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Late Winter in Augusta
I write you this entry from the floor of the House in the midst of a long and heated budget debate. This 122nd session began with an unusual bang and continues at a breakneck pace with many bills, a couple budgets, lots of bond proposals and long hours of committee work.
Last week we had "Girl's Day" at the State House and I was joined by four great 7th and 8th graders from Brooklin, North Haven, and Vinalhaven. The girls had a great day as they observed the House and Senate in session and also participated in some mock activities like a press conference and a public hearing. Throughout the session I will be visited by student groups (like my favorite Deer Isle/Stonington Chess Team!), constituents working on policy issues, town officials, and those just interested in visiting the State House. Please feel free to come visit anytime to see what we do.
Included in this update are a number of upcoming public hearings on issues from cemetery care to lobster fishing hours to affordable housing, all of which I submitted for constituents. In addition, there are hundreds of other bills still scheduled for public hearing at the State House in committee which may be of interest to you— especially next Wednesday's "Lobster Day" in the Marine Resources Committee.
See the schedule for the coming weeks of legislative public hearings at the State of Maine web site. Also, see the State House guide to participating at public hearings if you have never before attended or testified.
In addition to upcoming public hearings, I have also included below news on the budget, prescription drug bills, the hospital "tax and match" program, working waterfront legislation, and a notice of homeownership opportunities on Mount Desert Island.
By a unanimous vote in the Maine House, I proudly observed final passage of constitutional amendment to tax working waterfront land at "current use" rather than the present law which requires taxation at the "highest and best use." The provision also passed in the Senate with large margins. Because the change to "current use" requires a change in the Maine Constitution it will be sent to voters this November for ballot approval. I was pleased to have local Stonington fisherman Stephen Robbins who happened to be visiting Augusta the day the amendment passed, which was good timing, as it isn't often the Maine legislature acts so firmly in support of fishing communities.
As the large and increasingly influential "Working Waterfront Coalition" promotes, the current use taxation law would be one "tool" to help preserve the rapidly vanishing land needed for commercial fishing. Another key tool, a "Working Waterfront Trust", much like the Land for Maine's Future bond which is also being debated as part of the bond package. The Marine Resources and Agriculture committee just recommended bond funding of between $11 and $20M for this Trust. If passed by the voters, the Trust would be funded to help match and leverage local dollars for purchase of coastal lands to be preserved for working fishing and waterfront industries.
To learn more about Maine's Working Waterfront, visit the Maine.Gov Working Waterfront Resource page.
The issue of "tax and match" (a government health care funding method used in many states by which hospitals are taxed and the money is then matched with federal health care dollars and then returned to the hospitals) has proved especially problematic for some of Maine's rural and most essential community hospitals, especially those hospitals designated as "critical access" hospitals because of the unique way they are funded. Both Mount Desert Island's Hospitals and Blue Hill Hospital have this critical access designation and as a result have felt a real financial crunch because of the "tax and match" program.
A bill that recently passed with a unanimous vote out of the Health and Human Services Committee (of which I serve as the co-chair), LD 694, could provide the badly needed respite. In addition, because of the strong committee support, a portion of the law and the funding needed has been added to the 2006-2007 budget. Our fingers are crossed that it all will work out as intended, and we will lobby to ensure the other half of LD 694 is funded in the coming months before we leave Augusta. This bill is crucial to the future of our small community hospitals and state lawmakers are starting to get this message.
The Governor's proposed 2006-2007 budget was the hot topic of discussion, debate, and negotiation since early January when he presented his plan to fund state government for the next two years. Facing a continued projected shortfall of over $700 million with a state constitutional requirement of a balanced budget, the Governor's task to balanced budget was daunting one, requiring many cuts and some new revenues. Another special challenge this year was the voter mandate to increase K-12 education funding by $250 million over the next two years. After the Governor proposed his budget it was then up to the legislature to make changes to his proposal.
The legislature has spent a solid two months holding public hearings on the budget, listening to hundreds of members of the public, debating the merits of thousands of spending items, and leaving it's own, hopefully more positive, impression on the funding decisions of our state. Members of the House and Senate through their lobbying and votes have opted to remove many of the most objectionable portions from the budget including: taxing of assisted living facilities; fees for canoes and kayaks; Sunday hunting; online burn permits in many parts of the state; the 10-year securitization of a portion of the state lottery revenues; and some of the most significant cuts to social service programs for substance abuse, the mentally retarded, and the mentally ill. The budget also includes no new broad-based taxes.
Late last night after hours of debate with approval from majorities in both the House and Senate, the 2004-2005 budget passed.
For more information on the State Budget process and additional resources on how the state taxes and spends, visit my Budget Issues page.
This session, especially in my committee (the Health and Human Services Committee) a great deal of time has and will continue to be spent on prescription drug policy. And the issues with drugs are broad— from how prescription drugs costs continues to be one of most significant drivers for health care costs overall, how to ensure seniors and others can get drugs when they can't afford them, ways to ensure access to drugs in rural areas, and how the state prescription drug programs will interact with the new federal Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit.
In the coming weeks we are wrestling with how to better ensure drug access for seniors and others in rural areas with the Medicaid program, Maine RX program, and the DEL (drugs for the elderly) program. The bills that we will consider will allow seniors longer refills, it will consider better reimbursements for rural pharmacies, and other potential solutions. This issue is one that folks in Deer Isle and Stonington are especially aware of in light of last years closing of the Island Pharmacy.
