A messy slog toward the finish line for the 128th Legislature

Members of the Maine Legislature convened last week in yet another attempt to put the 128th Legislature to bed. In fits and starts they inched along toward the goal as the clock crept toward midnight.

Passage of a tax conformity bill put one of the remaining hurdles behind them. Failure to do so would have triggered the need for amended returns to be filed for many Maine taxpayers. That would have created plenty of unhappy voters just two months before the mid-term elections.

When the Legislature says “conformity,” it means mostly. One instance where Maine law will still differ from federal tax law is in the retention of the estate tax in the state. Legislators anticipate a gubernatorial veto of this provision, a matter that the Legislature will have to debate another day. Nevertheless, an agreement was reached that allowed both sides to sign on.

Governor Paul LePage submitted a batch of child welfare reform bills for consideration. Many of the components were widely favored. His bill to criminalize failure to report child abuse and neglect by mandated reporters was rejected outright, but his other proposals were largely accepted, allowing him to chalk up a win on this one.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap presented the 128th with a request for $334,330 to supplement existing funds to conduct the November 2018 election. The Appropriations Committee recommended passage, and the Legislature gave its approval.

In a rare show of unity, House Republican leaders Ken Fredette and Ellie Espling voted with Democrats against a proposal from Republican Rep. Paula Sutton to investigate Speaker Sara Gideon’s handling of accusations against one of her caucus members, Rep. Dillon Bates. Bates’ resignation, said the Republican leaders, should put the matter to rest.

Just before recessing at about 11 p.m. last Thursday, the speaker of the House announced there would be one more legislative day in the session during the week of Sept. 10. Gubernatorial vetoes of legislation passed Aug. 30 will also be considered at that time. Then maybe, just maybe, this legislative session that wouldn’t die will be over. It has been a long time coming.

There was news outside of the special session as well. All four gubernatorial candidates took aim at November referendum Question 1, a 3.8 percent tax surcharge on incomes above $128,400 to fund “universal home care” for the elderly and disabled. The candidates were united in their disapproval.

That leaves Jared Golden, Democratic candidate for the 2nd Congressional District, high and dry. He is the only major candidate to support the initiative, calling it a “workable solution” for some health care needs. The trouble is, as with most recent referendums, there is controversy about what the question would do.

First, it would provide home care to the disabled and those over 65 “regardless of income,” according to the question’s language. Second, the language refers to “individuals and families” with incomes over a specified amount, possibly creating a “double dip,” levying the surcharge twice for the same taxpayer. Third, there is the challenge of getting elected officials to support any tax on anyone just two months before an election.

Efforts to conclude the session were preceded by an extraordinary event the week prior when mercurial Governor Paul LePage really blew his top. On Aug. 20, at his request, the Governor appeared before the Government Oversight Committee. During the meeting, his attack on Sen. Tom Saviello, calling him “the most repugnant human being I have ever seen” (Governor, tell us how you really feel), triggered a chain of extraordinary events.

The Governor was ruled out of order by Roger Katz, the Senate chairman of the committee, and the committee delegated the chairs to send a letter to the Governor urging him to apologize for his “undignified and disrespectful behavior.” This was not a political move. It was a unanimous request of committee members present at the incident, Democrats and Republicans alike.

When Sen. Katz brought the curtain down on the Governor’s performance, the Governor’s response was to storm out of the room. The national press took delight in reporting yet another Maine melee at the State House. Six days later, while on a personal visit to Canada, Governor LePage was hospitalized for what has only been described as “discomfort.”

Whether it was his head, his heart, his tummy or his knees, the citizenry is in the dark. Was it related to his outburst at the GOC? We have no clue. With just two months left in office (and two more of “lame duck” status before a new governor is sworn in), we will all breathe a sigh of relief if the powder keg that is our Governor gets through it without further explosions. It can’t be good for him, and it certainly isn’t good for the state.

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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