Under The Dome: Inside The Maine State House 2-14-14

Augusta, ME

Under the Dome: Inside the Maine State House provides a high-level overview of recent activity at the Maine State House.

This Week’s Highlights

Legislature Overrides Governor’s Veto of School Nutrition Bill

On January 10th, the very first week of the legislative session, Governor LePage announced that he had vetoed five of sixteen bills that he held from the last legislative session. Of the five vetoes, three were sustained, killing those bills, and one related to tobacco cessation was overridden, enacting that bill into law over the Governor’s objection. This week saw action on the last of these five bills. The Senate and the House both voted to override the Governor’s veto of LD 1353, a bill related to the school nutrition program. This bill will now become law over the Governor’s objection. With these five most recent vetoes, the Governor has vetoed 87 bills during the 126th Legislature, with seven of those vetoes being overridden.

Revenue Sharing Bill Sent to the Governor’s Desk

This week, the Legislature completed action on LD 1762, An Act Related to the Report of the Tax Expenditure Review Task Force. The current biennial budget created a process by which $40 million in tax expenditures were to be identified or municipal revenue sharing was to be reduced by whatever amount was not identified. A task force worked on identifying revenue raisers throughout the fall and then the Taxation Committee was presented with these recommendations. Ultimately, LD 1762 was reported out of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee to close this $40 million gap by restoring revenue sharing, partially offset by a transfer from Maine’s “rainy day” fund and a fund designed to buy down Maine’s income tax rate.

This bill was controversial at the outset due to a miscommunication at the Appropriations Committee regarding the timing of the committee vote on this bill. Additionally, Governor LePage and Republican’s in the Legislature objected to the use of “rainy day” funds to supplement municipal revenue sharing. In fact, the Governor has indicated that he may not issue voter-authorized bonds if a reduction of the “rainy day” fund affects the State’s credit rating. Over the past two weeks, this bill has proceeded through the legislature and, on February 13th, it was sent to the Governor’s desk. It is unclear if the Governor intends to let this proposal become law or if he will veto this bill. During a consideration of this bill, enough Republican legislators joined with Democratic legislators to give this legislation veto-proof support, though that could change if the Governor decides to send this bill back to the Legislature via a veto.

Legislative Schedule Disrupted by Snow for Second Time in Two Weeks

On February 13th, both the House and Senate met during the morning. The snow storm, however, forced an early closure of State offices Thursday afternoon and committee hearings and work sessions were postponed. Committees are expected to reschedule hearings and work sessions so that they are held within the next ten days.

Nominations, Confirmations and Moves

Over the past few weeks, nominations have begun to come out of the Governor’s office. This week’s nominations included the re-nomination of Dr. Thomas Eastler for the Board of Environmental Protection and the nomination of Thomas Dobbins for this same Board. These nominations are subject to legislative approval.

At the very end of last week, the Governor announced seven judicial nominations. This announcement came on the heels of the Governor’s re-nomination of four District Court Judges, two Superior Court Justices and one Law Court Justice. Last week’s judicial nominations included elevating District Court Judges Daniel Billings and Robert Mullen to the Superior Court. This announcement also included naming former Attorney General William Schneider, Assistant Attorney General Andrew Benson, Deputy District Attorney Eric Walker and attorneys Barbara Raimondi and Lance Walker to the District Court. These fourteen judicial nominations and re-nominations are subject to legislative approval.

While the Governor continues to make nominations, the Legislature has started to process nominees. This week, the Education Committee voted unanimously in support of the Governor’s nomination of Jim Rier as Commissioner of the Department of Education. The Taxation Committee voted unanimously in support of the Governor’s re-nomination of Richard Nass to the Maine Board of Tax Appeals. The Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee voted unanimously in support of the Governor’s nomination of Bruce Wagner as the CEO of the Finance Authority of Maine and the Governor’s nomination of Pierce Atwood’s own Jonathan Block as a member of the Finance Authority of Maine’s Board. These nominees will be considered in the Senate next week.

This week also saw the movement of former State Senator Richard Rosen within the LePage Administration. Rosen has served as the first Director of the Office of Policy and Management, a new Executive Department designed to look at government reforms that cut across agencies. Rosen, however, has transitioned over to the Department of Administrative and Financial Services to serve as a Deputy Commissioner in this Department that oversees various functions from the State budget and tax collection to lottery operations and alcohol control.

Appropriations Committee Turns to Supplemental Budget

Last week, Sawin Millett, Commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, reiterated to the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee that the Administration would not be submitting a supplemental budget but that representatives of the Administration were available to work with the Committee on this matter.

This week, the Committee began to turn its attention to the task of assembling a supplemental budget. On February 12th, the Committee heard from Commissioner Mayhew of the Department of Health and Human Services, the Judicial Branch and the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services regarding the shortfalls that these entities face. The Committee will continue to gather information to quantify the size of the budget gap before determining how to close this gap.

Health Exchange Data Released

On February 12th, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released information regarding enrolment in health exchanges. According to that report, 20,511 people have selected coverage on Maine’s federally-run exchange as of February 1, 2014. This figure is up from data made available in January showing roughly 13,700 Mainers selecting coverage through the exchange.