Monthly Archives: June 2013

Legislative update and review of some controversial bills

Dear Friends and Neighbors in House District 35,

Your state legislature finished up the bulk of its business last week, adjourning at 2:00am on Thursday morning. 

We will reconvene on Wednesday to respond to the veto of the state budget that the Governor has promised.  At this point, I am assuming that substantial bi-partisan support of our budget will translate into sufficient votes for an override.

In the interim, I want to update you on some of the more controversial bills that we worked on this past session.  Those recaps follow below.

As always, please let me know your thoughts on these issues and if you think I should have better represented you differently.  I appreciate all your thoughtful communications with me over the course of this year’s session.

Best wishes,

Brian

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Accepting federal dollars in support of expanding MaineCare and containing health insurance costs

LD 1066: An Act To Increase Access to Health Coverage and Qualify Maine for Federal Funding, as has been widely reported, was essentially a showdown between the Governor and the legislative majority over the benefits and liabilities of extending access to health care to 70,000 uninsured Mainers.  

In one of the most dramatic votes of the session on the final day of regular business, with a vote of 98-51 the majority failed by three votes to override the Governor’s veto.  I voted for the bill.

LD 161: “An Act To Prohibit a Health Insurance Carrier from Establishing a Separate Premium Rate Based on Geographic Area” requires health insurance carriers to use only one rating area based on geography within the State when establishing rates for individual and small group health plans issued or renewed on or after January 1, 2015.

This bill would remedy some of the changes to the insurance law PL 90  made in the last legislature which resulted in many local businesses in rural areas of the state like ours  receiving unusually large health insurance premium increases.

The bill, which I co-sponsored, passed in both the House (83-57)  and Senate.  It faces a likely veto from the Governor.

Early voting and ranked choice voting

LD 156: Resolution Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine Concerning Early Voting and Voting by Absentee Ballot proposes to amend the Maine Constitution to allow qualified voters to vote early.

The resolution passed 90-50 in the House but requires two-thirds for final passage. Presently sits on the Appropriations table pending review for funding for the required referendum. I voted in favor.

LD 518: An Act To Establish Ranked-choice Voting in the State sought to create a ranked-choice voting method of determining winners in elections for Governor, State Senator and State Representative. The method simulates the ballot counts that would occur if all voters participated in a series of run-off elections and allows a voter to rank candidates according to that voter’s preferences. Each voter has only one vote and the ballot count is the same as would occur if voters participated in a series of run-off elections, with the candidate with the fewest votes eliminated after each round of counting.
This bill had fairly wide support but ran into substantial problems with the state constitution which says that elections are won by candidates receiving a plurality of votes.  If the state were to adopt rank-choice voting, this opens the door for a legal challenge by a candidate who receives a plurality in the initial vote count but ultimately loses in a ranked choice re-tallying.

Second, the constitution requires that all votes be tallied locally.  For any state office election, a ranked choice tally would require centralized vote tallies.  Beyond that, once vote counts left their municipalities and became aggregated through state-wide ranked choice there would be no way to verify through recount in the event of a dispute.

So, while ranked choice voting remains a viable option locally, implementing it state-wide requires a change in the Constitution.

Because of this, the bill died without a roll call.  Had we voted, I would have voted to accept the committee’s Ought Not To Pass report.

Drones, cameras, and privacy

LD 236: An Act To Protect the Privacy of Citizens from Domestic Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Use was a bill that was heavily (and I think somewhat counter-productively) lobbied by the Maine ACLU, an organization for which I generally have significant affection.  The majority report from the Judiciary Committee proposed a one-year moratorium on any law enforcement surveillance by aerial drones.  (This is no inconvenience because at present no state agencies own or employ drones for surveillance.)  During the moratorium period the majority report charges these agencies to develop rules which could be used as the basis for judicial warrants to insure that any future use of drones does not violate Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

Unfortunately, similarly to some issues touching upon patriotism, the debate devolved into a more simple-minded contest about who could demonstrate the most loyalty to the defense of Constitutional privacy.  In the end, the ACLU-supported minority report prevailed which imposes a warrant requirement without outlining a process for informing a judge about how to determine what might or might not  in fact be a proper basis for a warrant for aerial surveillance.

