MAY 29: House and Senate co-sponsors cheer as Gov. Janet Mills signs into law a ban on the use of conversion therapy on minors. Mills said it would send an unequivocal message to young LGBTQ people: “We will always defend your right to be who you are.” Staff photo by Joe Phelan

AUGUSTA – Swept to power in the 2018 elections, when they won control of both houses of the Legislature as well as the governor’s office, Democrats arrived at the State House in January with a long list of objectives for the first lawmaking session.

For the previous eight years their priorities had been largely stymied by Republican Gov. Paul LePage and his conservative allies in the Legislature. But with Democratic Gov. Janet Mills at the helm, the progressive floodgates were opened and legislators submitted well over 2,400 proposals they wanted to become law.

From funding Medicaid expansion to setting stricter regulations on guns, more than 1,845 bills were printed. Although the finally tally of how many will be signed into law is still not clear, many high-profile measures have already been enacted. Typically about a third of all bills make it through the legislative grinder and the governor’s office. However, nonpartisan officials suspect the number will be higher this year.

Here’s a look at some of the winners and losers from first session of the 129th Legislature:

WINNERS

EXPANDED HEALTH CARE

Probably the biggest winners of 2019 were those pushing for expanded health care coverage for Maine’s poorest people.

At least 70,000 more low-income Mainers will now be eligible for MaineCare coverage approved by voters in a statewide vote in 2016.  LePage had five times vetoed expansions passed by the Legislature.

But moving forward with the ballot-box law was Job 1 for the new administration of Gov. Mills. who started her first day in office signing an executive order reversing course on the LePage administration’s foot-dragging delays, legal battles and outright refusal to enact the new law.

“It’s taken a long time,” Robyn Merrill, the executive director of Maine Equal Justice, one of the top advocates for the expansion, said following the Mills executive order.

And despite LePage’s long-term reluctance, Republicans in the Legislature this year worked with Democrats to fund the new law, including more than $200 million in the next two-year state budget to cover the expected state costs of $175 million, which will also draw down about $700 million a year in federal matching money, and pad the state’s savings account with a contingency amount of $29 million, just in case cost estimates are off.

ABORTION RIGHTS

Maine’s Legislature took a course opposite to that of several other states, especially those in the South, when it approved several abortion-related bills – always split on party lines. One allowed abortions to be covered by the state-funded health program, MaineCare; another allowing nurse practitioners and physician assistants to perform abortions; and a third improved access to the day-after pill by allowing it to be dispensed in vending machines.

Three other bills protecting a woman’s right to an abortion or protecting the privacy of health care professionals who perform abortions were also signed into law by Mills.

“This year, the Maine Legislature took a giant step forward to ensure that a woman, regardless of income or where she lives, can make a decision about abortion that’s best for her and her family,”  Nicole Clegg, vice president of public policy for the Planned Parenthood Maine Action Fund and Planned Parenthood of Northern New England said late last week. “Legislators made their opinions clear. Maine is a state where access to reproductive and sexual health care is essential to living a healthy, successful life and politicians shouldn’t be putting up barriers to care.”

VACCINE ADVOCATES

Lawmakers, especially those in the state Senate, went back and forth over a bill that ended religious and philosophical exemptions for childhood vaccines, making the shots mandatory for all who want to attend school and college in Maine.

MAY 14: Sen Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell, addresses colleagues during debate on a bill that would end all non-medical exemptions for school-required vaccinations. Passing in the Senate by a single vote, the measure restricting opt-outs has since become law that will take effect before school starts this fall. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

The new law, which will go into effect before school starts in 2021, comes as Maine and other states around the nation are facing growing incidents of infectious disease outbreaks, which health officials have said could have been avoided with readily available vaccinations.

Maine, like other states, had seen an increasing number of parents opting out of vaccinating their children over concerns about side effects or over religious beliefs. But health officials countered that much of the concern is not founded in science and warned that a growing number of unvaccinated children are compromising so-called herd immunity. Especially at risk are children who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, such as those with compromised immune systems from fighting cancers.

