2018 mid-session legislative update

March 14, 2018

Dear Friends and Neighbors,

Today’s snow day allows me an opportunity to report where things are midway through this legislative session. As always, I am grateful for your emails sharing your thoughts and policy concerns. Please let me continue to hear from you as we work through the next month or so of crunch time in Augusta.

State revenue

Economic growth is increasing the state’s revenue from sales and income taxes yielding a projected $140 million in unallocated surplus for the two-year budget cycle that will end in June 2019.  Having that balance in the bank is good news both for the next legislature and also for the next Governor.  It also provides some welcome slack for any current supplemental budget deliberations in our Appropriations Committee and removes one possible objection from the Governor regarding implementation of the expansion of Medicaid eligibility that voters directed last November.

Medicaid expansion

The next milestone in the timeline for Medicaid expansion is April 3. This is the date by which the Maine Department of Health and Human Services must submit an amendment to the Maine State Plan to the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services outlining how the state plans to implement the expansion.

Bonding

With colleagues on my committee, I am working to gain consensus on a package of bonds.  Last summer we moved but were unable to enact two bond bills which had the support of the Governor.  Those two bills, one for student debt relief and the other for research and development commercialization, are back in our committee.  In addition, I am hoping to build support for capital funding for both the University and Community College systems, for transportation, and for improved water quality.

Trump tax plan

Maine periodically makes changes to state tax law to conform with changes to federal code.  Conforming to the sweeping changes made in December in Washington including the elimination of the $4050 personal exemption would result in a $250 million state income tax increase.  In response, the Governor has proposed both a new zero-percent tax bracket in place of the personal exemption and also an additional reduction in personal,  business, and estate taxes totalling $111 million. Also before the legislature this session is an extension of the state tax break for Bath Iron Works and a reevaluation of the benefits of business tax havens. Given the competing priorities for state resources that are already on the table by mutual agreement this session, I am not sure that a sizeable additional tax cuts should appropriately shoulder to the top of the list.

Preschool and early childhood services

Of all the negotiations about school funding that we closed last July in the current budget, I am most proud of expanding the allocation for new early education programs.  As a direct result, forty school districts are proposing new or expanded preschool programs for the upcoming year which will serve over a thousand new young students. In addition, this session we hope to move forward with a new model to ensure that all three to five-year-olds with special needs have access to requisite professional services through their local school districts.  A bill that I cosponsored with Speaker Gideon to improve adult education and job training for families in poverty gained unanimous support in committee.

School safety

Following the horror and unacceptable tragedy of last month’s school shootings, I believe lawmakers at both the federal and state levels must engage immediately in serious discussion about what policy changes must be made in response. At the very least I believe we need to be deliberating on universal background checks for all gun sales, a return to permitting for concealed firearms, tighter regulations for ownership of certain semi-automatic weapons, and magazine size restrictions for all semi-automatics. I don’t claim to know where these boundaries are best set and I’m hoping not to precipitate a predictable debate about the merits and drawbacks of each policy. I do know that many of you are responsible, experienced, and compassionate gun owners and I trust that these events are weighing on your mind as well. Many of you have offered your own suggestions for solutions and, for that, I am very grateful. Events like these can not continue and we all share responsibility for what happens next.

Child abuse prevention

Two recent disturbing cases of child abuse have sharpened legislative oversight on children’s protective services.

Solar

This session’s modest solar bill to improve the Public Utility Commission’s rules around net metering passed both the House and Senate.  It still faces the prospect of a veto.

Hybrids and gas tax

Largely because in 2011, the legislature voted in 2011 to stop indexing fuel taxes to inflation, Maine’s State Highway Fund has been unable to keep pace with needs for maintenance and improvement.  To partly offset this, the Governor has proposed an additional annual fee on hybrid and electric vehicles. I oppose this increase because I think it fails to address the real reason for the structural funding problem and also because it represents a perverse disincentive towards the public environmental and health benefits of efficient vehicles.

Offshore drilling

In opposition to an initiative from the Trump administration to open all offshore waters to oil drilling, I cosponsored a legislative resolution requesting that Maine be excluded on account of the importance of Maine’s coastal and marine resources.  The resolution passed unanimously. Along with 226 other state legislators, I also signed a letter to Interior Secretary Zinke in opposition to the initiative.

Opioid addiction treatment

The staggering increase in overdose fatalities plainly show that we are not responding properly to the crisis of opioid addiction.  Over a year ago, the legislature appropriated funding for new pilot treatment programs and we are prepared to expand appropriations for this model if it proves workable.  To date, implementation of these opioid health programs has been slow and they have reached too few individuals. MaineCare expansion will provide supplemental funding for addiction treatment and reduce the stress of treatment providers from uncompensated care.

Unemployment benefits

As many of you may know from direct experience, seasonally unemployed workers this year encountered a frustrating new system at the Department of Labor and additional aggravation from being unable either to log in to the new online system or to reach short-staffed Department representatives by telephone.  The legislature continues to investigate.

Jails and juvenile justice

Maine has long-standing organizational and funding problems related to its correctional facilities and county jails.  An independent review found the state’s Long Creek Youth Development Center understaffed and overburdened.  Last year the legislature requested recommendations for ways to restructure the funding and operations of the system of county jails.  The Department of Corrections produced a report but so far has declined to recommend changes.

Marijuana

After last fall’s veto, moving forward with implementation of laws and executive branch regulations for the retail sales of marijuana as directed by the 2016 citizens’ initiative remains a real challenge in this divided legislature.  A substantial faction within the legislature would still like to stall beyond this session. Others are vehemently upset that the legislature has failed simply to implement what the voters directed. But the legislature’s marijuana implementation committee has worked diligently and the legislature will vote on their revised compromise in the next few weeks.  I regret the confusion that this uncertainty continues to cause to municipal officials statewide.

Representative Brian Hubbell,
Maine House District 135
Bar Harbor, Lamoine, Mount Desert
http://www.rephubbell.com/

RepBrian.Hubbell@legislature.maine.gov
66 Park Street, Bar Harbor, ME 04609
(800) 423-2900 (Augusta)
288-3947 (home)

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