Developmentally disabled Mainers and low- to middle-income homeowners were among the winners, while drunken drivers and the uninsured were on the losing end in the legislative session that recessed last week after months of political posturing and partisan rhetoric.
The last chapter in the story of the 126th Legislature is still incomplete, and so, too, is the final list of winners and losers, but the partisan din will certainly carry over into the battle for control of the State House in November. The fate of a number of bills rests with Gov. Paul LePage, who has 10 days to either veto them, sign them or allow them to become law without his signature. On May 1, the Legislature will reconvene to either override or sustain the governor’s vetoes.
Lawmakers are expected to be busy. LePage has recorded more than 130 vetoes since taking office in 2011 and he’s already threatened to reject several proposals that hit his desk last week, including a bipartisan budget fix for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2015.
LePage also has threatened to call back lawmakers this spring, a move that would displease both Democrats and Republicans in the midst of re-election campaigns.
Some of the bills on the governor’s desk face an uncertain fate, but here is a selected and partial list of Mainers who are likely to end up benefiting, or losing, from the decisions of the 126th Legislature:
THE DEVELOPMENTALLY DISABLED
It’s not often that state lawmakers say with certainty, or truthfully, that they made people’s lives better. The 126th Legislature can.
Barring a veto by LePage – and a dramatic reversal by Republicans to help the governor sustain it – there are about 400 people suffering from developmental disabilities who will soon receive home- and community-based care services. That’s good news for the recipients of the care, some of whom have been on waiting lists for these services for more than two years. About 70 of the so-called priority recipients who will receive home-based care would otherwise be institutionalized. It’s also good news for their family members, some of whom may have had to quit their jobs to provide the care that should have been provided by the state.
The bipartisan budget bill enacted by the Legislature accomplished that, following exhaustive work by the budget-writing committee. According to Mary Lou Dyer, director for the Maine Association for Community Service Providers, the fix was spearheaded by Sen. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, who worked with other members of the budget panel to develop what Dyer described as “imaginative” funding mechanisms to address a problem that has dogged the Legislature for several years.
In the context of a $6.3 billion budget, the $32 million budget fix isn’t a big deal. But lawmakers on the budget panel hailed the spending plan and measure to eliminate and reduce the two waiting lists as the most significant achievement of the abbreviated session.
Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick, said budget bills typically never make anyone happy, such is the spirit of compromise. This proposal was different.
“So here’s the kicker for today,” Hill said. “I am happy about this budget, I am really happy. Because what’s not to like about taking all the developmentally disabled off the (waiting lists)?”
TAX RELIEF FOR LOW-INCOME MAINERS
Staying on the subject of redemption, low- and middle-income residents who rent or own homes can look forward to a better property tax rebate when they file their taxes in 2015.
Last week the governor signed into law a bill by House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, that provides a richer property tax credit for qualifying property taxpayers. Those who qualify for the credit include single tax-filers who pay more than $2,000 in property taxes; taxpayers filing joint returns with no more than two personal exemptions and a property tax bill of more than $2,600; and taxpayers filing joint returns with three or more personal exemptions and a property tax bill of more than $3,200.
The new law fixes another new law that repealed an old law. It’s a little complicated, but last year the Legislature, in negotiating a two-year budget, agreed to repeal the state’s Circuit-Breaker program, which provided property tax and rental credits ranging from $479 to $1,600. Lawmakers installed a new tax-credit program, but the benefit was delayed nearly a year and was far less. Mainers who qualified for the new program would have received a tax credit of $300 a year, or $400 if they are 70 or older.
The program was designed to save the state between $20 million and $25 million, but lawmakers quickly discovered just how unpopular their decision was.
Eves’ bill doesn’t restore the Circuit-Breaker program, but it bumps the benefit amount for low- and middle-income residents under age 65 from $300 to $600 and from $400 to $900 for filers 65 years of age and older.
DRUG ADDICTS AND THEIR FAMILIES
A bill that can save lives? The Legislature passed one.
One of the hardest-worked bills of the shortened session would give family members of opiate addicts and first responders access to naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of an opiate overdose. Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, sponsored the proposal, which, as originally proposed, would have given broad access to the anti-overdose drug. Gideon had to scale back the bill to get buy-in from Republicans, but the trade-off is that the proposal is virtually bullet-proof. It sailed through both the House and Senate with unanimous votes.
LePage was an early opponent of the proposal, arguing that the drug would be an escape for addicts who should be seeking treatment. However, the governor has indicated that he’ll allow the bill to go into law without his signature.
The resulting law would be more restrictive than similar laws enacted recently in other states that are combating the increased rates of overdoses amid a resurgence of heroin use. Under the current Maine law, only paramedics among first responders may make the decision to administer naloxone. Advanced emergency medical technicians can do so only with approval from a hospital.
