House Democrats slam the door on GOP welfare reform in series of close votes

A long day’s journey into night Monday in the House of Representatives saw Democrats hammer down the welfare reform agenda of Gov. Paul LePage and many Republicans. 

The House was in session until 11 p.m., debating a series of bills, with Health and Human Services Committee Reps. Deb Sanderson, R-Chelsea and Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, leading their parties for and against the bills.

“I feel like we have dueling legislators here, between Rep. Gattine and myself,” said Sanderson at one point, though I can’t remember during which debate it occurred.

Here’s how it all shook out:

  • LD 368 would bar anyone who has exhausted the 60-month lifetime limit on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families from collecting General Assistance. After passing last week in the Senate, it was rejected 80-65 Monday in the House and now sits in nonconcurrence, which means it is likely dead.
  • LD 607 was originally meant to require the Department of Health and Human Services to expand the placement of photographs on electronic benefits transfer cards and provided penalties for their involvement in drug trafficking, but it was amended to instead prevent it. The bill passed 79-67 and now goes to the Senate.
  • LD 1035 would put a limit on the collection of General Assistance benefits to 9 months in any five-year period. The House voted it down 74-71. It passed in the Senate last month, 24-11 but is likely dead with the chambers in non-concurrence.
  • LD 1036 would prevent the dispensation of resources in order to qualify for General Assistance, but it failed Monday in the House, 73-72. It passed in the Senate last week, 26-8, and now sits in non-concurrence.
  • LD 1144 would prevent the use of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits on tobacco, liquor, gambling or lotteries and provided punishments for benefits abuse. The House voted 72-72 on the bill before tabling it. It has not yet been to the Senate.
  • LD 1407 would require drug testing for applicants or beneficiaries of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. It was killed 76-67 in the House and has not yet been to the Senate.
  • LD 1375 would create work-search requirements and implement a wide range of new restrictions on TANF benefits, including that they not be used on tobacco, liquor, gambling, lotteries, tattoos and bail and that not be used outside Maine. After a 29-5 vote for it last week in the Senate, the House voted against the bill, 76-68.

Lawmakers also took up a few other welfare-reform related bills on Monday. You can read about those below in the Daily Brief Reading List.

The end of the legislative session is upon us and things are very busy in Augusta, as you can judge from the length of today’s Daily Brief. Let us keep track of everything for you, now and through the summer when you won’t have the time or desire to keep up with Maine politics on your own. Sign up by clicking here. — Christopher Cousins

Vape no more

Whether you believe second-hand e-cigarette vapor is harmful or not, you won’t have to worry about being exposed to it following the Legislature’s unanimous enactment of LD 1108. The measure was sponsored by House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan.

If those votes hold up through LePage’s near-certain veto, that is.

Under the bill, the vapor produced by electronic cigarettes would be just as restricted as smoke from regular cigarettes. That means it will be banned in the same public places, such as restaurants, playgrounds and beaches.

Restaurants and bars in Maine have been smoke-free since 2004 and outdoor dining areas, beaches, playgrounds and other public gathering areas in state parks have been smoke-free since 2009. — Christopher Cousins

For one GOP lawmaker, the budget fight didn’t end last week

Just hours after the House and Senate rallied around a $6.7 billion compromise to pass a two-year budget, sending the bill to Gov. Paul LePage, at least one Republican negotiator was still pursuing her options.

As you’ll recall, the budget was passed at the last minute, with many fearful of a government shutdown if talks dragged on much longer. But LePage and his Republican allies called that a scare tactic. Desperate for more time to try to eke out concessions, they said the state could pass a temporary spending bill while negotiations continued.

Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, sits on the Appropriations Committee and was one of the GOP lawmakers who opposed the budget. The day it passed, she sent a letter to Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, to seek her opinion.

Given that the governor would likely veto the budget, Sirocki said, “several of my colleagues and I want to further explore and better understand our future options, should we find ourselves without a budget by June 30.”

Sirocki went on to ask whether the government would really have to shut down if lawmakers didn’t pass a biennial budget, and whether various temporary stopgaps could be used.

Mills, who has long held that temporary budgets are illegal in Maine, minced few words in her response, which came two days later.

“The budget has been enacted,” she wrote. “The Legislature’s schedule is on target. Both houses appear intent on finishing their work before the end of the month. It seems very likely that a biennial budget will be in place before July 1, 2015. Your questions therefore make assumptions and posit hypotheticals not based on current legislation or present circumstance.”

Mills attached a two-year-old letter in which she said temporary spending measures such as the “continuing resolution” proposed by LePage are illegal, and also shot down any speculation that a shutdown is avoidable by any means other than passage of a budget.

“Obviously, if a budget is not effective by emergency legislation before July 1st, then there is no authority for the executive branch to allocate or spend monies, and a shutdown is inevitable,” she wrote. — Mario Moretto.

Veto watch

The vetoes keep flowing out of the governor’s office, nearly as fast as bills approved by the Legislature flow in. LePage, who has pledged to veto every bill, has signed a few or let them go into law without his signature, but is sending most bills back to the Legislature to see if they will garner two-thirds votes.

LePage vetoed 21 bills on Friday and 29 more on Monday and you can click on those links to see the lists. The House overrode 36 out of 46 vetoes it took up on Monday and numerous vetoes were overridden in the Senate, as well.

As the session moves toward conclusion, which is expected to happen sometime this week, likely followed by additional veto days on June 30 and another in early July, the Daily Brief will have the final tallies for you. Suffice to say, LePage breaks his own record every time he picks up the veto pen and so does the Legislature every time it votes on another veto, often before the proverbial ink dries. — Christopher Cousins

Reading list

Boys stating the obvious

In 1993, I had never heard of Boys State (soundtrack) until my history teacher told me he’d selected me to go. I was sponsored by none other than Rick Bennett, who today is chairman of the Maine Republican Party but at the time was the state senator from my hometown.

At the time, Boys State created its days-long mock government and elections at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine. It was my first foray into politics and political reporting and one of my first extended stays away from home. Sleeping in a college dorm, having a taste of independence and focusing on a serious topic like governing were experiences that solidified the fact I was college-bound. That wasn’t always for certain for me.

The American Legion Dirigo Boys State is now in its 68th session and has since moved to Thomas College in Waterville. On Monday, I was invited to discuss the role of media in politics with the delegates, which I hope was interesting given recent events at the State House. Note to comics: the old governor-with-a-Christmas-tree-and-rubber-pig bit works ever time.

I talked about the issues currently under consideration in the Legislature and how I approach covering them. The delegates were especially interested in how a typo in a bill — in this case a missing “and” — could lead to $38 million lost in a heating efficiency program.

Anyway, I asked what sorts of bills they are proposing in their mock Legislature and a guy in the front row — who incidentally hails from my hometown; I was so proud — threw up his hand.

“An Act to Dig a Tunnel to Girls State!” he bellowed. Girls State is assembled at Husson University this week.

Judging by the applause, the measure has bipartisan support. It’s not my role as a journalist to throw a wet blanket over a popular bill, so I opted to skip an explanation of fiscal notes. — Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.