The new federal drug benefit under Medicare, also referred to as Part D coverage, while a federal program, will be a significant undertaking for the State of Maine. The state is responsible for enrolling residents in the Part D benefit, there is a "clawback" provision in the federal law requiring the state (or its tax payers) to pay for part of the benefit, and as a state we are also wrestling with how to ensure coverage to drugs for seniors that are not covered under the Part D benefit. The program officially goes online January 1, 2006, so I will be sure to keep you updated on how to best ensure you are signed up for that benefit if you are eligible and what it will provide.
Extensive information on Maine's Health Care System and additional RX resources are available at my Healthcare Issues page.
A full afternoon of public hearings on lobster bills in the legislature is coming up next week. In addition, work began this Thursday on a bill that will attempt to prevent further dumping in the Pen Bay Ocean Disposal site from dredge projects from outside the Mid-coast region. This issue came to light earlier this winter with the dumping of Portland Harbor Union Wharf dredge material in Pen Bay because it was more cost effective to bring the sludge north rather than dump it at a Casco Bay site because of differing testing requirements.
The LD numbers below are links that will open a new window containing the full text and tracking of the actions on each of the following bills from the State of Maine Legislature database. For further information and statistics on Maine's Fishing Industry, visit my Fishing Issues page.
In light of a recent dumping of Portland Harbor dredge material (from under Union Wharf) at the Pen Bay Ocean Disposal site (off Rockland), I received a number of phone calls from rightly concerned coastal fishermen. After further discussion and research I learned that there is also a Casco Bay dredge disposal site but it since it is further offshore than the Pen Bay site, it is in federal waters, and therefore subject to greater testing standards than the current in-shore disposal site. These testing standards cost money which encourages greater use of the Pen Bay site. The current situation with these disposal sites leaves a perverse incentive to bring dredge material from around the state to the Pen Bay site, which is also some of the best lobster fishing grounds in the world.
We have introduced a late-session bill this year to attempt to fix this inequity. The struggle is that we want to ensure that the incentive to dump all of Maine's dredge, especially from our more polluted harbors, in Pen Bay. On the flip side, we also need to ensure that there is a site in the mid-coast area that allows local dredge projects (like those in Stonington or Rockland) to remove the dredge without paying exorbident testing costs. Currently the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Marine Resources, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Natural Resources Committee are working on potential bill text. There will also be a public hearing on this issue in the coming weeks— I will keep you updated on how you can get involved in these issues.
There are several bills coming up that are extremely relevant to island residents— all which will be heard in public hearing next week. The issues and dates are listed below. The accompanying LD numbers are links that will open a new window containing the full text and tracking of the actions on each of the following bills from the State of Maine Legislature database.
LD 1107 & LD 1301
Two bills that would allow a 1% local real estate transfer tax (by local referendum) on residential properties sold for more than $1 million dollars. My bill, LD 1107, was heard last week in the taxation committee and Rep. Ted Koffman's bill, 1301 will be heard next week on Monday, April 4th, at 1pm in the Taxation Committee in the State House. My bill, LD 1107, would allow a community to choose to impose a 1 - 2% real estate transfer tax on sales over $1m with the local proceeds to be used for open space or affordable housing. The funds would be held by the local community in which the real estate was sold. Rep. Koffman's bill is almost exactly the same bill but limits the use to affordable housing. We both believe that the issue— from North Haven to Mount Desert Island— is that the more home sales over $1 million our communities have, the less affordable the housing there is for year-round residents. This bill could help create substantial funds for local housing needs. Please come join us in Augusta and testify for LD 1301 this coming Monday, April 4th if you agree!
An Act to Facilitate Energy Self-Sufficiency for Maine's Offshore Islands, is a bill that I am sponsoring for Maine's consumer owned utilities which will allow consumer owned utilities (like Fox Island, Isle Au Haut, and Swan's Island) to sell amounts of energy they produce back to the grid and larger utilities. With projects like wind generation, this could provide essential funds back to help defray costs for island residents who pay high utility costs. The bill will be heard for public hearing on Thursday April 7, 2005 at 1pm in the Utilities Committee at the State House Cross Office Building.
An Act to Allow Municipalities to Acquire Title to Abandoned Cemeteries, an idea that came from the Tremont selectmen and cemetery committee to help the community and all other Maine communities better manage those cemeteries that are abandoned yet still require care. The public hearing on this bill will be held on Wednesday, April, 6, 2005 at 1pm in the State House Cross Building in the State and Local Government Committee.
An act to encourage high speed rural internet access in rural and isolated areas. This bill, a "concept draft" (which allows the committee to "work the bill" follows the successful model of North Carolina in creating a State Rural Internet Access Authority, encourages access to potential transmitting vehicles, and also creates a fund for local match for access projects. This bill will be heard at 1pm on Tuesday, April 5, 2005 in the Utilities Committee.
I received an email from a list-serve last week which might be useful to MDI residents looking for housing. Note that MDIHA are anticipating that the number of "qualified" applicants (see below) will exceed the number of available houses, so are advising that a certain number of houses may be decided by lottery. For further information, contact Terry Kelley at (207) 288-4770 or by eMail at email@example.com.
The Island Housing Trust, in conjunction with the Mount Desert Island and Ellsworth Housing Authority, is accepting applications for housing lots in the Northeast Creek area of Bar Harbor. The majority of lots will be sold to households with a combined income no greater than $65,000.