Beginning this week, members of the 131st Legislature started their review of more than 2,100 bills submitted for the upcoming session that range from designating a state rock to passing constitutional amendments that would guarantee the right to an abortion, health care, housing and more.
Democrats have comfortable majorities in both the House and Senate, and also control the Blaine House. That allows them to set the agenda and pass legislation with little Republican support, unless it requires a two-thirds majority, such as emergency bills, a bipartisan budget or constitutional amendments.
Republicans, however, still hope to leave their mark on proposals through the committee process and influence the final budget package – where they’d like to include income tax reductions.
The state has enjoyed an upward trend in revenue that could last for the next four years. And with Maine approaching the statutory limit in its budget stabilization fund – also known as the “rainy day” fund – decisions will need to be made about whether to invest that money, or return it to taxpayers. That will no doubt spur debate between Republicans and Democrats.
The budget review officially begins this week on Gov. Janet Mills’ change package to the current budget, which ends June 30. A supplemental budget is needed because the state’s nonpartisan revenue forecasting commission says the state will take in hundreds of millions of dollars more in revenue than originally predicted.
That supplemental budget is not likely to be controversial, though. During their first session in 2023, lawmakers spent nearly all of that additional revenue when they passed a $473 million emergency winter energy assistance package that included $450 checks for most taxpayers, a deal Mills negotiated with legislative leaders.
The bulk of the budget wrangling will be over Mills’ $10.3 billion biennial budget proposal, which she unveiled earlier this month. That represents a $900 million increase over the current budget and includes continued educational investments in pre-k through community college and expanded investments in behavioral health, child welfare, and services for older Mainers and people with disabilities, among other priorities.
Despite the nearly 10% spending increase, Mills left unallocated about $200 million in projected revenue. That additional revenue, coupled with lawmakers’ ability to change Mills’ budget proposal, is expected to result in a vigorous debate between Democrats advocating for increased investments or programs and Republicans who have identified income tax decreases as a priority.
Aside from the budget, the number of overall bill requests – roughly 2,135 – is higher than the previous two legislative sessions. The last session featured nearly 1,700 bill requests, while the 129th Legislature submitted slightly more than 2,000.
Only 260 bills have details and text available. But batches of bills are being released daily as lawmakers prepare for committee work. The rest of the bill requests contain only titles, which can be misleading and changed to address a totally different issue. Other bills are concept drafts, the details of which may not be released until the public hearing date.
Among the bills include measures to continue addressing the presence of so-called forever chemicals, or PFAS, on farmlands and in drinking water, combating the effects climate change and debating renewable energy programs and priorities. Housing and health care are also expected be among the top topics, and both parties are focused on improving the state’s child welfare system, which has faced scrutiny in recent years.
Here’s a look ahead at some areas where vigorous debate is expected.
EDUCATION, PARENTS RIGHTS
Republicans seem poised to continue their focus on parental rights in the classroom and to quash lessons or discussions about gender identity or racism, even though they have no chance of advancing in a Democrat-controlled legislature.
Several bills would increase transparency of school curriculum and strengthen a parent’s ability to opt their child out of lessons they deem inappropriate, while another would make it easier to recall a local municipal official.
One bill would eliminate “critical race theory, social emotional learning and diversity equity and inclusion from school curricula.” And another would require parental approval for school employees to call a student by a name or pronoun that’s different than their birth certificate.
Two other bills, plus a constitutional amendment, would look to establish a “parent’s bill of rights,” something that was a top priority for former Gov. Paul LePage during his unsuccessful bid for the Blaine House last fall.
Democrats, meanwhile, are looking to make education more inclusive. One bill would fund the integration of African American studies and the history of genocide into the state’s system of learning results.
Several bills have been submitted to change gun possession and purchasing laws.
These types of bills have traditionally faced an uphill climb in Maine, even when Democrats have control. The state has a strong outdoor and hunting heritage that is supported by a powerful lobbying group, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. Mills has also expressed opposition to “extreme, controversial” gun control legislation, such as background checks for third-party sales or banning high-capacity magazines.
