Speaker of the House Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, right, runs the first day of the 130th Legislature’s second session. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Maine lawmakers found themselves in an unfamiliar position this year – having to decide what to do with a projected surplus of $1.2 billion.

Surpluses are typically much smaller, and lawmakers often look to make reductions to account for revenue shortfalls.

But this session, a massive influx of federal pandemic assistance, coupled with increased income and sales tax revenue from increased consumer spending, gave the state a projected surplus equivalent to about 12 percent of Maine’s $8.5 billion budget.

That allowed lawmakers to fund a host of initiatives. But that surplus came with a caveat that future revenue projections are volatile, a warning that tempered the urge to create new programs that would have ongoing funding needs.

The Legislature will return May 9 to take up any vetoes issued by Gov. Janet Mills. With most of the heavy lifting done, here’s how several major issues fared in the 2022 session.

TAXPAYERS

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About 60 percent of the projected surplus – $729 million – is being returned to 858,000 taxpayers in the form of $850 checks. Mills, a Democrat, credited Republicans with the idea in her State of the State speech. The checks were originally proposed at $500, but increased in response to updated revenue projections.

While Republicans argued they’d rather see structural tax reform, they got behind the plan, but not until after extracting some concessions. They increased the income limit from $75,000 for individuals to $100,000, and from $150,000 for couples filing jointly to $200,000. The checks are expected to sent beginning in June.

Some activists opposed the givebacks, calling for greater investment in programs that help low-income and marginalized populations.

“So many Mainers, and so many Maine legislators, came out during this session in support of the things that matter for them,” Gina Morin, a volunteer lobbyist for the left-leaning Maine People’s Alliance, said in a written statement. “But without funding, that support is only theoretical. If these bills are important enough to vote for, they are important enough to fund.”

The budget includes an expansion of the earned income tax credit, helping 100,000 Mainers earning less than $57,414, and $27.6 million in funding to increase the maximum benefit by an average of $400 per family.

Republicans netted a win on tax reform by increasing the amount of pension income that’s exempted from taxes for full-time residents. The budget increased that exemption from $10,000 to $25,000 in 2022, to $30,000 in 2023 and to $35,000 in 2024 and future years. That should provide $36.8 million in retiree tax relief next year, with the average retiree saving $560 in 2022.

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CHILDREN

Considerable attention was given to child protective services in the wake of four deaths within a month last summer. Lawmakers and the governor responded with legislation allocating new resources and increasing reporting requirements of federally mandated advisory panels.

Mills pulled from various pieces of legislation to make $8 million in investments to beef up both oversight of and off-hour staffing at the Office of Child and Family Services.

Her budget sought to strengthen to the Child Welfare Ombudsman office, which investigates complaints against the state, by lengthening the term to five years and providing more staff. And her budget includes a $3 million investment, including federal funds, to add 16 caseworker and three caseworker supervisor positions to address burnout and employee turnover by creating a team to cover night and weekend shifts. Additional investments were made in programs that support families involved with the child protection system.

Several other bills did not move forward, including one that would have set limits on the number of cases and workload of child protection workers.

Lawmakers approved a bill that would have devoted more resources to programs that support families and address the root causes of child abuse and neglect, but the $2.7 million in funding was not approved by the budget-writing committee. A separate bill to ensure “high-fidelity wrap around services” for families involved with child protective services, costing $1.9 million, also died on the table.

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While some progress was made, the session ended with lawmakers feeling more could be done. The Government Oversight Committee resolved to continue meeting during the summer to address any additional issues within the department. And the Legislature’s watchdog agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, is expected to issue its third and final report on the state’s child protection system this fall.

Aside from child welfare, the supplemental budget included $3.2 million in funding to give more children access to affordable health care. The expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program is expected to cover 40,000 more Maine kids.

TRIBES

Tribal relations took a big step forward this session, even though a sweeping bill to restore full tribal sovereignty appears to be dead, after the bill failed to receive enough support in the Legislature to overcome an inevitable veto.

Leaders from five Maine tribes vowed to keep fighting for full sovereignty while acknowledging the unprecedented support for the movement, which ended with legislative leaders looking to tribal chiefs for advice about whether they should send the bill to Mills and force her to veto it. Tribal leaders decided not to provide legislative leaders with that guidance.

