Expect 2018 to be a big year in Maine politics

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Lingering debates must be resolved on marijuana and ranked-choice voting while nearly two dozen candidates are running for governor.

Maine’s politicians and the state’s voters will have plenty to think about in 2018. Everything from who will replace Republican firebrand Paul LePage as governor to whether Maine will change the way it votes on statewide elections is on the horizon in the year ahead. Health care, recreational marijuana and what could turn into slugfest primary elections in June for both Democrats and Republicans are on the radar screen. Here’s a rundown of the top five political stories to watch for in 2018:

GOVERNOR’S RACE

The race will be the highlight in 2018 as voters pick a replacement for LePage, who is serving his final year in office because of term limits. The crowded field includes at least 22 candidates in a pre-primary run-up that will feature at least 10 Democrats and six Republicans seeking their party’s nomination. The field also includes three independents, a Libertarian and two Green Party candidates, in a race that has left pundits joking that it would be easier to write about who isn’t running.

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Notable candidates on the Republican side include LePage’s former health and human services commissioner, Mary Mayhew, Maine Senate President Michael Thibodeau, state Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, state House of Representatives Minority Leader Ken Fredette, and Shawn Moody, an auto-body repair entrepreneur who ran as an independent against LePage in 2010.

Since announcing that he had joined the Republican Party in October, Moody has recruited several of LePage’s key former campaign staffers, including political consultant and sometimes-spokesman Brent Littlefield, who runs a Virginia-based public relations shop. Also on Moody’s team is LePage’s daughter, Lauren LePage, who also served on her father’s campaign and as an adviser during his first few years in office.

On the Democratic side, high-profile candidates include Maine Attorney General Janet Mills; Mark Eves, former speaker of the Maine House of Representatives; Adam Cote, a lawyer with 20 years of service in the Maine Army National Guard, including combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan; Mark Dion, a former county sheriff and state senator from Cumberland County, home of the state’s largest city, Portland; and longtime liberal activist and State House lobbyist Betsy Sweet.

Independents in the race include state Treasurer Terry Hayes; John Jenkins, former city mayor in both Lewiston and Auburn and the only African-American to serve in the state Senate; and Alan Caron, a longtime newspaper columnist and sensible-growth advocate who founded Envision Maine, which worked with businesses and nonprofits to improve the state’s economy.

RANKED-CHOICE VOTING

Complicating the governor’s race in 2018 is a law passed by voters in 2016 that makes Maine the first state in the nation to switch to a system of ranked-choice voting for statewide elections, including for the governor’s office, the Legislature and Congress. The new law, which was repealed by the Legislature in 2017, could still be in effect for the June 2018 primary because advocates for the change have started another ballot drive under the state constitution that would allow for a so-called “people’s veto” of the Legislature’s repeal.

If advocates collect enough voter signatures – just over 61,000 – the ranked-choice repeal would be put on hold until the next statewide elections – the party primaries in June. During that election, voters would not only be required to select party candidates by ranked-choice voting, they also would decide whether they want to keep the ranked-choice system or accept the Legislature’s repeal of the law. The same election would also select party nominees for the state Legislature and Congress by ranked choice.

2ND CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT

Maine’s sprawling, rural and more northern 2nd U.S. Congressional District will be the battleground for a heated primary fight for Democrats hoping to be their party’s choice to challenge incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a former state treasurer, who is seeking his third term to the U.S. House. Six Democrats, including state Rep. Jared Golden, the assistant majority leader in the state House of Representatives and a Marine Corps veteran who served combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, will face off against Lucas St. Clair, the son of Roxanne Quimby, the billionaire co-founder of Burt’s Bees.

St. Clair was a driving force behind an effort to bring a national monument to Maine’s North Woods on land donated to the federal government by his family. St. Clair also was instrumental in efforts to fend off a President Trump reversal of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument declaration made by former President Obama in his last months in office in 2016.

At least four other lesser-known Democrats, including an antiquarian book seller and a restaurant owner, have announced they would seek their party’s nomination for the seat. As of December, no Republicans had announced a primary challenge to Poliquin.

RECREATIONAL MARIJUANA LAW

The Legislature is likely to spend more time in 2018 wrangling with each other and LePage over the implementation of another law approved by voters in 2016 that legalizes the sale and use of recreational marijuana by adults.

Adult-use and possession of recreational marijuana became legal in January 2017, but the Legislature has been unable to set up the regulatory framework necessary for commercial production of marijuana products, including a safety inspection and licensing regime that would allow for retail sales and state taxation of recreational marijuana. In late 2017, the state’s revenue-forecasting committee estimated the state had already missed the opportunity to collect an estimated $11 million in sales taxes that would have flowed to the state had the Legislature acted more quickly.

LePage met with lawmakers in late December on a new bill that could resolve a stalemate that involves disagreements over everything from which state agencies should regulate recreational marijuana to how much tax the state should collect on its sales.

PAYING FOR MEDICAID EXPANSION

The Legislature also will be looking for ways to cover a new, $60 million-a-year cost to the state budget for funding the state’s share of Medicaid expansion under the federal Affordable Care Act. Maine voters approved the health care expansion at the ballot box in 2017 – the first state electorate to do so – after the Legislature five times passed an expansion law that was successfully vetoed by LePage.

The governor has been an ardent opponent of expansion, pointing to the state’s past experience with expansion that left the state with gaping budget shortfalls for years. In December 2017, he said he would only begin the expansion process if the Legislature figured out a way to pay for the state’s share of the expense without raising taxes, raiding reserve funds or cutting other state-funded programs for the elderly and the disabled.

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