AUGUSTA – This year, delay, dissension and divisiveness could easily characterize Maine’s legislative session.
Disagreement is common when opposing political parties try to push their agendas. Usually, though, some compromise brings lawmakers together. However, during the second session of the state’s 128th Legislature, agreement was more often than not missing in action.
This year, citizen-initiated ballot measures occupied a huge chunk of state lawmakers’ time. Notably, these involved the legalization of recreational marijuana sales, ranked-choice voting, and Medicaid expansion. In fact, the governor vetoed a bill to fund Medicaid expansion.
“The governor has really been hiding behind the legislature. He’s using the legislature as an excuse and we said, ‘Let’s get this funding to his desk and let’s do it as soon as we can,” Speaker of the House Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, said.
While voters approved Medicaid expansion in November 2017 — and despite a court order demanding the state implement it — the state has yet to enact the process to provide health care to an estimated 70,000 uninsured Mainers. Governor-elect Janet Mills said rolling out Medicaid expansion is her top priority when she takes office next month.
“My understanding is the money is there in the Medicaid budget. I’d like to do an audit of the Medicaid budget and find out where all the money has gone,” Mills said.
And it has been more than two years since the retail sale of recreational marijuana won voter approval. Yet to date, not a single retail license has been issued. Legislators grappled with fine-tuning the law for the past 24 months.
“Residency, how the market will roll out. And what’s the role of municipalities for decision making giving out licenses. Those are the key issues,” former Sen. Mark Dion, D-Portland, said.
Former Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta agreed the process has not been easy.
“Certainly, some lawmakers said statewide moratoriums on retail marijuana sales led to some confusion. Someone might claim that they are entitled to begin to engage in these commercial activities even without a license,” Katz said.
When Gov. Paul LePage unilaterally decided to close the Downeast Correctional Facility, people in Washington County raised their voices in opposition. Some residents of the machines area said governors had been playing with the fate of that prison for years.
“We’re sick of it. Either close us or keep us open. We do not need to continue this. And neither do the inmates. Talk about stress. Our inmates are so stressed,” Anne Grange, a laid-off Department of Corrections teacher, said.
Ultimately, legislators chose not to continue funding the Machiasport prison. However, Washington County lawmakers are expected to attempt to resuscitate the dead facility during the coming session.
“We need to have a plan. We need to have a plan if it stays open. We need to have a plan if it closes,” Rep. Will Tuell, R-East Machias, said.
But one issue lingered until the last weeks of 2018. The ranked-choice voting issue was like a pinball, bouncing from the legislature to the governor’s office to the courts and then back to the legislature. Even longtime lawmakers found the issue head spinning.
Congressman Bruce Poliquin challenged the constitutionality of ranked-choice voting. He recently filed documents with the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, challenging a decision by federal Judge Lance Walker, who ruled that the state’s new voting method is constitutional. At the same time, Maine Secretary of State certified that Poliquin’s challenger, Democrat Jared Golden, the winner of the 2nd Congressional District race.
On Christmas Eve, however, Poliquin announced he was giving up the legal battle.
Throughout the past several years, many legislative observers referred to House Republicans as the stumbling block. But not everyone agreed.
“And when I look back over the past eight years, I like to say that I did it my way,” former House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said.
After November’s election, Democrats now control both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office, so it’s time to see if one-party control unblocks legislative gridlock.