Health care, corrections, broadband at top of state legislative agenda


AUGUSTA — The Maine Legislature cranks back into gear when it convenes the second session of the biennium on Wednesday, with a focus on several key issues, including health care, corrections, broadband access and climate change.

Lawmakers are poised to start their work on solid financial ground, with an estimated state budget surplus of close to $120 million based on the last revenue forecast in November.

Some of the Mills administration’s top environmental priorities during the 2020 session are expected to focus on a class of chemicals, known as PFAS. The Arundel farm of Fred Stone, above, sustained PFAS chemical contamination resulting from sludge he had spread on the fields which he was told would help the soils. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

“I think we are going to be absolutely looking at how we can bring people together, start with a clean slate and good conversations about what we invest in,” said House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport.

Any new spending or taxation would likely come in the form of a supplemental budget bill that would have to be offered first by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills.

Mills, like Gideon, said state government accomplished a lot in 2019 under Democratic leadership, but there was still much work to be done.

“This coming session, I look forward to working with the Legislature to continue to tackle health insurance issues, to support quality early and adult education, to strengthen our economy and expand our workforce, and to protect Maine people from the impacts of climate change,” Mills said in a written statement. “By tackling these issues, Maine can and will continue to make progress for its people and future generations.”

Republican leaders said they would brace against unnecessary spending or adding levels of unsustainable debt, instead focusing on key issues, such as figuring out sustainable ways to pay for state road and bridge repairs without regularly borrowing money to do that work.

“We are not going to borrow our way into a good economy,” Senate Minority Leader Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, said. He said Republicans would do their best to hold the line on taxes and want to focus on sustainable infrastructure improvements and workforce development but do it in a way that doesn’t pinch the state’s many small businesses.

“House Republicans want to make it clear that Maine’s most pressing needs should come first,” House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, said in a prepared statement. “Forecasted monies should fund needs, not wants. They should help people that are struggling with real-life needs right now. Maine’s most pressing needs include our roads, nursing homes, direct care workers and people with disabilities on waitlists.”

House Republican members of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee warned that $76 million of the budget surplus in the revenue forecast are one-time monies, which may not be available on an ongoing basis.

Like Dow, they also said they want to focus on funding highway construction and repair without borrowing for it and without raising additional taxes, lamenting the state’s current $8 billion, two-year budget, which is 11 percent higher than the state’s previous budget.

“We then borrowed $105 million for transportation,” said Rep. Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester. “We need to set priorities. Any additional spending of existing tax revenues should go toward true priorities that should have been included in the $8 billion budget.”

BONDING BILLS

The budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee has January public hearings already scheduled on a half-dozen borrowing or bonding packages worth at least $200 million.

Among the bills are measures that would earmark $65 million for research and development for biomedical and biotechnology work focused on helping families dealing with aging, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease; $20 million for local food processing facilities; $50 million for expanding commercial fishing and aquaculture infrastructure; and $50 million to help research labs expand and add new equipment and facilities.

All of the proposals also require matching funds from other public or private sector sources, and if passed by the Legislature would go to statewide referendum for voter approval.

HEALTH CARE, PRESCRIPTION DRUGS

Democrats have vowed to continue their efforts to reduce health care costs while expanding access.

Hannah Goss of Gray holds 6-month-old Stewart while he receives a pertussis vaccination last March. The Legislature will consider a number of bills this session aimed at addressing health care issues. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Bills to be considered include proposals to set up a new state-run health insurance exchange program, expand dental care for children on Medicaid, and curb the price of prescription drugs. Other bills look to help small businesses provide health insurance to their employees or provide incentives to those that do.

Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said a bill meant to provide health insurance consumers with a state-run health insurance consumer protection advocacy office was also a top priority.

“Information is power,” Jackson said. “And anyone that feels like they can pull the wool over your eyes by just spouting off a bunch of stuff, these individual people who have no idea, these insurance people just tell them no. You know – deny, deny, deny and they can get nine out of 10 people to go away.”

Jackson said Maine health care consumers need an advocate in their corner when they are going up against the corporate health insurance industry.

The bills seek to expand on the accomplishments of 2019, when the Legislature and Mills moved forward with funding for a voter-approved expansion of the state’s Medicaid program, MaineCare, under the federal Affordable Care Act.

