The Maine Legislature seems finally ready to return

Good morning from Augusta, where the Legislature is finally expected to come back this week after Maine’s judicial system and ethics watchdog solved the problem that constituted perhaps the largest obstacle to ending a marathon 2018 special session.

Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, and House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, alerted members last week that the chambers would likely reconvene on Wednesday after more than a month away from the State House.

Wednesday’s return comes with a path to end an impasse between Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives, but lawmakers are likely to have plenty of technical work to do on proposals from Gov. Paul LePage to overhaul an embattled child protective system.

With Maine’s public campaign fund open, there’s little standing in the way of passing an already negotiated compromise on tax conformity. This return is mostly attributable to the Maine Ethics Commission, which moved on Thursday to reopen the Clean Election system after a judge decided that the fund fell outside of normal state budgeting practices. Money in the fund had been locked away because of a legal drafting error that House Republicans refused to fix.

But the error has essentially been read out of the law books now. The Republican governor is opposed to the taxpayer-funded campaign program, but his administration didn’t appeal the judge’s decision and has shown no signs of bureaucratically fighting the commission’s decision.

Legislative negotiations on this subject had been going nowhere — at least publicly — during the downtime, with Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, saying in late July that he was ready to pull out altogether. As part of a deal, LePage had been trying to dust off slowing down increases in a voter-approved minimum wage law and others wanted to tighten referendum law.

Any associated changes may get more difficult now that the Clean Election leverage is off the table. Democrats are expected to move compromise tax conformity legislation that they have been holding up in that battle with House Republicans.

LePage’s has aired potential child welfare reforms, but we haven’t seen them on paper and lawmakers still could have a lot of work to do to refine them. The governor is full of surprises, so we will never rule them out. But the core ideas that he has laid out to begin reforming the child protective system after the recent deaths of two Maine girls haven’t been poorly received so far, though the Department of Health and Human Services has been criticized by workers for internal changes instituted since the beginning of the year.

The governor has told legislators that his battery of proposed reforms would include funding to replace an outdated computer system to handle cases — something that isn’t likely to see much opposition. But he has also said Maine should steer away from a policy of family reunification in cases and that failure to adhere to mandated reporting should be criminalized.

That first idea has already been adopted as a DHHS policy and is somewhat vague. The latter will be unacceptable to a lot of legislators who fear that it may not have the desired effect. Furthermore, LePage’s bills haven’t been released yet. So, it’s hard to say how long it’ll take to bring them through the legislative process.

Today in A-town

The Legislature’s watchdog panel will release a report on a timber controversy involving the LePage administration and critics of the governor’s trade stances. The Government Oversight Committee, which runs the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, will meet on Monday to review a report aiming to find out why timber from state land was diverted from millowners who criticized LePage’s trade stances.

The legislative panel ordered the report in March after wood was diverted in February from Pleasant River Lumber, which operates four Maine sawmills and is the only spruce and fir business that doesn’t straddle the U.S.-Canada border. Jason and Chris Brochu, the brothers who own the company, back softwood tariffs that LePage has opposed and they hit the governor in a September op-ed in the Bangor Daily News for a “Canada-first” trade policy.

The spat was raised publicly by Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, a chief legislative antagonist of the governor. LePage angrily denied trying to hurt the Brochus and his state forester said it was done to bail out a Canadian-owned mill in Maine that was close to closing, though that company told Maine Public that it never requested the logs.

Even if there was no wrongdoing, the row still raises questions about the handshake deals that often precede large allocations of state timber and the watchdog could make recommendations including a more formal contractual process between Maine and millowners. We’ll find out today. The meeting is at 9 a.m. and it can be streamed here.

Reading list

  • Kids in Maine are more likely to get cancer than those in the rest of the U.S. and nobody knows why. More than 700 Maine children were diagnosed with cancer between 2003 and 2014, according to new federal data that peg Maine’s rate of cancer among patients younger than 20 to be significantly higher than the national average. (The numbers fall within statistically probable ranges varying state to state.) Experts have struggled with an explanation. One says that while most cancers in children don’t involve genetics or environmental influences, cancer rates tend to be higher among populations with significant northern European heritage.
  • The Republican candidate for district attorney in three Maine counties said he’s running to get health insurance so his mental health problems can be treated. During the third day of a disbarment hearing in Portland on Friday, Seth Carey broke down in tears as he acknowledged that “I obviously need help.” The disbarment hearing, which also results from accusations that Carey sexually harassed a woman who was staying at his residence, will determine whether he can continue to practice law. He is temporarily prevented from doing so now, and if the hearing results in disbarment, Carey could not serve as DA for Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties, even if he wins the November election against incumbent Democrat Andrew Robinson.
  • Two scions of Maine politics lamented the current dysfunction in Congress. Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, a Democrat, and William Cohen, a Republican who served in the House and Senate before becoming defense secretary for Democrat Bill Clinton, decried the deep partisanship in the nation’s capital during an event Friday at which the endorsed the re-election campaign of U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Senate Democrats and is running against Republican state Sen. Eric Brakey and Democrat Zak Ringelstein in November.
  • The father of a man who drowned in the Kenduskeag Stream earlier this year is suing the Bangor Police Department. Gary Manuel, father of Peter Manuel, 22, who fell into the stream on March 2 while being chased by police filed the lawsuit earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Bangor. In the lawsuit, Manuel alleges that his son faced “a pattern of harassment” from the Bangor Police Department, culminating in his death on March 2. The suit also alleges that the entire Manuel family was made homeless as a result of mistreatment by government officials.

We need your help

Since shortly after its inception in 2015, the Daily Brief usually closed with a bit of humor, personal anecdotes or our goofy takes on the lighter side of politics. We’ll probably return to that format in the near future, but it just seems too raw so soon after our friend and colleague, Chris Cousins, died.

Chris owned this space with his wit, humor, soundtracks and anecdotes about his experiences as a husband and father. So how do we fill that void?

We could revive a few of our favorite posts from the past — although not the one about his son’s jockstrap that earned a gentle “I don’t need to read about Chris’ kids’ underwear” reproach from our boss. But we would much prefer to have you, the readers who got to know him through these daily addendums, share your stories about our beloved colleague.

He was, after all, the story tiller. Please email your anecdotes to the addresses listed below. Thank you.

In the meantime, we’ll keep the soundtracks going with some of his favorites. Here is today’s 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 leading newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

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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.