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Adam Thompson on July 23, 2009 - 3:02pm
The Maine legislature gets high marks for succeeding on many vital issues despite the tough economic climate. Lawmakers expanded equality by legalizing gay marriage, shored up future health coverage expansions, increased transparency and regulatory oversight of health insurance products, and created a court-supervised mediation process to prevent home foreclosures. Lawmakers took advantage of federal stimulus funds by creating a home and business weatherization program that aims to weatherize all homes and by approving a bond package to improve the state's infrastructure. The Pine Tree State approved renewable energy programs and expanded its electronic-waste recycling program to include compact fluorescent light bulbs. Lawmakers turned an eye towards themselves by strengthening legislative and lobbyist ethics and by increasing transparency of the ballot initiative process. Legislators also achieved a long sought after reduction in the state income tax.
Economy, Taxes, Jobs: Lawmakers passed a tax reform package that reduces the tax burden on Mainers by $57.1 million, moving more of the tax burden to out of state visitors.
The plan reduces the state income tax from 8.5 percent to 6.5 percent for incomes under $250,000, and from 8.5 percent to 6.85 percent for those over. The drop is paid for by expanding the sales tax to a number of highly exportable and discretionary services. According to supporters, in addition to tax relief, the package will help spur economic development and stabilize state revenues.
Lawmakers approved a $150 million bond package which will help to support thousands of jobs and provide an estimated $368 million in economic activity in the state over the coming two years when private and federal matching funds are factored in. The multi-year package focuses on transportation infrastructure, green energy, and capital for businesses and communities to make environmental upgrades.
Elsewhere, lawmakers passed LD 1473 to expand the Pine Tree Development Zone program, which supports businesses and job creation in depressed areas of the state. To date, 213 businesses and 2,500 jobs have been supported by the program. And LD 1474 expands definition of "dislocated workers" so that more newly unemployed workers can qualify for unemployment benefits while in an approved training program.
Marriage Equality: Without a court order driving the decision, Maine's lawmakers made it the 5th state to enact gay marriage and ensure marriage equality by enacting LD 1020. Maine's Governor John Baldacci also became the first governor to sign gay marriage legislation. LD 1020 clarifies that the law does not compel any religious organization to alter its doctrine, policy or teaching regarding marriage. Despite this success, marriage equality in Maine faces an uncertain future in the face of a drive to place a citizen's veto of the measure on this November's ballot.
Preventing Unnecessary Foreclosures: LD 1418 provides a process for homeowners to negotiate with lenders and mortgage servicers before a foreclosure action is final. The landmark law, sponsored by Rep. Sharon Treat, creates a court-supervised mediation process as well as a foreclosure prevention hotline for consumers. The counseling, mediation and notice provisions of the law complement financial incentives created by President Obama, which establish incentives for servicers to negotiate the terms of loans with homeowners.
Health Care: Maine passed a number of key reforms to improve transparency of insurance products, expand access to necessary services, and ensure the future of health coverage expansions.
- Lawmakers secured the future expansion of the state’s groundbreaking DirigoChoice insurance program for individuals and small businesses. The legislation replaces the controversial “Savings Offset Payment (SOP)” with a fixed monthly fee by the same insurance companies that pay the fee currently and will also reopen the program to accept new enrollees in 2011.
- Lawmakers enacted a Health Care Bill of Rights to increase transparency in the health insurance marketplace. Sponsored by Rep. Sharon Treat, LD 1205 increases disclosure, gives the insurance superintendent more authority to oversee rate increases and allows consumers to more easily compare health insurance plans. The law will ensure that insurance policies have clearly defined terms and standard benefit descriptions, and that actual policies, not misleading and incomplete summaries, will be posted online so consumers can see the full policies before they purchase. The bill will help businesses and individuals by providing good information about complex policies.
- To improve long-term care services in Maine and enable residents to remain in their homes who choose to, lawmakers passed LD 1078 to require regular reporting by state agencies on progress made towards achieving efficiencies and greater coordination of in-home and community based long-term care services. The law includes creation of a new program to improve access to in-home and community-based services.
- To address Maine's shortage of dental practices, lawmakers last year passed legislation allowing independent dental hygienists to perform limited dental procedures like cleanings and sealants. This year, lawmakers passed LD 234 to require insurance companies who already provide dental coverage to include coverage for dental services performed by independent hygienists.
- Staph, or MRSA, infections have received much attention recently, and for good reason. These infections are often caught in hospitals. Maine has joined other states and the federal government in working to prevent Staph infections. LDs 1038 and 960 will increase reporting of hospital-acquired Staph infections and require providers to work with the Maine Quality Forum to develop safety and care guidelines to reduce the number of Staph cases in Maine.
Public Health and Safety: Key initiatives include further curbing public smoking, menu labeling, and a statewide wellness initiative.
- Maine passed LD 67 to limit public smoking in the state's parks and historic sites. It bans smoking within 20 feet of a beach, playground, snack bar, group picnic shelter, park office, restroom, and other public spaces in parks and historic sites. LD 820 bans smoking in outdoor eating areas of restaurants.
