Maine Legislature’s top Republican, Democrat near agreement on pot moratorium

Good morning from Augusta, where it’s only the second day of the 2017 legislative session, but the Daily Briefs are getting longer and marijuana has become the signature policy issue after Mainers approved it for recreational use in November.

On Wednesday, we were told to expect a deal by week’s end between the Legislature’s top Republican and Democrat on a moratorium that would push back the implementation of Maine’s new marijuana program.

The voter-approved law takes effect in January, but it gives state regulators another nine months to draft rules around the law, which allows Mainers to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana while setting up a licensed retail system for marijuana.

Opponents of the referendum called for a longer delay last week, and we’re likely to get one. The issue is whether that sort of a moratorium will delay the entire law — along with the repeal of penalties for personal use — or just the retail side of it.

Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, and House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, both said on Wednesday that they’re close to a deal on a moratorium and would likely release details of that deal by week’s end.

However, Thibodeau backs a one-year moratorium on the entire law. Gideon told the Bangor Daily News that she’ll only consider a delay on when sales can begin and wants to leave the penalty rollback in place.

Gideon said she and Thibodeau are “moving toward agreement,” but that she’s uncertain about the timeframe of such a moratorium.

“I think it’s safe to say that I’m willing to consider looking into the New Year (2018), but again, we haven’t settled on that,” she said.

Any delay will run into opposition from legalization supporters. David Boyer, the Maine political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, which ran the campaign, said lawmakers should start drafting laws around legalization and if more time is needed after October, they can “cross that bridge then.”

“The initiative has a nine-month, built-in moratorium so that lawmakers have time to put in the regulatory framework,” he said. — Michael Shepherd

How the LePage administration is pitching its school consolidation plan

An addendum to our reporting on Tuesday on LePage’s plan to incentivize administrative consolidation at Maine schools: We got a call that day from Acting Education Commissioner Robert Hasson that didn’t make the story.

It’s a different approach to school consolidation, which was tried in Maine with a law that took effect in 2009 that consolidated administrative function by forming the current system of regional school units and alternative organizational structures.

Hasson gave us more details on what LePage’s proposed “regional education service agencies” would look like and called it more politically palatable than the past consolidation plan because it would be voluntary for school districts.

He said the new model envisions a system of geographically larger units that share administrative functions, specialty educational programs, or both. He said it was modeled partially after New York’s system of regional boards established in 1948 to provide certain instructional or support services to their districts.

The goal of the past consolidation law was to get Maine down to 80 school districts. It had 242 in the 2014-2015 school year, according to state data, with many towns not conforming to the law or voting to leave their arranged marriages with other districts.

Hasson said this plan diverges most from that with its voluntary nature, saying the LePage administration is looking to incentivize efficiency instead of demanding it and that the change would drive “flexibility, efficiency and opportunity for student achievement.”

“This will result in more opportunities for kids and for teachers to learn together,” he said. — Michael Shepherd

Quick hits

  • LePage said he’ll resume doing town hall meetings next week. Town halls became a key part of his communication strategy in the first half of 2016 and he told WGAN on Thursday that he’ll redouble that public relations effort after he rolls out his two-year budget proposal on Friday. No word yet on where his first location of 2017 will be.
  • Rep. Kevin Battle of South Portland told the Portland Press Herald that he’s leaving the Republican Party and becoming an independent. The moderate who voted with Democrats on key issues such as the minimum wage in 2016 beat the odds to get elected as a Republican twice in a heavily Democratic district. He told the Press Herald that he’s leaving the party not because of a disagreement, but because his party affiliation “put a wall up” for some constituents and getting rid of it will make him “more approachable.” Rep. Stephen Wood, R-Greene, also told the newspaper that he’s thinking of leaving the party and will decide soon.
  • U.S. Sen. Angus King will get the U.S. Navy’s highest civilian honor on Thursday. The Maine independent and Senate Armed Services Committee member will get the Distinguished Public Service Award, at a ceremony in Washington. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, got the award in 2013— Michael Shepherd

What we’re watching today in Augusta

The Maine politics story of the day
  • The Legislature’s public hearing on LePage’s plan for a new mental health facility at 1 p.m. In a bid to win back federal certification at Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, the governor has proposed a new, 22-bed facility to house psychiatric patients found not guilty of crimes or declared unfit for trial. Democratic leaders twice blocked LePage’s plan to put it in Augusta because they wanted more information, so he’s said he’s moving it to Bangor. LePage has said his administration won’t participate in Thursday’s hearing before the budget-writing and Health and Human Services committees. Daniel Wathen, a former Maine Supreme Judicial Court chief justice overseeing Maine’s compliance with a consent decree over mental health services, will be there. Members of the public can also testify.
Also on the agenda
  • The Maine Board of Environmental Protection is expected to vote on its third set of proposed mining rules. The push comes from a 2012 law that streamlined metal mining laws in Maine after JD Irving Ltd. expressed interest in mining at Bald Mountain in Aroostook County. But environmentalists have assailed the rules as too permissive for companies and two past proposals from the board have failed to pass the Legislature, primarily because of opposition from Democrats. With the party still controlling the House, the third proposal could face the same fate.
  • The House and Senate are in at 10 a.m. For a while, the chambers will mostly just be sending new bills to committees and doing ceremonial resolutions, but Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, wants to change House rules to allow members to photograph or record video with their smartphones if it “does not cause a distraction or impede the business of the House.” — Michael Shepherd

Reading list

Mainers for Informed Voters’ misunderstanding

In a minor, minor, minor piece of fallout from 2016’s campaign for a minimum wage hike in Maine, a committee that formed to support the question will face a recommended $500 fine from the Maine Ethics Commission next week.

The group is Mainers for Informed Voters, which was formed by the Washington, D.C.-based Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.

It spent more than $5,000 on staff time relating to the Maine question by Sept. 30, so the committee was required to file a disclosure with the commission on Oct. 7, according to the commission. It didn’t until Oct. 26.

The committee’s lawyer said the center “had no intention of concealing its campaign activity,” but that the failure to register “stems from a misunderstanding that even activities not targeting voters count as election activity subject to reporting.”

Again, it’s a minor issue, but with a name like that, your mistake will make it into the Daily Brief. Here’s your soundtrack. — Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.