Despite the protests of hundreds of parents who fought against ending the exemptions, and the objections of Republican lawmakers who argued the bill was unconstitutional, the Senate, by a single-vote margin, approved the bill and Mills soon thereafter signed it into law. Maine joins West Virginia, Mississippi, California and New York with a law requiring all school-age children to be vaccinated.

TAXPAYERS

Income and property taxpayers came out on top at the end of the 2019 lawmaking session. There were no new income tax increases and lawmakers agreed to expanded property-tax relief programs, including a measure increasing the state’s Homestead Exemption to make the first $25,000 of value on primary residence exempt from local property taxes.

Another bill, sponsored by House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and signed into law by Mills last week, creates a new property tax relief fund that will issue $100 checks to homeowners enrolled in the homestead program, once the fund has enough in it to do so.

Additionally, the nearly $8 billion state budget increases the amount of state tax dollars returned to municipalities as “revenue sharing,” with the goal of reducing pressure on local property taxes.

EDUCATION

Public schools and especially public-school teachers should come out ahead following the 2019 lawmaking session. Lawmakers agreed to boost public school funding by $115 million, bringing the state’s share of funding to 51 percent of school costs, but still short of a voter mandate of 55 percent.

Lawmakers also set in place a plan to raise the minimum teacher salary to $40,000 a year statewide over the next three years, setting aside the funds to reimburse local school districts for those increases. The new budget also includes another $18 million for a revolving loan fund that provides money for local school infrastructure improvements and renovations. On top of that, lawmakers made more children eligible for free lunch and breakfast at school, eliminating the reduced lunch program and making all children that would have been eligible for that eligible for free lunch instead.

ENVIRONMENT

“I think this is the best year for the environment at the State House in 20 years, hands down,” Pete Didisheim, senior director of advocacy for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said Friday. “There was more progress achieved on environmental issues than we could have imagined.”

Lawmakers voted to ban single-use plastic shopping bags and foam food/beverage containers, to lift size restrictions on “community solar” installations and to phase out the use of PFAS – so-called “forever chemicals” – in food packaging. And they did it, in most cases, with broad bipartisan support.

Mills also set – and the Legislature approved – ambitious state goals for working to address climate change. Maine’s new official state goals are that, by 2050, 100 percent of the state’s electricity will come from renewable sources and greenhouse gas emissions will be 80 percent below 1990 levels.

After battling with former Gov. LePage for years, solar installers were able to reinstate the “net metering” policy that provides financial incentives – in the form of bill credits – to homeowners with solar energy systems. Other bills will allow more homeowners or businesses to connect to a larger “community solar” project.

One major disappointment for land conservation advocates – including groups representing sportsmen – was the Legislature’s failure to pass a bond package that included money for the Land for Maine’s Future program. But LMF supporters are optimistic the Legislature will eventually send a bond package to voters.

“This has been a session of historic wins for the environment,” said Beth Ahearn with Maine Conservation Voters. “After eight years of inaction, we have seen policy-setting victories beginning with climate (change) and clean energy.”

TRIBAL-STATE RELATIONS

Mills came into office pledging to improve the state’s (as well as her own) relationship with tribal leaders in Maine.

APRIL 26: Surrounded by leaders of Maine’s tribes, Gov. Janet Mills signs into law a measure changing the name of the October holiday from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Dana, at left in the photo, applauded the inroads made in this session, saying: “There definitely have been some bridges built.” Staff photo by Joe Phelan

All parties report significant progress even as they acknowledge a long road ahead.

On Friday, Mills was surrounded by leaders from the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Nation and the Houlton Band of Maliseets as she signed into law some of the nation’s most protective water standards on newly designated “sustenance fishing” waters.

Mills has also signed bills banning Indian mascots or nicknames at Maine schools, changing the Columbus Day holiday to Indigenous People’s Day and creating a task force to examine a decades-old disagreement over the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act.

Rena Newell, the Passamaquoddy representative to the Legislature, said the atmosphere in the State House has clearly improved since 2015, when her tribe and the Penobscot Nation withdrew their representatives. Newell said she hopes that momentum will carry forward into next year.

“This session we have definitely seen some movement,” Newell said.

Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Dana said leaders are optimistic given the collaborative work on such a broad range of both symbolic and substantive issues important to tribes.