I voted first in favor of the majority report which failed 56-83 and then supported the bill as amended by the minority report, as this at least nominally affords some citizen protection.

The bill now sits on the Appropriations table pending more discussion about funding.

LD 415: An Act To Require a Warrant To Obtain the Location Information of a Cell Phone or Other Electronic Device prohibits law enforcement agencies from obtaining cell phone location data without a warrant based on probable cause.  It also requires them to inform the owners of phones subject to such warrants within three days unless the warrant is accompanied by judicial approval of a longer delay.

This bill was approved by a large margin of 113-28 in the House.  Despite some real sympathy for the objections of prosecutors and law enforcement who view quick access to cell location data (not phone text or voice content) as a very useful tool to screen out suspects and who pointed out that federal law already prohibits the release of location data unless a court determines that it’s relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation, I voted in favor of this bill.

LD 1040: An Act To Prohibit the Placement of Cameras and Electronic Surveillance Equipment on Private Property without the Written Permission of the Landowner seeks to prohibit anyone from recording images from an unattended camera placed on private property without the consent of the property owner or under a warrant.

This bill passed in the House without a roll call.  Had we had a roll call, I would have voted yes.

Local Option Sales Tax

LD 427: An Act To Authorize Options for Local Revenue Enhancement sought to allow municipalities the option of adding a one percent local sales tax to items sold locally that are already subject to the state sales tax.

The bill received very broad support in the House (101-48) and almost equally broad opposition in the Senate (31-4) where it ultimately died.  

Because I sympathize with the added costs of infrastructure borne by service center communities and because I regret the state’s cuts to municipal revenue sharing, I voted in favor of this bill.

Tax Fairness

LD 1113: An Act To Provide Tax Fairness to Maine’s Middle Class and Working Families was an effort to implement the “Buffett Rule” to ensure that poor Maine citizens don’t pay a higher percentage of their total income in combined state and local taxes than do wealthy Mainers.  

Under the present system, the bottom 20% of Maine’s earners pay 17% of their income in taxes while the top 1% pay just under 10% of their income in taxes.  This bill would equalize that percentage to a uniform average of 11% of income.  

The bill was revenue-neutral and restored ~$75 million in municipal revenue sharing to the budget.

The bill passed 87-48 along party lines in the House and then was killed in the Senate. I voted for it.

Guns

LD 265: An Act To Repeal the Restriction on Employers Regarding Firearms Kept in an Employee’s Vehicle sought to repeal the law that prohibits an employer from prohibiting an employee who holds a permit to carry a concealed firearm from keeping a firearm in the employee’s locked vehicle.

After much debate in the Senate, this bill came to the House with a report Ought Not To Pass. The House accepted the Ought Not To Pass report without a roll call.  Had we voted, I would have supported the same decision..

LD 267: An Act Regarding the Sale of Firearms at Gun Shows sought to close the so-called ‘gun show loophole’ by requiring that a national instant criminal background check be performed prior to the sale or transfer of a firearm at a gun show. The bill makes a gun show operator responsible for any failure to perform a required background check and subject to a civil penalty of up to $2,500 for the first violation and up to $5,000 for each subsequent such failure. The bill also required gun show operators to post signs at gun shows to notify exhibitors of the background check requirement and requires gun show operators to connect unlicensed sellers to licensed sellers who will undertake the required background checks.

The bill failed by a close vote of 69-73 in the House.  I voted in favor of the background check requirement.

LD 660: An Act To Enhance Self-defense by Removing Restrictions on the Carrying and Use of Weapons sought to remove all permit requirements to carry concealed weapons.

This bill was defeated by the narrowest of margins in the House (74-73) and by a somewhat larger margin in the Senate (21-14).  I voted to retain the permit requirement.