“The dialogue and legislative activity surrounding sovereignty restoration is beyond what some of us imagined,” tribal leaders said in a joint statement. “Permanent sovereignty restoration remains the legislative priority for the Wabanaki Nations, and it will continue to be our priority moving forward.”

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Tribes did make notable gains, though.

A bill they negotiated with Mills will give them exclusive access to mobile sports betting, a lucrative market that could inject significant resources into tribal governments to help improve education, health care and infrastructure. Changes to the taxation of tribal members and certain tribal entities were included as well. The bill passed largely along party lines, and Mills is expected to sign it.

Mills also signed a bill to give the Passamaquoddy Tribe more control over its drinking water supply by allowing them to drill wells without state approval. That bill, which received strong bipartisan support, will help reduce reliance on the Passamaquoddy Water District, a nontribal entity that also provides water to Eastport and Perry. That water is drawn from shallow Boyden Lake and can become contaminated during storms and when the water level is low.

It’s not everything tribal leaders wanted, but it represented a notable improvement in state relations since 2015, when tribal leaders withdrew their representatives from the State House over encounters with former Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Mills, who was attorney general.

ENVIRONMENT

Environmental groups are celebrating the session. The National Resource Council of Maine noted that more than two dozen energy and environmental initiatives were passed this session, and they included increased protections for more than 800 miles of rivers and streams.

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“The strong bipartisan support for several environmental priorities clearly reflects the strong conservation ethic of Maine people, regardless of where they live,” advocacy director Pete Didisheim said in a written statement.

Significant investments were also made in investigating and remediating so-called forever chemicals, which are upending the lives of farmers, hunters and others across the state. Those chemicals, known as PFAS, were contained in sewage treatment sludge that the state encouraged and licensed to be spread to fertilize farmlands before the negative health effects were fully understood.

Lawmakers allocated $60 million to address the economic and public health impacts of forever chemicals, banned the spreading of sludge or compost from any wastewater treatment plant or septage system and banned the sale or distribution of pesticides that contain PFAS.

Lawmakers also closed a loophole that allowed out-of-state trash haulers to deposit waste in Maine landfills.

ENERGY

The Legislature enacted Mills’ utility accountability bill, though it was almost scuttled by House Democrats who support a consumer-owned utility. But they reversed course after securing some concessions, including requiring the Public Utilities Commission to launch an inquiry into the ways utilities seek bids for projects.

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The bill establishes key performance measures for electricity providers in areas ranging from reliability to customer relations, and imposes financial penalties for failing to meet those goals. It adds whistleblower protections for employees and contractors who report problems and charges the PUC with leading energy grid planning efforts to ensure that it can accommodate renewable energy.

OVERDOSE CRISIS

The recovery and harm reduction community made some big gains this session.

A record 636 people died of suspected drug overdoses last year in Maine, a 23 percent increase from the previous record in 2020. Advocates, including people in recovery, organized and overcame opposition from Mills and the Department of Public Safety to pass what they believe is the strongest Good Samaritan Law in the country.

Maine’s current law, adopted in 2019, protects only the person who call 911 and the overdose victim from arrest or prosecution of a small number of crimes. Advocates proposed expanding it to cover everyone at the scene of an overdose, but that drew objections from the administration, which wanted to protect only those “rendering aid” to the victim.

The Legislature passed the advocates’ version but recalled it after Mills threatened a veto. The result was a compromise that included the “rendering aid” requirement but defined that term broadly. Mills is expected to sign it.

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“It’s been really framed as a compromise, and in reality it is very much a massive win for the recovery and harm reduction community,” said Courtney Allen, organizing director of the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project.

Advocates also made progress in lifting the state’s limits on syringe exchanges. Currently, people who use drugs can only get one clean syringe for everyone used one they return. Advocates sought to lift that limit entirely, but instead a compromise allows the Department of Health and Human Services to adopt new rules through a public process.

Lawmakers passed another bill ensuring that the $130 million Maine will receive over the next 18 years from a settlement with opioid producers and distributors is not used for other expenses. The state plans to appoint a recovery council, including several members from the recovery community, to decide how that money will be spent, with treatment and detox among the highest priorities.

“I think overall the recovery and harm reduction advocacy community has a big ‘W’ on our 130th legislative session,” Allen said. “We got a lot more than anyone thought was possible.”

ELECTIONS REFORM

Lawmakers passed a series of bills aimed at increasing protections and transparency in elections while opening primary elections to unenrolled voters.

