AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Maine's first Republican-led Legislature in decades did as it promised as it rolled back business regulations, and after years of trying made major changes in health insurance laws during the six-month 2011 session. Lawmakers also are leaving their imprint on Mainers' lives in other ways.
Motorists will face $100 fines for text messaging. Teenagers will be allowed to work more hours during the school year. Older people will get broadened protections from abuse. Mainers will pay added fees for health insurance.
All-terrain vehicle users will have to be more sensitive to private property owners' rights. And lobstermen can feel more comfortable about stacking their traps on docks. And who can forget about new honors for the beloved whoopie pie?
Overall, lawmakers' action put business in better standing, said Maine Chamber of Commerce President Dana Connors, who said action was taken in priority areas of health care costs, taxes and balancing environmental and business concerns in state regulations.
A package of tax cuts totaling $150 million are included in a two-year state budget that awaits votes this week by the House and Senate. The budget, which has unanimous support of the Appropriations Committee, also includes pension changes designed to drive down long-term state debt and new limits on welfare benefits.
"I would score this session positively. I would give it good marks, high, positive marks," said Connors. He also credits lawmakers for sounding "the right tone and cord," especially on regulatory changes.
Environmentalists, who braced for a beating when the session opened, sounded as if they hadn't lost much ground.
Early in the session, environmentalists had identified 50 "bad bills," many of which attacked regulations they believed protect the air and water, said Pete Didisheim, advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. By the end, 44 had been either rejected or changed so they were palatable to them.
"Overall, we're pleased with the outcome of the session," said Didisheim.
Most of the laws passed during the January-June session that's now drawing to a close will take effect 90 days after the close of the session. Some took effect immediately, and others, like the health insurance law, kick in on various dates.
Thousands of Mainers will be affected by the law designed to lower health insurance costs and cover more Mainers through a series of market changes. The law allows smaller companies to band together to get better rates. It also adds a $4 charge to the monthly premium of every Mainer with private coverage. The fees will pay for a new high risk pool that will cover Mainers with high health care expenses.
After a vague 2-year-old "distracted driving" law failed to do its job, lawmakers passed a law aimed directly at texting behind the wheel. It sets minimum fines at $100 for violators.
Maine's regulatory climate will have a different feel, something businesses have been clamoring for. A law formulated after a series of "red tape" hearings establishes an environmental self-audit program, strengthens business assistance efforts, streamlines permitting, and trims the size of the Board of Environmental Protection from 10 to seven. LePage planned to sign the bill Monday.
A poster child for over-regulation — a rule that barred lobstermen from storing their traps on docks — got the heave-ho with passage of a law that bars state agencies from prohibiting or regulating the storage of lobster traps, buoys, lines and bait bags on docks.
A compromise bill eases the impact of the state's 3-year-old safer chemical policy by trimming a list of more than 1,700 chemicals of concern and creating a new list of up to 70 chemicals of "high" concern. It also exempts some product components from regulation.
Still, lawmakers pleased environmentalists by making the use of the chemical bisphenol A, or BPA, illegal in baby bottles, sippy cups and other reusable food and beverage containers.
Lawmakers sent to Gov. Paul LePage a bill to repeal the state's pesticide registry, an online system in which residents can request advance notification of the application of pesticides.
LePage has signed into law a bill that eases restrictions on construction by a state sand dune law, allowing a southern Maine hotel expansion to go forward. And Maine law requiring studies before big-box developments can be built is eased by an enacted bill allowing municipalities to opt in to Maine's Informed Growth Act law.
Lawmakers shoved aside roadblocks to dredging that had to be done in the Kennebec River in order for the Navy to take delivery of the Bath Iron Works-built USS Spruance.
Small businesses and high school students will get more leeway on work schedules thanks to enactment of a law allowing students to work as many as 24 hours rather than the 20 per week under current law. It also increases from four to six the number of hours students can work on school days. In school, students will have to study civics and government in order to get a high school diploma.
A new law creates a work-share program that provides employers an alternative to layoffs during an economic downturn. They can reduce hours for employees and make the workers eligible to collect a limited amount of unemployment insurance as a stop gap.
In social services, adults who are 60 or older, and those who are incapacitated or dependent, will be able to seek protection from abuse order if they are abused by an extended family member or an unpaid care provider. Now, the law only applies to family members or dating partners.
Mainers' privacy will gain a little more protection by a law that repeals some requirements of the Real ID security act.
Outdoors, ATV users will have to make sure they're acting within the law when they venture onto private property. A game warden may stop an ATV on private land without a "reasonable and articulable" suspicion to believe a violation of the law has taken place, meaning some ATVers who might have gotten away with an infraction before won't any more.
Professional boxing could see rejuvenation in Maine if a bill sent to LePage is signed. It would expand Maine's Mixed Martial Arts Authority so it can oversee boxing as well.
A bill to bolster Maine's deer population makes the conservation and protection of deer wintering areas a priority in Land for Maine's Future acquisitions, requires the state game department to set five-year benchmarks for deer population goals and establishes a Predator Control and Deer Habitat Fund.
A new law will set regulations for wolf hybrid kennels.
Operations at the Maine Turnpike Authority will be overhauled by a law resulting from a scandal over expense improprieties. The new requires the turnpike to retain an outside compliance auditor, maintain a system for ongoing internal auditing of the authority's books and accounts and make available a detailed budget of expenditures.
Veterans will be honored by a law designating March 30 of each year as Vietnam War Remembrance Day, and Gold Star Family license plates are authorized as a tribute to those who have given their life in service to their country.
Annual proclamations making March 16 Gov. William King Day in honor of the first governor of Maine are required by a new law.
Maine wineries will now be able to charge for samples.
And a new law makes whoopie pies the state treat, not the official state dessert as initially proposed. Instead, lawmakers designated blueberry pie — made with wild Maine blueberries — as the official state dessert.