AUGUSTA — State Sen. Christopher Johnson, D-Somerville, jumped into the deep end of the political pool last week when, on his first day in office, he had to vote on a controversial budget-balancing proposal.

On Thursday night, Johnson voted with 11 other Democrats against the plan to close a shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services, leaving it just short of the two-thirds approval it needed for final passage.

Johnson won his seat on Tuesday by upsetting Republican Rep. Dana Dow in a special election in Senate District 20.

Dow would have voted to approve the new DHHS budget — and in fact he did, as a member of the House. So, if Dow had won the Senate seat, the budget would have passed.

Johnson, who took his seat Thursday morning, said in an interview Friday that he had undergone “a bit of a baptism by fire.”

His opposition to the budget plan was rooted in his belief that people on MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, need the state’s help. The plan would cut many of those people from MaineCare.

“I felt truly compelled to stand up and say this is what I heard from people,” he said, describing his experiences on the campaign trail. “Clearly, their electing me said there’s strong support for that.”

Thursday night’s 22-13 vote in favor of the budget included a vote by Senate Majority Leader Jon Courtney, R-Springvale, against the budget — even though he supports it — so he can bring it back for more votes.

‘Smelly rooms’

While Senate Democrats gave several reasons for rejecting the DHHS budget proposal last week, Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, spoke from experience.

The former co-chair of the Appropriations Committee said he knows that carefully crafted budgets — especially those that come out with 13-0 committee votes — are put together in “smelly rooms” where lawmakers hammer out deals on “every line item.” That’s why he objected to an amendment that was added in the House after the bill was unanimously endorsed by the committee.

His reference to the odor in the rooms drew a few quiet chuckles from the audience in the Senate. Diamond, who has a full head of reddish hair, also made reference to the graying of many of his colleagues.

“Most Appropriations Committee members have gray hair,” he said. “It’s a process you almost have to live through to believe.”

Texting exemption

When the state law banning texting while driving took effect in September, law enforcement and other emergency services personnel learned they were subject to the ban.

House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, is sponsoring a bill to change that. L.D. 1808 would exempt emergency medical services personnel, firefighters and law enforcement officers who are “acting in the course of their duties.”

Jim Cyr, Nutting’s spokesman, said the speaker submitted the bill at the request of law enforcement officers who believe their inability to use their on-board computers while driving makes it harder for them to do their jobs. The speaker isn’t necessarily sold on the idea, but thinks it’s at least worth consideration, Cyr said.

A public hearing on the bill is set for 1 p.m. Tuesday.

East/west vote

The Legislature’s Transportation Committee split along party lines on a bill to spend $300,000 for a study to determine whether it’s feasible to build an east-west highway across Maine.

Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, is sponsoring the bill to use Maine Department of Transportation funds to determine the viability of a privately built, owned and maintained toll road.

The 8-5 vote — with Republicans in support and Democrats opposed — now goes to the Senate for consideration.

Gov. Paul LePage supports the measure, according to one of his top advisers.

‘The Dirigo March’

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, is sponsoring L.D. 1815, “An Act to Establish the Dirigo March as the Official March of the State.”

The bill seeks to honor Leo Pepin, 87, an Augusta native who composed the march in 1961. While growing up in Augusta, Katz — who played the trumpet — played the march as a member of the American Legion Band.

Pepin is reported to be in ill health, so Katz got special permission from legislative leaders to get the bill in this session.

“This is not the biennial budget, but it’s a nice way to honor one of our own,” Katz said. “I don’t know how we got along all these years without (a march).”

A quick Google search shows that Kansas has two official state marches. Little information was available on marches in other states.

The public hearing is set for Feb. 29.

Tickets to Obama

Maine Democrats will hold their caucuses Sunday at locations around the state.

In an attempt to get people to go, in a year when there’s not much suspense about who the nominee will be, the Maine Democratic Party will hold a lottery for two tickets to attend a reception with President Obama in Maine on March 30.

“Everyone who attends their local Democratic caucus is entered to win,” according to a press release from the party.

Ice cream clarification

The decision to move the Gifford’s ice cream from a building with security to one without, mentioned in this column last week, was not motivated by the new State House scanners.

Rich Desjardins, owner of the Cross Cafe in the State House, said sales of the ice cream have been discontinued for the winter months.

“It had nothing to do with security,” he said. “I’m 100 percent for it.”

Susan Cover — 620-7015

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