State of Maine: Legislators have work cut out

Those distant rumbles are the sounds of the Statehouse coming to life for the 129th Legislature. The happy little feet of new legislators are trying out the marble stairways, pattering down the tunnel to the State Office Building, and echoing across the rotunda.

Legislators have their seat assignments, they have their committee assignments, and bills are beginning to pour out into the light of day. Google “129th bill directory” and you will have the joy of following along as bills are printed. You will be amazed.

There were 317 on the list at the start of this week and more are pouring in on a daily basis. More than 2,000 are anticipated. Click on the “LD” number and you will get sent to a page on which all is revealed: the text and summary of the bill, a list of sponsors, the committee to which it has been referred, the public hearing date, committee actions and votes.

Bills come out in the order they are drafted, so “Limiting the Number of Charter Schools” sits next to “Violations of Air Space,” “Improving Stroke Care” follows “Housing for Persons with Substance Abuse,” and “Early Voting” comes after “Donating Fresh Milk.”

Browsing the titles gives one a sense of the enormous range of subjects the legislature will consider in the next five months. There are already eleven bonds proposed for funding fish hatcheries, fire stations, historic properties, housing for the homeless, school renovations and addressing sea level rise.

There are five proposals to amend the Maine Constitution. One would extend legislative terms from two years to four for the state House of Representatives and Senate. One would clarify the “qualifications of electors,” specifying that only U.S. citizens may vote in state, county, municipal and local elections. Another would send all vehicle or vehicle-related sales tax to the Highway Fund.

Of two other constitutional amendments, one would prohibit the introduction of new, increased fees or taxes (though not decreased fees or taxes) by direct initiative. The other would require that signatures for direct initiatives must come from each congressional district, equaling 10 percent of the total vote for governor cast in that district in the previous gubernatorial election.

There are six bills to name or re-name bridges. There are four to provide sales tax exemptions, including for “firearm safety devices” and “feminine hygiene products.” There is a bill to change the Maine license plate from “Vacationland” to “Staycationland.” (Spoiler alert: Not gonna happen.)

A bill that will engender lively debate is LD 209, an act to “prohibit municipalities from prohibiting short term rentals.” It’s a hot topic in Maine just now as towns with any sort of tourist appeal watch their housing stock turn into money-makers for the owners while would-be year-round residents cannot find a place to live. In the off-season much of that housing stands vacant, making it even more difficult for the valiant businesses that try to keep their doors open in the winter.

New to the scene is a bill to implement voting by mail by November, 2020 for president, U.S. senator and representative, governor, state senator and state representative, as well as people’s vetoes, direct initiatives, referenda, bond measures and constitutional amendments. LD 272 would create a 7-member commission to accomplish this, five of whom would be legislators. The other two would be appointed by the Secretary of State and the Attorney General.

Proposals for voting by mail or electronic voting from home are here to stay, since we do everything else in our lives this way. There is a long list of issues to consider, vote security among the foremost, and the time frame seems ambitious. Nevertheless, it is good to get the conversation started. The commission is authorized to report legislation out next winter.

Unlike many bills submitted, LD 272 is a nice example of a bill carefully drafted. (No surprise that one of the sponsors is Bar Harbor’s thoughtful Rep. Brian Hubbell.) It provides the necessary details about who, what, why and when, giving the policy committee a solid starting point to examine the matter and the public sufficient heads-up to figure out whether to weigh in.

It is the direct opposite of the dreaded “concept draft” in which a legislator puts forward a vague notion, such as Rep. Larry Lockman’s LD 137 to make the Maine Learning Technology Initiative “more cost-effective.” There is no suggestion of what the “cost-saving measures” might be, other than not allowing schools “to choose higher-cost technology options.”

Really? Regardless of what that the technology can do, or what results it yields? It seems like a move to tie the hands of school administrators for the sake of unspecified savings. It should be incumbent on a sponsor to tell us more about a proposal than this. Concept drafts should not be a part of the bill-drafting process.

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Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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