AUGUSTA — Bills that would nix prostitution convictions of sex trafficking victims, repurpose state buildings for veteran homeless shelters and increase funding for veteran courts will be considered by the Maine Legislature after a panel on Thursday reversed earlier decisions to spike the measures.

In late October, the Legislative Council, made up of Democratic and Republican leaders in the Legislature, approved approximately 100 of 400 bill requests, including a bill that would expand MaineCare, Maine’s version of Medicaid, the federal-state health care system for the poor. A similar measure was vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage earlier this year.

On Thursday, decisions on approximately 100 of the initially rejected bills were appealed by legislators, and the council voted to allow 28 of those bills to proceed to the Legislature next session, beginning in January and ending in April.

The council must deem bills emergencies to bring them forward in even-year sessions, but that’s subjective, only requiring a majority council vote. Majority Democrats control six of 10 seats on the council.

A high-profile bill from Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, passed on appeal Thursday.

It would ensure that buildings slated for demolition at the state-owned former campus of the Augusta Mental Health Institute on the city’s east side will be donated for use as veterans’ homeless shelters. Bread of Life Ministries is the likely recipient of the buildings.

“It was such a great bill and we had so many partners on board,” Wilson said. “Unfortunately, we had to go through the appeal, but we got a 10-0 report, which is incredible.”

Another capital-area lawmaker, Rep. Lori Fowle, D-Vassalboro, won her appeal on a bill that would increase funding to veterans court programs, expanding a court similar to one in Kennebec County to other parts of the state.

But more bills were rejected, including three welfare reform bills from House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, all rejected by Democrats on 5-5 margins. One would have required that job-ready applicants to Maine’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program apply for three jobs before getting benefits.

A proposal from Rep. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, that would have allowed apartment building tenants to temporarily remain in buildings declared uninhabitable by local officials was voted down by the council. In October, Pouliot said the bill was motivated by recent apartment closures in Augusta. Over the past year, the city has closed 10 buildings and a floor of another because of dangerous or uninhabitable conditions.

A proposed bill from Rep. Gay Grant, D-Gardiner, also was rejected. Her bill sought to require those who make products aimed at children to report the use of chemicals that have been linked to birth defects and learning disabilities.

The most politically charged of the rejected bills, the proposal from Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, that would allow courts to vacate prostitution convictions of victims of human trafficking, passed unanimously after a party-line rejection in October.

Volk has said she worked on the bill with the Polaris Project, a national advocacy group that has ranked Maine in the bottom half of states for strength of anti-human trafficking laws.

The bill’s initial rejection by the Legislative Council, on a party-line vote by Democrats, became a political football, with Republicans attacking Democrats for trying to take a political victory from Volk on an important issue.

Later, Democrats would backtrack, setting the political stage for the bill’s approval Thursday.

After Ben Grant, the Maine Democratic Party’s chairman, said Volk, a pro-life legislator, was trying to “soften her edges” on women’s issues by sponsoring the bill, Republicans demanded an apology.

Grant apologized on Nov. 7, saying in a statement that “I should have done my homework” before speaking on the issue. The same day, Democratic leaders in the Legislature said they welcomed Volk’s appeal and looked forward to her presentation before the committee.

“I’m happy it’s going to have a chance to have its own hearing,” Volk said after the vote.

But the jousting didn’t end there: In a statement after the vote, Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, blamed Republicans for politicizing the bill. Volk, who said she tried to steer clear of the politics behind it, responded by saying in the initial vote, Democrats were either misinformed on the issue of trafficking or they made a political decision themselves to oppose it.

But Eves said after the meeting that the selection process wasn’t politically charged.

“It’s a matter of trying to manage the session in a way that gets us out by the statutory adjournment date, really focusing on the things that are going to move our economy forward and really solve problems,” he said.

Also rejected was a bill from Sen. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, a retired teacher, that would have allowed school districts to invite a school employee licensed as a concealed weapons holder to become a part-time police officer on school grounds.

The vote was 5-5, and tie votes kill bills at the council level. Senate President Justin Alfond often voted with minority Republicans, tying votes while keeping them from being totally partisan.

The council was selective in allowing bills through. Other measures, including one that would have created a cold-case unit in the attorney general’s office and one that would have outlawed sex — even consensual — between clergy and congregants, were rejected.

Many Democrats were foiled by the committee as well.

A bill from one influential Democrat, Rep. Peggy Rotundo of Lewiston, the House chair of the state’s budget-writing committee, would have restored a $75 million cut to aid to cities and towns wrought earlier this year, but it was voted down 5-5.

All on the committee rejected a bill from Rep. W. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, co-chair of the Legislature’s Education Committee, that would have changed LePage’s A-F grading system for Maine schools to a more “fine-tuned” 100 point system, according to MacDonald’s letter.

And Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, unsuccessfully continued her long-standing push to legalize and tax marijuana statewide on the heels of an overwhelming, but largely symbolic November legalization vote in Portland.

However, Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said a statewide vote on the issue would be more appropriate.

And the Portland Green Independent Committee, influential in the city referendum, rejected Russell’s bill this time around, with City Councilor David Marshall saying in a Thursday press release that Maine needs a “different approach to changing marijuana laws to ensure the legislation effectively ends the war on marijuana and protects public health and children.”

Similar Russell bills were nixed by lawmakers in 2011 and 2013, and the council stopped it from proceeding 5-5.

“I’ve been saying for a long time that, ‘This issue is coming, this issue is coming,’ ” she said. “Now that we have the Portland vote, the issue is here.”

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652

[email protected]

Twitter: @mikeshepherdme


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.