AUGUSTA — Faced with just $9 million in unallocated funds in a $7.1 billion budget, a legislative committee voted Wednesday to either kill or delay action on dozens of bills that carried a price tag.

And many of the bills that were approved – including measures to prohibit drivers from talking on hand-held cellphones and to move Maine toward a different time zone – still face an uncertain future because of the threat of a gubernatorial veto.

Last week’s passage of the two-year, $7.1 billion spending plan after a three-day state government shutdown was not the end of the budget process in Maine. Instead, members of the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee still had more than 130 bills that were approved by both the House and Senate but required additional review because of potential impacts on the state’s budget. The so-called Special Appropriations Table is often the place where bills with strong bipartisan support “go to die” because of their fiscal impact, and this year was no different.

Roughly 20 bills were killed outright. But more than one-half of the 130-plus bills were “carried over” until next year’s legislative session, the political equivalent of punting the ball even though lawmakers could face an even bigger budget crunch next year. That group included measures with broad bipartisan support – such as proposals to improve services for veterans, the disabled and the elderly – but that didn’t make the financial cut in the budget passed by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Paul LePage.

“We’ll be back in session next January . . . and we can take a look at these bills again and try to see if we can find funding for them,” said Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee.

Committee members did approve at least 30 bills, several of which were the subject of considerable debate.

For instance, L.D. 1089 would add Maine to the list of states where it is illegal to talk on a hand-held cellphone while driving. Violators would be issued a traffic ticket and fined $75 for the first offense. Fines would increase for each subsequent offense, with the possibility of license suspensions after the fourth violation within a three-year period.

The bill may never become law, however. The measure only passed the Maine House on a vote of 85-60, well short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a potential veto from Gov. Paul LePage.

Another bill, L.D. 203, raises the prospect of eliminating daylight savings time in Maine and moving the state into the Atlantic Standard Time Zone now used in the Canadian Maritimes. Such a shift is contingent on a series of events, beginning with similar decisions in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts and voter approval in Maine of a statewide ballot initiative.

It is unclear whether LePage would sign the time zone bill, and like the cellphone measure, it lacked the two-thirds support during earlier votes that would be needed to overcome a veto.

Another bill that appears headed for potential passage, however, could make it more difficult for campaigns to collect enough petition signatures to send a ballot initiative to voters.

A response to complaints about Maine’s increasingly popular referendum process, L.D. 31 proposes a constitutional amendment to require referendum campaigns to collect signatures from both of Maine’s two congressional districts. Current law requires campaigns to collect the equivalent of 10 percent of the statewide vote cast during the previous gubernatorial election, or 61,123 signatures. The proposed constitutional amendment would require referendum campaigns to hit that 10 percent threshold for both of the congressional districts.

Supporters have complained that the current process allows petition circulators to focus much of the signature-collecting activities on more metropolitan areas of southern Maine. LePage, a vocal critic of Maine’s referendum process, appears likely to sign the measure.

Another proposed constitutional amendment dealing with ranked-choice voting is likely doomed for failure, however, despite surviving the “appropriations table” on Wednesday.

L.D. 1624 seeks to address the constitutional concerns raised by Maine’s highest court about the ranked-choice voting process approved by voters last November. Under the vote tabulation process, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate had more than 50 percent of votes, the candidate with the fewest votes would be eliminated. Voters who chose the eliminated candidate would have their ballots added to the totals of their second-ranked candidate, and the ballots would be retabulated. The process would continue until one candidate had a clear majority and was declared the winner.

In a May advisory opinion, Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court said lawmakers have two options to address unconstitutional aspects of last November’s ballot initiative: Either repeal the law altogether, or offer voters a chance to fix the issues via a constitutional amendment. But neither solution has won enough support to pass the Legislature. The proposed constitutional amendment only received 78 votes in the House in late June – well short of the 101 needed to send the issue to voters – and is even less likely to hit that threshold in the Republican-controlled Senate.

As a result, Maine’s potentially unconstitutional ranked-choice voting system remains on the books.

Members of the Appropriations Committee delayed decisions on several bills until next Monday. The committee also plans to discuss another budget-related issue at that time: whether to send another bond package to voters for consideration.

Another bill that appears headed for potential passage, however, seeks to change the way campaigns collect petition signatures to send a ballot initiative to voters.

A response to complaints about Maine’s increasingly popular referendum process, L.D. 31 proposes a constitutional amendment to require referendum campaigns to collect signatures from both of Maine’s two congressional districts. Current law requires campaigns to collect the equivalent of 10 percent of the statewide vote cast during the previous gubernatorial election, or 61,123 signatures. The proposed constitutional amendment would require referendum campaigns to hit that 10 percent threshold for both of the congressional districts.

Supporters have complained that the current process allows petition circulators to focus much of the signature-collecting activities on more metropolitan areas of southern Maine. Proposed constitutional amendments do not require the governor’s signature but, instead, go right to voters for consideration during the following election after they receive two-thirds support in both chambers of the Legislature.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

kmiller@mainetoday.com


Correction: This article was changed at 9:25 a.m., July 12, 2017, to correct an error about the process for amending Maine’s Constitution. Proposed amendments, if approved by two-thirds of lawmakers in both the House and Senate, are placed on the ballot in the next election. Governors do not have an opportunity to either sign or veto proposed constitutional amendments.