“There definitely have been some bridges built,” Dana said, noting the previous tensions with not only the LePage administration but also with Mills while she was attorney general. “She has done a good job, her office has done a good job and the tribes have been open to working with them.”

“It’s a new day,” Mills said after signing the sustenance fishing bill.

GAMBLERS AND MARIJUANA SMOKERS

Starting as early as next spring, Mainers will be able to engage in two formerly illegal activities – betting on athletic events and buying pot – without fear of prosecution.

Lawmakers finally approved a complex set of rules to regulate the retail sale of recreational marijuana. And it’s been a long time coming for legalization advocates, given that Maine voters opted to legalize personal possession, use and purchase of marijuana in November 2016.

And by the spring or summer of 2020, Mainers should be able to stroll into a casino, off-track betting parlor or pull up a mobile app to place a bet on athletic events happening around the world.

Maine is joining roughly a dozen states – with more expected to follow suit – that have legalized sports betting since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal prohibition last year.

To place a bet, you’ll have to be at least 21 years old. The law currently authorizes Maine-based organizations to offer sports betting: Hollywood Casino in Bangor, Oxford Casino, Scarborough Downs, the four off-track betting facilities, and Maine’s four Native American tribes.

But if the experiences of other states are any indication, the vast majority of bets in Maine will be placed online. And the biggest operator in mobile betting, DraftKings, is eager to get involved.

“We are hopeful that Governor Mills moves quickly to sign the bill to usher in an era of legal, regulated sports betting in the Pine Tree State,” a DraftKings spokesman said in a statement.

VOTERS

Mainers will likely disagree whether several notable changes to Maine election voting systems – along with proposed changes that didn’t make the cut – are winning or losing scenarios.

Arguably the biggest change will occur on March 3, when Maine joins more than a dozen other states holding presidential primaries. “Super Tuesday” is the first multi-state primary of the 2020 election, guaranteeing all-out media coverage of the results. But with voters in places like California, Texas, North Carolina and Virginia also casting “Super Tuesday” ballots, don’t expect Maine to get too much attention.

The switch from caucuses to primaries is significant for some, particularly political die-hards who love the hyperlocal, party-building nature of the lengthy caucuses. But primaries typically draw out more voters.

New and young would-be voters will also find it easier to register to vote under another new law that automatically registers eligible Mainers when they interact with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles or some other state agencies.

But several other election-related changes sought by progressive groups failed or were shelved.

For instance, the House and Senate were at odds over a bill to add Maine to the list of states agreeing to use the national popular vote instead of the Electoral College in presidential elections.

Lawmakers also did not finalize a bill to allow voters to use the ranked-choice voting process when voting for presidential contenders during next March’s primary and the November election. That bill is still technically alive, however, and could be voted on during a special session later this year.

SOCIAL ISSUES: CONVERSION THERAPY

Maine became the 17th state in the U.S. to ban the practice of “conversion therapy” when Mills signed into law a bill sponsored by Assistant Majority Leader Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, prohibiting state-licensed counselors, psychologists, social workers, health professionals, guidance counselors, and pastoral and family therapists from engaging in conversion therapy.

The new law defines conversion therapy as “any practice or treatment that seeks or claims to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity, including, but not limited to, any effort to change gender expression or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions, feelings or behavior toward others based on the individual’s gender.”

SOCIAL ISSUES: SEXUAL ASSAULT AND DOMESTIC VIOLENCE

Lawmakers approved and Mills signed into law a $5 million boost for organizations that provide counseling and other support services for the victims and survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence in Maine. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, was the first increase in state funding for domestic violence and sexual assault prevention and supports since 2000.

In the last 10 years, according to information provided by the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, state support for the programs has actually been reduced from $1.6 million for domestic violence and $698,811 for sexual assault agencies in 2009 to $1 million and $579,273, respectively, in 2019.

Elizabeth Ward Saxl, executive director of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said the increased funds will also help draw down critical federal matching money at a time when demand for services for victims of both domestic violence and sexual assault is at an all-time high.

