SIDEBAR: The Legislature’s Joint Rules
One of the first decisions of the incoming 123rd Legislature does not involve a bill but the rules that govern the Legislature itself.
The State Legislature, like many other organizations, needs rules for the conduct of its business. Article IV, Part III, Section 4 of Maine's Constitution states that each branch of the Legislature may "determine the rules of its proceedings". Each branch has adopted such rules.
In addition, the Maine Legislature has adopted a series of 62 "Joint Rules" which apply to both houses.
Most of the Joint Rules are procedural to guide the legislative process. For example, Rule 217 states that a bill that was rejected in one session may not be introduced in a subsequent session except by a 2/3 vote of both houses. As another example, Rule 312 requires the attachment of "fiscal notes" to any bill that affects state or local revenues and spending.
In addition to the rules about the adoption of legislation, there is a rule about the adoption of the rules themselves. That rule, Rule 102 "Amendment of Rules", reads: "Joint Rules may be amended by a majority vote in each chamber on or before the 3rd Friday in January of the first regular session. After that, a vote of 2/3 of the members present in each chamber is required." For the 123rd session, the deadline for the adoption of a rule by a simple majority is Friday, January 19, 2007. After that day, rules may only be adopted or amended by a 2/3 vote.
The coalition that developed The Responsible Government Spending and Investment Act is urging the Legislature to adopt a joint rule that would require at least a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate to approve state General Fund appropriations in excess of the LD 1 spending benchmarks. This rule is procedural in that it governs voting thresholds. However, it is substantive in that it governs a certain type of legislative act – appropriations over a threshold established in statute.
On the one hand a rule requiring a 2/3 vote is more binding than a statute requiring a 2/3 vote because a statute may always be amended by a simple majority vote. Not so rules. On the other hand a rule is less binding in that it is only effective for a biennium. That is, rules adopted to govern the 123rd Legislature are not automatically carried forward to the 124th Legislature. If this newly-elected 123d Legislature were to adopt this joint rule, as the coalition is urging, the 124th Legislature would still get to decide for itself, by the 3rd Friday in 2009, whether to impose the same LD 1 override procedures on itself.
SIDEBAR: MMA Legislative Policy Committee
MMA's 70-member Legislative Policy Committee is the group of elected and appointed municipal officials that serves the Association in two critically important ways. It develops MMA's proactive legislative agenda and it determines MMA's position on the 200-300 bills submitted each legislative session that carry a municipal impact.
According to the by-laws that govern the Legislative Policy Committee, "The purpose of the LPC is to define municipal interests and to maximize those interests through effective participation in the legislative process."
The members of the Policy Committee are elected to that position during the summer of each even-numbered year by the boards of selectmen and town and city councils within each State Senate district. A ballot is created of all interested nominees, an election is held, and the two nominees on the ballot garnering the most votes within each of the 35 Senate districts are elected to the Policy Committee for the two-year term.
The 2006-2008 Legislative Policy Committee was elected this last July and its membership is listed on the MMA website (www.memun.org) or can be obtained from Laura Veilleux at MMA, 1-800-452-8786 (ext. 207). Municipal officials throughout the state are encouraged to get to know their Policy Committee members and regularly contact them with on-the-ground information about current issues facing municipal governments, input to help in the formation of policy positions, and general feedback.
How are decisions made? The Policy Committee operates in a town meeting-style process. During the legislative session, the LPC is convened once a month and presented with the task of determining MMA's position on the many dozens of separate legislative proposals that have poured into the legislative hopper and that, taken together, would cause impacts on virtually every aspect of local government.
The bills are first sorted, much as they are in the legislative process, according to subject matter and legislative committee of jurisdiction. Three standing LPC subcommittees are convened first in order to review in detail the bills that fall within their respective jurisdictions. The subcommittees form recommendations on all of the bills they review. It is the subcommittee recommendations on each bill that go to the full Legislative Policy Committee for final action.
The four possible positions the LPC might take on any bill under review are: (1) support (with or without conditions); (2) oppose (with or without conditions): (3) "neither for nor against" (it is a bill of interest and lawmakers should be provided municipal impact information as appropriate); or (4) no position (complete indifference). It is during the discussion on each bill at the subcommittee level, and also during the full debate when the LPC convenes, that MMA's advocacy staff learns the background information and the reasoning that informs the LPC's decisions.
