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Maine Legislative Leaders Approve New Bills for 2014 Session
11/21/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

The Maine Legislature's workload got a little heavier today after legislative leaders agreed to let in 28 new bills, ranging from a measure that would prevent drug overdoses to one that would expunge the conviction records of victims of human and sex trafficking in Maine. The appeal process before the Legislative Council was a second chance for about 100 bills that were rejected in October by the panel of six Democrats and four Republicans. A.J. Higgins has this report.

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It's a process where losers are supposed to outnumber the winners. And the number of bills that didn't make it into the second regular session of the 126th Legislature outnumbered those that did by more than 3-1.

But the second session is reserved for bills deemed to be an emergency, or budgetary bills and those carried over from the previous year. Maine Senate President Justin Alfond says keeping the Legislature's workload manageable is one of the council's top priorities.

"Session after session, no matter who's in control, we really try to create a very, very high hurdle, a high barrier, for bills that we need to address in the second session," Alfond says. "That's because we have a short session - we're going to be out of here by mid-April."

The 28 bills that were allowed in to the next session as the result of deliberations by the Legislative Council, the governing body of the Legislature, were culled from about 100 that were being appealed. In October, those bills were among the 400 pieces of legislation offered up for consideration, and at that time only about 100 bills were allowed to advance. They will join the carry-over bills from last session and any number of bills that will emerge from the governor's office to fill out a busy agenda for next year.

Alfond says the plans for the next phase of the legislation are already underway. "All bills that made it through today now make it to a committee, and now our committees, where there's expertise on ranges of issues, will tackle these bills for the second session," Alfond said.

Among the 75 or so bills that didn't make the grade were some welfare reform measures offered by House Republican Leader Ken Fredette. One would have required able-bodied welfare applicants to look for a job before receiving a welfare benefits. Another bill would have established a feasibility study for creating a tiered welfare system whereby recipients don't lose all their benefits at once if they receive a promotion or a raise.

And then there was Fredette's effort to try instilling some work incentive into the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. "Mr. Chair, this is a welfare reform bill which essentially requests that individuals applying for TANF or other benefits regarding welfare provide proof of applying for jobs before they apply for state benefits," Fredette said.

All Fredette's welfare reform bills were rejected by the council, as well a marijuana legalization bill that Democratic Rep. Diane Russell, of Portland, hoped would be accepted in the aftermath of Portland's recent local vote to legalize marijuana. Her bill would impose a 10 percent sales tax and 15 percent excise tax on marijuana, with those revenues dedicated to school construction, addiction treatment and other programs.

Russell asked the council to reconsider its earlier rejection of her plan.

"I think it's essential that we take the time and go through and look at the big picture," Russell said. "Our kids are, under the current paradigm, easily able to access marijuana and I don't think that that's anything that any of us wants to see happen. But we need to take a comprehensive approach."

A bill that was allowed in on the strength of a 10-0 vote was Republican Rep. Amy Volk's human trafficking bill. The Scarborough lawmaker says that while the language for her legislation has yet to be drawn up, she envisions it helping women and men who have been convicted on prostitution charges.

The bill would vacate those convictions if the person could prove they were a victim of human trafficking. Volk says the issue, originally dismissed on the basis of need by some Democrats is gaining traction.

"Progress is being made in raising awareness of human trafficking in Maine and in fighting it, but we need this bill to continue the fight and allow victims to get on with their lives," Volk said.

The next session of the Legislature will get underway Jan. 8.



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