Also approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Mills is a bill protecting survivors of domestic violence from economic abuse, allowing them to shed debt wrongly incurred in their name by their abusers under a court order. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jessica Fay, D-Raymond, prohibits credit rating agencies from counting that debt against them. The law puts Maine at the forefront in the nation when it comes to the issue of economic abuse and will allow a court, when issuing a protection from abuse order, to also issue an order for monetary relief, prohibiting debt collectors from calling or taking action, while also defining the term “economic abuse” in state law.

LOSERS

GUN CONTROL ADVOCATES

Gun control advocates were cautiously optimistic after the big Democratic wins at the polls last year. The 2019 session proved, however, that enacting progressive gun control measures is never easy in Maine.

JUNE 4: David Hogg, a survivor of the school shootings at Parkland, Fla., and co-founder of the March For Our Lives movement, meets with lawmakers to advocate for gun safety legislation. Few proposals made it to the governor’s desk. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Three years after voters rejected a universal background check proposal, supporters offered a modified version requiring criminal background checks before private sales at gun shows or in response to advertisements such as a listing in Uncle Henry’s. The bill exempted gifts or transfers among family members, a major sticking point in the 2016 ballot initiative.

But the measure failed in both chambers. Even in the House, which has 89 Democrats this year, the bill received only 66 votes in support.

Lawmakers also rejected bills seeking to ban large-capacity ammunition magazines and to allow municipalities to ban guns at polling places or inside public buildings.

A version of the “red flag” gun legislation that has gained traction nationwide also failed in the Legislature. But a compromise bill that also aims to temporarily remove guns from dangerous individuals – via a different process – passed the Legislature and was signed into law by Mills.

That bill, L.D. 1811, allows police to order individuals to temporarily surrender their guns if a doctor or other medical professional determines they pose a significant threat to themselves or others. A judge would then review the case within 14 days and determine whether to return the firearms or order them held for up to a year.

The compromise was negotiated between the Mills administration, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and key lawmakers.

Geoffrey Bickford, executive director of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, said his organization was obviously disappointed the original “red flag” bill didn’t pass. But Bickford’s group also supported the compromise bill because it still seeks to temporarily remove guns from people who are suicidal or pose a threat to others.

“That’s what was addressed, albeit in a different way with the ‘yellow paper’ bill,” Bickford said, referring to the “protective custody” process used in the legislation. “So we are very happy.”

MOTORISTS

Maine drivers were also overall losers in the 2019 lawmaking session. Although the Legislature did not approve an increase in the state’s gasoline tax, it failed to support a bill to repeal or lengthen to two years Maine’s required annual vehicle inspection program. Of the 35,000 motor vehicle accidents logged each year in Maine, about 1,050 accidents, or 3 percent of the total, involve a vehicle defect as a contributing factor, according to testimony from Maine State Police Lt. Bruce Scott, who oversees the inspection program.

Drivers who like to talk on the phone also lost out under a new law that will make it illegal to drive and talk, without using a hands-free device. A first offense will cost $50 with repeated offenders risking as much as a $500 fine and three-month license suspension.

Although Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, the chief sponsor of the bill, who has pushed for years for a hands-free law, said he has no doubt Maine’s highways will be safer because of it.

Motorists may also lose out when it comes to the quality of the state’s highways and bridges, as lawmakers failed to reach an agreement on a bond package that included $110 million for transportation improvements statewide. That work is so important that Mills may call lawmakers back for a special session later this year in an attempt to get a bond package passed.

CITY OF PORTLAND

Busloads of asylum seekers from African nations who crossed the southern U.S. border have arrived in the city of Portland in the last two weeks, taxing the city’s emergency shelter capacity and its ability to pay for services. City officials were hoping the Legislature would repeal a LePage-era rule that prohibits municipalities from using state funds from General Assistance programs on non-citizens.

But those hopes were dashed when the bill failed to gain enough support and was carried over to the next legislative session.

Portland was also the largest municipal loser on a bill that would have allowed cities and towns to add a 1 percent local option sales tax. Had that measure passed, Portland could have collected an additional $16 million a year in tax revenue. Although the bill was scaled back to be applied only to restaurant meals and lodging, which would have generated about $3 million a year, if failed to gain legislative support.

Correction: This story was updated at 1:50 p.m. Monday, June 24, 2019, to correct the time period when a vaccine requirement will go into effect for schoolchildren.


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