May 9, 2011

ON MAINE POLITICS: Lots of work left

A mountain of work remains for lawmakers at the State House. With about six weeks left before it is scheduled to adjourn, the Legislature has yet to vote on nearly every major issue pending before it.

Committees are still scrambling to act on the bills within their jurisdiction, though House and Senate leadership has issued a deadline of this Friday (the 13th) for committee work to end.

High-profile proposals dealing with abortion, gun control, public campaign financing and welfare reform are expected to prompt extensive -- and partisan -- floor debate. But other measures, such as shrinking the Legislature and removal of school consolidation penalties, have also traditionally led to lengthy debate, but not necessarily along party lines.

Other anticipated legislation, such as a so-called "right-to-work" proposal, have yet to be scheduled for a public hearing. Supporters of right-to-work say it will keep workers from being forced to pay union negotiating fees even when they are not members of a bargaining unit. Opponents call it a political move to undermine organized labor. Bonding for a variety of areas has also not been debated, though Gov. Paul LePage has said he is opposed to new borrowing.

In the Legislature's first four months, major floor debates were only occasional. The most notable were over designating the whoopie pie as the state treat, last week's dust-up on major health care reforms and proposals affecting bonded labor in the logging industry.

Of course, the largest measure -- the state's two-year budget -- is still being worked by the Appropriations Committee. Once it hits the floor, it is standard practice for lawmakers not serving on that committee to offer a series of amendments, which often are debated as well.

The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn in mid-June.

Charter schools

A bill to bring charter schools to Maine -- L.D. 1553 -- is headed to the Education Committee for a public hearing Thursday.

Sponsored by Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, the measure has the support of three Democratic co-sponsors. The Maine Education Association is gearing up for a fight, as it has in the past.

"We're one of 10 states without (charter schools)," said Chris Galgay, president of the teachers' union. "That doesn't mean we're doing something wrong."

The bill creates a seven-member charter school commission to oversee the new schools, which could be new or existing public schools that convert to a charter system. The schools will get money as students enroll because "all state and local operating funds follow each student to the public charter school." The bill does allow local school districts to withhold up to 1 percent to cover administrative costs.

Teachers don't have to be certified for the first three years they teach, and those with advanced degrees or other expertise may have certification waived.

The schools would also be barred from "any religious practices in its educational program, admissions or employment."

Galgay said the union isn't opposed to innovation and would likely support some attempt to create non-traditional schools. Whether that type of bill passes, and what shape it takes, will be determined in the coming weeks.

A different kind of fight

During a hearing last week on a bill to bring professional boxing back to Maine, Rep. Fred Wintle, R-Garland, said he was surprised to hear there had been a lull in fighting in recent years.

"You need to meet my ex-wife," he said as trainer Joseph Gamache Sr. finished his testimony.

Without missing a beat, Gamache said: "Do you want me to train her?"

A right to pledge

State Rep. Beth O'Connor, R-Berwick, and a handful of her colleagues who have signed on as co-sponsors to her proposal, are working hard to ensure all Maine students have the opportunity to recite the Pledge of Allegiance once every school day.

The measure, L.D. 1136, does not require students repeat the pledge. But according to the summary of the bill, it would mandate school administrative units allow every enrolled student the opportunity to say the pledge.

A public hearing is scheduled on Wednesday afternoon in the Education Committee.

Bill to help veterinarians

In what he described as a "disturbing incident," Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, told a legislative committee last week about a veterinarian who wants to work in Washington County.

He said the vet, whom he did not name, has been prevented from practicing in Maine because she scored one point too low on her licensing test -- 24 years ago. Raye is sponsoring L.D. 1391 to fix it.

"Maine has a serious shortage of veterinarians," he said. "This bill is a commonsense step."

The bill would require the State Board of Veterinary Medicine to waive the test score requirement if the person practiced for the preceding six years without disciplinary action.

The Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee is scheduled to vote on the bill Thursday.

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