State of Maine: Bill info, only a click away

A recent radio call-in show featured two Maine legislators, a Republican and a Democrat, invited to discuss the legislative session so far. It went like this. Caller: “You’re familiar with LD ABC? About taxes?” Legislator: “Er, not that specific bill…” Next caller: “You know the bill about lobster fishing, LD XYZ?” Legislator: “Umm, I’m not aware of that specific bill…”

To come right down to it, it was not all that informative. This is in no way a reflection on the two legislators who participated. They are invited by the radio host or put forward by their caucuses because they are among the more articulate and well-informed legislators. It is much more a function of the legislative process, and the stage it is in at the moment.

We are closing in on the halfway point of this year’s session. There are now more than 1,200 bills in print (with more than 1,000 yet to come), so with the exception of the one or two biggest bills of the session, hardly any of them will be recognized by their LD (legislative document) number. Bills are not even recognizable by subject. Not yet.

There is a flow to a session, and familiarity with a wide number of bills comes only after the session has really gotten rolling. First comes bill submissions, then drafting and printing, then referral to committee, then public hearings and work sessions, and after all that bills are sent to the House and Senate for floor votes.

Only then will legislators be exposed to many more documents. The bills will all be looked at by caucus leadership and discussed in caucus meetings. For a bill representing major party goals, pressure will be brought to bear for all caucus members to support it.

Prior to this, the bills legislators will know are those they have themselves sponsored, or those assigned to the policy committee on which they serve. Add a few of the big, ideological bills that garner the most buzz in a session and that will be the extent of it.

So it is no surprise that at this point legislators can’t respond to queries from the public without a little research. The public might be bemused or discouraged by the vague responses their questions elicit. If you really want to know what’s up with a bill, it’s not that hard to do it yourself.

The bill directory lists all bills in print for the session. Google “129th bill directory.” You will be rewarded with the list of bills in numerical order. Bill titles are not always informative but scrolling through the list will give you an idea of the variety of issues facing legislators this year.

If a title intrigues you, click on the link and you will reach an information page for that bill with all manner of information including a list of sponsors and co-sponsors, the full text of the bill, which committee has it, when the public hearing was or will be, whether there have been amendments added, and whether it has been voted out to the floor.

If you already know the LD number, Google “Maine bill status,” put the LD number into the search box and away you go. If you don’t have a bill number but want to research bills regarding taxation or farming or education, click on “Advanced Search” and you will be able to rummage around by sponsor, policy committee or words in the title or subject.

You can also register for a policy committee’s email list. Look up Maine legislative committees, email the committee clerk, and ask to have your email added. You will receive notice of public hearings, work sessions and other committee information.

If you lose your way, the Legislative Information Office is there to help. It has the details on bills, how the process works, legislative schedules and studies, state boards and commissions and legislative reports.

Finally, there is the Law and Legislative Reference Library. Located in the State House, reference librarians help legislators and all the rest of us with queries about state activities and functions, legislative history and research resources. Click on “Ask a Law Librarian” to get a speedy answer to a simple question by email.

The library’s website has a very helpful list of subjects such as lemon laws and living wills, child support and coastal access, marriage, marijuana or service animals, all there to get you started on how state law affects your life.

To the extent you can do some of the legwork yourself and be prepared for a detailed conversation with your local representative, you will get farther, faster. If your legislator is in session, or a committee meeting, or it’s the middle of the night, try the DIY approach. It’s fun, fast and free.

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