LD 1240: An Act To Promote the Safe Use and Sale of Firearms.  Instead of directly requiring a background check for gun sales, this bill imposes a $500 civil penalty on a gun seller who sells a firearm to a felon or domestic abuser without a background check.  The bill insulates a seller from any liability stemming from criminal use of the transferred weapon as long as a background check was employed.

This bill received majority support in the House (78-71) and in the Senate (18-17).  I voted for it.

Wind turbine permitting and omnibus energy bill

LD 385: An Act To Improve Wind Energy Development Permitting implements the recommendations of 18-month task force report, increases public participation in wind permitting, and protects important habitats.

This bill passed the House 81-61 largely on party lines. I voted for it.

LD 616: An Act To Amend the Expedited Permitting Area for Wind Energy Development under the Jurisdiction of the Maine Land Use Planning Commission, a bill which was the subject of much impassioned testimony, sought to remove five specific unorganized townships from the permitting area for wind projects and emplace a moratorium for wind projects in this region.

I favored the implementation of a broader process for public planning of appropriate development in a way that is fair and consistent across all the unorganized townships, so I voted originally for a different minority committee report which failed 49-89.  The House then supported the bill with the moratorium but the Senate sent the bill back to the Energy Committee.

LD 1559: An Act To Reduce Energy Costs, Increase Energy Efficiency, Promote Electric System Reliability and Protect the Environment is a comprehensive compromise put together by the Energy Committee to reconcile a broad range of current energy issues. It  bolsters investment in energy efficiency with a $17M increase in funding for the Efficiency Maine Trust which is predicted to return $365M in ratepayer savings through conservation.  It adds $8M in funding for converting to more efficient domestic heating systems.

Most importantly, it reforms our Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to lower our CO2 emissions cap by 45%. It also assists the University of Maine through funding for more research for engineering off-shore wind turbines.  It also allows municipalities better control over street lighting costs.  

Some will still object that the bill keeps Maine too reliant on natural gas during the transition from oil to a sustainable system based on renewable sources of energy.  The Governor vetoed the bill because he doesn’t support the state’s ambitious wind-power goals and because he wants to lift the restrictions which support local small scale renewable energy projects.

In one of our last actions at 1:00am last Thursday, the House overrode the Governor’s veto with a vote of 121-11.  The bill now awaits an override vote in the Senate.

I voted for the bill because I think it moves our state in the right direction regarding energy conservation and reliable and sustainable energy generation.

GMO food labeling

LD 718: An Act To Protect Maine Food Consumers’ Right To Know about Genetically Engineered Food and Seed Stock was the bill which generated the most email from my constituents.  The bill requires labeling of genetically modified food and seed stock sold in Maine once five northeastern states have joined in similar legislation.

The bill passed 141-4 in the House and 31-4 in the Senate. I voted for it.

Anti-choice abortion bills

LD 760: An Act Regarding Informed Consent to an Abortion would script a physician’s discussion with a woman seeking an abortion requiring the doctor to give specific alternative information about social services and paternal obligations.

Joining a 90-53 majority in the House, I voted against this bill

LD 1193 An Act To Allow a Wrongful Death Cause of Action for the Death of an Unborn Child sought to establish a fetus as an independent legal entity and to give a fetus’s heirs civil recourse to injury under the probate process.

I joined the 82-60 majority in voting against this bill in the House

LD 1339 An Act To Strengthen the Consent Laws for Abortions Performed on Minors and Incapacitated Persons sought to strengthen parental control over abortions.

This bill failed in the House by a vote of 81-61.  I voted against the bill.

All three of these bills failed in the Senate as well.

Merger of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry departments

LD 837: An Act To Clarify the Laws Establishing the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry continues the consolidation of these three formerly independent state agencies which began in the last legislature.

Critics of the merger are concerned that the mission of the Conservation Department is now subordinate to the other two departments.  Proponents representing the majority of the legislative oversight committee say they have worked diligently to accommodate those concerns.  

