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A look back at some notable action in the Maine Legislature this week

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A look back at some notable action in the Maine Legislature this week

Feb 23, 2024 | 6:00 am ET
By AnnMarie Hilton Emma Davis Evan Popp
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A look back at some notable action in the Maine Legislature this week
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House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) presides over the chamber on Feb. 22. (Emma Davis/Maine Morning Star)

The Maine Legislature’s efforts continued this week with floor debates and committee work. Here is a round-up of some notable action this week that we didn’t cover elsewhere. 

Action in the full Legislature

The House passed LD 1867, a $100 million bill to subsidize mixed-income housing development projects for nonprofits and municipalities by a 73-61 vote. It also was approved by the Senate 17-10.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Grayson Lookner (D-Portland), said he didn’t need to remind other members of the state’s housing crisis that has left teachers, firefighters, social workers and other people unable to live in the communities where they provide vital services. 

“We need to do everything we can so everyone can live in decent, safe and sanitary housing,” Lookner said. 

However, some critics of the bill argued it unfairly excludes the private sector from the program. 

Also this week, the House and Senate approved a bill, LD 1966, to allow district attorney candidates to participate in the Maine Clean Elections Act starting in the 2026 election cycle. The Clean Elections Act provides public financing of campaigns to candidates who meet a minimum threshold of community support. The House passed LD 1966 on a 74-60 vote, while the Senate approved it 18-9.

Both chambers also passed LD 1421, a bill that would provide $200,000 to the Maine Indian Education School District to pilot core Wabanaki curriculum in non-Native high schools, with the long-term goal of establishing a Wabanaki high school. Currently the district’s offerings stop after eighth grade and students have to transfer to non-Native schools that don’t offer Wabanaki-specific curriculum. 

On the issue of campaign finance, both chambers of the Legislature voted down a bill to require that the original source of a donation of over $10,000 to a political committee be disclosed when that money is used to influence a Maine election. Bill sponsor Sen. Rick Bennett (R-Oxford) said LD 1590 would close a loophole in which special interests often funnel money to other entities that purchase ads without revealing the original source of the funding. 

“Maine voters have a right to know who is spending big money to influence their vote,” he said. 

However, Sen. Craig Hickman (D-Kennebec) noted that the Office of the Attorney General expressed concern about the constitutionality of the reform and its ability to defend it. He also pointed out that there is pending litigation over similar bills in other states and urged lawmakers to await those verdicts. 

House votes

In a 77-54 vote, the House this week passed a proposal from Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) to create an African American and Wabanaki Studies advisory council, which would be tasked with ensuring that the courses of study — already required under Maine law — are effectively implemented in schools. 

A 2022 report found that school districts have failed to consistently include Wabanaki studies in their curricula, and several people cautioned in committee hearings that African American studies, a requirement added more recently, could see the same issues without additional accountability. 

Legislators who opposed the advisory council in the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee continued their opposition on the floor, including Rep. Sheila Lyman (R-Livermore Falls), who focused on the $3 million fiscal note to assist schools in implementing curricula. 

“This fiscal note of three plus million could go a significant way in increasing the pay for people working directly with our students,” Lyman said. 

A look back at some notable action in the Maine Legislature this week
A display of House members’ votes on a bill the create an advisory council. (Emma Davis/Maine Morning Star)

However, Education Committee chair Rep. Michael Brennan (D-Portland) defended the bill.

“It’s done the right way,” Brennan said of the proposal. “In the state of Maine, we relish local control and what this bill does is provide the resources through the Department [of Education] to local communities to be able to make sure that teachers, staff and students have a robust experience looking at Wabanaki Studies and African American Studies.” 

The House discussed the issue of local control regarding another bill, as well. 

That proposal, sponsored by Rep. Grayson Lookner (D-Portland), would prevent large cities from banning emergency shelters. It passed the House 74-58, following opposition from a handful of Republican legislators on the floor. 

“This bill is completely taking away local control,” said Rep. Randall Greenwood (R-Wales).

The measure would apply to Portland, Lewiston and Bangor but appears primarily aimed at Lewiston, which passed a moratorium on new homeless shelters in 2022. The moratorium has since expired, but legislators supportive of the bill have argued it has had a chilling effect, as no proposals to open a shelter have been put forward since.

Senate votes

Over in the Senate, a proposal to provide more funding for sexual health education in Maine passed on a 20-12 vote. The bill doesn’t propose any changes to the current sex education requirements in schools, though concerns about curriculum changes were still brought up in committee work and again on the floor. 

“This is doing nothing more than providing ongoing funding with no change to current legislation,” Sen. Joseph Rafferty (D-York) clarified on the floor. 

In additional action, the Senate rejected on an 18-12 vote a proposal for the Maine Legislature to call for two U.S. constitutional conventions: one to institute term limits for Congress and another to regulate the role of money in politics. An Article V convention, as the measure proposes, can only be called when the legislatures of 34 states apply to hold one, something that has never occurred.  

Bennett, a supporter of the resolution, argued the convention is needed to address Congress’ lack of term limits and the corruption that results from money in politics. He also noted that any changes proposed by the convention would need approval from 38 states

“I believe these steps are critical to repair the dysfunction, the structural dysfunction, that threatens the very existence of our republic,” he said. 

However, Assistant Senate Majority Leader Mattie Daughtry (D-Cumberland) said even if the meeting was ostensibly called to establish term limits and regulate money in politics, nothing would stop the convention from exceeding that authority. While there is some disagreement, she said a majority of scholars believe an Article V convention would risk opening “Pandora’s box,” meaning it could lead to unforeseen consequences.  

Committee work

The Education and Cultural Affairs Committee discussed several proposals this week but those that advanced out of committee favorably included bills on school staff wages, learning beyond the traditional classroom and school construction. 

The committee voted “ought to pass,” meaning it recommends that the full Legislature pass a proposal to establish base pay for education technicians and other school support staff. Specifically, the majority report outlines a minimum hourly wage at 150% of the state minimum wage for educational technicians and 125% for other school support staff. 

The committee unanimously advanced a bill to amend the laws governing education in the unorganized territory to be comparable to those for public education in organized areas, as well as a bill to allow extended learning opportunities, such as community-based career exploration, to be credit-bearing.

The committee also advanced an amended version of a proposal aimed at prioritizing construction projects for schools affected by disasters.