More investigations loom for busy Maine government watchdog

Good morning from Augusta. The Maine Legislature’s watchdog committee may be busier after Friday morning, when they’ll meet to consider two new requested probes from lawmakers on the state’s allocation of timber from public lands and the unemployment system.

Those new investigations are likely to pass the committee. The timber review is being requested by the Legislature’s forestry committee after a tense Tuesday hearing where Gov. Paul LePage clashed with Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, who has led the inquiry.

The Republican governor denied that the state diverted timber from public land away from two millowners because of political differences on new softwood tariffs, but he also implored the panel to send the issue to the Government Oversight Committee — which runs the independent Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

The unemployment review could be more partisan. It’s being requested by Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, after issues began in December with Maine’s new online unemployment system. Earlier this month, the Morning Sentinel published a memo saying the Maine Department of Labor destroyed complaints about the system and rolled it out despite employees’ concerns.

Labor Commissioner John Butera responded with a letter on Thursday to the committee that denied that documents were destroyed inappropriately and decried “unsubstantiated allegations generated by legislators and the media.”

The Government Oversight Committee is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, but two moderate Republicans serve on it — Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta, the co-chairman, and Saviello. That means it’s not hard to get investigations through the panel.

And the watchdog arm is already busy investigating Maine’s child welfare system, with minor updates expected today. OPEGA is tracking toward a May report detailing the state’s involvement with two families before the February death of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy in Stockton Springs and the December death of 4-year-old Kendall Chick in Wiscasset and another, more time-consuming report on Maine’s child welfare system at large.

On Friday, the committee is expected to authorize subpoenas for school and state information in those cases. Earlier this week, Katz said at least one education official asked to be subpoenaed for information amid concerns that handing it over voluntarily would violate federal privacy laws.

House rebuffs bid to slow minimum wage hikes

After a long debate, the bill went predictably down — largely along party lines. The House on Thursday voted 81-69 to reject a bill by Rep. Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, that would slow and block annual increases in the minimum wage approved by voters in a 2016 citizen initiative. Democrats and independents voted against the measure.

Floor debate went on for more than an hour, with the bill’s supporters arguing that it causes employers to reduce hours for minimum-wage employees and discourages them from hiring students. Opponents countered with reminders that Republicans blocked previous efforts to increase Maine’s minimum wage, spurring the ballot question.

The bill heads to the Republican-led Senate, where it may pass. But even so, its chances are slim amid House opposition. Expect to hear a lot more about it on the campaign trail in 2018.

Today in A-town

There’s a public hearing on a bill to continue funding a child abuse prevention program. The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee will take testimony on a bill from Rep. Pinny Beebe-Center, D-Rockland, that would continue funding a $2.2 million child abuse prevention program that the LePage administration has said it will end in September.

It has gotten bipartisan support after the uproar over the Kennedy and Chick cases, with six Democrats and three Republican leaders — Senate President Mike Thibodeau of Winterport, Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling of New Gloucester, and Assistant Senate Majority Leader Amy Volk of Gorham on the list of co-sponsors.

Reading list

  • Republicans who want to run against U.S. Sen. Angus King tangled Thursday. State Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn filed a complaint with the secretary of state’s office, accusing his opponent, Max Linn, of submitting bogus signatures — including those of dead people — to qualify for the primary ballot. Linn shot back with a complaint alleging that a person who notarized signatures for Brakey’s ballot petition had been convicted of rape in Rhode Island. Public hearings on those complaints will take place within the next week.
  • Congress approved a budget deal without U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ preferred health care changes. Lawmakers avoided a federal shutdown by funding the government through September in bipartisan votes early Friday. But changes intended to stabilize the Affordable Care Act that were pushed by Collins, a Maine Republican, didn’t make the final deal after they became partisan over Democratic concerns revolving largely around abortion language.

  • Correction: An earlier version of this item misstated the day of the federal budget approval. It was Friday. The budget did not include Sen. Susan Collins’ preferred health care changes.
  • All but four Maine counties gained population in 2017. These were only modest gains, but they’re still improvements over 2016, when northern Maine counties lost population. York and Cumberland counties saw the biggest year-over-year gains, with Penobscot growing by a slim 442 people. Aroostook, Franklin, Piscataquis and Somerset counties continued to shrink.
  • A Maine expert says a trade war with China could stunt Maine exports. In recent years, trade between Maine and its top trading partner, Canada, has declined and trade with China has increased. Now, the the former president of the Maine International Trade Center says President Donald Trump’s new plan to slap $60 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods could have a “strong negative impact” on Maine exports.
  • Lawmakers overrode a LePage veto of a bill requiring Maine insurance carriers to pay for services from naturopathic doctors. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, will require insurers to pay for health care provided by licensed naturopaths, who often offer alternative recommendations to health issues, such as herbal remedies, massage and meditation. There are about 50 naturopaths in Maine.

Does Maine need another license plate?

A student-led group, Maine Community Energy Advocates, has launched a campaign for yet another specialty license plate in Maine. The state has specialty plates to raise money for conservation, sportsmen, agriculture, fighting breast cancer, supporting troops and the university system, among other causes.

The latest specialty plate proposal would support community energy projects with a message to “Sustain Maine.” It’s got a nice ring to it, and the image of pine trees growing out of a light bulb fits the theme. Click here to learn more.

License plate design and messaging has long been a contentious issue in Maine. The introduction of a red lobster in the late 1980s engendered a chorus of derision, ranging from complaints about inaccurate depictions of the crustacean’s anatomy to the fact that a red lobster is dead. There’s even a song about dead lobsters on our plates.

The choice of a chickadee in the late 1990s elicited squawks that the bird was too delicate to represent such a burly state. Some said putting a loon on conservation plates in the early 1990s was, well, loony. Moose advocates clamored for decades to include an antlered behemoth on a specialty plate before finally winning a spot in the early 2000s, albeit shared with a fish.

A French horn player I once knew took matters into his own hands. He very carefully edited the “Vacation Land” message on his plates to read “Taxation Land.” Here is his soundtrack. — Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

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.