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One bill strengthened the chain of custody for ballots and prohibits the types of partisan election audits that popped up in Arizona and Colorado in response to bogus allegations of widespread voter fraud following the 2020 election.

Mills included funded in her supplemental budget for an election auditing and training program, removing Maine from a list of six states without such programs. Audits would ensure that municipalities follow protocols and verify election results through statistical sampling.

Lawmakers approved a bill to protect election workers from abuse and harassment. Such behavior would be considered a Class D crime, putting them under the jurisdiction of the attorney general rather than district attorneys.

Lawmakers approved a bill for semi-open primaries, which would allow unenrolled voters, who make up about one-third of the state’s voters, to participate in primaries without registering with a political party.

If it becomes law, unenrolled voters would have to choose a party ballot, and that information would be shared with the party. But people would be prohibited from unenrolling from a political party within 15 days of a primary and participating in that primary as an unenrolled voter unless they’re also changing their home address.

Another bill making it easier for smaller municipalities to use ranked-choice voting was also approved.

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EDUCATION

Mills’ $20 million plan to provide up to two years of free community college tuition survived budget negotiations intact. That program is aimed at helping high school graduates impacted by the pandemic, meaning those graduating from 2020 through 2023.

A separate Mills proposal to freeze college tuition for in-state students in the University of Maine System, at a cost of $7.9 million, was also approved.

The budget included a proposal similar to one proposed by Sen. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, to expand a program that seeks to attract young people to Maine by providing a tax credit to help offset student loans.

Lawmakers continue to ensure stable funding for kindergarten through 12th grade education. After finally meeting the state’s requirement to fund public education at 55 percent, Mills created a $30 million fund to ensure that support will be maintained.

The Legislature also approved $27 million to continue providing universal free meals at public schools and $12 million to continue to pay incentives for early childhood educators.

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HOUSING

Mills signed a bill sponsored by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, to increase housing production by eliminating single-family zoning. The measure allows duplexes and in-law apartments to be built on lots now zoned for single-family homes, and up to four units in designated growth zones, provided other land use requirements can be met. It also offers incentives for municipalities that change their land use code to encourage more housing.

The bill drew a wide range of support from planners, affordable housing developers and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, and opposition from many Republicans and municipalities through their lobbying group, the Maine Municipal Association.

The moves come as low- and middle-income Mainers struggle to find affordable housing. Waiting lists for housing assistance and subsidized housing are growing, as are the number of people experiencing homelessness who are being placed in hotels using federal money. That federal funding, however, is expected to run out this summer, so the budget-writing committee allocated $10 million to help the state’s three largest cities – Portland, Lewiston and Bangor – continue paying for those hotel rooms while they find other options.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Perhaps the biggest losers this session were efforts at criminal justice reforms.

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Lawmakers either voted against or watered down several proposals. And a couple they enacted were not funded.

Jan Collins, assistant director of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Project, pointed out that the lack of investment in other programs, such as education, impacts incarceration rates.

“We need to support things like education, health care, substance use disorder treatment,” Collins said. “We need to support diversion programs, restorative justice and changes to bail – all of those kinds of things that make our community stronger and safer, and didn’t get the funding they needed.”

Advocates fought until the end of the session to secure investment in legal services for people who are not able to afford lawyers. However, they secured only $1.2 million in funding, for a mobile unit of attorneys to serve rural areas.

“We’re glad something was done with indigent legal services,” Collins said, “but it will in no way meet the needs or the constitutional requirements for the state of Maine to meet these needs.”

Lawmakers voted down bills to close Long Creek Youth Development Center and prevent the use of certain types of restraints, chemical sprays and electroshock devices there.

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A bill aimed at pretextual traffic stops – where an officer stops a driver for a minor traffic violation based on a suspicion of other criminal activity – also died. Those types of stops disproportionately affect people of color.

Lawmakers couldn’t even agree on a bill that would have defined solitary confinement, let alone agree on whether it happens.

CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTS

Advocates of constitutional amendments were also on the losing end this session. The biggest loss was the effort to add an equal rights amendment, prohibiting discrimination based on sex. The proposal got majority support, but Republicans deprived it of the two-thirds approval it would need to get on the ballot.

A constitutional amendment to enshrine a right to a clean and healthy environment also failed. A proposed amendment for a right to privacy never received a floor vote after concerns were raised about it harming the public’s right to know.

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