Legislature faces full slate for rest of session

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AUGUSTA – The Legislature will return from a 12-day recess Wednesday with much work to be done before it adjourns for the year.

Among the items on the to-do list are major pieces of Gov. John Baldacci’s agenda that so far have been left undone and a number of contentious issues that have left lawmakers divided.

During his State of the State address, the governor, who faces a tough re-election campaign this year, outlined several aggressive policies, including elimination of the business equipment tax, improving DirigoChoice and increasing starting teacher pay in the state to $30,000 per year.

So far, all three have languished as the Legislature has worked to put its mark on proposals.

Originally included in the supplemental budget, the increase in teacher pay was stripped out of the bill as part of a bipartisan compromise to ensure two-thirds support in the Legislature. To win bipartisan peace, the pay raise had to be made to stand alone. The supplemental budget passed with near unanimous support, but without the teacher pay piece.

Efforts to eliminate the business equipment tax have been tied up as lawmakers work on competing proposals. A high priority for the governor and the business community, the elimination of the business equipment tax has been stalled because of the implications it could have on the tax base for towns and cities.

With the Legislature planning to meet only Wednesday, Thursday and Friday – stretching into Saturday if necessary – the Taxation Committee is still working on the details of how to eliminate the business tax without shifting the cost onto property taxpayers.

And then there’s DirigoChoice, the governor’s innovative attempt to expand health insurance coverage to the estimated 130,000 Mainers without it.

Dirigo has received praise nationally for its work toward universal coverage and the creation of a public-private partnership as a means to insure the uninsured. The health insurance program, which seeks to decrease the number of uninsured in the state, was named one of the Top 50 Government Innovations for 2006 by Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

But at home, the program is a lightning rod, constantly under assault by the governor’s political opponents and a key issue in the upcoming gubernatorial election.

One bill would prohibit insurance companies from passing on to their customers a $44 million assessment that’s intended to fund Dirigo for next year. Called the Savings Offset Payment, the assessment is based upon the amount of money the state says insurance companies have saved because of Dirigo. The Chamber of Commerce, Maine Hospital Association and the Maine Association of Health Plans have sued the state, disputing the amount of savings and oppose the legislation

The second bill would allow the state to divorce DirigoChoice from the private insurance industry and allow the state to take over and administer the insurance plan.

Both bills are supported by Gov. John Baldacci. Ongoing negotiations between stakeholders and lawmakers are seeking to find middle ground that would essentially protect the status quo until next year.

But that’s just the beginning of the Herculean task that awaits lawmakers when they return. There are more than 80 bills pending in the Appropriations Committee, each vying for some sliver of the money available.

And the fight over money doesn’t end on the Appropriations Committee. The Transportation Committee approved its budget but added a provision that would send to voters this fall a $60 million bond question. Republican and Democratic leaders in the Legislature had agreed that there would be no bond question this year as part of their budget negotiations, but a bipartisan group of lawmakers on the Transportation Committee bucked their party leaders and included the bonds in their budget.

Then there’s an attempt to limit the ability of communities to change their minds in regards to development. L.D. 1481 faced a tough fight in the Senate, but ultimately passed 24-10. And while the bill has received initial support in the House, 75-70, there’s a huge fight pending. More than 20 amendments could be introduced on the floor – although the actual number will likely be closer to four or five. With each amendment, opponents of the bill hope to siphon off support or at least make the bill more palatable.

During the debate in the House, 40 members spoke on the bill, one taking the floor for more than an hour. The fight isn’t likely to be over.

And finally there’s Jessica’s Law, which seeks to toughen mandatory minimum sentences for child molesters. Championed by television pundit Bill O’Reilly, the law is opposed by most state prosecutors who fear it will tie their hands in prosecuting sexual predators and force them to put young victims on the witness stand where they will be forced to relive their attacks.

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