While the Democrats who control the Maine Legislature will be battling with Governor Paul LePage over his budget proposal that the Maine Municipal Association terms "a broadside attack on the property tax," the legislature also will be considering numerous other measures during this session. Bills being submitted by area legislators would create a study group to examine how nursing homes can remain in rural areas, open the St. Croix River to alewives, address school funding issues, seek to establish a gaming facility in Calais and allow school staff to carry concealed weapons, among other measures. Hearings have not yet been scheduled on the bills, and most have not yet been released from the Revisor's Office.
Nursing home study
Senator David Burns of Whiting, who is sponsoring a bill to create a study group to examine long-term care facilities, says the bill was prompted by the closure of the Calais nursing home. He hopes the study group with look at funding and other issues to help rural communities keep their long-term care facilities. "We don't want to see any more rural communities lose their nursing homes unnecessarily," he says. "What caused us to lose the Calais facility was because of the high percentage of MaineCare patients," which caused the facility to be less viable financially. He notes that the nursing home's corporate owner, First Atlantic Healthcare, and the state did follow the legal process in closing the facility. "Conglomerates will take beds to where there's a higher percentage of private pay patients and a lower percentage of MaineCare patients." Burns observes that a collaboration between a nursing home and a local hospital or municipality may be possible and is being considered in Calais.
Rep. Joyce Maker of Calais notes that the issue is very important to rural areas. "We have been working on this most of the summer and have agreed that there probably will not be more funds to increase payment to facilities at this time, but we need access for our citizens in Washington County. Hopefully by reviewing this we will be able to see what can be done for them in the future." Frustrated with the current situation, she asks, "What do they want us to do, throw the elderly in the river here? The funding will get less and less."
St. Croix alewife bills
Three bills are being submitted to open up more of the St. Croix River to alewife runs. Rep. Madonna Soctomah of the Passamaquoddy Tribe is sponsoring emergency legislation at the direction of the Passamaquoddy Joint Tribal Council that would open the fishway at the Grand Falls Dam to alewives by May 1. The Friends of Merrymeeting Bay are having similar legislation submitted, but that bill would not be emergency legislation. Emergency bills require a two-thirds vote for passage, but non-emergency legislation does not take effect until 90 days after the legislature adjourns.
Finally, the Department of Marine Resources is having legislation submitted that would provide for passage of alewives on the St. Croix in accordance with the International Joint Commission's Adaptive Management Plan. That plan calls for a longer timeline for reopening of dams to alewife passage. Because of concerns expressed by guides in the Grand Lake Stream area about the alewives' possible impact on smallmouth bass, the plan would have bass reproductive success monitored to determine the pace for allowing alewives farther up the St. Croix watershed.
One of numerous bills submitted concerning school funding is sponsored by Rep. Maker. Her bill would direct municipalities to pay their full share of public education funding, which is intended to be 45%. Municipalities would have three years to reach this level. Under the state's Essential Programs and Services funding model, school districts need to provide all of the 45% local share in order to receive state subsidies; however, since 2010 a waiver has allowed local districts to raise only the percentage the state raises for EPS funding. At present, the state raises only about 83% of its required share. The waiver will end in June. Among the 27 school districts in the state that did not raise the 45% local share in 2012 is the Calais School Department.
"This will be a hot bill," Maker predicts, noting that "municipalities won't like it." However, she states, "We can't be competitive with charter schools and private schools if we can't fund public schools."
She notes, "A big question that I have been asked is: Why should the municipalities pay their share when the state doesn't? The answer is very easy really. It is because they are our children and they live in our community and their parents all pay the taxes raised in this community."
Calais gaming eyed again
Other bills being sponsored by Rep. Soctomah include one for a Passamaquoddy gaming facility in Calais. Although the tribe's previous efforts for racinos or casinos have failed, Soctomah says she was asked to submit this bill by the tribe's lobbyist, Ed Dugay of Cherryfield.
Another one of Soctomah's bills would seek to protect the work of Native craftspeople for authenticity. Anyone seeking to sell crafts and identifying them as being made by a member of the four federally recognized tribes in the state, when the crafts were not made by a member of one of the tribes, would face a fine up to $5,000. The bill is modeled after federal legislation.
Another bill would place 650 acres of land in Centerville into trust for the tribe. The tribe had purchased the land from Bertram Tackeff in 1982, and while some of the land was acquired by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to be held in trust for the tribe, another parcel had not been. The acreage would expand the tribe's blueberry lands in that area.
Bills sponsored by Rep. Cassidy
Rep. Katherine Cassidy of Lubec is submitting bills that would make it easier for people who live far from Augusta to testify before legislative committees via live video feed. Another bill would have Maine adopt the Veterans Remembered flag, which 25 other states already have adopted. Cassidy also is sponsoring a bill that would not allow employers to ask for social media passwords of their employees or potential hires and one that would prohibit the sale of popular high-caffeine, high-sugar energy drinks to teenagers.
Cassidy says, "I'm also working on bills that would address the growing problems with drug addiction; look at ways to help foster children succeed as they reach adulthood; and de-fund the feasibility study for the proposed east-west highway, if the company hasn't already spent the $300,000."
Other bills being sponsored by Senator Burns would seek to protect religious freedom by ensuring that a person's religious speech or exercise of religion could be curtailed by state or local governments without a compelling reason.
Another bill Burns is planning to introduce would change the Forest Practices Act to enhance wildlife. He says some prescribed clear-cutting has been shown to help certain wildlife species, especially deer, while some of the current cutting practices are leaving the forest in a condition that is not good for wildlife.
While Rep. Maker's bill to create a task force on the prevention of sexual abuse of children was enacted last year, committee members were never appointed and thus the committee did not meet. The process will have to be undertaken again, and Maker is submitting a resolve to create the task force, which will study issues regarding child sexual abuse in Maine and recommend policies to address those issues.
Maker is co-sponsoring a bill to assist with the permitting process for tidal power demonstration projects, which will help Ocean Renewable Power Company with its projects in the Eastport and Lubec area. Under the bill, an environmental assessment would not be required for the acceptance of an application.
Another bill being submitted by Maker would revise the law that allows a student attending private school to access public school cocurricular, interscholastic and extracurricular activities. Maker says, "This bill would only allow those children that attend private schools to participate in an activity in their home town where the parents are already paying taxes."
Other bills Maker is sponsoring would encourage volunteerism in the state's fire protection services system by implementing a length of service award program and would classify trucks used only to plow snow and carry sand only for ballast as special mobile equipment.