Maine budget top on Maine legislative agenda

AP News
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Posted: Jan 04, 2010 11:03 AM

A gaping state budget hole resulting from relentless revenue shortfalls will be the center of Maine lawmakers' attention during the 2010 election-year session, but cell phone safety, ATV regulation and highway funding also will be on the agenda.

Even before they return to the State House for Wednesday's opening, lawmakers agree that the all-consuming issue will be how to make up for a $438 million shortfall in the state's two-year, $5.8 billion budget.

"The vast majority of our time and energy will be spent on the budget," said House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven. "No matter what, the budget will dominate the session."

Senate President Elizabeth "Libby" Mitchell agreed.

"Everything we do this session has to be considered in the context of the budget; there is no way around that," said the Vassalboro Democrat, who is also in a crowded race for governor.

Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, beginning his last year as chief executive, has unveiled his blueprint for making what may be painful cuts, especially to public education and human services. It includes no increases in taxes, fees or fines.

The Appropriations Committee will take up his revisions and make some hard choices about cuts in Medicaid and other services before sending its version package to the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Concerns about the deteriorating condition of Maine's highways and bridges in the face of declining fuel tax revenues _ an issue left hanging as the 2009 session ended _ will come up again, said Sen. Dennis Damon, who co-chairs the Transportation Committee.

Lawmakers will likely focus their discussion on higher fuel taxes, said Damon, D-Trenton. But given the election-year reluctance of lawmakers to vote for tax increases and Baldacci's opposition to tax increases in general, Damon believes chances of raising gasoline and diesel fuel levies are slim at best.

In general, lawmakers held back nonessential legislation but scores of non-budget issues will come up during the closing end of the two-year session, Pingree said.

The Education Committee will be busy with lingering issues of special education rules and school consolidation, said Pingree, who opposed the school consolidation law.

The committee's Senate chairman, Portland Democratic Sen. Justin Alfond, is putting in legislation calling for a study outlining a strategy to increase the state's graduation rate from the current 77 percent to 90 percent by 2016.

Among other topics, a bill sponsored by Rep. Andrea Boland, D-Sanford, would require cell phones to carry warnings that they may cause brain cancer.

Privacy protections will be at issue when lawmakers take up Damon's bill to prohibit the use of high-tech cameras that sweep over parking lots, record license plate numbers and run them through databases to catch offenders.

While Damon said those cameras are not yet in use in Maine, he's concerned that information gathered about individuals, such as why they were in a specific location, could be misused.

Regulation of all-terrain vehicles will be up for debate again.

Rep. Ralph Sarty Jr. wants to amend a law that went into effect last year that requires wardens to have reasonable suspicion of a violation before stopping an ATV on public or private land. Sarty's bill would allow wardens to stop ATV operators on private land, even without reasonable suspicion.

Sarty, R-Denmark, said that extra measure of enforcement power is critical to forging better relations between ATV users and private landowners who allow ATVs on their properties.

A bill to reduce haze that mars the skies over Acadia National Park and other coastal areas seeks to reduce the amount of sulfur in home heating oil sold in Maine. Richmond Democratic Sen. Seth Goodall's bill would also restrict the sulfur content of fuel oil for commercial and industrial boilers.

Sen. Peter Mills, a GOP gubernatorial hopeful from Cornville, wants to require expedited wind energy projects to provide Maine ratepayers with discounts.

Other bills on the 2010 calendar include proposals to strengthen Maine's laws against operating an unlicensed kennels or "puppy mills," and to require that firewood brought into the state by campers is kiln dried to avoid importation of harmful insects.

Lawmakers also will consider naming a bridge over Gilman Stream in New Portland the Joshua Bernard Memorial Bridge after a 21-year-old Marine from the central Maine town who was killed in 2009 in Afghanistan.