AUGUSTA — State lawmakers will face a long list of bills when they return to work in January – including measures to fund Medicaid expansion and approve adult-use marijuana – in a second session with a high risk of grandstanding by those who are running for higher office in the November 2018 election.
More than 400 bills need action by the 128th Legislature. Among them are 319 that were held over from the first session, 63 new bills approved for consideration by legislative leaders and 41 bills submitted by the administration of Gov. Paul LePage.
In a closely divided Legislature, where Republicans control the Senate and Democrats the House, political tensions may be heightened by the fact that several key lawmakers are running for governor or Congress.
Among that group are Senate President Mike Thibodeau, Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, all Republicans running for governor; and House Assistant Majority Leader Jared Golden, a Democrat who is seeking the 2nd Congressional District seat held by Bruce Poliquin.
In the House, 24 lawmakers – 16 Republicans, six Democrats, one Green and one independent – are serving their last term either because of term limits or a bid for another office. In the 35-member Senate, 10 members are leaving, with seven Republicans and one Democrat reaching term limits and one Democrat and one Republican running for higher office.
Every seat in the Legislature will be up for election in November.
“Some of us will go down fighting,” said Rep. Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester. Espling, the assistant minority leader, is finishing her fourth term in the House. She hopes to win a Senate seat and faces a Republican primary in that race against a member of her own caucus, Rep. Bruce Bickford, R-Auburn.
Espling said legislative leaders will make an effort to keep campaigning out of the State House. “But there is always a different dynamic that takes place in an election year,” she said.
Thibodeau, R-Winterport, the Senate president who is running for governor, said he believes lawmakers will stick to business and keep their campaign posturing out of the State House.
“I would suggest to you that would be a nonfactor,” he said. “People are here to do their job, and we will let the voters next June and next November figure out who they want to be their next governor.”
Thibodeau suggested that lawmakers who plan to run for re-election may be motivated to get the daunting amount of work that awaits them done quickly and efficiently, so they have more time on the campaign trail.
But at least one Democratic leader is urging lawmakers to keep the campaigning for another office outside of the State House and to focus on the tasks at hand.
“The Legislature absolutely has a tremendous amount of work in front of us this next session,” said House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport. “It is my hope that all of my colleagues, regardless of their plans for higher office, devote themselves to the job that Mainers have elected them to do and leave their campaigning outside of the State House.”
The session is scheduled to begin on Jan. 3 and conclude on April 18, although that could be extended in five-day increments if necessary. The 319 bills that were held over from the Legislature’s first session this year are more than twice the number that the previous, 127th Legislature held over from its first session in 2015. Those bills cover a wide range of issues, including energy, criminal justice, health and human services, and tax policy.
Lawmakers also need to finish their work on a bill that would set the framework in place for the legal sale of recreational marijuana, after LePage vetoed a marijuana bill developed this year by a special legislative committee. The Legislature will also have to fund the state’s share of a Medicaid expansion that voters approved at the ballot box this month.
The expansion would provide health care coverage to as many as 70,000 low-income Mainers, and the state’s share of that cost is estimated to be about $50 million a year. LePage has said he will oppose any new tax increases or any raid of the state’s surplus funds to pay for Medicaid expansion.
LePage’s office did not respond to questions about what additional bills or topics the governor may want lawmakers to tackle.
In a letter to Cabinet members last week, LePage said he would not submit a supplemental budget. He said agencies would have to cover any unexpected costs with existing resources and delay any requests for additional funding until the next two-year budget, which will be assembled by LePage’s successor after the 2018 election.
“I intend to use my final legislative session in office to affirm key advances in our state under my administration and to pursue further reforms,” LePage wrote. He said a supplemental budget was unnecessary.
Espling said lawmakers didn’t finish work on many bills in the last session because they were busy dealing with the fallout from several major bills that voters approved as ballot questions in 2016. Those bills included an increase in the minimum wage, marijuana legalization, ranked-choice voting and a tax surcharge for higher-income households to fund education.
She said she hopes lawmakers in the upcoming session will alter the ballot question process, which has come under scrutiny because several recent referendum campaigns have originated with and been funded largely by out-of-state interests.
One bill, co-sponsored by Espling, would require that voter signatures for ballot questions be collected in equal amounts in both of the state’s congressional districts, to ensure that a proposed bill has broad voter support.
“It’s not the ultimate fix to the problems we are having, but it’s a start,” Espling said.
The debates over marijuana, the minimum wage and the tax surcharge not only led to alterations in those bills, but also complicated the job of passing a new two-year state budget, and as a result the first session didn’t end until August.
Thibodeau, the Senate president, pointed out that lawmakers returned to the State House in October to take up several matters, including votes to override or sustain LePage vetoes, and were able to wrap up their work in a single day.
“Hopefully that’s a precursor to the work we are going to do this coming winter,” Thibodeau said. “I think people certainly feel like they spent enough time in the building in July and August, so hopefully we can get our work done and people can get out and go make their case to the voters about why they should send us back here.”
Key issues facing the legislature in 2018
• Adult-use marijuana, approved by voters in 2016 but still being amended by the Legislature.
• Medicaid expansion for up to 70,000 low-income Mainers, approved by voters but needs funding by Legislature.
• Solar and hydropower regulation and expanding internet broadband access to the most rural parts of the state.
• Tax reform proposals that may be submitted by Gov. Paul LePage, and bills to reform the way annual excise taxes are paid on automobiles and commercial vehicles.
• Financial regulation, including at least one bill that regulates how banks can assess overdraft fees.
• Initiative and referendum process changes, to address concerns about abuses.
• Teen suicide prevention measures, proposals to address the opioid epidemic and tougher penalties for sexual assault and stalking.