How to connect with the LPC. For the first three months of the upcoming legislative session, the Legislative Policy Committee is scheduled to convene on January 18, February 15, and March 22. To help connect all interested municipal officials with the activities of the Legislative Policy Committee, the agenda of each LPC meeting will be posted on the MMA website approximately one week before the scheduled meetings, at the same time the agenda is formally distributed to all LPC members, alternate members, Executive Committee members and the affiliate group presidents.
The members of MMA's Legislative Policy Committee make very significant contributions of time and effort to the Association. Elected and appointed municipal officials across the state are enthusiastically encouraged to assist their LPC members in those efforts by keeping in touch and regularly communicating questions, comments, concerns, suggestions and general feedback.
SIDEBAR: Other Items on MMA Legislative Agenda
The Responsible Government Spending and Investment Act is most certainly the centerpiece of MMA’s legislative agenda and its description has been provided in this article in a great deal of detail. That is not meant to diminish the other “planks” in MMA’s legislative platform.
Property Tax Exemptions. Maine ’s municipal leaders will not give up their longstanding efforts to improve the equity of the property tax code by addressing the extent to which the owners of major chunks of property throughout the state are completely exempt from taxation.
According to the most recent data published by Maine Revenue Services, after excluding all non-taxable property owned by the federal, state or local governments, there is still nearly $3.5 billion worth of exempt property in Maine, the lion’s share of which is owned or possessed by either “charitable” corporations ($1.73 billion) or private colleges and secondary schools ($1.46 billion). (In all likelihood, the actual value of the exempt property is probably much greater than the $3 billion on record because few municipalities, if any, take the time to carefully assess the market value of exempt property.)
The property in question is likely congregated in Maine’s more urban, service center communities where the property tax rates tend to be higher. The owners of these properties and the various enterprises they conduct are the beneficiary of an array of municipal services. Like any other business, these corporations rely on municipal support, including road construction, maintenance and traffic control; police, fire and emergency services; and solid waste disposal services. The way the law works, however, the exempt corporations have zero legal obligation to contribute toward these public charges. In effect, the municipalities, and the property taxpayers who pay for the municipal services, are required to contribute to the private charge by providing these particular corporations all public services for free.
In the context of structural property tax reform, and with the advent of meaningful spending limitation systems that should allow for tax restructuring, the municipalities are advancing legislation that would establish fee-for-service obligations that could be assessed, by a decision of the local legislative body, against only the those tax exempt corporations with considerable recorded assets.
Revenue Sharing Study. According to the State Treasurer’s projections of municipal revenue sharing for the current fiscal year (FY 07), over 300 municipalities (63%) are scheduled to lose revenue sharing this year compared to last year’s distribution, and nearly 150 municipalities (30%) are scheduled for a 10%-or-greater cut in this property tax relief program. There are a number of reasons for this relatively dramatic reduction in municipal revenue sharing. The Legislature reduced the amount of revenue sharing distributed through the original distribution formula and increased the amount distributed through the so-called “Revenue Sharing II” formula. Following-up that decision, the Legislature then raided the original “Revenue Sharing I” distribution to the tune of $5 million, resulting in a 5% reduction. Different communities were impacted differently by these changes. Because the Revenue Sharing II distribution formula provides no funds to municipalities with full-value mill rates below 10 mills, and because the full-value mill rates in Maine are dropping due to increased overall valuations, the revenue sharing distribution is becoming remarkably volatile. Almost every town in Hancock County, for example, is scheduled to receive less revenue sharing this year, with some towns experiencing losses in the 25%-40% range.
As important as revenue sharing is, and in light of its new role as a major determinant of whether a municipality is “complying” or not complying with its property tax spending limit under LD 1, the municipalities will be seeking a formal review of the revenue sharing program convened by the Treasurer’s Office, with the option of developing a range of recommendations for consideration by the Legislature in 2008.
Tree Growth Study. Not unlike the municipal revenue sharing program, the way the Tree Growth program is being administered is a matter of increasing concern among municipal officials. The Legislature has caused the delay of Tree Growth reimbursements due in one fiscal year by pushing those payments to the next. Some communities are no longer receiving Tree Growth reimbursement because of a change in way the property tax loss experienced by a community is now calculated. The mandatory per-acre Tree Growth values are in many cases absurdly low, and the reimbursement formula is extremely difficult to comprehend. From what can be determined, it seems clear that the reimbursement system fails to even recognize, much less respond to, actual impacts in many cases.
For those reasons and more, the municipalities are hoping the Legislature will agree to form a working group, convened by Maine Revenue Services and tapping into pertinent information provided by both the Maine Forest Service and Department of Education, to thoroughly examine how the Tree Growth program works and develop a set of recommendations for improvements.