Despite some late lobbying by a few environmental groups, along with most House members I voted in support the majority report with the hope that the missions of all three departments ultimately shouldn’t be that different. The vote was 98-47 in favor of the  merger.

Uniform building code

LD 977: An Act To Restore Uniformity to the Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code seeks to extend the application of Maine’s building code to include towns with populations between 2000 and 4000.  

Proponents advocate for the benefits of uniformity in building standards and the benefits resulting from good building practice, especially relating to life safety. Opponents are concerned about the cost to smaller municipalities for implementing the regulation.

In our district, this bill would affect only Southwest Harbor as Bar Harbor and Mount Desert already employ building codes and Cranberry Isles has fewer than 2000 residents.

The vote was 74-71 in favor of the bill in the House.  A majority in the Senate opposed the requirement and the bill remains in non-concurrence between the two bodies. I voted to support this bill.

Mandatory physical activity in schools

LD 1160: An Act To Reduce Obesity among Schoolchildren sought to require 30 minutes of physical activity for elementary school students every day.

Proponents point to the significant evidence that better health and even improved learning result after regular exercise.  Opponents observe that a local school day is already packed with state mandates and that adding another just impedes a school’s ability to direct limited resources of time and money to best meet overall student needs.

This bill went back and forth between the House and Senate several times before being ultimately reconciled in a joint Committee of Conference and then, in a vote of 82-62, failing to receive the super-majority support necessary for passage as a mandate.  

This was one of the bills this session on which I was on the opposite side from most of the Democrats.  My position is that the state properly sets daily school policy only by setting the required Learning Results Standards, through providing adequate opportunity and funding based on the standards, and then perhaps by consistently measuring outcomes against the standards – but not by directly managing the local school day.

Reporting BPA

LD 1181: An Act To Further Strengthen the Protection of Pregnant Women and Children from Toxic Chemicals requires large food companies to report chemicals, such as BPA, identified under the Kid Safe Products Act, used in food packaging.

This bill passed in the House by a vote of 108-37.  I supported it.

Mining

LD 1302: An Act To Amend the Maine Metallic Mineral Mining Act To Protect Water Quality and requires the establishment of a trust to cover the state costs of mine closures, similar to those used for landfills.  It also requires that any new mining operation in Maine not degrade present water quality. It also requires new mine operators to provide information about how many Maine jobs their operation will provide.

Opponents argued that this over-restricts future Maine mining.  Proponents favored the bill as common sense regulation of mining in response to legislation enacted in the last session and offered examples of mines operating in other states under stricter regulation.

The bill received majority support in the House (91-49) and then was narrowly overturned in the Senate (17-18).  The bill died in non-concurrence.  I voted for it.

Constitutional protection of hunting practices

LD 1303: Resolution Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine To Establish the Right To Hunt and Fish sought to constitutionally prevent citizen-initiated referendum altering Maine hunting laws.

This was essentially understood as a vendetta from bear hunting interests against the Humane Society which has perennially attempted to end bear-baiting by referendum.  But, more fundamentally, the bill sought to limit citizen right to self-determination through petitioning their government.  No similar activity is presently protected in the state Constitution.

Despite heavy lobbying by hunters, the Resolution was defeated 84-65 in the House and 20-15 in the Senate.  I voted against it.

Lobster by-catch

LD 1549: An Act To Provide an Exemption for Incidentally Caught Lobsters sought to allow Maine ground-fishermen to possess and sell incidentally caught lobsters.

Proponents argued that other states allow this and this bill would allow fishermen to do business in the state rather than shifting their port operations to Massachusetts and that something needs to be done for the troubled ground fish industry and the Portland fishing market.  Opponents argued that dragging damages locally well-managed lobster fisheries.  Essentially this ended up dividing geographically between southern coastal Maine and the more easterly lobstermen.

