Progress, failure, and stall: Finished and unfinished business in the special session

25 July 2018

Dear Friends and Neighbors,

Once again, despite being only yards from the finish line, your legislature evidently is stalled in deadlock.  Nevertheless, in this summer’s special session, we have made some commendable progress and also been party to some heartbreaking failures.

As I reported in April, with critical bills still unresolved, the House Republican caucus blocked extending the regular legislative session in April.  But all caucuses did eventually agree to return to a new special legislative session

Good news: Revenue forecasts and supplemental spending

The forecasts which support the state budget originally projected two-year revenues of approximately $7.15 billion. As the state constitution requires appropriations not to exceed revenue for each fiscal year, this essentially matches the funding appropriated the biennial budget enacted during the state shutdown last July.

Now halfway through the biennium, actual revenues have exceeded that forecast by $78 million and, for the full two year period from July 2017 – June 2019, state revenues are projected to exceed the forecast by $149 million for a total of roughly $7.3 billion.

A portion of the surplus revenue and unspent allocations will automatically go into the budget stabilization fund, the so-called ‘Rainy Day Fund.’  But the fund balance is also generally applied to supplemental budget needs that arise over the two-year cycle, such as augmenting the appropriation for MaineCare as directed by the voters at referendum.

So, during May and June, my Appropriations Committee continued to negotiate a supplemental spending package, eventually putting together two bills which increased pay for direct care workers, allocated necessary funding to continue county jail operations, supported a statewide ‘hub and spoke’ treatment model to address the opioid epidemic, funded wait lists for Mainers with intellectual disabilities, addressed an emergency shortfall in early childhood special education, and funded a number of other urgent health and human services initiatives.

The governor vetoed the committee’s spending bills but, fortunately, the legislature easily overrode both vetoes.

Medicaid expansion funding

On June 20, using the fund balance, the legislature enacted a bill providing the appropriation that the governor requested in order to support the expansion of Medicaid as put into law by citizen referendum last November.

On July 2, one day after the initiated law went into effect, the governor vetoed the bill along with 22 others including the supplemental budget bills. On July 9, the House Republicans sustained the veto.

This veto doesn’t repeal either the law or the Governor’s obligations to implement expansion.  It simply makes the program dependendent on allocations that were already appropriated a year ago. The current appropriation is projected to provide sufficient funding for the expanded MaineCare program through at least May 2019.

Even as Mainers are enrolling for the expanded Medicaid program, the governor’s refusal to implement the program is now before the state Supreme Court.  On July 12, the governor announced that he would go to jail before he would comply with the law.

Higher Ed Bonds

After resolving supplemental spending, Appropriations reported out a bond package of $200 million of capital spending for state voter approval this November.  The package includes $106 million in spending for highways, bridges, and culverts, $30 million for wastewater treatment, $49 million for the University system, and $15 million for the Community Colleges.

As I sponsored the community college bill and was a cosponsor of the university bill, I am particularly pleased that these bonds ended up earning the support of the legislature and governor.

School safety, the ‘Red Flag’ bill, and banning gay ‘conversion therapy’

Several highly charged initiatives did not survive this protracted session.

The school shootings in Parkland, Florida focused great attention on school safety policy. In the immediate aftermath, it seemed as if there finally was sufficient consensus to drive some real change in state law.  Locally, our MDI schools adopted a Resolution requesting that elected officials at all levels of government “work diligently and collaboratively to enact common sense gun measures and other laws that meaningfully improve the health, safety and security of students, teachers, staff, first responders and others.”

The legislature did enact a simple provision which clearly specifies that security improvements are eligible for funding through the state’s revolving school renovation fund.  However, we provided no actual funding for the loan fund either through bonding or direct appropriation.

Similarly, early support seemed strong for a ‘Red Flag’ bill which would have allowed community members to petition courts to temporarily remove firearms from individuals deemed to be a risk to themselves or others.

But, following predictable opposition from the NRA and a contentious public hearing, the Judiciary Committee divided along partisan lines. The weaker report from the committee was the only one which gained enough votes to pass both bodies. And that weaker measure then fell to a veto from the governor.

A bill to prohibit state licensing of gay “conversion therapy” provoked passionate debate on the House floor, finally passed enactment, and then also fell to the governor’s veto.

Proficiency-based learning and graduation standards

Of the bills that did make it into law during the special session, I was most disappointed by a late-session initiative which repeals Maine’s 17-year commitment to proficiency-based learning in public schools, undercutting the hard work that local schools across Maine have been engaged in since the state first adopted learning standards in 2001.

Having advocated for improving proficiency-based learning through most of my school board and legislative career, I was particularly distressed by the enactment of this repeal during this special session

No matter where the fraught debate about minimum state graduation requirements might otherwise have landed, I fear that capitulating on the state’s obligation to assure that all schools maintain sufficient capacity for all students have the opportunity to meet the state’s learning standards threatens the very foundation of equity of learning opportunity across all Maine communities. Without a common set of expectations about equity in school capacity, it will become much more difficult to argue for equity in school funding through state subsidy.

I provided testimony at the public hearing and offered the most extended remarks of my legislative career in opposition to the bill on the House floor. But the bill still went forward and was signed by the governor.

Unfinished: Clean elections and the errors bill

At this date, the only unresolved work and essentially all that keeping your legislature in special session are two items: the annual so-called ‘errors’ legislative housekeeping bill and the so-called ‘tax conformity’ alterations to the state tax code driven by changes to the federal income tax that the US Congress made last December.

The Tax Committee has negotiated a compromise on tax conformity which protects Maine income tax filers against the unintended additional liabilities from the federal elimination of the personal tax exemption.

However, the errors bill, which is simply the vehicle which resolves conflicts and inadvertent mistakes in statute, this year has been blocked by House Republicans because one of the corrections relates to public funding for candidates under Maine’s popular Clean Elections program.

The funding for this program has already been fully appropriated and the value for the current appropriation was established as part of the negotiations last June on the biennial budget which ended up receiving overwhelming support with a unanimous vote in the Senate and a vote of 147-2 in the House. But a technical error in the enacted language prevents the Ethics Commission from distributing those appropriated funds after June 30 of this year.

The errors bill is customarily enacted at the end of session without debate as a matter of ordinary housekeeping.  But this year, in the final hours of the regular session and precisely at the advent of the campaign season, the House Republican caucus saw an opportunity to attempt to leverage a reduction in the actual allocation of funding for Clean Elections which they understand as benefiting Democrats and Independents who are more disposed than Republicans to accepting the overall campaign spending limits that the program requires of participating candidates.

Like the Democrats, the Senate Republicans are distressed to see the House Republicans holding the session hostage in an attempt to reopen negotiation on a policy matter that was presumably settled in good faith a year ago.  Moreover this single-caucus tactic of extorting an additional concession after negotiations have closed is damaging to longer-term trust and multi-party legislative cooperation. That disturbs members of both sides who understand and believe in the durable value of working together in good faith.

Nonetheless, that precisely is the hump where your legislature remains stalled in special session on July 25th, over three months beyond the regular session’s statutory adjournment date of April 18.

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