May 6, 2013

With just seven weeks to go, legislators ramping up discussions on last bills

By Susan M. Cover
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA -- With seven weeks to go in the legislative session, local lawmakers say they are gearing up for the final push as they continue to shepherd through bills that will have state and local consequences.

click image to enlarge

Committee member Rep. Craig Hickman (D-Winthrop) asks a question during a recent hearing on L.D. 718, An Act to Protect Maine Food Consumers' Right to Know About Genetically Engineered Food and Seed Stock, before the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry held in the Cross State Office Building in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

click image to enlarge

Rep. Lance Harvell (R-Farmington) introduces L.D. 718, An Act to Protect Maine Food Consumers' Right to Know About Genetically Engineered Food and Seed Stock, in a crowded hearing room before the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry recently in the Cross State Office Building in Augusta. There were several other overflow rooms where spectators could listen in.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

The statutory adjournment date is June 19, a somewhat fluid date that's typically more of a target than a deadline. Legislative leaders last week allowed committees to schedule bills for public hearings faster than normal and gave them permission to meet extra days -- even weekends -- so they can get all bills out of committee by May 24.

The budget, bonds and a tax reform package are all major pieces of legislation that are still pending. In addition, hundreds of bills are in various stages of the legislative pipeline.

Some measures introduced earlier this year by local lawmakers already have earned initial approval, such as a bill sponsored by Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, that directs the state to plant edible landscaping in Capitol Park. Hickman's bill earned strong initial House approval and is headed to the Senate.

"I saw those green lights and I was happy," Hickman said, noting the 107-33 vote on his bill, L.D. 474.

Hickman still is working on other pieces of legislation that seek to require state institutions to use more locally grown food, and measures to make Maine less dependent on food that comes from outside the state.

As a freshman lawmaker, Hickman said his first year has had its share of surprises.

"I constantly find myself surprised that so many lawmakers don't read what they are voting on," he said.

Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, is optimistic that one of the more controversial proposals of the session -- a bill he's sponsoring to require manufacturers to label foods that contain genetically modified organisms -- will get a favorable committee recommendation.

The bill, L.D. 718, is on hold pending an opinion from Attorney General Janet Mills, who is examining the constitutionality of the measure. Some opponents argue that the bill violates constitutional provisions on interstate commerce that allow companies to avoid disclosing whether their products are genetically engineered.

"I think I've got a good shot," Harvell said. "If (Mills) gives it even a neutral opinion, I think I can run the table. There's a lot of support for it."

Rep. Catherine Nadeau, D-Winslow, is a co-sponsor of a bill that has received little attention but would be a major change for forest rangers. Nadeau is backing a bill that would require them to receive training so they can be allowed to carry firearms as a way to protect themselves.

"The situations they are put in, it's not the same situation as a decade ago," she said. "We want them armed so they can come home at night. They are law enforcement."

L.D. 297 received a strong vote of support from the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, Nadeau said.

Lawmakers are awaiting a signal from Gov. Paul LePage to see whether he will sign L.D. 6, which would allow local school boards to override a city charter if they want to waive a residency requirement for superintendents. In Augusta, the local school board had difficulty finding qualified applicants who lived in Augusta or were willing to move here, so Rep. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, co-sponsored the measure to give the board flexibility in hiring.

Last week, LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the governor had not decided whether he would veto the bill.

Sen. Christopher Johnson, D-Somerville, said he's continuing to work on a bill that would bring more equity to the workers' compensation system and other measures that would encourage energy efficiency. On Monday, he was presenting a bill to the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee that seeks to make it easier for schools to buy local food. Also, he's a co-sponsor of Harvell's GMO food-labeling bill.

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