This debate has broken down along predictable party lines, with Democrats proposing additional restrictions and Republicans looking to remove restrictions.
Democrats have submitted bills that would add a 72-hour waiting period to purchase a firearm, require criminal background checks for the sale, transfer or exchange of firearms, and banning so-called bump stock devices that can turn a semiautomatic weapon into an automatic weapon.
Republicans have proposed bills that would strengthen 2nd Amendment rights of private property, protecting the privacy of gun owners, and allow certain school officials to carry weapons. Another bill would “affirm the individual right to self-defense,” but it’s unclear if that involves firearms.
Democrats campaigned heavily on abortion rights in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision last summer that overturned Roe v. Wade, and the issue helped them maintain control of state government. Still, Republicans are signaling that they will continue to push for further restrictions.
Mills and Democratic leaders held a press conference last week to highlight several other bills to expand access, including allowing a woman to receive an abortion after viability, which is between 22-24 weeks. Current law only allows those to occur when the mother’s health or life is at risk. The expansion would allow abortions in cases where the baby is not expected to live after birth, with approval by a licensed medical professional.
Three constitutional amendments are being proposed to preserve a woman’s right to choose, including one that would guarantee a right to an abortion and another that would ensure “personal reproductive autonomy.” A third amendment proposes to go a step further, focusing more broadly on “bodily autonomy.”
Republicans, meanwhile, have proposed bills to prevent “coerced abortion,” to require an ultrasound and counseling before an abortion, and require health insurance to pay for a second opinion if a health care provider recommends an abortion due to the health of a mother or baby. It’s unlikely any of those will pass.
House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, has said she will continue to lead the fight for criminal justice reforms, including how people are treated when incarcerated, prohibiting racial profiling by police, limiting access to juvenile records, prioritizing restorative justice, and addressing the bail code, among others.
Both Republicans and Democrats have proposed bills to expunge marijuana convictions.
And at least seven bills seek to tackle the problem of ensuring low-income people receive legal representation.
Maine is the only state in the country that doesn’t have a public defender’s office to provide legal representation to people who cannot afford an attorney. That service is provided by the independent Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, which is falling behind because of large caseloads and a declining roster of attorneys.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine has sued the state, saying it is not meeting its constitutional obligation for indigent clients.
Republicans and Democrats both appear interested in addressing the issue.
HOMELESSNESS, ASYLUM SEEKERS
The Legislature has formed a joint committee to focus on solutions to the statewide housing crisis. But lawmakers are also proposing a slate of bills to address homelessness and housing.
More than a dozen proposals seek to address homelessness, including bills that would decriminalize behaviors associated with homelessness (such as public drinking and disorderly conduct) and increase funding for homeless shelters and transitional housing.
Maine has also become a destination for migrant families who are seeking political asylum. Currently, there is no statewide office to coordinate resources or services for asylum seekers – a task that falls on individual municipalities and local nonprofit groups.
But several bills would look to change that, including one to create a commission on education for asylum seekers, provide in-state tuition for asylum seekers and create a state-funded service contract to support asylum seekers. Another bill would establish an Office of Workforce and Multicultural Affairs.
A series of bills impacting evictions, notification of rent increases and landlord rights have also been proposed.
Several bills would increase the pay of both legislators and the governor, while constitutional amendments propose increasing a legislator’s term from two years, to four, and changing the frequency of legislative elections. Similar bills have been proposed and defeated in recent sessions.
The governor currently earns $70,000 a year. A bill sponsored by Rep. William Bridgeo , D-Augusta, would increase that to $150,000 plus a $40,000 annual, nontaxable expense account.
Other bills would look to change the governor’s emergency powers, the scope of which was criticized by Republicans during the pandemic. Several bills would either limit the governor’s emergency powers or broaden legislative participation during declared emergencies.