Press Herald file photo

Good morning, happy Monday and congratulations to the New England Patriots.

There’s no legislative activity today, thanks to more snow. The attention will begin shifting to Gov. Paul LePage’s address Tuesday evening before the joint convention of the Legislature. The governor is expected to focus on his budget proposal and his tax overhaul plan. Be sure to check back here and for updates and analysis of the speech on Tuesday night.

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Dark money has become so ubiquitous in discussions about election spending that there’s a tendency for its meaning to get lost. Put simply, dark money is money that is spent by third party political action committees to influence elections. It’s limitless and hard, sometimes impossible, to trace who is doing the spending because the PACs are often funded by nonprofit organizations that can conceal the identity of donors.

Example: Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, which spent $1.5 million in the 2014 midterm election to boost a number of moderate Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, apparently because she was desperate for the help.

CRES describes itself as a conservative group. But Huffington Post reporter Paul Blumenthal unearthed some information that shows the group was initially funded with seed money from groups that are anything but conservative. From his piece:

“From June 2012 through June 2013, the group (CRES) received $500,000 each from the Advocacy Fund and the Trust for Energy Innovation.

The Advocacy Fund, formerly the Tides Advocacy Fund, is a key backer of liberal nonprofits across the country, distributing $11.8 million in grants in 2013. It currently funds groups engaged in promoting immigration reform, increasing worker protections, reforming chemical safety laws and increasing investment in the solar energy industry. …

The newer Trust for Energy Innovation … sent out $12 million from its inception in 2011 through May 2013, and its recipients included such traditionally Democratic environmental groups as the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club.”

James Dozier, president of Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, told Blumenthal that his group has received funding from 800 donors and backing from more than 5,000 “conservative activists.”

If CRES is truly a liberal group in disguise, why did it feel compelled to don the conservative cloak? After all, the League of Conservation Voters openly endorsed Collins last year and didn’t feel the need to keep it a secret. But as Blumenthal notes, Reuben Munger is on the board of Trust for Energy Innovation as well as the League of Conservation Voters. He leads Vision Ridge Partners, a venture capital fund that invests in alternative energy companies that seek federal backing. Maybe that’s part of the answer.

— Steve Mistler

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Gov. Paul LePage’s tax plan received some more national attention last week, this time from Forbes. The opinion column — it’s not a news story — was written by Travis H. Brown. If Brown sounds familiar it’s because he is the author of the book “How Money Walks.” He visited the Blaine House in 2013  to talk about it. It was part of a 2013 tour that also included an appearance at Freedom Fest in Las Vegas. The emcee for that event? Old friend Gary Alexander.

Anyway, Brown, is a strategist and fundraiser for the Republican Governors Association, which spent close to $4 million helping reelect LePage last year. Additionally, Brown appears to have played some role in boosting a tax reform plan in Ohio that has many similarities to the one under consideration here in Maine. That plan, pushed by Republican Gov. John Kasich, also proposed lowering the income tax and using increased sales taxes to pay for it.

Here’s what the Columbus Dispatch wrote about the plan in September:

“The ‘tax reform’ part of the equation is where Kasich has run into trouble in the GOP legislature, because it means raising other taxes to at least partially offset lost income-tax revenue.

“We’ve not cut taxes without figuring out a way to pay for those tax cuts,” the governor said.

Kasich’s proposals have included a significant expansion of the sales tax to things such as haircuts, a new severance tax on oil and gas obtained through shale fracking, increased cigarette taxes and an increased commercial-activities tax.

GOP lawmakers have rejected all of them so far, though they did approve a 0.25 percent increase and a slight expansion of the sales tax.”

—  Steve Mistler

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A coalition of more than 30 environmental groups unveiled their legislative priorities on Wednesday during a press conference where the theme was collaboration and finding “common ground.”

The list and the coalition’s emphasis on collaboration didn’t impress one of the key lawmakers those groups will have to work with – or at least testify in front of.

“It’s about time,” said Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, the Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

Saviello isn’t shy about expressing his displeasure with some of the groups behind the coalition, and in particular Maine Conservation Voters. The Republican – who has also spent time as a Democrat and an independent in the State House – really doesn’t like the organization’s annual “score card” which grades lawmakers based on their votes on a handful of bills.

It’s no secret that lawmakers have a love-hate relationship with the “report cards” issued by interest groups, often during campaign season. They tout the reports when they get a good grade and dismiss them when hit with a sub-par rating.

Saviello, who got a 50 percent in the group’s most recent system and has a 56 percent “lifetime” score, compared the grades to a pass-or-fail system with no in-between. While that’s not entirely true (lawmakers are given percentage grades ranging in the Senate last year from 8 percent to 100 percent), such score cards are certainly imperfect ways of measuring legislators’ performance because bills are cherry-picked by the organizations.

As for the coalition’s 2015 priorities, Saviello said the groups “ran away from the issues” that are likely to be most contentious, such as re-writing the state’s mining regulations.

This is noteworthy because, as co-chair of the committee that handles many bills tied to the environment, Saviello has quite a bit of sway on these issues both in committee and when they hit the Senate floor. And groups who lean green will likely need Saviello’s support if contentious environment-related bill are to pass in the Republican-controlled Senate (Democrats control the House).

Maureen Drouin, executive director of the Maine Conservation Alliance that put out the priorities list, as well as Maine Conservation Voters, acknowledged the groups were trying to stay positive but promised they wouldn’t back down from the tougher issues.

“Make no mistake, we will also be watching closely and we will defend any attempt to weaken or dismantle past progress,” Drouin said.

— Kevin Miller

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Thirty-six former and current Democratic state lawmakers have signed an amicus brief in a U.S. Supreme Court case that will determine whether people purchasing insurance through the Affordable Care Act in states with federally-run exchanges, or marketplaces, can receive subsidies.

The brief is also signed by Democratic congressional leaders Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California and Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada. The document sides with the Obama administration, which is defending what could be the most lethal challenge to the law and one that could have a big impact in Maine. Click here to read how one of the most aggressive opponents of the law convinced Gov. Paul LePage and state lawmakers to go with the federal exchange in 2012 and how it fits in with the upcoming SCOTUS decision. The story is also listed as an “authority” in the amicus brief.

— Steve Mistler

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Two Maine lawmakers received some ink in this Washington Post story about how some states are attempting to tighten opt-out rules that critics believe has allowed the anti-vaccination movement to proliferate.

Colleague Joe Lawlor has already reported on one bill sponsored by Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, mentioned in the WaPo piece. However, Rep. Ralph Tucker, D-Brunswick, is also mentioned for a proposal that would remove the philosophical exemption from the state’s opt-out law.

— Steve Mistler