Leaders upbeat as Maine legislative deadline nears

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AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — With health insurance reform and a $6.1 billion state budget topping the list of major issues still ahead, Maine lawmakers are facing a deadline barely a month away to finish business.

Majority Republicans say they’re confident lawmakers can wrap up business by June 15, the date set in statute. House Speaker Robert Nutting is optimistic they can even beat the clock.

“It is my expectation to be able to adjourn by June 8, as planned, but there are a lot of variables at play, including the budget,” said Nutting, R-Oakland. “We can’t predict with complete certainty when we’ll be done, but I’m optimistic we’ll end up finishing up as scheduled.”

Democrats say the statutory deadline can be met. But Rep. Emily Cain of Orono said there’s still uncertainty over LePage’s budget, which he revised earlier this month, not to mention health insurance reform.

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“I don’t think we should make rushed or shortsighted decisions just because of a deadline of time,” said Cain, the House Democratic leader.

The eruption of the first divisive partisan battle late last week over a GOP-backed health insurance reform bill threatened cast a pall over the remaining days.

On Monday, the Senate will convene for what’s expected to be the final enactment vote of the bill that Republicans contend would allow Mainers to buy coverage offered in other states and make other changes, opening the door to greater competition to drive down insurance premiums.

Democrats, who feel like they’ve been steamrolled, believe the proposal will result in higher premiums for older Mainers and rural residents.

While health insurance may be a short-term bump in the road, an even bigger debate looms over the state budget.

Republican Sen. David Trahan of Waldoboro agrees that the budget is the big unknown, and he expects the big stumbling block within the budget to be proposed tax cuts and pension reforms. Cain also questions whether the governor could add last-minute bills to the mix.

Of the 1,570 bills printed for the session, nearly a third had been fully dealt with — either enacted or killed — by last week.

To keep things moving, leaders ordered that the few hundred bills still lingering in committee, with a few exceptions, be reported out by the end of last week for House and Senate action. Leading up to that, lawmakers were killing off bills daily by the score.

Sen. Stanley Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, whose six terms have all been under Democratic leadership, said Republican leaders appear to be taking a timely adjournment “very, very seriously.”

“They’re running the place now; it’s a test of their organizational skills,” said Gerzofsky. He said the business of legislating got off to a slow start in January as the new GOP majority acclimated itself to leading, “but they’re pouring it on now.”

The Legislature has been acting on some notable issues, rejecting a number of proposals to restrict wind power development, killing off bills to weaken Maine’s bottle-redemption law, deciding on some contentious labor issues and taking big steps last week to approve a health care overhaul measure.

But there are still some rough areas to cover, including tax reforms, abortion restrictions, environmental bills such as one to ease vernal pool regulations, and a highway budget.

Meanwhile, lawmakers have begun twice-a-day sessions and will be doing more in the coming days and weeks to make sure they get done on time, Nutting said.

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