A bill to abolish a controversial police intelligence agency passed in the Maine House of Representatives on Monday only to fail decisively in the Senate later in the day.

The defeat effectively kills L.D. 1278, which would have eliminated nearly $1 million in funding for the Maine Information and Analysis Center, a division of the Maine State Police, and directed that money elsewhere.

The Senate vote spares Gov. Janet Mills, a former prosecutor, from having to choose between signing the bill, which has support from progressive Democrats, or vetoing it against the advice of her public safety chief.

The so-called “fusion center” was created in Maine along with dozens of others nationwide in the wake of 9/11 to fight terrorism but has been used for fighting domestic crimes. More recently, it’s been subjected to criticism and scrutiny following a lawsuit filed by a former state police trooper and a leak of its data that shed light on its practices.

“We, in the Maine Legislature, must invest in public safety,” Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement. “We all want our communities and our state to be safe. At the same time, it is our job to decide not to spend the hard-earned dollars of our community members on initiatives that are wasteful. We should not be billing Maine taxpayers to pay state police to collect information on Maine people who are not committing crimes and reporting it to corporations.”

The bill sailed through the House in an 88-54 vote after spirited debate. Democrats mostly voted in favor while Republicans opposed. Nine members were absent.

Just hours later, though, the Senate voted 29-6 against the bill. Five Democrats and Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, voted in support.

A separate bill, submitted by the Department of Public Safety to address concerns over transparency, passed through both the House and Senate and was signed by Mills. That bill, sponsored by Sen. Susan Deschambault, D-York, requires the center’s managers to submit annual reports to the Legislature and answer questions about its operations annually.

But eliminating the center entirely, which was opposed widely by law enforcement, proved too difficult.

Mills’ public safety commissioner, Michael Sauschuck, testified in opposition to the bill during a public hearing this spring and said without the center Maine would be less safe. He explained that domestic extremism has become a major concern, as evidenced by the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6, and Maine’s fusion center and others have tapped into that network.

“To think there would be 80 fusion centers geared to share information in a fluid and timely manner, and to have the state of Maine be a gaping black hole for the lack of information sharing is scary,” he said during the public hearing. “It’s certainly scary to me, and it should be scary for you.”

Other members of law enforcement also opposed the bill, including the Maine Sheriff’s Association, the Maine Emergency Management Agency and the Maine Warden Service.

The Maine Information and Analysis Center operated in relative anonymity for years. Its employees use open-source information, such as public social media accounts, to create bulletins and warnings about potentially dangerous people or to alert agencies of events in other parts of the state or the country. Its agents do not have arrest powers and do not conduct criminal investigations but serve as a sort of clearinghouse for information that is shared among the state’s law enforcement agencies.

Last year, a state trooper from Scarborough filed a lawsuit alleging he suffered retaliation from his superiors when he tried to blow the whistle on unethical and illegal practices at the center, alleging that the agency kept an illegal gun registry and collected information on peaceful demonstrators and activists.

A federal judge in March dismissed all of the counts of the suit alleging privacy violations, leaving only two counts that center on the alleged workplace retaliation the trooper suffered, meaning the judge will not weigh in on the validity of his claims.

The center also was subjected to a hack that revealed it tracked lawful demonstrators and sometimes passed information about groups to partners in private industry who own critical infrastructure like power and gas lines, for instance. That was the case for activists opposing the CMP corridor project to Quebec, who were the subject of an intelligence bulletin that was hacked and released online about protest activities in the Forks.

Some critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said the center’s focus on drug crimes has been part of a failed approach to criminalizing addiction.

In other legislative action Monday:

• The Senate enacted a bill that bans aerial spraying of toxic herbicides in the Maine woods. The initial Senate vote was 19-14, while the House passed the bill 77-53.

The bill was sponsored by Senate President Troy Jackson, a logger by trade. Aerial herbicide spraying is used by landowners to kill off less favorable trees to facilitate the growth of more profitable trees. This practice has continued despite the adverse effects these chemicals have on the local ecosystems. Glyphosate, a main ingredient in many herbicides, has been banned in several places due to links to cancer.

“The aerial spraying of toxic chemicals, including glyphosate, is a harmful and unnecessary practice that is becoming increasingly more popular among landowners at the expense of the people and wildlife in northern Maine,” Jackson said in a statement.

• The Maine House of Representatives passed a bill 82-59 that would give preference to Maine-based businesses and American manufacturers when awarding state procurement contracts.

The “Buy American and Build Maine Act,” also sponsored by Jackson, already passed the Senate 21-13.

“The Buy American, Build Maine Act is simple – it’s about keeping our tax dollars local while supporting the workers and businesses in our own backyard when the state awards procurement contracts,” Jackson said. “Far too often, Maine small businesses lose out on state contracts to out-of-state companies, when the difference between the two bids is pennies. It just doesn’t make sense.”

• The Senate also voted to enact a bill from Sen. Louie Luchini, D-Ellsworth, that would make permanent most of the voting measures that had been put in place temporarily because of the pandemic, including: maintaining secure drop-off boxes for absentee ballots, continuing the online absentee ballot tracker, and offering guidance to help clerks “cure” ballots to make sure citizens’ votes are accurately registered.

The bill was supported by Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows but opposed by many Republicans who have echoed national concerns – most of which have been unfounded – that the voting measures invite more fraud.

“We’ve heard from Maine voters and local election officials that many of the changes enacted in 2020 to protect health, safety and access to the ballot were beneficial, and we’re excited to continue them in future elections,” Bellows said in a statement. “Maine has a long history of leading the way on conducting free and fair elections with robust participation, and L.D. 1363 keeps us on that path.”

• The Senate enacted a bill unanimously that directs the state’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations to study and propose solutions to disparities in access to prenatal care in the state.

Maine, like many other states, has a significant racial disparity in access to prenatal care. In 2019, 90 percent of all women started prenatal care in the first trimester, although less than 75 percent of Black women had prenatal care in the first trimester. In Maine, only 4 percent of all women had no prenatal care until the third trimester, while 12 percent of Black women in Maine had no prenatal care until the third trimester. This is worse than the national rate of 10 percent and is tied with Texas for the worst rate in the country.

“Study after study has shown that access to quality prenatal care is absolutely vital for expecting mothers. The unfortunate truth is that in Maine, far too many women don’t have access to this care – and far too many of those mothers are women of color. We must do what we can to find out what is causing this disparity and address it,” said Sen. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, the bill’s sponsor. “This bill will ultimately protect the health of more mothers and children across Maine, and I’m grateful for all the support it has received.”

All of those bills will go to Mills for either a signature or veto, or they could become law without a signature once 10 days pass.

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