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Eye on Augusta: Senate Preserves Vaccine Exemption, Committee to Hear Mills’ Climate Change Council Bill & More

Miramant & Herbig Join Republicans to Keep Vaccination Exemption

The Maine Senate voted last week to repeal philosophical exemptions from mandatory vaccinations for school-age children. However, Sens. Dave Miramant (D-Knox County) and Erin Herbig (D-Waldo County) joined Republicans in voting 18-17 to keep the religious exemption, putting the fate of the bill with both exemptions in jeopardy. The Maine House voted on largely party lines to keep both exemptions in the bill and reject the Senate amendments, so if the two chambers can’t agree on the final language of LD 798, the bill will die between the bodies. Reps. Bill Pluecker (U-Warren), Jeff Hanley (R-Pittston) and MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox) were the only local House members in attendance to vote against the bill.

Sen. Miramant, who proposed the amendment to preserve the religious exemption, holds the belief that vaccines are dangerous and cause autism, even though numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies have debunked these claims. But in his floor speech in support of his amendment, he said the proposal was about religious freedom.

“If you have a strong religious belief, this country has accepted that and we need to continue to allow that acceptance in all areas, especially where there’s no proof that this is causing harm to our state,” said Miramant.

Opponents of Miramant’s amendment pointed out that there is no canonical basis for refusing vaccines among the world’s major religions, as they were established centuries before the smallpox vaccine was even invented. Sen. Rebecca Millett (D-Cumberland County) noted that, out of the hundreds of comments her committee received during the 13-hour hearing on LD 798, only two addressed the religious exemption. She called the amendment a “Trojan horse” for people to opt their children out of vaccines for personal reasons, noting that the number of religious opt- outs in Vermont more than quadrupled after it eliminated its philosophical exemption in 2015. Currently, 90 percent of people who opt out of vaccines in Maine use the philosophic exemption.

On Tuesday, activist Mike Tipping published a piece in the Maine Beacon that included several screen shots from an anti-vaccination Facebook group called Maine Coalition for Vaccine Choice where parents were celebrating the vote and discussing how easy it will be to exploit the religious exemption loophole. Finally, one member told the others to knock it off.

“I’ve seen numerous posts about people now becoming religious and how to get the [religious exemption]. Totally fine to say here but I agree — people need to stay off of social media!” the member wrote. “Anyone can screen shot and send to reps and senators. Let’s not ruin this.”

The bill came in response to several outbreaks of preventable diseases like measles and pertussis across the country. At 5.3 percent, Maine’s vaccine opt-out rate is more than double the national average, which is above the rate needed to retain the “herd immunity” standard, according to the CDC. In 2018, Maine had the highest rate of pertussis, or whooping cough, in the country. Waldo County had the highest vaccine opt-out rates in the state as well as the highest rate of pertussis.

Legislature Passes Bill to Extend Statute of Limitations on Sex Crimes

The Legislature has unanimously passed LD 67, sponsored by Sen. Erin Herbig (D-Waldo County), which would extend the statute of limitations for prosecuting sex crimes. Under current law, felony-level sex offenders must be prosecuted within eight years of the crime. Herbig’s bill would lengthen it to 20 years for sex crimes, but not retroactively, due to constitutional constraints.

“Maine currently has one of the shortest statute of limitations for prosecuting sex crimes in the nation,” said Herbig in a statement. “This bill will help victims take the time they need to process what’s happened to them and gather their courage before coming forward. It will also help our legal system do its vital work in getting and keeping sex offenders off our streets and out of our communities.”

In a press release, Herbig’s office cited a Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault statistic that one in five Mainers will experience sexual assault at some point in their lifetime and 14,000 Mainers experience sexual violence each year. However, only 448 instances of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault were reported to law enforcement in 2017, according to the Maine Department of Public Safety.

Testifying against the bill, the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (MACDL) argued that statutes of limitations are in place for a good reason.

“People who have been accused of crimes have the right to defend themselves against an allegation and the longer the period of time between the alleged offense and the charge, the less chance it is that someone can defend themselves,” wrote MACDL Executive Director Tina Nadeau. “Imagine having to defend yourselves from someone accusing you of a crime that was committed 20 years ago. You would have virtually no chance of finding any witnesses who were with you or who could testify about matters that happened all the way back in 1999. It is difficult enough as it is now to defend against allegations that occurred some 8 years ago.”

Senate Rejects Ban on Releasing Balloons

The Maine Senate last week defeated a bill (LD 937) that would have prohibited the release of balloons outdoors. The measure would have also required retailers that sell balloons to register with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and display a warning of the risks releasing balloons pose to the environment and wildlife. Rep. Mick Devin (D-Newcastle), the bill’s sponsor, wrote in testimony that the primary goal of LD 937 was to reclassify balloons as litter and to stop large-scale balloon releases.

“I know there are many who have wondered why Maine might need this kind of legislation. Well, as colorful and festive as balloons might look, they are nonetheless killing large numbers of animals. In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tells us that land-based animals, sea-based animals and animals that fly are all equally likely to see a balloon, mistake it for food, and then either eat [it], choke on it or get fatally tangled in the attached string or ribbon,” said Devin, who is also a marine biologist. “Balloons don’t break down over time, and they aren’t digestible. Of all the marine debris out there on the ocean, and I have put in multiple marine debris bills over the years, it’s balloons that are the number one killer of seabirds.”

However, the Department of Environmental Protection opposed LD 937 because it argued it would have posed a regulatory burden. It also said that it would be too onerous to register every balloon seller in the state and it would be difficult to enforce the bill. Instead, it advocated for more education about the dangers of releasing balloons into the environment.

