As the rush to late-April legislative adjournment begins, much is at stake for people who want to help the needy (or are needy), or value a fair tax system, or treasure Maine's unspoiled woods and shores, or want government to be run openly — in short, for many people who these days are often called progressives.
Engage Maine, a broad coalition of advocates for progressives, rallied April 2 in the Cross State Office Building in Augusta to draw attention to the bills still in play that most threaten their constituents. About 130 people attended.
Below are several of the measures most worrisome to Engage Maine. To determine the likelihood of their passage, the Phoenix consulted assistant Senate minority leader Justin Alfond, the Portland Democrat who is one of the Legislature's most progressive members. As they stand, Alfond opposes them all.
Several of the bills are part of the agenda Republicans brought with them when after the 2010 election they took over the governor's office and both houses of the Legislature.
"STREAMLINING" MAINE'S MINING REGULATIONS, LD 1853 This bill is being pushed by a Democrat, Representative John Martin, of Eagle Lake, the former disgraced House speaker. It would allow a company owned by J.D. Irving — part of the Canadian family-owned Irving empire — to dig an open-pit mine for gold and other minerals on Bald Mountain in Aroostook County. But the bill also loosens mining restrictions elsewhere in the state.
Natural Resources Council of Maine director Lisa Pohlmann spoke at the rally of pollution threats to the coast and to lakes like Moosehead. The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting wrote that Martin is hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to Irving interests. The bill "has the legs to pass," Alfond says.
LIMITING AID TO THE VERY POOR: GOVERNOR PAUL LEPAGE'S "SECOND SUPPLEMENTAL" BUDGET, LD 1903 This big bill would cut public and publicly supported services such as the university and community-college systems and the Maine Public Broadcasting Network. But the most contentious item deals with "general assistance."
This is the municipal-run final safety net providing housing, food, and fuel for people in desperate straits. The state provides the majority of the funding. The budget would sharply cut who is eligible and limit housing aid to 90 days a year. The state would reimburse cities and towns at a lower rate. The biggest cities would be hardest hit, with increases expected in homelessness.
For the state to avoid running out of money in some accounts before the end of the fiscal year, June 30, the budget needs passage by a two-thirds majority. This gives Democrats some power. Alfond says "huge negotiations" are going on behind the scenes. He is hopeful action on general assistance will be postponed and a "stakeholders' group" will be assembled to discuss possible future changes.
GRADUALLY LOWERING, AS REVENUE SURPLUSES OCCUR, MAINE'S HIGHEST INCOME-TAX RATE TO 4 PERCENT, LD 849 In 2013 the rates will run, depending on income, from 2 percent to 7.95 percent (dropping from 8.5 percent). If the top rate is cut to 4 percent, Engage Maine says losses to the state treasury would eventually amount to $600 million a year, a "revenue death spiral" requiring enormous service cuts.