The Maine Legislature returned back to the Augusta Civic Center Wednesday, May 19, for what could be the last time as Governor Janet Mills eases restrictions on indoor gathering limits starting next week. The Legislature has been using the Augusta Civic Center 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, Legislative Council, is expected to take action 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.Senate President, Troy Jackson indicated that they are planning to keep public hearings virtual in the future while also allowing in person testimony.
Dozen of votes were taken by the Maine Legislature during session 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Legislature, which has been conducting its committee work remotely via video conferencing, still has dozens of bills to process before statutory adjournment on June 16, 2021. All bills were to be voted out of committee by May 21, 2021, there isn’t one committee who will make this deadline and bills are still being printed.