can do more.
''If we cut and cut and cut without any investment, we're going to wake up a year from now and be no better off,'' he said.
To save money, legislative leaders hope to adjourn one to two weeks early, Bartlett said.
''There really isn't going to be any kind of rolling start,'' he said. ''We're going to open the gates Jan. 6 and get going.''