The Maine Senate voted Monday to offer free breakfast and lunch to all school students regardless of income, which supporters say will improve nutrition and education outcomes while reducing stigma.

In a bipartisan 33-0 vote, the Senate gave initial approval to a bill that would provide meals to any K-12 student at no cost. Currently, roughly 44 percent of Maine’s 180,000 public school students qualify for free or reduced breakfast and lunch because their household incomes fall within federal poverty guidelines.

The bill’s lead sponsor, Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, recalled hearing from an Aroostook County senior who contacted him after she was not able to get her cap and gown because of an outstanding lunch bill that she could not afford to pay. Jackson also said he was struck by seeing so many coolers placed at the end of driveways in his district so students could continue to receive free meals during the pandemic, which made clear to him the extent of the need for the program.

“This is probably one of the best bills that I have ever been involved with because I know how much it will mean to all of our constituents,” Jackson said of the measure, L.D. 1679.

The Maine Department of Education, which supported the initiative, said providing a free breakfast to students costs the state and federal government about $2.00 per meal while a lunch costs $3.70 per student. The bill carries an estimated cost of $34 million to the state annually, according to a nonpartisan fiscal analysis of the legislation.

Sen. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, argued that it would be money well spent.

Pouliot recalled how he and his sister relied on food stamps when they were growing up as his mother worked two jobs and tried to put herself through college. Had it not been for government food assistance programs, Pouliot said, “I don’t know what we would have had for lunch in school.”

While Pouliot said he’s frequently heard comments that free meals should only be available to students from lower-income families, he also said there is a real stigma associated with the reduced and free lunch programs. During a public hearing held on the bill last month, several students testified about skipping meals or not taking advantage of free or reduced-price lunches because of embarrassment or bullying.

“What we are talking about here is prioritizing these resources to make sure that our kids, in the K-12 system across the state of Maine, are being fed,” said Pouliot, the assistant minority leader in the Maine Senate. “We invest $3 billion a year in public education in this state, between state and federal resources, and if kids are hungry, they can’t bring their best mind to that educational experience. So I hope my colleagues will see this is a wise investment with a significant return.”

The bill now goes to the Maine House for consideration.

Also Monday in the Legislature:

• The House rejected a measure that would set up a separate state department for child welfare. The Senate approved the bill on a vote of 21-14 last week, but in a unanimous voice vote the House rejected the bill. The measure will face additional votes in both chambers.

• The House also approved a bill that would increase the real estate transfer tax on home sales of more than $1 million. Under the bill, the transfer tax would go from $2.20 per $1,000 of a value to $2.70 per $1,000. The estimated $1.7 million increase in revenue would be mostly directed to the Maine Housing Authority to build affordable housing, leveraging federal funding at an 11:1 match. Republicans opposed the bill, saying it would discourage the wealthy from moving to Maine or buying property here. The bill will face additional votes in the Senate later this week.

• A bill to require the University of Maine System to study the impacts of switching Maine from the Eastern Standard Time zone to the Atlantic Time Zone was also initially approved in the state Senate on Monday. Switching zones has been a perennial debate in the Legislature, with opponents saying it would only work well if other New England states were to join Maine in the move. New Hampshire and Massachusetts are also considering a shift to Atlantic Time.

• Also, in a series of party-line votes, majority House Democrats rejected a pair of bills that would have required photo identification for voters in Maine.

• The Senate voted 19-14 to approve a bill that would prohibit aerial spraying of glyphosate or other synthetic herbicides in timber and forestry operations. Timberland owners and managers have historically used glyphosate – the primary active ingredient in the herbicide RoundUp – and other herbicides to control unwanted plant species in order to allow for better growth of economically valuable species. While the manufacturer of glyphosate, Bayer AG, as well as federal regulators, say it is safe, the company also agreed to pay $9.6 billion last year to settle lawsuits claiming that the chemical caused non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer, and has since agreed to set aside $2 billion for future cases.

• Another bill, L.D. 155, banning the use of pesticides containing certain neonicotinoids on lawns and in landscaping has received final approval in both the House and Senate. The bill directs the Board of Pesticide Control to prohibit the chemicals, also known as neonics, because they are toxic to bees, butterflies and other important pollinator species.

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