AUGUSTA, Maine — The 2022 legislative session began in Augusta on Wednesday morning with hundreds of bills on the agenda — some new and some carried over from the last session. Many focus on issues that have been at the forefront of conversation on both sides of the political aisle.
The speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, said he cares a lot about addressing affordable housing this session to help people live where they work. He also said he wants to continue to focus on the opioid epidemic again, given its recent toll on the state.
Maine's Senate Republican leader, Sen. Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner, said he wants to address affordable housing (not low-income housing) issues to help the average-income Mainer buy a home and pay their bills. Another issue he feels strongly about is providing more funding to Maine's nursing homes and home health care nurses as our state continues to age.
Both Fecteau and Timberlake said they recognize that the worker shortage in Maine is an issue across several industries, but they detailed slightly different approaches to that problem.
Fecteau thinks a key aspect in helping people get back to work is providing more affordable and safe child care to Mainers. Timberlake said he's not sure exactly what is causing the labor shortage but said the problem has significantly increased in the last two years.
Fecteau and Timberlake both think improving child welfare in Maine needs to take precedence. Both legislators said they don't believe this is a partisan issue, and they both think more needs to be done to keep our children safe.
"It's a priority for all of us, you know to keep our kids safe and address the issues that we have, and I think everybody in the legislature, the executive branch, the judicial branch, it's a priority for all of us," added Michelle Dunphy, house majority leader.
Nine bills this legislative session address this issue. Timberlake is sponsoring one of them with Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham. He said he is "not concerned" about the Legislature coming up with some kind of an agreement to try to improve this problem.
"I think we feel that at least half of it [the projected $822 million in revenue surplus] should be set aside for the people that are facing spiking gasoline costs, heating oil costs, inflation ... supply chain issues and general limitations on their behavior, so it's going to be a tough year and we would like to return as much of that as possible," said Republican Rep. Sawin Millett of Waterford.
Millett says the supplemental budget is first on his agenda. He said he expects Governor Mills to present it later this month.
"It will address the issues of due-revenue forecast which indicates a gain of $822 million," said Millett.
"But I think we want to use those funds to maximize the good work that we do for all of the people of Maine, and if that means providing some kind of relief, you know, that's what we will see likely from the supplemental budget or the work from appropriations," Dunphy said.
Representatives on both sides of the aisle have slightly different ideas about how the surplus should be spent.
Fecteau said he wants to use the money to invest in some key issues like affordable housing and child care, while Timberlake is more interested in returning that money to the Maine people by reducing income or sales taxes.
"How we might do more to make housing available particularly in the areas where workforce is needed, and there aren't available spaces for them to rent, I think generally education and human services will always be issues that we will look at," said Millett.
"There is a lot of interest in affordable housing and workforce development, getting people to a place where they can live so they can work, contribute, and be beneficiaries of our state," said Dunphy.
Although the 2022 election is looming, both legislators expressed a desire to focus more on bipartisanship during this legislative session.
"I think it's more important right now that we do what's right for the people of Maine, and we help the people of Maine, and we find a way to work together and get the things done that need to be done before April 18," Timberlake said. "This is a short session, and we have a lot of work to do in the next four months."
"I'm optimistic about the bipartisan work that's ahead of us because I think regardless of where you live in the state — whether it's north, south, east, or west — members in the Legislature are aware that these are challenges that are not unique to my hometown in Biddeford, and they're not unique to Houlton or Machias or Jackman. They're issues that we face all across the state," Fecteau said.
Timberlake is concerned about how COVID-19 will play a role in how this legislative session pans out. The Legislature isn't expected to meet as usual in person, and he's worried that won't allow as much collaboration. He said, typically, legislators can talk out their concerns one-on-one and come to a "happy medium" about certain issues during in-person meetings. Via Zoom, he said, that isn't really possible.
"When you're a hundred miles apart, and you're not looking somebody square in the eye three feet apart, people treat people different," Timberlake said. "It's too bad that happens, but it's a fact of life."
Fecteau said the pandemic is "ever-present," so he thinks COVID-19 prevention efforts should continue to be a priority to stop the spread.
"As lawmakers, we cannot take our eye off the ball — that the pandemic continues to impact our communities. It's straining our mental health. It is really, really, really still very much present, and clearly, the impact of the increased cases is concerning," he said. "We have a lot of work to do to try to make sure our communities remain healthy."
This legislative session runs from early January through mid-April.