King’s session on Supreme Court nominee was mostly about Trump

Good morning from Augusta. This weekend, U.S. Sen. Angus King found himself in the national spotlight as Republicans fished around for at least eight Democratic votes to help President Donald Trump install conservative Neil Gorsuch on the U.S. Supreme Court.

King, an independent who caucuses and normally votes with the Democrats, hasn’t said whether or not he will support Gorsuch. Maine’s junior senator got an earful on it at a Sunday night listening session at the University of Southern Maine in Portland that ran for more than three hours.

It showed a bit of a gap between the progressive stances of most in the audience and King’s relatively moderate stance on appointments.

Many who came to speak against Gorsuch had other gripes — either about Trump or Merrick Garland, the moderate judge nominated by former President Barack Obama last year to succeed the late Antonin Scalia and who was denied a confirmation hearing by Senate Republicans.

One audience member speculated that Trump will be impeached in a matter of months and therefore shouldn’t be allowed to nominate a justice.

“If you go along to get along with this nomination, you’re showing that you can be manipulated,” Kelley McDaniel, another audience member, told King.

King didn’t express many opinions during the session, but his remarks toward the event’s end showed that he appears to admire Gorsuch on some things, calling him “exceedingly independent” and praising his tendency to enforce limits on executive power.

“To be honest with you, it’s one of the things that’s weighing in my mind because as many of you have pointed out, with this president it’s going to be important to have an independent judiciary that will say, ‘No, you can’t do that,’” he said.

Afterward, King told reporters that he’s “not really leaning,” according to POLITICO, with “concerns” — including around Gorsuch’s siding with Hobby Lobby in a landmark 2014 case about whether for-profit corporations should be exempt from federal regulations if their owners object religiously — and “also strengths.”

The independent has been a strong voice of opposition to Trump so far, including voting against his nominees to head the Environmental Protection Agency and the health, treasury and education departments.

But while he leans Democratic, he has endorsed political candidates of all stripes in the past. It’s hard to know how this vote will land. — Michael Shepherd

Today in A-town

  • Budget negotiations are starting to touch on what belongs in a budget bill and what doesn’t. The Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee remains in the midst of collecting public testimony on Gov. Paul LePage’s biennial state budget proposal and late last week reached the public education portion, which had been delayed because of an earlier snow storm. As has been the case on biennial budget bills dating back years, some lawmakers, lobbyists and members of the public are questioning whether the budget bill includes initiatives that belong in their own bills. Among those are LePage’s proposal for school administration consolidation and the companion plan to cut state funding for local superintendents. Also on the docket last week was LePage’s proposed school funding levels, which if implemented unchanged would result in nearly 65 percent of Maine students seeing their school districts face a decline in state subsidy next year. The budget hearings continue today with a focus on LePage’s environment and natural resources proposals.
  • The House and Senate are in recess and following the enactment last week of a $29 million supplemental budget bill, action on major bills is likely back on pause for a bit while more proposals work their way through committee. We’re awaiting action by Gov. Paul LePage on that bill. He has until next week to decide. Today, there are numerous bills in the committee hopper. The Marine Resources Committee will take testimony on a trio of bills that involve law changes around lobster fishing; the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee could be nearing recommendations on easing certain restrictions involving bingo and beano games; the Taxation Committee will consider a number of bills that propose tax changes, including a proposal to eliminate the income tax for Maine Public Employees Retirement System pensions; and the Education Committee will possibly make a recommendation on a bid to improve water testing in public schools.
  • This afternoon, public hearings on bills continue. That includes on a bill that would provide incentives for lawmakers to carpool to the State House. That bill would increase the mileage reimbursement for any lawmaker who transports one or more other lawmakers to Augusta by 25 percent. Here’s their soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

  • Gov. Paul LePage was back in Maine for a fishermen’s forum. We reported last week on the Republican governor’s opaque trip to Washington, D.C. and some possible jobs that he could be being considered for in the Trump administration. He posted pictures on Facebook with Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday, but he was back in Maine by Saturday for an appearance at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum in Rockland. — Michael Shepherd
  • That’s where he told lobstermen that he doesn’t want to raise license fees. The governor cited a state’s budget surplus as a reason to nix the proposed fee increase of $114 for a lobsterman with two deckhands, according to the Portland Press Herald. Maine Lobstermen’s Association President David Cousens told the newspaper that it was “great news.” — Michael Shepherd
  • A Republican lawmaker has significantly scaled back a plan to roll back “corporate welfare” in Maine. In February, Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, rolled out an aggressive bill that would close up to $448 million in 47 business tax breaks over two years to eliminate Maine’s corporate income tax and reduce income taxes. But last week, he revised the plan, which would now only target up to $77.7 million over two years in four programs: the New Markets Capital Investment Credit, employment tax increment financing, the innovation finance credit and seed capital investment credit. Brakey said he changed his bill to make it more manageable for the Legislature’s Taxation Committee to handle this year. — Michael Shepherd
  • LePage to host conference on tourism. LePage has announced that his administration will host the conference March 14 and 15 at the Augusta Civic Center. The focus will be on workforce development and enhancing the experience for visitors to Maine, according to a news release. The administration estimates that the conference will attract in the neighborhood of 400 entrepreneurs and other stakeholders. For more information, click here. — Christopher Cousins

Correction: LePage posted photos on Facebook with Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday. It’s unclear when they met.

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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.