AUGUSTA — In a smorgasbord of actions, the Maine Legislature took dozens of votes Wednesday that included rejecting a pair of bills seeking to change state election laws.

Bills to make Election Day an official state holiday and to allow for early voting were rejected by the Senate and House, respectively, meaning they have little chance of moving forward in 2021.

In initial voting, lawmakers approved bills seeking a state constitutional amendment to guarantee citizens the right to grow their own food, and to raise the minimum wage for public school support staff to $16 an hour.

While Maine has early absentee voting, those ballots are not counted by voting machines until Election Day. The proposed change, which required a two-thirds vote from the Legislature to put the question to voters, would have allowed ballots to be cast in voting machines or ballot boxes before Election Day. It gained only 83 votes in the 151-seat House.

Those opposed to creating a state holiday for Election Day included town and city clerks from across the state who argued Maine voters already have unprecedented access with Maine’s expansive absentee voting laws.

“I would contend that polling places are already accessible to voters,” Lewiston City Clerk Kathy Montejo wrote to the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee in opposition to the bill. “In Lewiston, polls are open for 13 hours on election day and the average time a voter is in the building is less than 30 minutes, (many times far less than 30 minutes). This is not uncommon for other communities around the state.”

Montejo said making Election Day a holiday would require municipalities to provide holiday pay to workers who set up, man and dismantle the polling stations, adding to the expense of elections.

The long dockets for both the House and Senate on Wednesday were sprinkled with controversial measures that led to several party-line votes and spirited debate between Republicans and Democrats.

A bill to boost minimum wage for public school support staff – including cafeteria workers, janitors and bus drivers – to $16 an hour was narrowly approved in the House, 73-71. Maine’s current minimum wage is $12.15 an hour. The bill, L.D. 734, follows a law change in 2020 that bumped the minimum teacher salary in Maine to $40,000.

As written, the costs from the first year of the change, estimated at $80,000, would be covered by state funding, which drew protests from several lawmakers, especially those in rural Maine who said the wage hike would eventually become an unfunded mandate on local taxpayers.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Sylvester, D-Portland, said the bill was necessary to provide fair pay to those who keep schools functioning, but Republican lawmakers from rural areas objected, noting the bill would only fund the increase for one year.

“Also can you imagine if you’re in a small community and the school staff is making $16 an hour and the people in the community who have to pay that are not making that?” Rep. Dick Bradstreet, R-Vassalboro, asked his colleagues. “Are we going to start picking out special groups for higher minimum wage? This is not the way to go.”

But proponents of the bill, including Sylvester, said support staff have an impact on the lives of school children across the state.

“They should be considered educators, who work tirelessly and ensure the school functions so kids can get the education that they need,” Sylvester said. “But more importantly, they make financial sacrifices to do this work, because they love it. And the people that do this work could get other jobs, but they are so important and integral to the roles of our education system that they stay. It’s time we reward those people.”

That bill and others, including one that would bump the minimum wage for all workers to $13 an hour, face additional votes in the Senate.

The Legislature, which has been conducting its committee work remotely via video conferencing, still has dozens of bills to process as it creeps toward a June 16 deadline set in state law to finish its work.

The Legislature was likely meeting for the last time at the Augusta Civic Center on Wednesday. The 39,000-square foot, city-owned sports and entertainment venue has been used since December 2020 as a temporary State House because it allowed the space necessary for lawmakers to practice social distancing meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The Legislature’s governing body, the Legislative Council, is expected to take action Thursday that will allow lawmakers to return to the State House when the House and Senate next convene in June.

What facial covering and distancing requirements will be in place, and whether or not the State House will be reopened to the public, is uncertain. The current policy limits access to lawmakers, their staffs, key contractors and delivery personnel and credentialed members of the State House press corps.

Among other bills the Legislature also must dispose of in the weeks ahead is a nearly $1 billion supplemental budget-change package Democratic Gov. Janet Mills offered this month. With an expected state revenue surplus of more than $941 million, Mills has earmarked an additional $187 million for public school funding, which would bring the state’s share of general purpose aid for schools to 55 percent of total costs for the first time since that funding level was approved by voters 17 years ago.

Another measure approved Tuesday by the Legislature’s Taxation Committee by party-line vote would tack a 3 percent surcharge on the state’s income tax for those earning taxable wages over $200,000. That measure, if approved by the full Legislature, will likely face a veto from Mills, who has generally opposed tax increases. While her office declined specific comment on the bills, it pointed to opposition testimony from her administration on the measure.

Both the budget and tax bills will likely go before the full Legislature sometime in early June.


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