AUGUSTA — The Maine Legislature met into the early hours on Saturday completing work on issues ranging from drug penalties and welfare to solar energy as the 2016 session drew to a close.

Lawmakers on Friday entered what many hoped would be the last day of the session – absent veto sessions later this month – with most of the major issues already off their tables. But the handful of remaining issues included several over which the parties had struggled to find common ground or that had presented individual lawmakers with difficult policy questions.

In their final act before adjourning a few minutes after 2 a.m. Saturday, lawmakers approved the disbursal of $21 million of legal settlement funds for more than a half-dozen programs, including $1.1 million for substance abuse pilot programs and $10 million diverted into the state’s rainy day fund.

WELFARE COMPROMISE

After weeks of discussion, lawmakers struck a compromise to prohibit welfare recipients from using Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds to purchase tobacco, alcohol, lottery tickets, tattoos or other items. Republicans and Democrats had agreed from the outset on the concept but disagreed on how to implement it as well as penalties for violators.

The compromise passed both chambers with strong majorities.

In the end, lawmakers agreed to immediately ban the use of welfare funds to purchase such items. But as part of the compromise, a commission will study the best way to implement an electronic system to block the sale of those items at the store counter when customers are using the electronic benefit transfer – or EBT – cards, which welfare recipients use like credit cards.

On the issue of penalties, lawmakers agreed to a three-month suspension of welfare benefits for first offenders and up to 24 months of suspended benefits for the third or subsequent offense. Violators would also have to pay back any misused welfare benefits.

“We all know this has been a highly politicized issue but is one where people have asked for pragmatic reforms to the welfare system,” said Sen. Nathan Libby, D-Lewiston, the sponsor of the L.D. 1097. “I think the vast majority of Maine people would offer a helping hand to those who need a hand up … but we all know there are bad apples in every bunch.”

Gov. Paul LePage, who has made welfare reform a major part of his election campaigns and administration priorities, is expected to sign the bill into law.

DRUG PENALTIES

Lawmakers also completed work on two much-debated bills related to Maine’s ongoing opiate epidemic.

The first bill, L.D. 1541, would increase the penalties for importing heroin or other opiates into Maine while creating the new crime of “aggravated illegal importation of scheduled drugs.” Under the bill, importation of heroin into Maine would become a Class B felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.

“Keeping drug dealers and their poison out of our state is crucial to fighting the epidemic Maine is facing,” the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton, said in a statement. “Now, criminals will know that Maine is not somewhere they can easily get away with their actions.”

The second measure, L.D. 1554, would make it a misdemeanor to possess small amounts of heroin, cocaine or prescription opiates.

However, individuals with prior convictions for trafficking or furnishing drugs would still be subject to felony charges.

Possession of more than 200 milligrams of heroin or other drugs on the list could be subject to felony charges as well.

The bill was needed to address a discrepancy in state law that resulted from the Legislature’s actions last year to reduce the penalties for low-level drug possession.

Supporters argued that a felony conviction for possession of small amounts of heroin or prescription opiates equated to a lifetime punishment for drug users who will struggle to get jobs, qualify for loans or even vote. But another bill also passed last year retained the felony penalties for the drugs and added fentanyl – a powerful prescription opiate linked to many overdoses – to the list.

The compromise passed by both chambers of the Legislature was supported by Attorney General Janet Mills, who had advocated for keeping heroin possession a felony offense, and by organizations pushing for making it a misdemeanor.

“This bill is recognition that harsher penalties are not the way to help people with substance use disorders,” Oamshri Amarasingham, advocacy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said in a statement.

“We are thrilled that fewer people will now face felony records, and all the collateral consequences that come with them, for low-level possession. Now we can focus on getting people the help they need.”

SOLAR POWER

Legislators also gave final approval to a bill aimed at supporting Maine’s solar industry, although it appeared that supporters would fall short of the votes needed to overcome an anticipated gubernatorial veto.

On Thursday, the House voted 91-56 to endorse an amended version of the bill, L.D. 1649, that aims to add 196 megawatts of solar energy to the state’s energy portfolio over the next four years. Maine has roughly 20 megawatts of installed solar energy today.

The bill also tweaks the controversial “net metering” system in which utility companies provide a one-to-one credit to solar customers for solar power they generate and feed back into the grid.

And in key changes negotiated with critics, the bill includes price caps and other restrictions aimed at keeping the costs to ratepayers lower.

Supporters contend the measure would provide a boost to Maine’s solar industry, creating up to 650 jobs and inviting $500 million in investment in the next several years.

But critics argue the bill will increase the costs to all electric ratepayers by effectively subsidizing the development of solar energy.

The Senate passed the bill early Saturday, but the 91-56 vote in the House was roughly 10 votes shy of the threshold needed to override a veto from LePage, a vocal critic of the state’s renewable energy policies.

FUNDS DISBURSED

In their last action, lawmakers also agreed to a plan to divvy up more than $21 million the Maine Attorney General’s Office received from a legal settlement against credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and its parent corporation, McGraw Hill Financial Inc., involving mortgage-backed securities.

The plan includes distributions of $10 million to Maine’s Budget Stabilization Fund, or rainy day fund; $1.1 million to pilot Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion programs that attempts to connect drug users with treatment programs rather than putting them in jail; $1.9 million for a cost-of-living rate increases for MaineCare for nonmedical and adult family care homes; $1.5 million for the Jobs for Maine’s Graduates program; and $3.5 million for sales tax exemptions for fuel used in commercial agriculture, aquaculture and wood harvesting.

MINIMUM WAGE

A push by some of Maine’s largest business groups to pass an alternative to the $12-an-hour minimum wage referendum also stalled in the Legislature.

Senate Republicans fell just shy during a vote Thursday of the two-thirds majority needed to pass a bill that would increase Maine’s minimum wage to $10 an hour in 2019.

The first increase – from $7.50 to $8.50 an hour – would occur this July, several months before Mainers are slated to vote on a ballot initiative backed by progressive groups and labor unions.

That referendum would increase the wage to $12 an hour by 2020 but also gradually phase out the tip credit for waiters, bartenders and other tipped employees.

The Senate took no action on the bill before adjourning Saturday morning.

The Legislature also:

• Voted to provide workers at Riverview Psychiatric Center a salary increase in an attempt to improve recruitment and retention, but the bill faced a potential veto.

• Gave final approval to a bill that would provide $900,000 in additional education funding to four towns affected by paper mill closures. The bill could also benefit other towns that see large businesses closed but was controversial because it changed the state’s education funding formula.

• Approved two bond measures totaling $150 million for transportation projects and research and development investments.


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