Legislative Overview

from Maine Townsman, May 2004)
By Geoff Herman, Director of State & Federal Relations, MMA

Over a century ago, the philosopher Fredrick Nietzsche established an ethical principle. He held that a person should live his or her life in every respect and in every detail in a manner whereby that identical life would be willingly repeated, over and over again, endlessly.

The second regular session of the 121st Legislature adjourned at 8:00 a.m. on Friday April 30th, bringing a close to a legislative session that few would choose to relive.

Governor Baldacci characterized this legislative session for the press as “one of the most productive Legislatures in the last 40 years,” although the basis for that judgment is not entirely clear. There were accomplishments, to be sure, but the failures were more conspicuous and seemed, in a way, deeply intractable.

For the last 16 months – two full legislative years – tax relief and tax reform have been the focus of all attention. There was certainly an expectation this time around that the Legislature would enact a tax relief package of some kind. With two citizen initiatives in front of the Legislature, and a resounding urging from all quarters, the people of Maine were clamoring for tax reform as loudly as the people of Maine can clamor.

The only question seemed to be whether the tax package would be substantive or superficial, sustainable or ephemeral…whether it would tackle the structure of Maine’s tax code or just deal with its symptoms.

So when the Legislature walked away from the table without a tax relief or tax reform package of any kind, it was a real surprise.

The surprise is compounded by hurt when it is realized that not only is a property tax relief package not forthcoming, but a significantly increased property tax burden for FY 05 is now in the cards. The Homestead property tax benefit was scaled back by $5 million in 2003. Only minimal increases in state support for K-12 education were approved for both FY 04 and FY 05, paving the way for punishing property tax increases. Even the municipal revenue sharing program took a nick when the funding design of a state program was changed in a way that will reduce municipal revenue sharing by $1.3 million.

Deep divisions characterized the legislative session, to be sure; divisions between the parties, between the Senate and House chambers, between some elements of the Legislature and the Governor’s Office.

The session is behind us now; it doesn’t make sense to point fingers (although there will be plenty of that in an election year). But no political party, no caucus, no chamber and neither floor of the State House is wholly responsible or wholly free from responsibility for the breakdown in tax reform. The environment that allows compromise is dependent on trust and mutual respect, neither of which was nurtured in the political climate of an election year. Neither of which was encouraged to prosper.

It is time now to look forward toward what can be done rather than to dwell on what was unable to occur.

At least that is the sentiment of some legislators that are now speaking up in support of Question 1 – The School Finance and Tax Reform Act of 2003 — which will be on the ballot on June 8th.

The long road to a compromise solution to both school funding and tax reform did not end at 8 o’clock in the morning on April 30th for at least 14 Maine Senators. Those 14 (and perhaps more lawmakers will join them) voted for a resolution in support of Question 1, provided it is understood that the compromise details on Question 1’s implementation that have been developed over the last four months will be honored.

New Laws. The centerpiece of this edition of the Townsman, provided in a separate article, is the summary of all new law enacted during this session that is pertinent to municipal government. Here’s a sampling: 

School funding. Municipal officials interested in education issues will want to review the second supplemental state budget described under the Appropriations Committee (LD 1919) to get a handle on the very modest increase in state support for public schools for next year . . . a 1.5% increase to the appropriation of the current fiscal year. This thin appropriation from the Legislature for K-12 education will put into motion a property tax increase of approximately $50 million to keep our schools in good shape and meet the barrage of state and federal general and special education mandates.

EPS. Those same officials should also carefully review LD 1924, described under the Education Committee category, to familiarize themselves with the groundbreaking Essential Programs and Services legislation. The EPS bill may very well be the highlight of the entire legislative session for its installation of a responsible series of state financial commitments that lead to a full 55% state share in the cost of K-12 education by the year 2010. If LD 1924 is the highlight of the session, the lights and fanfare should be considerably dimmed by the understanding that no changes were made to the tax code or the state’s General Fund capacity to finance this new set of commitments.

Building code policy. Municipal code officers, planners and planning board members should be interested in the public policy direction regarding building codes, as described in LD 1025, under the work of the Business, Research and Economic Development Committee (BRED), as well as LD 1948 under the work of the Utilities Committee.

New subdivision rules. Those same municipal folks should also review LD 1617, described under the Natural Resources Committee, to get a handle on the new subdivision review standards pertaining to property that may have been the subject of the cut-and-run timber cutting practice known as “liquidation harvesting.”

E-waste. Municipal employees with the responsibility of managing local solid waste disposal programs should be very interested in LD 1892, also described under the Natural Resources Committee, which puts a plan into motion to create a disposal option for old computer monitors and television sets – a plan that will be fully functioning, it is hoped, when the disposal ban on those products goes into effect on January 1, 2006.

Election expansion. Municipal clerks will be focused on the election changes brought about by LD 640, described under the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee, which will allow 17 year olds to vote in primary elections (beginning in 2006) as long as they will turn 18 years old before the following general election in November.

Tax exemptions. Municipal assessors will take note of two modest expansions of tax exemption law, found in LD 1746 and LD 1794, described under the work of the Taxation Committee. One extends the veterans’ exemption that currently benefits certain veterans’ widows or widowed mothers so that it would apply equally to other veterans’ widowers and widower fathers. The other would provide the exemption for the blind to otherwise eligible applicants who are occupying property that is held in a revocable living trust. Both of these modest expansions to exemption law will kick-in with respect to the tax year that begins April 1, 2005.

Right to Know changes and intergovernmental cooperation. Selectmen and town and city councilors will likely be interested in any number of the new laws described in the following pages, such as LD 1957, described under the work of the Judiciary Committee, which makes a number of changes to the administration of a public agency’s administration of the state’s Right to Know law, or LD 1930, described under the work of the newly-formed Regionalization and Community Cooperation Committee, which creates a state-county-local Intergovernmental Advisory Group designed to develop and shepherd-through to implementation any variety of proposals that would increase the efficiency and effectiveness of governmental services.

Mandates. As will be noted, new state mandates were enacted by this Legislature and, at least in one case, an unpopular old mandate was repealed. LD 1879, described under the work of the BRED Committee, eliminates the requirement that municipalities and schools employ licensed boiler operators for the purpose of periodically inspecting the common, small-scale hot water boilers that heat municipal buildings. On the other side of that coin, LD 1789, described under the work of the Criminal Justice Committee, mandates a new set of standards governing firefighter protective equipment. As a general rule, however, the state mandates enacted this legislative session were both appropriately identified and relatively minor. The new mandates typically require the adoption of a certain type of policy, for example, rather than the implementation of an entire new program.

The major mandate disappointment this session was the ultimate demise, after a long two-year incubation, of LD 419, sponsored by Rep. Sawin Millett of Waterford. Beginning as a concept draft in early 2003, LD 419 blossomed into a solid piece of legislation that would engage the Legislature, in conjunction with a broad stakeholders’ group, in a process of comprehensively examining and then potentially repealing or redesigning the long list of unfunded or underfunded state mandates on local government. After clawing its way towards enactment, the bill was finally killed-off because there was insufficient interest to fund the modest fiscal note necessary to staff the working group process.