Legislature returns Wednesday to negotiate key bills

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Lawmakers in charge of funding state government will return to the State House on Wednesday to tackle dozens of critical bills left in limbo by a legislative meltdown. They include a $100 million borrowing package for roads and bridges that supports many jobs in the construction industry.

Other key bills also await action by the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee. They include increased MaineCare reimbursements for direct aid workers, a bond issue for the University of Maine, releasing $1 billion in school funding and fixing a typographical error that could block funding for Maine Clean Election Act candidates.

It remains to be seen whether Republican and Democratic leaders will set aside the sticky issues they can’t agree on, including funding a voter-approved expansion of Medicaid and whether or not the Legislature should act to slow down another voter-approved law that automatically raises the state’s minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020.

If a bond to pay for road and bridge work doesn’t go to voters for approval later this year, construction projects scheduled in the Maine Department of Transportation’s work plan for 2019 could be stalled or canceled, which is sending a wave of uncertainty through Maine’s engineering and construction industries.

Matt Marks, the chief executive officer of the Associated General Contractors of Maine, said Friday that construction company owners will hesitate to invest in workers and equipment for 2019 if it remains unclear whether there will be funding for projects that are on the long MDOT work plan.

Marks said the lack of a clear funding source also could jeopardize hundreds of millions in federal matching funds for roads and bridge construction in a year when Congress has authorized record amounts for infrastructure upgrades around the nation.

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“It’s a big deal,” Marks said. “If companies have to make cuts or changes it’s really bad for workers in Maine if they have to look elsewhere for work, and there can’t be any worse timing to have that happen. Consistency of funding is really important. What’s really frustrating is we know the need is there and we are not even meeting the infrastructure debt need, and then we are having these last-minute decisions that really impact Maine people’s lives.”

Marks said the impact pulls on both “financial strings and emotional strings.”

Department of Transportation spokesman Ted Talbot said the department also was urging the Legislature to get the bonding measure passed and out to voters.

“If no action is taken, the effects would be felt immediately,” Talbot said. “Maine DOT expends bond funds as soon as we receive them. We cannot invest in infrastructure that we do not have.”

Talbot said a gap in the work plan also would have a long-term effect.

“We know members of the Legislature agree with having a safe, solid, well-built and well maintained infrastructure,” Talbot said. “Having no bond to put to voters this year will not advance investment in Maine’s transportation system. In fact, it will set it back and take years to recover.”

Another key bill would raise pay for direct care workers who serve the disabled in group homes and other settings. While lawmakers approved a rate hike through the MaineCare reimbursement system to keep pace with the new minimum wage laws in 2016, the increased rate expires on July 1 and will revert to a lower level unless the Legislature acts.

That has sent another wave of uncertainty through the direct care community, and agencies that care for individuals in those settings say they expect staffing shortages that will force group home closures or other reductions in their services.

Also up for action is a borrowing package that would help fund upgrades and improvements for wastewater treatment facilities across the state, including Portland, where millions of gallons of raw sewage is still spilling into Casco Bay. The $25 million for improvements to wastewater facilities also would be used to leverage local and federal investment to protect the state’s waterways and drinking water.

Candidates for Maine governor and legislative seats who are running Clean Election campaigns also could lose access to millions of dollars this summer and fall unless lawmakers come back to correct a drafting error.

By failing to pass a routine “errors and inconsistencies” bill, the Legislature was unable to correct unintended budget language that prevents the Maine Ethics Commission from disbursing additional money to Clean Election candidates starting July 1. As a result, more than 200 legislative candidates and potentially three gubernatorial campaigns will be unable to tap into at least $3 million  — money that lawmakers already have budgeted for the public campaign finance system — in the final months of the election season.

But legislative progress could run aground on disagreements over Medicaid expansion and the minimum wage.

Democrats want the expansion funding in place and have said the state has the resources to do so. Republicans, for their part, want to delay minimum wage increases and create a lower training wage for teens.

The two issues have gridlocked the Legislature, which adjourned May 2 when lawmakers in the House Republican minority rejected proposals to extend the lawmaking session. That move came after Democrats rejected a proposal to vote on spending bills, including Medicaid expansion, one by one rather than combining them into a single bill.

Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway

“We all know what the issues are,” Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway, the lead House Republican on the budget-writing committee, said Friday. “We also know where all the poison pills are, so if we can simply agree on all the things we all already agree on, it won’t be too tedious of a process.”

Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, the House chairman of the committee, said the panel doesn’t have a firm agenda yet.

“There are a number of issues that will probably need to be resolved if we come back into special session and a number of those issues are on or will eventually be on the special appropriations table,” Gattine said in an email. “ I think a lot of them have been highlighted in the press over the past couple of weeks.”

If the committee reaches an agreement and votes out some funding bills, legislative leaders would have to vote to call lawmakers back for a special session. Gov. Paul LePage could summon the Legislature back to work, but so far he has declined, saying it’s up to the Legislature to reach an agreement on its own.

With the fiscal year ending on June 30, the Legislature has a relatively small window to get bills passed and to LePage’s desk, especially since the governor has 10 days to review bills before issuing a veto or signing them into law.

“I’m optimistic that we can sit down,” Winsor said. “The issues were out there before, so we know what they are. If we can sit down in a room and be civil with one another perhaps we can find a way forward, that’s what the goal is.”

 

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