Legislative Preview
(from Maine Townsman, December 2003)
by Jeff Austin, Legislative Advocate, MMA

       There is no doubt that the interrelated issues of property tax relief, state financial support for education, and comprehensive tax restructuring will be front-and-center before the state’s lawmakers this upcoming legislative session.  The citizen-initiated School Finance and Tax Reform Act of 2003 is responsible for laying these fundamental public policy challenges before the people of Maine, and one way or another they will be resolved in 2004 either by the Legislature, or by Maine voters in June when the citizens’ initiative is decided by referendum, or by the electorate in November when a new legislature will be elected into office and when Carol Palesky’s “Proposition 13” initiative will likely be on the referendum ballot.

       With all the effort and emphasis local officials have been pouring into the citizen-initiated referendum, it’s easy to lose sight of the dozens of municipally-related measures unrelated to tax reform that will be laid before the Legislature in January.  Many of these proposals have been incubating all summer and fall — since the Legislature adjourned its first regular session in June — in the nest of a task force, working group or commission specifically charged with the task.

       What follows are some of the “carryover bills” and working group recommendations that MMA believes have significant municipal impact.

Home Contractor Licensing/Statewide Building Code

       In response to many complaints to its consumer protection unit about unscrupulous homebuilders, the Attorney General caused legislation to be filed last session (LD 1551), which would require the licensing of all home construction contractors who work on one-family and two-family homes.  The bill would have preempted all existing municipal building codes relative to residential construction and established a new statewide code. 

       In response to municipal concerns about blanket preemption of municipal codes and mandated code adoption and enforcement, an amended version of the bill may recommend that a licensing program be created, but that it not take effect until a significant portion of those Maine municipalities which have a building code (approximately 90 cities and towns) adopt a model state code.  The model state code would be based on the International Code Council’s Residential Building Code.  Further, a municipality would be prohibited from adopting any new code in the future other than the model state code.  Municipal amendments to the code would be allowed, but a model set of amendments would be recommended.

Stormwater Regulation

       The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will be making a series of recommendations regarding stormwater runoff.  DEP will propose: (a) definitions of streams “at risk” to be impaired and streams that are “sensitive and threatened”; (b) new quantity and quality standards for stormwater runoff from new construction to these impaired streams, (c) new best management practices and how the new “BMPs” would coordinate with the new quality-and-quantity standards, and (d) a state program to help mitigate the impact of these regulations on economic development.  These recommendations will be reviewed by the Natural Resources Committee and Legislature before taking effect.

Comprehensive Plan Reviews by the State Planning Office

       Maine law requires the State Planning Office (SPO) to complete its review of comprehensive plans for “consistency” within a certain time period.  Stemming from municipal frustration with the SPO failing to meet those time guidelines, legislation was submitted a year ago (LD 1045) that would have deemed any comprehensive plan “consistent” if SPO failed to make its findings on time, just as a NRPA application or General Construction Permit application is deemed approved by DEP if it does not respond in the required time frame. 

       The Natural Resources Committee amended the bill to simply require the Community Preservation Advisory Committee (CPAC) to study SPO’s review procedures to determine why SPO takes so long to review comprehensive plans.  CPAC has entrusted this obligation to SPO, and it is hard not to perceive the result as SPO simply reviewing itself. The other major municipal concern with the SPO review process is that there are no clearly objective standards governing the SPO’s comprehensive plan review criteria…the SPO rules are rich on what needs to be submitted, but lean on how that submitted material will be judged.

       At this point it is not clear what the result of LD 1045 will be.  The SPO report was due December 1, 2003 but is not yet finished.

Mandates

       Last year’s LD 419 would have required a broad-based audit process to comprehensively review unfunded and underfunded state mandates for redesign or repeal. The bill squarely addressed a serious concern for all municipal, school and county officials. LD 419 sought to formalize what the Legislature normally requires informally — requiring different stakeholders to get together and present a solution together.  The bill’s consensus approach to repealing wasteful and inefficient programs could have alleviated expenses at both the local and state level.  During meetings this fall, however, the State and Local Government Committee voted 8-5 to kill this cooperative approach to promoting government efficiency. 

Law Enforcement

       Two proposals of note that have been crafted between the sessions relate to law enforcement.  First, as originally submitted last session, LD 1070 would have increased traffic fines by 5% every 2 years beginning on January 1, 2004 and ending on January 1, 2012.  This bill would have also distributed 10% of all traffic fine revenue to the law enforcement agency that issued the traffic summons, beginning in 2004.  The percentage of fines allocated to the law enforcement agencies would increase every two years until 2012, when it would level off at 50% and stop increasing.

       At its November meeting, the Transportation Committee voted 10 to 3 that LD 891 “ought to pass as amended”.  As amended, the bill increases the amount reimbursed to a municipality for time spent in court.  Currently, communities are reimbursed a $50 witness fee each time a law enforcement officer makes a District Court appearance.    The revenues used to reimburse municipalities are generated through a 6% surcharge on some traffic violation fines.  In FY 04, it is estimated that the surcharge will generate over $960,000, but under the existing $50-per-day reimbursement rate, municipalities will receive just a little over $600,000 of that reserve.  The amended bill would set the witness fee reimbursement rate so that all of the revenue dedicated to the fund is reimbursed to municipalities for both Superior and District court appearances.    

       The second bill, submitted last session as LD 891, would require the videotaping of all interrogations of persons accused of murder or gross sexual assault when the interview is conducted in a building that houses the law enforcement agency.  Any statement that was unrecorded, except for when there are technical problems, would be inadmissible at court for most purposes.  As amended over the course of this intersession period, the bill would provide some financial assistance to municipalities to purchase the necessary equipment.

General Assistance

       Current law establishes the maximum levels of assistance through the General Assistance program (“GA”) as 110% of the federal fair market rents (“FMR”) for the relevant area.  Carryover bill LD 1066, as it is being worked for amendment, would increase that amount to 120% of the federal fair market rent and provide that the state fund the difference between the proposed 120% and the existing 110%. 

New Legislation and Initiatives

       When you add them all up, over 160 bills were carried over from the first legislative session to the upcoming session.  This is barely half the 315 bills that were carried over into the second legislative session in 1999.  In a similar cast of frugality, a total of 164 new bills have been introduced into this second legislative session, which is down from the 204 new bills that were introduced into the 119th Legislature’s second session four years ago.  All seventeen legislative committees will have new bills to review, with Marine Resources having the fewest new bills (1) and both Taxation and Health and Human Services having the most (13).

       In addition, 65 state or agency bills were filed as bills of the “Governor’s call”.  As a reminder that taxation issues are never far from the surface, published news reports confirm that Governor Baldacci will file legislation to repeal the personal property tax entirely for new business equipment and machinery. 

       Lastly, four different citizens initiatives may be presented to the second legislative session.  The initiative with the most far-reaching impact is a property tax cap referendum filed by Carol Palesky that will roll back assessments to 1997 values and then “cap” the tax rate on those values at 10 mills.  Other initiatives are a repeal of the gas tax indexing for inflation, a repeal of the smoking ban in bars and lounges, and a prohibition on hunting bears by means of “baiting.”