Lawmakers address issues

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AUGUSTA (AP) – Minimum wage earners will get raises, consumers will get new protections and Maine will meet an important benchmark in ridding its store shelves and dumps of toxic mercury, thanks to action taken by the Legislature this year.

Maine lawmakers also claimed a couple of national “firsts” as they passed laws to give homeless people new legal shelter from violence and to allow pets to be included in protection orders. They took stands on a couple of international issues and took time to name a couple of new Maine bridges.

It was a productive session, said House Speaker John Richardson – especially for an election year when work can get sidetracked by partisan fervor.

“The productivity and ability to work together have been the non-stories” of the session, said Richardson, D-Brunswick. “Usually our failures and inability to get together get us on the front pages.”

Most of the laws passed during the January-April session will take effect in this summer, 90 days after the session ends. Many took effect immediately upon Gov. John Baldacci’s signature, and some such as the minimum wage hike, are phased in.

The current $6.50 hourly state minimum rises by a quarter in October and then by another 25 cents a year later to push it up to $7 an hour by October 2007. The federal minimum wage is $5.15 an hour.

While most of their work for the closing year of the two-year session has been completed, a few pieces of unfinished business linger as the final days close in.

Votes are pending on bills known as “Jessica’s Law,” which would impose mandatory prison terms for those convicted of sex crimes against young victims, and “Tina’s Law,” which seeks stiffer penalties for motorists who continue driving after their licenses are taken away.

Also facing final votes are bills to make it easier for criminals to seek new trials based on DNA evidence and to limit the amount of wood from demolition that may be substituted for conventional fuel in boilers.

Environmentalists celebrated new laws they said completely rid Maine’s trash and new consumer products of toxic mercury.

Manufacturers must set up a system to collect and recycle unused mercury thermostats by offering incentives of at least $5 per thermostat. Sales of button cell batteries that contain mercury are banned as of July 2011.

The state also is taking initial steps toward recycling old cell phones, which contain mercury and other toxic materials.

Lobsters and other marine life get new protection from chemicals used to control the spread of browntail moths by a law that creates a buffer zone along the coast in Cumberland, Sagadahoc and York counties and sets other spraying restrictions.

State environmental officials also must take further steps to reduce algae blooms in the Gulf Island Pond section of the Androscoggin River north of Lewiston.

A bill that’s critical to efforts to add more than 6,000 acres in the Katahdin Lake region to Baxter State Park still awaited the governor’s signature, which was expected.

Under a new law that’s already taken effect, minimum fines for parking in spaces marked for the disabled or an access aisle are doubled to $200.

Starting next year, youths from 16 to 18 are barred from operating personal watercraft unless they’ve completed a boater safety course or have someone 18 or older aboard.

A new law intended to fix what critics saw as a flaw in the current law will allow private clubs’ smoking policies to be decided by a majority of their members who return ballots, rather than a majority of all of a club’s members.

Mainers won added privacy protections as lawmakers made it a crime to sell wireless phone records and decided that no one except a vehicle’s owner should get access to information from the “black boxes” installed in many newer cars.

Fears of gasoline price gouging following the Gulf Coast hurricanes prompted lawmakers to bolster Maine’s law to protect consumers from profiteering during market disruptions.

Consumers who get home equity loans will get added protection through a law making it clear that Maine-chartered banks that issue debit cards can not assess finance charges in addition to interest already agreed to in the home equity loan.

Legislation prompted by consumer frustration over “holds” on accounts with debit or credit card purchases requires more disclosure by businesses of the amounts they hold.

For immigrants who live in Maine, it’ll be easier to get health insurance thanks to a law that simplifies the process for proving residency and intent to stay in Maine.

Another newly enacted law, prompted by post 9-11 security concerns, tightens state requirements for issuing drivers’ licenses and state identification cards to state residents who are not United States citizens. The law bars the state from accepting expired documentation used as identification to get drivers’ licenses or state IDs.

Homeless people in Maine get new protections under a law that ensures that attacks on the homeless are prosecuted just as severely as attacks on others because of their age, race or sexual orientation.

In another first, judges will be allowed to include pets in protection orders for spouses and partners leaving abusive relationships. The law recognizes a connection between domestic violence and animal abuse.

A new law seeks to further protect children from sex offenders when they take up cases to determine parental responsibilities. Judges must consider whether one of the parents lives with a person who has been convicted of a sexual offense or sexual exploitation of a minor.

Lawmakers put new restrictions on the use of eminent domain, passing a law prohibiting the government from condemning residential, business, farm and forest land for private retail, office, commercial, industrial or residential development.

Lobbyists and their associates will have to disclose the name of the person or organization they represent when testifying before a legislative committee.

A new law tightens and clarifies restrictions on the use of Clean Election campaign funds by qualifying candidates. It makes clear that candidates may not use any Clean Election money for anything other than campaign-related purposes.

Tax-weary residents of Chebeague Island won the go-ahead to separate from the town of Cumberland.

A supplemental state budget bill that directs more than $41 million to local school aid helps property taxpayers by increasing the state’s share of public education. The budget also allocates $29 million to special reserve funds.

A couple of new bridges were formally named. A span over the Kennebec River in Augusta will be officially known as Cushnoc Crossing, and the new Route 1 bridge crossing the between Prospect and Verona Island will be named the Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory Tower.

Observing developments overseas, lawmakers approved a bill that sets forth a process to discourage state purchases of clothing and shoes made in foreign sweatshops. And to make a statement against genocide in Darfur, they ordered the divestiture of State Retirement System funds in companies doing business in Sudan.

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