The bill was defeated 28-7 in the Senate and 106-38 in the House.  I voted against the bill.

Resolution favoring Israel

HP 1112 Joint Resolution In Support of the State of Israel states that the Maine Legislature allies itself with Israel and commends it for its struggle against the Palestinians and other enemies in the Middle East.

This caught me a bit by surprise.  Unlike most joint resolutions, this one was sponsored entirely and nearly unanimously by Republicans.  When Republican leadership called for a roll call, the intention seemed plainly to put the chamber on the defensive about being recorded as weak on terrorism.

I was one of the very few to vote against the resolution which passed the House 124-11. Afterwards many legislators told me that my vote was brave.  I didn’t see it that way.  I just abhor that sort of politics.

Representative Brian Hubbell,
Maine House District 35
Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor, Cranberry Isles, Mount Desert

Report on state budget negotiations

Dear Friends and Neighbors in House District 35:

Not much sleep over the last week as we enter the closing weeks of the legislature.  We are now in day-long and evening sessions which are subject to an increasing volume of debate as we deal with more difficult and controversial bills.

Most notably,I have been privileged to work closely with the Appropriations Committee as they persisted and endured to reach unanimous bipartisan agreement on the state budget for the next two years.

As you know, the committee used my report on the structural gap in state funding for schools as leverage for increasing the education parts of the budget.  

Over several late-night and all-night sessions last week, I got to see how that effort resolved.

In conclusion, it was a very tough budget, especially around the issue of revenue.  Democrats ended up conceding their primary goal of achieving greater ‘tax fairness’ to alleviate Maine’s increasing reliance on the regressive property tax.  Republicans made significant concessions on their absolute position against any increase in state-level taxes.

All in all, the Appropriations Committee members from both parties did extraordinarily good work together.  There are things in their budget for everyone to dislike.  But I know from being there through the darkest hours that this unanimous report is an heroic accomplishment.

The legislature will vote on the budget as early as Thursday.

Here’s a summary of some of the major components of the Appropriations’ budget agreement about which some of you have expressed particular interest:

  • Increases the sales tax from 5% to 5.5% for a limited period of two years from 2013-2015. This is projected to raise $134M in revenue
  • Increases the lodging and meals tax from 7% to 8% with the same two-year sunset. This is estimated to raise an additional $45M in revenue.
  • Adds $58M in school subsidy.  (I had made the case that $73M was necessary to avoid additional cost shifts to property taxpayers.)
  • Accepts Governor’s proposal to shift liability for normal teacher retirement costs from state to local school districts but adds stronger statutory language which preserves this shift in the future only if the state ramps up aid to local schools by at least 1% per year.
  • To compensate for the retirement shift, agreed with my proposal to increase the minimum special education subsidy to minimum receivers of state aid like MDI (from 25% to 35% for FY14 and 30% in FY15).
  • Restores $125M in municipal revenue sharing – two-thirds of the Governor’s proposed cut.
  • Rejects the Governor’s cuts to General Assistance and TANF
  • Provides funding to reduce the number of people on the waiting list for the Section 21 and Section 29 waivers for Developmentally Disabled persons
  • Restores the Medicaid reimbursement rate for Critical Access Hospitals such as MDI Hospital.
  • Transfers the Women, Work, and Community Program to the University of Maine System with funding.
  • Restores the Homestead Exemption – Applies to persons under 65 years of age,
  • Replaces the property tax Circuit Breaker with the Tax Fairness credit, for which application can be made on the income tax form.
  • Restores the Business Equipment Tax Reimbursement program
  • Provides Maine residents with a Maine Adjusted income of up to $40,000 per year, a refundable property tax fairness creditagainst State income taxes.
  • Restores $2.8 million for Clean Elections for legislative races only.    Funding for Gubernatorial races has been removed.   (The Republican proposal was $2.4 million, and the Democratic proposal was $4.7 million.)

Representative Brian Hubbell,
Maine House District 35
Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor, Cranberry Isles, Mount Desert