AUGUSTA (AP) – A gaping budget hole and school district consolidation are likely to monopolize the agenda when the Legislature returns Jan. 2 to open the 2008 session, but lawmakers have plenty of other matters – ranging from license residency requirements to smoking in cars – to deal with in the months ahead.

Going into an election-year session that’s supposed to deal with emergency and unfinished business from the previous year, lawmakers have about 400 bills to start with, as well as a potential for scores more from specially created study committees.

The details of many bills are still being fleshed out, but titles approved for consideration show the breadth of matters to be covered in the State House. Aside from having to deal with a potential $95 million budget hole, the Appropriations Committee will take up a bill to make the state get rid of investments in companies doing business in Iran.

Other national issues and developments, such as rising oil prices, the war in Iraq and the subprime mortgage crisis “will play a very significant and influential role” in State House action in the new session, said House Speaker Glenn Cummings, D-Portland.

War expenses are straining federal programs that are widely used in Maine, which pressures legislators to keep programs such as heating assistance fully funded despite a major budget shortfall, said Cummings.

The $95 million shortage will give new momentum to the push to reform taxes, which fell short before last June’s adjournment, the speaker added.

Legislative leaders are getting an early start on legislation to fix a law requiring school districts to consolidate to save tens of millions of dollars that have already been booked. A hearing is set for Wednesday and Thursday on the Baldacci administration’s bill to remove barriers districts say discourage them from partnering with other school units.

That bill is separate from proposals seeking other modifications to the law, which will be taken up as a group by the Education Committee three days after the session opens.

A Republican Senate leader said the onus is on Democrats to lead the way on those and other pressing issues. With Democrats in control in the House and Senate, and occupying the Blaine House as well, “They’re the ones who have the clout,” said Senate Minority Leader Carol Weston of Montville.

But Weston said her party will make its voice heard and keep the heat on in efforts to rein in state spending over the long term.

A pressing issue that has crossed party lines and awaits action is changing the state’s sex offender registry so the listing distinguishes between different classifications of offenders. The matter gained urgency after the 2006 slayings of two Maine residents whose names and addresses were found by the killer in the Web registry.

Rep. Pat Blanchette, D-Bangor, is introducing a bill to outlaw smoking in cars with child passengers, a proposal that’s already drawn skepticism from civil libertarians. Another proposal intended to protect children’s health calls for steps to make sure children’s toys are lead-free.

Concerns about illegal immigration, which have spilled over into the presidential campaign, are giving momentum to legislation to require Maine license holders to be state residents.

A summer tragedy on southern Maine’s Long Lake earlier this year involving a high-powered craft that smashed into a smaller boat, killing two people, is prompting legislation to impose horsepower limits on that lake in Harrison and the adjoining Brandy Pond in Naples.

A bill to crack down further on drunken drivers calls for the use of an interlock device to prevent those convicted of operating under the influence from being able to start their cars if they’ve been drinking.

A bill that’s back after bring shelved last year seeks to establish a reinsurance pool for the individual health insurance market. Another held bill would raise jurors’ mileage from 15 cents to 36 cents a mile and boost the compensation from $10 to $50 per day.

A bill that could have election-year overtones seeks to raise the state’s $7-an-hour minimum wage. The bill sponsored by Sen. Ethan Strimling, D-Portland, a congressional hopeful, would increase the minimum to $7.70 in 2008 and to $8.40 per hour in 2009.

Another labor bill seeks to require companies with 25 or more employees to offer paid sick leave to full-time as well as part-time workers. Workers could use the time off to care for themselves or family members.

Worries about the safety of imported products prompted legislation to ensure that children’s toys and products are lead-free. A Democratic-backed bill will ask lawmakers to expand Maine’s free school breakfast program.

The state’s shutdown of a weekly cribbage tournament at an American Legion post in Gardiner prompted Sen. Peter Mills, R-Cornville, to submit a bill to allow low-stakes games at charitable and fraternal clubs. The Gardiner games were shut down because the post didn’t have a license to hold games of chance.

Legislative leaders reversed their earlier vote and decided to admit a bill to repeal new state fees on vehicle oil changes to help pay for cleanups at waste oil disposal sites. The law assesses $1 fees for most passenger cars and small trucks.

They also admitted a bill to rename the South Bridge connecting Lewiston and Auburn for Bernard Lown, the Nobel Prize-winning cardiologist who grew up in Lewiston.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.