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Pot, guns, sports betting on agenda for lawmakers’ last day

June 19, 2019

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Maine lawmakers were hoping to finish their work on marijuana sales, renewable energy and online sports betting during the last scheduled day of this session Wednesday.

As lawmakers worked into the evening on the agenda, legislative leaders trumpeted bipartisan deals and their largely cordial debate following years of discord among Republicans and Democrats. But tensions flared at one point, and a Republican lawmaker was escorted out of the chamber by his colleagues after yelling at the speaker.

Several of the session’s biggest bills touch on issues long blocked under the previous Republican administration, including allowing pot sales first approved by voters in 2016, requiring the use of a hands-free device to access a mobile phone while driving, and boosting the solar industry.

By mid-day Wednesday, the Legislature passed a bill to prohibit drivers from “using, manipulating, talking into or otherwise interacting with a handheld electronic device or mobile telephone” — unless they are using hands-free technology. Drivers would face a fine of at least $50 for the first offense and $250 for subsequent offenses.

TO-DO LIST

The Legislature still faces decisions on several high-profile bills, including whether to join the growing number of states that allow online sports wagers.

Lawmakers have yet to pass rules and regulations to allow the sale of legalized recreational marijuana, though votes are possible Wednesday. The state’s rules are designed to allow municipalities to opt in or out of allowing sales of adult-use marijuana, which voters legalized in 2016.

Maine could also ban adults from furnishing tobacco products to anyone under age 21 and raises fees on drug manufacturers to fund opioid treatment.

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CONTROVERSIAL BILLS

It appears unlikely Maine will pass a bill to join states pledging to award Electoral College votes to the national popular vote winner in presidential elections.

Legislation aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of certain individuals also face long odds. The House and Senate on Tuesday voted down a Democrat’s bill to allow law enforcement or family members to ask courts to order the temporary surrender of an individual’s firearms if there’s probable cause.

But lawmakers may also consider a compromise bill.

Maine law allows officers to take a person into protective custody for a mental health evaluation. The compromise bill would require such a person to surrender dangerous weapons if a medical practitioner decides such access is seriously harmful. Then a judicial hearing held within 14 days could extend those restrictions for one year.

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ON THE GOVERNOR’S DESK

Mills put her signature on several bills Wednesday, including a switch to an automatic voter registration system.

Her office says Maine is now the 19th state with such a system, which will let residents opt-out of being registered when they do business with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

She also signed a bill requiring state utility regulators to approve a long-term contract for the University of Maine’s offshore wind project.

There is still a pile of bills on Mills’ desk, including a Student Loan Bill of Rights, an act to protect tribal fishing and automatic voter registration, and a bill that would prohibit profiling by law enforcement officers.

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SPENDING BILLS, BONDS

Legislators will decide which bonds to send to voters in November and how to dole out roughly $6 million in funds left over from budget negotiations.

Maine could borrow hundreds of millions of dollars to invest in renewable energy, infrastructure, broadband expansion and workforce training under proposed bonds. Democratic Gov. Janet Mills has proposed $239 million worth of bonds, and voters could approve an initial $189 million in November.

Meanwhile, lawmakers have passed scores of bills this year that will end up dying without funding. Lobbyists representing nonprofits and advocacy groups are making the case for which bills to fund.

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GREEN ENERGY

Lawmakers have passed several bills with a goal of encouraging more renewable energy development, a goal sought by Mills.

A major solar bill will remove restrictions on new community solar projects while directing the Maine Public Utilities Commission to seek 375 megawatts of solar power by July 1, 2024, through competitive bidding.

The bill says its eventual price tag of over $800,000 will be covered by increased assessments on transmission and distribution utilities, a cost that could eventually be passed onto customers.

Another bill that faces action by Mills would double the amount of renewable electricity sold in the state to 80% by 2030, and 100% by 2050.

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