Maine State Senate Majority Leader Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, addresses the crowd in the Auburn City Council Chamber on Monday night during a town hall meeting. At right is state Rep. Bettyann Sheats, D-Auburn. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

AUBURN — State Senate Democrats are eyeing a new line item in the state budget that would provide cash to bring more broadband service to rural Maine.

Nate Libby, a Lewiston Democrat who is Senate majority leader, said Monday that there are too many homes and businesses in the state that can only get online with dial-up phone service that most of America long ago left behind.

“We are quite a way behind,” Libby said, and it is “time to move this ball forward.”

Libby’s comments came during a town hall sponsored by Senate Democrats in Auburn to discuss their “Fighting for Maine” agenda in next year’s legislative session. It was the first of a series of sessions planned around the state.

About 60 people turned out in Auburn’s City Council Chamber to listen to Senate President Troy Jackson of Allagash, Libby and state Sen. Ned Claxton of Auburn run through a lengthy platform of issues they hope to tackle in the coming months.

Senate President Troy Jackson addresses the crowd in the Auburn City Council Chambers during a town hall meeting Monday night. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Jackson said lawmakers plan to build on their achievements during this year’s session, the first time in a decade that Democrats have held control of both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office.

State Rep. Bettyann Sheats, an Auburn Democrat, said getting broadband to more Mainers is a necessary step for such needed advances as telemedicine for people who are far from medical offices and hospitals.

Libby said efforts to get a bond issue to fund a program fell short this year so legislative leaders are eyeing “a straightforward appropriation” in the budget instead.

“We can’t wait any longer,” he said.

Libby also said he’s working to find a way to get started on a method to provide student debt relief.

He has been trying to get relief for anyone willing to live and work in Maine for five years, but a bid to put that on the ballot failed. So Libby said he has “a more modest proposal” this time around.

Instead of pushing for debt relief for anyone, he said, his proposal would offer $10,000 in debt forgiveness to anyone who works in Maine for five years in home health care, teaching or as a first responder.

“We desperately need to figure out a way to bring more workers to our state,” Libby said, and he hopes targeting some key job categories will kick-start the effort to use student debt aid to bring them to the Pine Tree State.

State Sen. Ned Claxton addresses the crowd Monday night in the Auburn City Council Chambers during a town hall meeting. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Most of the discussion focused on ways to lower the cost of health care and reduce prescription drug prices.

“The costs of medicines are really, really a challenge for people,” Claxton said.

But lawmakers also talked about targeted economic development assistance for businesses that hire Mainers and boost Maine products such as growing potatoes, logging or lobstering.

Jackson vowed to “fight like hell” for Mainers in traditional jobs that are getting hit these days.

College student Sean Monteith, who said the National Rifle Association would rather see “dead children” than action on gun control, asked why legislators haven’t done more to ban assault rifles.

Sheats told him, “You’re absolutely right. And we let you down.”

She said the state ought to have universal background checks for all gun sales, not just ones sold by licensed dealers.

“We have got to close the loophole in our background checks,” she said.

Sheats said critics rely on fearmongering to prevent measures that would help “keeps guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.”

Jackson said there are many issues that legislators need to deal with.

He said he sometimes feels frustrated at the way the state is going “but we’re trying to make things better.”

Democratic State Sen. Ned Claxton of Auburn, standing at left, addresses a standing-room-only crowd during Monday night’s Maine Senate Democrats forum in the Auburn City Council Chamber. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

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