Energy costs, Medicaid cuts, state worker union fees and missing-child reports are among the issues that should keep the State House jumping during the election-year session that starts Jan. 4.

The to-do list is long for the concluding year of the two-year session, which is expected to wrap up in mid-April. Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s ambitious agenda is likely to provide plenty of material for lively debate as lawmakers from both parties stake out positions just months ahead of legislative and presidential elections.

The action will start early when the governor submits state budget changes calling for sweeping cuts that could remove thousands from MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, to restrain runaway costs and keep the program solvent. Democrats, the minority in the legislature, declared their opposition even before the legislation was printed, and some Republicans have expressed reservations about certain components. Drug testing for some welfare recipients, something LePage has talked up in the past, is a possibility.

LePage is also poised to submit legislation to lower energy costs in oil-dependent Maine by making natural gas available to more people and businesses. Mounting highway and bridge needs, a topic that’s been kicked down the road for years, will likely prompt new transportation borrowing following a year in which no bond issues were sent to voters.

The highway funding challenges have eased somewhat since contractors’ bids have come in at less-than-anticipated totals and federal funding has become available, said Sen. Ronald Collins, R-Wells, co-chairman of the Transportation Committee.

“I’m confident that some kind of transportation bond issue will have the governor’s support,” said Collins, who sees “a huge number of shovel-ready projects across the state.”

Even as the 2011 session was coming to a close last spring, LePage vowed to come forward in 2012 with legislation that’s bound to fan partisan flames: banning “fair share” fees state workers must pay in lieu of union dues if they don’t want to be union members.

The governor has also talked up his proposal to exempt retirees’ pensions from state income taxes, but that could run into trouble amid estimates it could cost $93 million at a time the state can least afford it.

Environmentalists have sounded their intention to do battle with the governor’s proposal to merge Maine’s Agriculture and Conservation departments, a move LePage says would strengthen the state’s natural resources economy. The idea, not entirely new, has not been embraced warmly by the legislature in the past. An overhaul of the Land Use Regulation Commission, which oversees development in Maine’s Unorganized Territory, is likely to trigger significant debate.

Governors are free to submit legislation they deem important during second-year sessions and can drive the legislative agenda, as LePage is doing.

And while legislative leaders have been unusually tightfisted in allowing consideration of other bills, there’s still more than enough to keep things stirred up.

Rep. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, received a go-ahead to put in a bill to mandate child sexual abuse education for Maine pupils from kindergarten through fifth grade. A couple of bills spurred by the case of Caylee Anthony, the 2-year-old whose 2008 disappearance in Florida drew national attention, require prompt reporting of missing children.

Another bill seeks to elevate the state police Computer Crimes Unit to a new bureau in hopes of reducing a backlog of more than 500 pieces of evidence of sexual abuse of children. The sponsor, Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said the change would create a more consistent funding base. His bill also asks to authorize four more forensic examiners.

“Hard evidence of children and babies being sexually assaulted while being photographed and filmed is waiting to be examined by law enforcement,” Diamond said. “The longer the evidence just sits there, the longer innocent children are being terribly abused.”

A bill outlawing so-called tax zapper computer programs will be considered. The programs enable businesses to underreport their taxable sales. Also to be reviewed is a measure, modeled after a New Hampshire law, to crack down on gang activity by making it a crime for an adult to recruit a young person into a gang.

A bill carried over from the 2011 session would require Maine voters to provide photo identification in order to cast ballots, and another to overhaul the state’s sex-offender registry.

Legislation backed by the Maine Chiefs of Police Association closes loopholes in the laws on scrap metal sales in hopes of making headway against the ongoing theft and illegal sale of copper.

Another bill would bar towns from imposing fees on ice fishing shacks.


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