Tardy Maine lawmakers finally passed a school aid bill but 53 skipped out before they did

Good morning from Augusta, where just hours ago and five days before the deadline, lawmakers finally decided to enact a bill that funds Maine public schools for the fiscal year that begins Sunday.

Well, the majority of them did. By the time the bill was finalized at around midnight, 53 members of the House and Senate were absent (here’s their soundtrack). The votes were unanimous but required two-thirds approval of all the elected members, meaning there were only five votes to spare in the House and three in the Senate. The process took hours as amendments were added and taken away. In the end, the bill was pared down to exclude language that would have allowed certain employees involved with regionalization projects to participate in the state’s retirement system. It also removed $4 million in allocations for career and technical education programs.

Another education bill that’s been simmering all year is also headed to Gov. Paul LePage following votes on Tuesday. The bill repeals much of the law requiring Maine schools to issue proficiency-based diplomas and allows local school districts the option to continue with that process if they wish. It was a major rollback of a system that’s been building for years with the goal of being fully implemented by 2021. The votes weren’t close: 116-28 in the House and 17-12 in the Senate.

There’s still work left to do. If it’s starting to feel like we write that every day in the Daily Brief, that’s pretty much because we do. The Legislature was unable to come to consensus on what in any other year is a routine task: fixing drafting errors in previously approved legislation. In this case, House Republicans’ refusal to vote for that bill puts Maine’s public campaign financing system and the 200 legislative and gubernatorial candidates participating in it this year at risk. Democrats attempted to link the fix to another bill proposed by LePage to ban campaign fundraising at polling locations, but the bill failed to garner the necessary two-thirds support.

House Majority Leader Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, said the typo is the simple omission of a minus sign (-). Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, said during a floor speech late Tuesday that he knew about the error in July 2017 when the state budget was enacted but chose not to tell anyone. It was a public admission of the sort we’ve never seen at the State House.

“Our caucus has never been a big proponent of Clean Elections,” Timberlake said. “I didn’t bring it to the attention because I knew we’d get another whack at it. … This is what we’re here talking about.”

Still more major issues remain unresolved. Also left on the table are a major tax conformity bill that Democrats are holding up to use as a bargaining chip as well as a $100 million-plus transportation bond package to maintain Maine’s roads and bridges. The latter situation was exacerbated by LePage’s refusal to sign off on a transportation bond sale that was scheduled for Tuesday — one that has already been approved by the Legislature and voters — threatening to halt this summer’s road construction season.

As Tuesday night’s session wound down, Rep. Stephen Wood, R-Greene, stood to ask House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, when he could tell his constituents the Legislature would be back to act on the new transportation bond. Her reply was July 9, which seems to be the next day lawmakers will be in Augusta, but she added a pithy comment about the bonds LePage is blocking.

“I’m sure that’s heavy on people’s minds, as well,” she said.

What happens next? We don’t have a clue. Seems like we’ll be back at this on July 9 but after that is a mystery. As a senior Senate staffer remarked Tuesday in the cafeteria, the only deadline that could force the Legislature out of session at this point is the November election.

Every day they return increases the cost of this special session, which after Tuesday has already tallied an estimated $193,497. It makes us wonder what that money could accomplish for the people of Maine if it funded a bill or social service program. If you have ideas, send them to us at politics@bangordailynews.com and maybe we’ll include your responses in a future Daily Brief. While you think about it, here’s your soundtrack.

Today in A-town

Maine’s ethics panel will discuss how to split up remaining Clean Election funds after LePage has blocked transfers to replenish the fund. Publicly funded campaigns for the November election are in danger after news that the governor is blocking routine transfers to the Clean Election fund that would allow it to give already-appropriated money to candidates before a June 30 deadline. The aforementioned budget error that House Republicans have opposed fixing will also keep the commission from spending any Clean Election money after June 30.

Jonathan Wayne, the executive director of the Maine Ethics Commission, said these factors have compounded to leave only about $390,000 available of the nearly $1.4 million owed to gubernatorial and legislative candidates this month — just over 28 percent of the total. That could be it for the whole year.

The commission will meet on Wednesday morning to discuss how to split up remaining money between the 120 candidates who have qualified so far for supplemental payments. Any issue with the program could inordinately harm independent State Treasurer Terry Hayes, the only remaining Clean Election candidate for governor who is owed $350,000 alone.

Reading list

  • Lawmakers snuffed a former cop’s attempt to ask Mainers to vote to repeal legal pot. The Senate voted 18-13 on Tuesday against a bill from Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton, calling for another statewide vote on whether it should be legal for adults to use marijuana for recreational purposes in Maine. Voters legalized recreational pot use in November 2016, but lawmakers have struggled since then to implement a sales and oversight system. A sweeping regulatory bill passed earlier this year over LePage’s veto, and his administration has said the framework for a sales and oversight system will not be in place until 2019.
  • A Maine brewery lost its legal fight with a Missouri brewery over the name of a beer. The Associated Press reports that U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey ruled Monday that Logboat Brewing Co.’s Shiphead Ginger Wheat Beer was not given that name to trick customers into thinking that they were imbibing something from Shipyard Brewing Co. in Portland. In December, Laughrey tossed out Shipyard’s defamation allegations against Logboat after Columbia residents posted negative reviews on the brewery’s social media page. She said the reviews are protected by the First Amendment. With that in mind, we recommend against drinking any of the swill that Missouri brewers pass off as beer.
  • Someone stole a rifle and a handgun from a Maine State Police cruiser. The theft occurred on June 16 in Oxford County. Trooper Jonathan Russell parked the marked cruiser overnight in his driveway on Alpine Street in Norway and discovered the next morning that a .38-caliber Smith and Wesson handgun, which had been confiscated as part of an investigation, and a state police-issue AR-15 rifle had been stolen. A state police spokesman declined to say whether the cruiser had been broken into or left unlocked.

Cat got your … world?

A new video game that lets players scamper as cats on a Maine island where all the humans have disappeared is in development.

“In ‘Peace Island,’ which was featured last month in the online magazine Hardcore Gamer, nine cats navigate a mysteriously human-free Maine island, inspired at least in part by Portland’s Peaks and Cliff islands,” BDN editor and fellow cat lover Seth Koenig writes.

This hits too close to home. My wife and I provide foster care for kittens from the Coastal Humane Society in Brunswick. We live not far from an abandoned Maine island — Perkins Township, as it is known to mapmakers.

We often have nine cats or more in our home, depending on whether kittens count as whole or half cats. The “half cat” loophole is one I use to rebuff my daughter’s claims that reaching feline double digits pushes us into the “crazy cat person” realm.

“Peace Island” seems strikingly similar to what many who know us predict will be our fate — a cat-dominated world in which the humans have mysteriously disappeared. Does anyone have the number for Logboat Brewing Co.’s attorney? Here is your soundtrack. — Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins, 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.

To reach us, do not reply directly to this newsletter, but email us directly at ccousins@bangordailynews.com, mshepherd@bangordailynews.com or rlong@bangordailynews.com.

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.