ELLSWORTH — The 128th Maine State Legislature, unable to overcome partisan bickering, adjourned last week leaving a raft of unfinished business behind in Augusta.
The votes to adjourn came late on Wednesday after efforts in the House of Representatives to extend the session by five days, then three days and, finally, one single day, all failed.
The House divided along partisan lines, with most members of the Republican minority, which objects to voter-approved Medicaid expansion, withholding the votes needed for the two-thirds majority required to keep the Legislature working. The Senate voted unanimously to extend the session.
Legislators went home leaving more than 100 bills “on the table” awaiting consideration at adjournment. Among them were measures to:
- Establish the total cost of education for the coming fiscal year and set the state’s contribution to local school budgets.
- Conform Maine’s tax code to the new federal tax law.
- Approve funding for Medicaid expansion administrative costs.
- Set up a “red flag” procedure to let police temporarily seize guns from people deemed a threat to the community.
Many of the bills enjoyed bipartisan support.
The Ellsworth American asked a dozen legislators representing Hancock and Washington counties to explain what they had done personally to avoid the impasse in Augusta and what they planned to do to resolve it.
Sen. Brian Langley (R-Hancock County) is co-chairman of the Legislature’s Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs. He said his put his focus on getting bills out of the committee in a “timely” way “before the end of the session” so that both chambers would have time to debate and vote on them. That can be a problem with bills, “especially governor’s bills” that are submitted to the committee late in the session.
“I work to get those out,” Langley said.
Langley also said that in the “past few days” before the vote he was “very vocal in my caucus” in support of extending the session, adding, “I live on one end of the hall,” the opposite end from the House of Representatives.
With key issues such as education funding, bonding for school renovations, tax conformity and Medicaid expansion still unresolved, Langley is “positive we’re going to go back” in a special session, though probably not until after the June 12 primary elections.
“There’s a lot of work left to be done,” he said.
Rep. Louie Luchini (D-Ellsworth) fixed the blame for the failure to extend the session squarely on the House Republican caucus, not on Republicans in general.
“To be clear,” he said, “this wasn’t an issue divided solely on party lines.”
Luchini, who voted to extend the session, has been “advocating for a special session,” and would vote for one given the opportunity.
In the meantime, he’d like to see the Appropriations Committee meet to negotiate a bipartisan compromise on divisive issues such as Medicaid expansion so the Legislature can take up remaining bills dealing with issues such as “opiate addiction prevention services” and funding for nursing homes and direct care workers.
Rep. Brian Hubbell (D-Bar Harbor), a member of the Appropriations Committee, put in long weeks in Augusta during the run-up to adjournment working with colleagues on his committee and the Taxation Committee to “hammer out a mutually agreeable supplemental spending package.”
A “tentative agreement” containing a mutually acceptable “single unified package” of spending priorities was presented “in time for legislative enactment” in April that was shot down by House Republicans.
While frustrated, Hubbell says he will “remain open to any discussion of ways to move forward” and suggests that “all sides” have already committed to funding for direct care workers and agree that the schools must be funded and that the law extends Medicaid.
“Í, for one, will never walk away from negotiations.”
Rep. Richard Malaby (R-Hancock) voted with the Republican caucus, which “had plenty of votes” against extending the session because they “couldn’t get a commitment for an up or down vote” on all bills remaining to be considered, as opposed to a vote on the package legislation presented by the Appropriations Committee.
Malaby said there is still time for the Legislature to be called back into session “for a couple of days” before the end of the month, and he is “confident” that will happen, but only if the Democrats agree to slow the implementation of the minimum wage increase in return for Republican support of Medicaid expansion.
“If we don’t pass a lot of these bills on the table,” he said, “it will be a massive failure on the part of the Legislature.”
Rep. Walter Kumiega (D-Deer Isle) co-chairman of the Marine Resources Committee, has tried “to build relationships” with his colleagues and stands “ready to return to work” if the Legislature goes back into session, either by agreement or at the call of Governor Paul LePage.
“The most likely scenario is a call to session after the June primary,” which would leave just enough time to “enact bills that should be in place before the next fiscal year.”
Rep. Larry Lockman (R-Amherst) said he tried to expedite the Legislature’s work shortly after the Legislative Council, comprised of leaders from both major parties, voted last November “to allow dozens of non-emergency bills to be heard.” He objected to the council’s action because “legislators had to dispose of all the frivolous, nonessential bills before we took up the budget work we should have started on Day One of the session.”
Lockman is now “encouraging” his constituents to call on House Speaker Sarah Gideon and “insist that she allow up or down votes on each spending bill.”
Rep. William Tuell (R-East Machias) was one of three Republicans to vote to extend the session.
“I, myself, spoke on the floor in support of extension when it first came up,” Tuell said. “I have voted for it every time it has come up since, and will continue to vote for it.”
Tuell says there doesn’t have to be any kind of “deal” or any preconditions about what would be considered in a special session for him to support one.
“We should have stayed and should be going back,” Tuell said. “I will continue to make that crystal clear until we are back in our seats finishing the job we were elected to do.”
Rep. Ralph Chapman (Green Independent-Brooksville) is the sole member of the Green Independent Party in the House and, as such, occupies an unusual position. He didn’t vote on extension in order “to maintain by neutrality in the major political party Statehouse leadership battles.” That could change, as a special session called by the speaker of the House and the Senate president (rather than by the Governor) requires the consent of a majority of legislators from “each political party.” If it comes to that, Chapman “will attempt to exert influence towards making a special session work.” He is not optimistic.
“It will not be possible for the Legislature to resolve its current conundrum of having driven down a one-way dead-end street without the collaborative help from a number of legislators.”
Sen. Joyce Maker (R-Washington County), like her Senate colleagues of both parties, voted to extend the session “every time it came up for a vote” and has “encouraged” her Republican colleagues in the House “to come back into session so we can get the work done before us.”
Maker said the issue now is not why the Legislature was unable to complete its job but rather to get back to work in Augusta. Since adjournment, she has been in regular contact with Senate President Michael Thibodeau about a special session.
“It is too late for blaming and bullying,” Maker said, saying legislators need to “return for a special session and get the work done that is before us.
Rep. Robert Alley (D-Beals) voted to extend the legislative session to consider “some very important bills that are on the table.” Among them, he said are Medicaid expansion, educational funding and funding that was promised for Maine’s nursing homes and direct care workers.
Like some of his colleagues, Alley blamed failure of the extension votes squarely on House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette (R-Newport), who told House members “we would be back when he decided to have us come back.”