Lawmakers returned to Augusta Wednesday for a legislative session likely to be dominated – at least initially – by debate over state spending and whether to alter voter-approved measures to legalize marijuana and raise the minimum wage.

Supporters of legalized marijuana and a $12-an-hour minimum wage positioned themselves just outside the House and Senate doors Wednesday morning to talk to lawmakers as they exited the chambers, underscoring the stakes on the first day of the 2017 session. Among them was Esther Pew, a full-time graduate student who works as a waitress in Portland. Pew urged legislators not to tinker with the planned phase out of the so-called “tip credit” that allows employers to pay less than the minimum wage to workers who receive tips.

“The people voted and the people supported this, so I think it is very important that lawmakers respect the will of the voters,” said Pew, who works at Sparetime Entertainment bowling alley.

This week’s legislative agenda is fairly light, although leaders continue to meet behind closed doors to discuss the coming six-month session. The main event likely will occur Friday when Republican Gov. Paul LePage unveils a two-year budget proposal expected to include income tax cuts and substantial reductions to the state government workforce. Also, on Thursday, lawmakers will hold a public hearing on plans for a new psychiatric facility to house patients deemed to be not criminally responsible or incompetent to stand trial.

On Wednesday, the hallways outside the House and Senate chambers were filled with dozens of lobbyists – most of them familiar faces around the State House – getting acquainted or reacquainted with lawmakers. Meanwhile, advocates for progressive causes – such as environmental preservation, local “food sovereignty” and universal health care – held an Alliance for the Common Good rally one floor below in the State House.

However, much of the buzz at the start of the session revolves around what lawmakers will do with the minimum wage and marijuana legalization ballot initiatives.

Legislative leaders from both parties agree they need to act quickly to clarify that only Mainers age 21 and over will be allowed to possess marijuana for recreational purposes, thereby addressing concerns that the ballot initiative inadvertently legalized underage possession by eliminating another section of state law. Absent other legislative interventions, Mainers age 21 and over will be able to possess up to 2.5 ounces of pot and six adult plants as of Jan. 30.

House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, were expected to huddle Wednesday afternoon to discuss other issues related to legalization.

Specifically, Thibodeau supports a one-year moratorium on the sale of marijuana – as well as delays for simple possession of pot – in order to give the state time to craft regulations and enforcement mechanisms. But Gideon said Tuesday that she would prefer to give lawmakers and the rulemaking process the nine months allowed under the ballot initiative and only extend the time frame, if necessary.

Gideon and Thibodeau also were expected to discuss whether to create a special committee to review the numerous marijuana-related bills.

Lawmakers also are expected to introduce several bills to tweak or delay implementation of the ballot initiative increasing Maine’s minimum wage in several stages until it hits $12 an your in 2020. Increases would be indexed annually to inflation after 2020, while the “tip credit” would be ratcheted down until employers pay the full minimum wage by 2024.

“You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in our caucus that voted for the initiative on the ballot, so there is a lot of appetite” for changes, said Rep. Ellie Espling, a New Gloucester Republican who serves as the assistant minority leader in the House. “I think our caucus would welcome any changes. The tip credit, indexing, all of these things we have had concerns about and will continue to have concerns about.”

Supporters are pledging to defend the minimum wage ballot initiative, which passed by a margin of 55.5 percent to 44.5 percent.

Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, pointed out that more than 420,000 Mainers supported the minimum wage increase on Nov. 8.

“When you put it that way, it’s pretty hard to say those people should be disregarded by 186 of us,” Jackson said, referring to the number of voting members of the Legislature. “If people want to repeal this, I think they should go out and gather signatures to see if they can get it repealed.”



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