School Funding

Legislature returns to State House for final push on major bills Tuesday


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AUGUSTA – The Maine legislature will return to work at its traditional home, the State House, this week after 14 months imposed by the pandemic, and the list of work ahead – most of which is due to be completed by mid-June – is long .

Topping the list of tasks lawmakers must do without is a state budget bill proposed by Democratic housekeeper Janet Mills, which will make major changes in the next biennial state budget, which will start on July 1st.

Mills is sitting on an optimistic state revenue forecast that projects an additional $ 941 million in tax revenue over the next two fiscal years. Most of Mills’ new spending plan, $ 187 million, would increase state support to public schools and increase state funding for public education from Kindergarten to Grade 12. at 55%, which was mandated by the voters 17 years ago but which did not happen.

While final votes on the budget package will likely take place later in June, the Legislative Assembly’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee will continue its work this week by voting line by line on the many changes. Mills said she hoped the final package would gain the support of two-thirds of the entire Legislature, which would allow the budget changes to take effect immediately. It would require Republican votes.

But before arguing over the budget bill, the Legislature will take action on a series of other bills that touch on everything from reforms to the state’s criminal justice system to a renewed effort to increase taxes for Maine’s wealthiest wage earners.

Here’s a look at some of the bills the legislature is expected to vote on over the next two weeks:

CHEMICALS FOREVER

A bill that requires manufacturers to notify the Maine Department of Environmental Protection of products containing so-called “forever chemicals” per- and polyfluoroalkyls, or PFAS, gained broad bipartisan support in May. The bill also prohibits the sale of carpet and fabric treatments containing chemicals.

Another bill passed through the Legislature as a whole would set a sludge disposal fee of $ 10 per tonne, with the funds being used to help pay for testing and responding to PFAS contamination. The measurements and several others on the pollutant come after more than 60 private wells in Fairfield were tested above the federal government’s health board level of 70 parts per trillion for certain PFAS compounds. Some wells measured over 20,000 and 30,000 parts per trillion.

The state’s investigation into the contamination has since expanded to Benton, Unity and Oakland, where sludge from the same sources was also being applied to farm fields as fertilizer, approved by state regulators there. is over 40 years old.

TANK FARM MONITORING

Maine’s petroleum tank farms are expected to continuously monitor emissions and take other steps to reduce gaseous releases from aboveground tanks under another bill likely to be passed in June.

The measure is a response to South Portland’s concerns about noxious odors and air pollution emanating from huge reservoirs located along the city’s waterfront, near schools, residential areas and businesses.

CONSUMER APPROPRIATE ELECTRICAL UTILITY

A bill is also in the works that, if approved by two-thirds of the legislature, would require voters in a statewide vote to approve the buyout by the State of the state’s two largest electricity providers, Versant Power and Central Maine Power. The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham and Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, drew dozens of supporters and opponents at a public hearing in May.

If lawmakers agree, voters will decide in a statewide referendum later this year to stick with CMP and Versant or make the historic transition to a consumer-owned utility. .

EDUCATIONAL CHANGES

Beyond increasing funding for public schools, lawmakers are also expected to vote on bills that would add elements of black history and genocide to state learning standards for school curricula. One of the measures, written by Deputy House Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, incorporates black history in Maine as part of the new standard.

Another bill that could see heated debate on the ground calls for a ban on the use of restraints and seclusion in Maine schools as a means of controlling students with behavioral disabilities. While the measure has strong support from disability advocates, some parents of children with behavioral problems, as well as special education teachers and school administrators, have said the bill would do more harm than harm. good. They are concerned that this will effectively remove children with behavioral disorders from school permanently while imposing a huge bill to educate them in schools outside Maine on state taxpayers.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORMS

A bill that would eliminate the cash bond for most misdemeanors is also being drafted. The move, which Maine state police oppose, would allow those charged with minor non-violent offenses such as drinking alcohol in public to be released before trial without paying bail.

Supporters of the bill say the cash bond creates an unfair and unequal criminal justice system – allowing those with the money to be free while awaiting trial, while the poorest often languish in jail for weeks or even months, even if they have not been convicted of a criminality.

Police say the bail requirement allows them to defuse dangerous situations by removing individuals from circumstances that create danger to the public.

Additionally, lawmakers will likely fight for a pair of bills that will ease penalties for possession of illegal drugs in Maine. The bills, which were approved by a split-committee vote in May, would largely decriminalize most forms of drug possession.

Under GL 976, instead of going to jail, a person who has heroin or other substances in their possession would be required to pay a fine of up to $ 100 or undergo an assessment. health, a potential first step in treatment. Selling or distributing drugs would still be illegal.

Another bill, LD 1675, makes it more difficult for prosecutors to obtain a conviction based solely on the amount of drugs in a person’s possession. Under the current law, people can face a felony trafficking charge simply for transporting more than two grams of heroin or fentanyl.

Supporters say people with substance use disorders are wrongly charged with drug trafficking under current Maine law, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine has said 39 states need more evidence of intent to sell drugs to bring these charges. Opponents fear that people who sell drugs will not be adequately punished.

TAXES

A perpetual tax battle between the Conservatives and the Liberals is likely to unfold across the Senate and House floors in the days to come. A bill that cleared the Legislative Assembly Tax Committee on a narrow party vote, with support from Democrats and opposition from Republicans, would remove a 3% surtax on top state taxable income to $ 200,000. The bill reflects a voting question that was passed by voters in a statewide referendum in 2016, but overturned by the Legislature. If approved by the Legislature and signed by Mills, the bill would increase state tax collections by approximately $ 209 million per year.

MASKING MANDATE

Another question that will certainly grab attention this week is whether a small group of Tory lawmakers and their supporters will attempt to disrupt proceedings by refusing to follow the policy that requires face coverings in the public spaces of the State House. , including the House and the Senate Chambers. .

The policy is similar to what’s already in place for government employees in other office buildings across the state, according to Kelsey Goldsmith, spokesperson for the Department of Administration and Financial Services.

In an email Friday, Goldsmith said the Mills administration is keeping facial coverage requirements in place for state employees while they are indoors, at least until July 7.

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