That expansion, which was expected to add about 80,000 to the state’s health care benefits program for low-income Mainers, so far has only seen about 40,000 new enrollments, but the number is expected to continue to grow.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND CORRECTIONS

A broad range of criminal justice and correctional issues will also be a top focus of the Legislature.

The Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee will hear Wednesday from Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty, who will brief the panel on department-related issues, including the status of the Downeast Correctional Facility, youth recidivism rates and mental health treatment for incarcerated youth.

A pod at the Somerset County Jail in Madison. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans Michael G. Seamans

The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee has hearings planned in the weeks ahead on numerous bills. These include revisiting state funding of county jails and an ongoing shortage of forensic bed space for those charged with or convicted of crimes who have mental health and substance use disorders or who have been deemed incompetent to stand trial by a court.

Lawmakers are considering a range of policy shifts to reduce the cost of housing prisoners, including reducing or eliminating bail requirements for lower-risk, nonviolent defendants and improving programs that help those leaving jail or prison reintegrate into society with housing, job training and health care programs.

The state’s system for providing lawyers to those who are charged with crimes but are unable to afford an attorney, the Commission on Indigent Legal Services, is also expected to face additional scrutiny in 2020 in the wake of a report from the nonpartisan Sixth Amendment Center, which found the state’s system, the only one of its kind in the U.S., may be falling short in providing adequate legal services to those accused of crimes here.

The report also drew into question how private attorneys who are certified to defend indigent clients are paid by the state and highlighted a lack of oversight in billing and payment practices by the state and the attorneys.

In December the Legislature’s watchdog Government Oversight Committee ordered its investigative arm, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, to launch an investigation into the recently reformed commission.

EDUCATION BILLS

Lawmakers will also consider a series of education bills, including measures that create incentives for school districts to buy all-electric buses and establish rules limiting how schools can discipline young children.

Kindergarten teacher Melissa Wu walks her students back to class at John F Kennedy Memorial School in Biddeford on Jan. 10, 2019. Bills before the Legislature this session seek to address issues at all levels of education.  Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Another bill in the hopper would permit retired police officers to be hired as school resource officers.

Other bills will continue a focus on higher education student debt. One measure, offered by Senate Majority Leader Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, would create a student debt forgiveness program for first responders, home health care providers and public school teachers in an effort to retain and attract workers to those fields.

Libby said Democrats remained focused on the quality and affordability of health care, workforce development and the sustainable development of public infrastructure.

BROADBAND ACCESS

Libby also said Democrats intend to redouble their efforts to improve broadband and high-speed internet access for rural Maine, following a 2019 defeat of a bonding proposal that would have earmarked funds for that.

Instead of a bonding package, Libby said Democrats would try to use state surplus funds for broadband expansion, with a requirement for matching investments from the private sector. He said in a meeting of Senate Democrats three weeks ago there was broad support for that approach.

Libby said Democrats had promised Mainers they would expand access to high-speed internet.

“We want to try to make good on that commitment,” he said.

Libby also rebuked Dow, the Senate Republican leader, on state debt, saying the current state budget included funds to cover the debt service on the bonding bills that lawmakers failed to send on to voters in 2019. Republicans withheld their support for bonds, which require a two-thirds vote by lawmakers, except for those related to roads and bridges, which were approved by voters in November.

“It is important people understand we are not talking about new money for bonding,” Libby said. “The money is there, but Republicans are just not interested in getting that money out and into the ground for infrastructure improvement and economic development, so we are going to try a different way.”

PFAS CONTAMINATION

Some of the Mills administration’s top environmental priorities during the 2020 session are expected to focus on a class of chemicals, known as PFAS, that are causing health concerns in Maine and across the country.

Commonly used in nonstick cookware and water-repellent fabrics as well as firefighting foam, some varieties of PFAS have been linked to cancer, thyroid disorders, high cholesterol and other health effects. States such as Maine are scrambling to identify PFAS contamination and regulate the chemicals because federal agencies have been slower to respond.

The Mills administration is preparing a bill to allow the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to order “responsible parties” to clean up PFAS contamination or to pay for the remediation. If enacted, the legislation would give the department the same authority it already has for a host of other contaminants, such as mercury.

But the Mills administration is also expected to introduce additional measures based on the recommendations of a PFAS task force that examined the issue for more than six months.

That group’s recommendations included requiring all community water systems to test for the chemicals, mandating that fire departments notify the DEP whenever they use PFAS-laced firefighting foams, and a bond measure to help the state cover the growing costs of dealing with contamination hot spots.



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