What’s in the way of the Maine Legislature finally going home for good

Good morning from Augusta. The Maine Legislature will return today for the first of what are expected to be its last two days of work in a 2018 session that has stretched on for months past its scheduled conclusion, with an end apparently nearing as the thorniest problems seem to be behind lawmakers.

It’ll be a busy day in the House of Representatives and Senate. Spokespeople for Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, and House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, said the plan is to run all remaining business through the chambers and return sometime in September to handle anything that’s left, including any vetoes from Gov. Paul LePage.

However, this Legislature has often found ways to knot itself and a Republican wants to probe Gideon’s response to sexual misconduct allegations against a resigned representative. Key bills dealing with Maine’s child welfare and tax systems also have to go through final votes.

How will Democrats respond to a call for investigating the speaker? Former Rep. Dillon Bates, D-Westbrook, resigned from his seat last week after denying anonymously sourced allegations published in The Bollard that he had relationships with female high school students that he met as a teacher and coach.

After his resignation, Rep. Paula Sutton, R-Warren, re-filed an order to convene the House Ethics Committee to investigate Gideon’s response to allegations against Bates. The speaker’s office has said it heard allegations against him months ago and investigated them, finding no evidence. Gideon asked Bates to resign after The Bollard’s article.

It’s unclear how Democrats, who control the House, will respond on Thursday. Gideon spokeswoman Mary Erin Casale declined comment. But House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, has said Bates’ resignation means the chamber “can put this matter behind us.”

Child welfare bills and tax conformity are the weightiest policy matters left to be decided on Thursday. In one long Monday, a legislative panel whittled down a package of LePage bills intended as the first fixes to a child welfare system that has drawn significant attention since the deaths of two Maine girls.

Majorities of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee voted to back bills enhancing the system with more than $21 million in funding to replace a dated case management system, add caseworker positions and increase pay to foster parents, allow the state to retain records of child welfare cases in which allegations were unsubstantiated for a longer period of time and give caseworkers access to criminal history information.

LePage also wanted to turn Maine slightly away from a policy of family reunification in child welfare cases and criminalize a mandated reporter’s failure to report of abuse and neglect when there was reasonable cause to suspect it, but the committee voted those bills down.

That makes their path to passage difficult today. LePage has also rolled out another bill to improve information sharing when a school investigates someone who holds a department-issued credential, such as a teaching certificate. That’s headed to a committee today and could face votes on the Legislature’s final day.

Compromise legislation conforming Maine to the federal tax code is also likely to be approved today. House Democrats had been holding it up until Republicans in the chamber agreed to fix an error that blocked taxpayer funds for 2018 elections. But the Clean Election program was re-opened by a judge’s ruling and the Maine Ethics Commission earlier this month.

LePage’s bid to shield seniors from municipal foreclosures and a veteran bill could get new life on Thursday. One of the governor’s pet causes since 2017 has been an effort inspired by an Albion couple to shield seniors from municipal foreclosures. His bill aimed at doing so is still sitting in the Senate with amendments — including one from Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, still looming.

In July, LePage vetoed a bill aimed at getting veterans jobs in the health care field, but it has been tweaked and re-filed as a governor’s bill from Assistant House Majority Leader Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, and awaits final votes.

Our late colleague will also be remembered on the chamber floors. One of several memoriams on the chamber floor will be dedicated to Chris Cousins, who died earlier this month at age 42. His memoriam is being sponsored by the entire Legislature. You can watch the House session here and the Senate session here. Both are set to begin at 10 a.m. Here’s a soundtrack that Chris would appreciate.

Maine veterans services leader is leaving

LePage’s well-regarded veterans services chief is leaving for the private sector. The governor’s office said in a Wednesday statement that Adria Horn, director of the Maine Bureau of Veterans Services, will leave her job on Sept. 14 to become a vice president at Tilson Technology Management, a Portland-based information technology firm.

Horn is an Army veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and took her current job in 2015. LePage credited her with raising the profile of the office, which helps veterans navigate state and federal services. She was well-regarded in the Legislature. LePage will appoint David Richmond, the bureau’s deputy director, to replace Horn in an acting capacity after she leaves.

Reading list

  • A lawsuit that aims to prevent the governor from blocking comments on his Facebook page will continue. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine filed the suit in federal court on behalf of two Maine activists. The 41-page ruling released Wednesday by U.S. District Court Justice John Woodcock Jr. is a procedural one that allows the lawsuit to continue. He deemed the Republican governor’s request to dismiss it “premature” because the parties don’t agree on the purpose of LePage’s Facebook page.
  • Maine’s ethics watchdog agreed to accept a settlement equal to one fifth of the fines it sought from campaign groups that backed a failed casino referendum in 2017. On Wednesday, the Maine Ethics Commission voted to accept reduced payments from political committees affiliated with Lisa Scott, whose brother, Northern Mariana Islands developer Shawn Scott, would have been the only person to be able to build a York County casino under the terms of the ballot question. Voters resoundingly rejected the proposal in November 2017. Paul Lavin, the commission’s assistant director, said the settlement agreement should be finalized within a week. The full settlement agreement is being kept confidential until it is executed, but it will still constitute the biggest campaign finance penalty in Maine history.
  • Newspapers won a trade war victory against the president on Wednesday. The U.S. International Trade Commission on Wednesday nullified tariffs put into place for imported newsprint by finding that American producers weren’t harmed by imports from Canadian paper mills. The ruling is a victory for the U.S. newspaper industry, which complained that the rising cost of newsprint, typically their second-biggest expense, made it harder to operate. Maine’s U.S. senators, Republican Susan Collins and independent Angus King, and U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican from Maine’s 2nd District, opposed the tariffs and hailed the decision.
  • A Maine islander has been convicted of threatening the Swedish monarch and diplomats. Eric Malmstrom, 40, was found guilty Monday in U.S. District Court of transmitting threatening interstate communications following a one-day jury trial. Malmstrom was charged by the U.S. Secret Service in March for calls he made to the Swedish Embassy between September 2017 and March 2018. Malmstrom would call the embassy, often leaving voicemails when no one picked up after hours, making violent threats against embassy employees, according to the criminal complaint filed by the Secret Service. He faces up to five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and up to three years of supervised release. He will be sentenced after the completion of a presentence investigation report by the U.S. Probation Office.

Another leading man

Before lawmakers return for today’s special session, we need to clear up some confusion. There are two minority leaders in the Maine House of Representatives.

Fredette fulfilled the role of House minority leader for his party since 2012. We’ve come to refer to him as “House Minority Leader Ken Fredette” since his caucus — which now includes 70 House Republicans — picked him for that role.

But another House member now lays claim to the title of “House minority leader.” It’s not a challenge to Fredette. It’s a call for affirmation from the House’s only voting member of the Green Independent Party. Rep. Ralph Chapman of Brooksville quit the Maine Democratic Party in 2017 and later enrolled as a Green. He now identifies as “Minority Leader, Green Independent Party” on stationery that, appropriately, lists that title in green font.

Rep. Henry Bear is also registered as Green Independent, but as a tribal representative, he is a non-voting member of the Legislature.

Term limits prevent Chapman from seeking re-election, so today’s session and an ensuing veto day will likely be his last chances to demonstrate his leadership skills on the floor of the House. Here’s his soundtrack. — Robert Long

Programming note

In solidarity with the workers of America on Labor Day weekend, Daily Brief will not publish on Friday and Monday. We will return on Tuesday, Sept. 4. Here’s your soundtrack.

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.

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

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.