Legislative Update - March 18, 2011 GOVERNOR’S BUDGET PROPOSAL LEGISLATIVE DATABASE
The Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee continues to meet jointly with committees of jurisdiction to hold public hearings on the Governor’s budget proposal. Those committees of jurisdiction that have already gone through the public hearing process are now holding work sessions and are crafting recommendations for the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, which are due in early April. From there, the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee will iron out the final details of the biennial budget.
GOVERNOR’S CABINET AND OTHER APPOINTMENTS
This week, Governor LePage announced that Anne Head will remain as commissioner of the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation. Commissioner Head was originally appointed to this position by Governor Baldacci in 2008. With this announcement, only one cabinet position remains to be filled, Commissioner of the Department of Labor.
The Governor also announced two energy-related appointments this week. Thomas Welch has been nominated by Governor LePage to serve as a Commissioner of the Public Utilities Commission. Tom previously served on the PUC from 1993 to 2005 and has most recently practiced law at Pierce Atwood. This position requires legislative confirmation. Governor LePage has also tapped former state representative Kenneth Fletcher to serve as the Director of the Governor’s Office of Energy Independence and Security. Ken has worked in the pulp and paper industry and served as the ranking minority member on the Utilities and Energy Committee.
STATE SENATOR BLISS STEPPING DOWN
State Senator Larry Bliss announced this week that he is moving to California and that he will resign from his Senate seat on April 15, 2011. Senator Bliss is serving his third year in the Senate after serving eight years in the House. His Senate district includes the towns of South Portland, Cape Elizabeth and part of Scarborough. A special election will be held to fill Senator Bliss’ seat. Due to special election timing requirements, this seat will likely remain unfilled for the rest of the first session of the 125th Legislature.
JUDICIAL BRANCH AND MAINE INDIGENT LEGAL SERVICES COMMISSION BUDGETS
On March 15, 2011, the Appropriations and Financial Affairs and Judiciary Committees met jointly to hold a hearing on those portions of the budget that are under the jurisdiction of the Judiciary Committee.
The Governor’s budget proposal includes funding for positions in the Judicial Branch that are currently vacant, funding for a consolidated Kennebec County courthouse in Augusta, as well as funding for the Machias courthouse project. The Judicial Branch did submit requests for funding for courthouse security screeners, funding for an internal auditor to review procedures for the collection of fees and funding to make courthouses ADA compliant. The Judicial Branch is supportive of the Governor’s budget, even though these last three proposals were not funded. The budget also contains language regarding the Judicial Branch’s ability to access up to $300,000 in fees for capital expenses.
The Governor’s budget proposal also includes a $700,000 funding increase for the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services (“MCILS”). Though this increase in funding was appreciated, the Executive Director of the Commission explained at public hearing that the Commission will need $550,000 in additional funding for this fiscal year and close to $1.6 million in additional funding over the upcoming biennium in order to pay for indigent legal defense in a timely manner. Appropriators were concerned regarding this request for additional funding and asked a number of questions regarding the Commission’s screening procedures and the Commission’s fee collection efforts from clients found to be only partially indigent.
There was little public testimony at the March 15th public hearing. There were, however, a few attorneys involved with criminal defense that testified in support of the MCILS and in support of increased funding for the Commission.
On March 16, 2011, the Judiciary Committee held its first budget work session. The Committee appears to be comfortable with the Governor’s budget request as it relates to funding for the Judicial Branch. There are, however, remaining questions regarding the proposed language in the budget that addresses the Judicial Branch’s ability to access up to $300,000 annually in fees for capital expenses. This language is still being negotiated between the Judicial Branch and the Governor’s Office. The Judiciary Committee has delayed action on this portion of the budget until it receives further word regarding these negotiations.
The Judiciary Committee also delayed action on the MCILS portion of budget, as the Commission’s request for a funding increase is still being negotiated with the Governor’s Office and the Department of Administrative and Financial Services. The Judiciary Committee will hold further work sessions on the budget, but cannot delay action for too long, as it must report its recommendations to the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee by April 3, 2011.
On March 17, 2011, the Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on LD 621, “An Act to Clarify Adverse Possession.” This bill, sponsored by Senator Bliss, would clarify that de minimus, non-structural encroachments and maintenance across property boundaries are deemed permissive and would not support a claim of adverse possession. A number of landowners who have had unfavorable experiences with the doctrine of adverse possession testified in support of this bill. The Committee will hold a work session on this bill on March 23, 2011.
NEW COURT CONSTRUCTION
On March 17, 2011, the Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on LD 791, “An Act Regarding the Construction of New Court Facilities.” This bill would require that plans for new court facilities consider the space needs of district attorneys and attorneys providing indigent legal services. This bill also prohibits rent being imposed on district attorneys and attorneys providing indigent legal services. The genesis of this bill comes out of District Attorney Christopher Almy’s experience with the construction of the Penobscot Judicial Center. The Maine Prosecutors Association and the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers testified in support of this bill. The Judicial Branch testified in opposition, arguing that the bill treats some members of the bar (private defense attorneys) differently than others (prosecutors and indigent defense attorneys) and arguing that there are fiscal issues for the Judiciary with this bill.
RAILROAD CROSSING FEES
On March 17, 2011, the Transportation Committee held a work session on LD 365, “An Act Pertaining to Railroad Crossing Fees.” This bill would prohibit railroads from charging fees to or requiring insurance coverage by landowners owning a right-of-way to cross a railroad track. The bill was submitted by Representative Clark in response to a specific situation in which camp owners in his district are being charged fees to maintain a crossing which is used permissively and without charge by a number of other users. In response to concerns about lost revenues (revenues are used by the State and railroads to maintain the crossings in accordance with federal standards that prohibit maintenance by third parties), however, all but one (Rep. Hogan) of the Committee members at the work session voted to report this bill out as “ought not to pass.” As this is a divided report, there is the possibility that the Legislature could still adopt this proposal. It is, however, unlikely that this proposal will advance, given the lopsided committee vote. Representative Clark indicated that he will continue to pursue alternative resolutions to the crossing issue.
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Legislative Update - March 18, 2011
GOVERNOR’S BUDGET PROPOSAL