A key provision would require each addict to have an established patient relationship with a health care provider. The provision assumes that addicts have doctors and are honest with their doctors about their drug use. Nonetheless, supporters, including Gideon, believe the bill will save lives.
“This devastating public health emergency requires us to take real action,” she said.
MORE THAN 60,000 UNINSURED MAINERS
It was easy to get lost – even bored – with the politics and procedural machinations of the Medicaid expansion debate. But there will be real consequences if the governor vetoes the most recent proposal to expand the publicly funded health insurance program known as MaineCare.
Medicaid expansion is a key component of the Affordable Care Act, the federal law designed to increase health care coverage by mandating that most Americans buy health insurance. The expansion component specifically targeted low-income people who can’t buy private insurance.
When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Medicaid expansion mandate in 2012, the prospects for health care coverage for low-income people became far less certain.
Both parties made powerful arguments for and against expansion. Republicans, wary of cost overruns and the inefficiencies of the state’s current program, mostly rejected expansion and the promise of federal funding until 2016. Democrats said the federal money was a win-win, ensuring coverage for low-income Mainers and an economic boost for the state’s hospitals.
LePage and the Republican minority won the debate, rejecting three expansion bills between 2013 and this year. They are poised to strike down a fourth, last-ditch effort that Republicans said would have had a better chance of achieving compromise had it not been introduced on the closing day of the session.
The likely result is that more than 60,000 Mainers are unlikely to receive Medicaid coverage. While roughly two-thirds of these people can qualify for subsidies to purchase private insurance, it’s unclear if many of them will because even the low premiums may be too much for people who make just over $15,000 a year. Also, the subsidies are not available for those living at or below 100 percent of poverty level – $11,600 or less for an individual – because the Affordable Care Act assumed they would be covered through a nationwide expansion of Medicaid.
That means about 24,000 people will neither be covered by Medicaid nor qualify for subsidies under the act.
It’s not clear if the “Bloods and Crips” are running drug operations in Maine, as Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Morris suggested during a legislative public hearing in March. But life won’t be getting any harder for Maine drug traffickers or methamphetamine producers.
That’s because the Legislature approved – but then failed to fund – a bill that would beef up the state’s drug enforcement efforts. The bill was a modified version of a proposal submitted by the governor, who said the state is losing its war on drugs to sophisticated drug traffickers from outside Maine, and that “rolling meth labs” posed a public safety hazard while cranking out the street drug crystal meth.
LePage originally requested 14 investigators for the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, four assistant attorneys general assigned to drug prosecution and four additional judges for enhanced drug courts. The total cost of the bill was estimated at $3.2 million.
State lawmakers enacted an amended bill: 10 MDEA agents, two attorneys general and two judges. Included with the amendments was $750,000 in additional funding for existing drug treatment programs. The total estimated cost was $2.25 million.
LePage threatened to veto the amended bill because it didn’t contain the full battery of law enforcement and prosecutors that he requested. However, he never got that far. Although the amended bill received strong backing by the Legislature, including a 126-14 vote in the House of Representative, lawmakers failed to appropriate the needed funding in an after-midnight vote on the last day before the session recessed, and the measure died.
DRUNKEN DRIVERS (REPEAT OFFENDERS)
Right now, Maine residents busted for drunken driving will be prosecuted as first-time offenders unless they’ve been convicted of operating under the influence within the last 10 years. The same is true for repeat offenders who may have been convicted multiple times outside of the so-called 10-year look-back period.
That could change if LePage signs a bill that would allow a prosecutor to consider a driver’s lifetime felony offenses, instead of being limited to looking back 10 years.
Under current state law, a prosecutor who seeks to charge a drunken driver with a repeat offense is allowed to consider only the last 10 years of the driver’s record. That means a conviction that occurred more than 10 years earlier cannot be considered.
The proposal by Rep. Tim Marks, D-Pittston, would allow a prosecutor to consider a person’s lifetime driving record for determining whether a case counts as a repeat offense. Repeat offenses carry increasingly severe penalties that may include higher fines, longer license suspensions and jail time.
Last year, an analysis of repeat offenders by the Portland Press Herald showed that 720 people were convicted of drunken driving three times in the period from 2003 to 2013. The report was prompted by the case of David Labonte of Biddeford, who last year was charged with driving drunk into a family on bicycles, inflicting fatal injuries on the father.
Labonte had been convicted of drunken driving four times, but none of the convictions was so recent that his license would be declared invalid.
CORRECTION: This story was updated April 20 at 11 a.m. to note that health care subsidies are not available to people earning at or below the federal poverty level.
Correction: This story was updated at 1 p.m. on April 20 to correct the town of Tim Marks.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: