Forecaster Forum: First-term lawmaker recounts Legislature's accomplishments
The Maine Legislature finished it first regular session in the early morning hours of Saturday, June 13. It was a very challenging and productive session and I have learned much since I first took office in December.
As a first-term legislator I am very pleased about the good work we were able to accomplish this session in the face of significant challenges. Given the economic uncertainty and difficult decisions that we faced, we were able to address a number issues, to achieve a positive outcome for our state.
The current economic crisis and decreasing state revenues (we cut the upcoming state budget by over a half billion dollars) served a backdrop for all our work. It also, I believe, served as a clear reminder why we could not simply wait for things to get better. By making smart decisions this session we will put the state in an excellent position to grow as the economy improves.
While many predicted that given the current fiscal climate there would be little we could accomplish this session, I am pleased to inform you that the Legislature moved forward on a number of proposals that will improve the state's economic health, build a strong energy future, increase access to health care and reduce the tax burden on Maine people.
I am just going to touch briefly on some of the highlights of this session and hope to cover each of these topics in depth in the coming weeks:
• Energy investment. The Legislature passed a landmark, sweeping energy package that included money for renewable energy, weatherization and workforce development programming in emerging green industries. The legislation creates a new Efficiency Maine Trust" to provide a one-stop shop for consumers and businesses to access so they can start weatherizing and improving their efficiency and reduce their energy costs.
• Tax reform. For years Maine has been hindered with an outdated tax code. Tax reform efforts have been before almost every legislative session for years, only to fall short. However, this year we were able to find success when leadership from both houses of the Legislature came together on a plan to lower the state's income tax rate, the sixth highest in the nation, from 8.5 percent to 6.5 percent for those who make less than $250,000. The drop was paid for by expanding the sales tax to a number of highly exportable and discretionary services.
Many have long argued that the state's top income tax rate of 8.5 percent was an excessive burden on our citizens. The top income tax rate is paid by residents at a very low income level and reducing that rate will help working families across the state who are struggling to make ends meet by putting more money in their pockets.
• Marriage equality. The Legislature passed a bill that addresses the inequalities in Maine's marriage laws, allowing loving and committed same-sex couples to get married. Maine joined Massachusetts, Iowa, Connecticut and Vermont in recognizing civil marriage for same-sex couples.
I was a strong supporter of the bill and spoke to the issue on the floor of the House. As many of you know, this is an extremely personal issue for me and I was honored to be a part of the debate. I also want to thank the many constituents who contacted me regarding the bill for your thoughts and support.
The Legislature gave the bill strong support, voting in favor of the legislation by healthy margins in both houses. The governor, who had previously expressed reservations about same-sex marriage, signed the bill.
• Dirigo Health reforms. The Legislature passed a bill to protect the current members of DirigoChoice by replacing the current funding system – the controversial Savings Offset Payment – with a more stable funding source that will stabilize the program.
As a member of the Insurance and Financial Affairs Committee, which heard the legislation, we spent many hours crafting a proposal that will work for Maine families and small businesses going forward. The reformed program will ensure stabling funding and allow for more individuals to gain access to affordable health insurance in the future.
• Bond package. One of the final acts of the Legislature this session was to approve a $150 million bond package that will invest in Maine's economy and put Maine people to work. All together, the package will help to support thousands of jobs and provide an estimated $368 million in increased economic activity in the state over the coming two years, when private and federal matching funds are factored in.
The proposal, if approved by the voters, would invest in Maine's transportation infrastructure, put Maine at the leading edge of the green energy revolution, and provide needed capital to help Maine businesses innovate and help Maine communities make needed environmental upgrades. This $150 million package is based upon the framework of the bond plan that Gov. Baldacci put forward in March.
It has been a busy few months in Augusta. While there will still be many challenges ahead I am confident that we will meet them in a thoughtful and constructive way that will move our state forward.