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Enzo Pastore on April 27, 2010 - 11:35am
In spite of difficult budget decisions, Maine leaders enacted significant progressive initiatives this year, from first-in-the-nation health reforms to clean energy bills to consumer protections to campaign reforms.
Budget: Facing large deficits created by lagging state revenues, the major focus for the session was, as in so many other states, the budget. Gov. John Baldacci targeted MaineCare, the state Medicaid program, for a cut of $108 million in his December budget, mostly in lower reimbursement payments for hospitals and health care providers.
Even though the proposed drastic cuts to human services led to hundreds of people protesting in January, by the end of March both chambers approved a state budget with no new taxes or fees. Closing a $310 million budget gap included cuts in education, social services and almost every other state program. The budget approved by lawmakers cuts the Department of Health and Human Services by $23 million, kindergarten-through-grade 12 education by $47 million, higher education by $8 million, and cities and towns by $16 million. The committee rejected a proposal for three additional state shutdown days and it restored longevity pay to state workers that had been cut in the original budget. The budget requires about $8 million to be put into the state's rainy day fund by June 30, with an additional $2.5 million to be deposited a year later.
Tax and Revenue: The legislature approved a measure changing the effective dates of LD1495, a 2009 tax reform law passed last year. The bill is a response to the people’s veto process that suspended the tax measure until the voters decide its fate through a voter referendum on June 8. The tax reform law changes the state’s tax code by lowering the top personal income tax rate and pays for that change by expanding the sales tax to items and services that are not now taxed. It also repeals standard and itemized deductions and replaces them with new tax credits. According to the Maine Center for Economic Policy, these collective changes to the tax code, the first substantial changes in four decades, will reduce the amount of taxes paid by Maine residents, add consistency and predictability to the amount collected annually by the State, and make the tax code more progressive.
Health Care: Maine made history in 2010 by becoming the first state in the country to pass a law banning annual and lifetime caps on insurance policies, protecting those suffering from severe illness from also facing catastrophic debt often incurred during the treatment of many fatal diseases. LD1620 directly benefits Mainers battling cancer and fighting other chronic diseases such as hemophilia, cystic fibrosis, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.
A number of other significant health care measures were passed this session:
- Maine will now have access to a uniform set of vaccines thanks to the passage of LD1408. The bill also reduces the cost of immunizations by working in conjunction with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to leverage the contract prices for vaccines at the federal rate.
- Thanks to the leadership of Rep. Sharon Treat, HP1262 created a task force, the Joint Select Committee on Implementation, to study opportunities for Maine in implementing national health care reform. More recently, the Governor created a Steering Committee of the state's Office of Health Policy and Finance, state health officials, the Advisory Council on Health Systems Development and others, to plan how to meet requirements under the federal law, working with the legislature's Joint Select Committee.
- LD1811 amends the Maine Medical Marijuana Act approved by a citizen initiative in November 2009 by Maine voters calling for medical marijuana to be legalized in regulated dispensaries. The new law allows for up to eight dispensaries and sets a process for establishing fees for patients, caregivers and dispensaries.
- Private health insurance companies will now have to pay their fair share for coverage of children with developmental disabilities. LD425 mandates that individual and group health insurance policies provide early intervention services for children ages birth to 36 months identified with a developmental disability or delay. The change in legislation, which is based on a successful model implemented in New Hampshire, is expected to save taxpayers about $250,000, yet only cost private insurance payers less than $2 every year.
- LD1773 is designed to improve dental insurance coverage for children. It requires health insurance policies, contracts and certificates that provide dental plans to provide coverage of dependent children from birth if the policyholder elects to participate in the dependent coverage plan.
Environment and Energy: Two major pieces of energy legislation passed the Legislature this year. LD1810, an Act to Implement the Recommendations of the Governor's Ocean Energy Task Force, will support the development of ocean wind, tidal and wave power and states a policy preference for a transition to the use of renewable ocean electric power to meet Maine's heating and transportation needs. The second bill, LD1786, sets up a process for reviewing and approving potentially lucrative lease deals on “energy corridors” through Maine from Canada to southern New England and beyond.
Another progressive step forward was the passage of LD1717, whereby municipalities will be able to establish a "PACE" program to finance residential, commercial and industrial weatherization, as well as other energy efficiency measures and the installation of green energy generation behind the meter. More progress was achieved on energy efficiency with LD1647 which will increase electricity efficiency funding by encouraging Maine's Public Utilities Commission to direct the purchase of energy efficiency through long-term contracts, treating efficiency as a resource comparable to new electricity generation.
LD1535 encourages development of an electrical transmission system in Maine that employs state-of-the-art information technology to curb and manage energy use. Smart grid integrates new energy and information technology to allow two-way communication between power suppliers and consumers.
Broadband Technology: LD 1646 sets goals to expand broadband access throughout the state by establishing state policies that promote universal broadband access and the infrastructure necessary to provide that access statewide. A second broadband bill, LD1778, makes a federally supported dark fiber provider a telephone utility and authorizes it to string lines for dark fiber bringing broadband service to un-served and under-served areas. It also establishes a broadband sustainability fee that a dark fiber provider must collect from customers.
Consumer Protections: Maine took action in protecting consumers with three successful pieces of legislation. LD1541 protects consumers from unauthorized credit card charges on the expiration of free trial offers. To protect consumers from being assessed surcharges when they use debit cards, Maine passed LD1779. This protection is notable because according to the Federal Reserve Board, debit cards are now used more often than credit cards. LD1256 will protect consumers involved in mandatory arbitration contracts. Arbitrators will be required to disclose information about past arbitrations and the arbitration process on their Web sites. Mandatory arbitration clauses are often found in the fine print of many contracts for credit cards, cellular phone, and car purchases.
Campaign Reform: The passage of LD 1546 clarifies gift reporting requirements for legislators and makes technical changes to campaign finance disclosures to increase public transparency. In addition, LD 1730 will work to prevent fraud and forgery in the ballot initiative process by creating a registration requirement for petition organizations that are compensated to organize, supervise or manage the circulation of petitions for a direct initiative or a people's veto.
Notable Progressive Defeats:
- Paid Sick Leave: Senate President Libby Mitchell's paid sick leave bill, LD1665, did not make it out of the Joint Committee on Labor, largely due to a few legislators' fears over the prolonged recession. But because of the efforts of the 39 member Work and Family coalition, led by the Maine Women's Lobby, the bill did manage to garner an unprecedented level of media coverage and ally support.
- Minimum Wage Indexing: Restaurant workers, low-income advocates and religious organizations all appealed to lawmakers to index Maine’s minimum wage to cost-of-living increases to protect low-income workers from having their pay eroded by inflation. But conservative business lobbies helped prevent LD192 from leaving the Joint Labor Committee.
Maine Center for Economic Policy
Maine Women’s Lobby
Maine People’s Alliance
Kennebec Journal Blog - On Maine Politics
Kennebec Journal - Maine Lawmakers Enact Budget Rewrite
Kennebec Journal - Lawmakers Approve Supplemental Budget
Bangor Daily News - Legislature Ends 2010 Session by Passing Energy Corridor Bill