- Lawmakers passed LD 1363 to create a universal wellness initiative built on the state's existing public health structure. The law officially recognizes Healthy Maine Partnerships, which are community-based public health programs, to serve as district coordinating councils for public health. The law also prepares Maine public health system for federally recognized public health accreditation.
- Lawmakers enacted LD 1259 to require chain restaurants with 20 or more locations and at least one in Maine to post calories on menus, menu-boards, and drive-throughs.
- With passage of LD 6, driving while distracted is now an illegal traffic infraction if it results in loss of control of the vehicle. Distraction may include text messaging while driving.
- Domestic Violence: LD 324 will help domestic violence abuse survivors protect themselves from abusers by enhancing collaboration between law enforcement and domestic abuse service providers. The law allows law enforcement to share investigate reports with family violence projects and other service providers while protecting confidential information.
- Access to Civil Justice: To ensure indigents and families have quality legal services during child protective cases, the state passed LD 1132 to create the Commission on Indigent Legal Services to provide legal representation during child protective cases.
- Pesticide Notification: To ensure neighbors are informed before airborne pesticides are applied to a field, lawmakers created a landmark pesticide notification system (LD1293). Neighbors to a field that receives aerial pesticide applications can join a registry so they are notified prior to any spraying, and take necessary precautions to prevent exposure to chemicals. This is especially important for families with young children who are especially prone to ill effects of pesticides which can cause cognitive or physical development problems. Under the law, neighbors are notified every three years that they can join the notification registry.
Environment and Energy: A number of bills were enacted to maintain Maine's status as an environmental leader. Key initiatives included expanding energy efficiency programs, ensuring homes and businesses are weatherized, and recycling programs for products with toxic chemicals.
- Energy Future: LD 1485, a landmark energy and weatherization bill that originated from proposals by Speaker Hannah Pingree and House Majority Whip Seth Berry, creates the "Efficiency Maine Trust", a single source for homeowners and businesses to access available state and federal resources for weatherization and other energy efficiency projects. The Trust has the explicit goal of weatherizing 100% of Maine homes, 50% of businesses, and reducing heating fuel use by 20% by 2030. The bill accesses $79 million in ARRA funds for low-income household weatherization.
- Renewable Energy: Lawmakers enacted LD 1465 to provide for the permitting of 5 renewable energy project test sites along the Maine coast and LD 1075 to create a 50 megawatt community-based renewable energy pilot program, to sunset after 5 years. Lawmakers also passed LD 220 to extend the solar and wind energy rebate program through 2015 and direct the state to use ARRA funds to expand the program by $500,000 for a 2-year period. And, LD 73 prohibits local governments and homeowners'/renters' association from adopting new rules to prevent residents from installing solar energy and other home-based efficiency devices.
- Recycling E-Waste: As reported by the Natural Resources Council of Maine, LD 973 is a bipartisan first-in-the-nation law to require manufacturers of compact fluorescent light bulbs to share in the costs and responsibility of recycling their mercury containing bulbs. This law is the latest in a string of laws enacted over the last few years requiring makers of products containing hazardous materials to ensure the safe disposal of products they bring to market. The law will create a producer-financed collection system, with possible collection centers in town centers and retailers and requires producers to educate consumers about the recycling program. Because CFL's use less energy and save consumers money on their energy bills than traditional light bulbs, this law will encourage greater use of CFLs while helping to ensure their safe disposal. Elsewhere, lawmakers enacted LD 536 to expand the state's electronic waste recycling law to include desktop printers and video game consoles. The law also requires manufacturers to pay an annual $3,000 registration fee to make the recycling program sustainable.
Broadband: LD 1012 creates the Broadband Strategy Council to advise the ConnectME Authority on broadband programs and related funding opportunities in the ARRA.
- LD 1446 creates the Maine Online Learning Program to increase course options for students. Online teachers will be regularly certified and school districts will develop agreements to access courses not provided in their district.
- LD 969 extends Maine's Children's Growth Council and makes it eligible for federal funding. The Council is charged with implementing the state's longer-term plan for a statewide early childhood system.
- LD 1090 waives the remaining tuition to a Maine public university or college for veterans after federal education benefits have been exhausted.
Elections and Ethics:
- LD 1111 makes several changes to increase transparency and accountability in campaigns and legislative ethics. The bill strengthens the legislative standard for conflict of interest, requires lobbyists to submit a digital picture and a list of the committees they will be lobbying, calls for the publishing of a lobbyist directory, and prohibits candidates and their spouses from serving as campaign treasurers and deputy treasurers. It also establishes a contribution limit to political action committees of $10,000 from any one source per election cycle.
- LD 235 improves transparency in the citizen initiative process be requiring financial information about how much a proposal will cost if enacted be readily accessible to voters through various methods. A fiscal estimate will be included on every petition to be circulated for that direct initiative. It requires initiative petitions to include a space at the top of each page for the name of the circulator and requires the fiscal impact statement to be printed on initiative petitions and election ballots and to be posted in voting places and in voting booths.