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LD 937 — Balloon Release Ban, midcoast legislators
House (87 Yeas, 49 Nays)

Anne Beebe-Center (D-Rockland) Y
Scott Cuddy (D-Winterport) Y
Jan Dodge (D-Belfast) Y
Michael Devin (D-Newcastle) E
Vicki Doudera (D-Camden) Y
Jeff Evangelos (I-Friendship) Y
Jeffrey Hanley (R-Pittston) N
MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox) N
Ann Matlack (D-St. George) Y
Cloe Maxmin (D-Nobleboro) Y
Genevieve McDonald (D-Stonington) X
Bill Pluecker (I-Warren) Y
Holly Stover (D-Boothbay) Y
Stanley Paige Zeigler (D-Montville) Y
Senate (12 Yeas, 23 Nays):
Dana Dow (R-Lincoln Cty) N
Erin Herbig (D-Belfast) N
Dave Miramant (D-Knox Cty) Y
U= unenrolled
X = absent
E = excused


Bill to Ban Rent Control Ordinances Fails

On a party-line vote last week, the Maine Legislature rejected a bill that would have barred municipalities from adopting rent control ordinances that regulate how much landlords can charge for rent. The bill was supported by conservative groups like the Maine Heritage Policy Center, which argued that rent control ordinances violate private property rights. In 2017, Portland voters rejected a rent control referendum, but housing costs continue to rise. Mike Stuckmeyer of the group Homeless Voices for Justice said in testimony that he had been homeless several times in Portland because housing costs have skyrocketed there.

“Especially at current market-rate levels, it is extremely difficult for a person who makes a working class income to pay such high rents,” wrote Stuckmeyer. “People like me who are working class poor or living in poverty already struggle to pay high rents while we are in an affordable housing crisis. As this bill reads, this could just open up floodgates where property owners can send rents even far higher than where they are at currently, for no justifiable reason.”

Senate Defeats Bill to Ban Coal-Tar Sealant

The Maine Senate also defeated a bill, 21-14, that would have banned the use and sale of coal-tar sealant used on driveways and parking lots. The Maine House had earlier voted 84-53 to pass the bill, LD 906. Supporters of the bill argued that coal-tar sealants should be banned because they contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), chemicals that have been linked to cancer and other diseases in animal studies.

Don Witherill, acting co-director of Maine DEP’s Bureau of Water Quality, noted in testimony that a recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey found high concentrations of PAHs in the sediments of ponds, rivers and streams in Maine.

“Based on our analysis of data from both Maine and away, we find coal-tar based sealant products are likely having an adverse effect on aquatic life,” he wrote in support of the bill.

Proponents of the ban said asphalt emulsion sealants could be substituted for the coal-tar product. But opponents, including groups representing contractors, argued that coal-tar sealants are better because they hold up better in colder weather and can be applied in a much shorter time than the alternatives.

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LD 906 — Coal Tar Ban, midcoast legislators
House (84 Yeas, 53 Nays)

Anne Beebe-Center (D-Rockland) Y
Scott Cuddy (D-Winterport) Y
Michael Devin (D-Newcastle) E
Jan Dodge (D-Belfast) Y
Vicki Doudera (D-Camden) Y
Jeff Evangelos (I-Friendship) Y
Jeffrey Hanley (R-Pittston) N
MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox) N
Ann Matlack (D-St. George) Y
Cloe Maxmin (D-Nobleboro) Y
Genevieve McDonald (D-Stonington) X
Bill Pluecker (I-Warren) Y
Holly Stover (D-Boothbay) Y
Stanley Paige Zeigler (D-Montville) Y
Senate (14 Yeas, 21 Nays):
Dana Dow (R-Lincoln Cty) N
Erin Herbig (D-Belfast) N
Dave Miramant (D-Knox Cty) Y
U= unenrolled
X = absent
E = excused


House Kills E-Verify Immigration Bill

On a party line vote of 86-44, the Maine House rejected a bill that would require employers to use E-Verify, a federal immigration verification system that is supposed to determine whether an employee is authorized to work in the United States. Reps. Jeff Evangelos (U-Friendship) and Bill Pluecker (U-Warren) voted with Democrats to defeat the measure. Rep. Larry Lockman (R-Bradley) said the proposal was necessary to prevent undocumented immigrants from undercutting the wages of native-born workers. He noted that employers are required to use E-Verify in 20 states.

However, the Associated Builders and Contractors of Maine argued that the system would create a burden for small businesses and it would be difficult and expensive for the state to enforce compliance with the law. A study by the libertarian Cato Institute found the E-Verify system is prone to errors and falsely identifies legal workers as illegal. It also cited an audit, which found that the system approved 54 percent of known undocumented immigrant workers.

“Even worse, an E-Verify mandate would force all workers to ask the government for permission to work,” the Cato report stated. “This isn’t the Soviet Union. Americans should not have to ask the federal government for permission to earn a living.”

Public Hearings Next Week: Student Restraints & Climate Action

Recently, the use of physical restraints and seclusion in schools has drawn public scrutiny. In March, the Times Record reported that Kendele Ouellette of Topsham was upset after learning that her 9-year-old son, who had been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and anxiety, had been put into seclusion.

“I’d gotten a call from the school to come pick him up (in September). They said he was just unmanageable,” Ouellette told the Times Record. “As soon as I opened up the school doors, I could hear my son screaming and crying: ‘Let me out of here, it’s too hot. I can’t breathe.’”

She said when he was removed from the room his clothes were soaked in sweat and his face was beet red. According to Maine Department of Education rules, physical restraint and seclusion may only be used as an emergency intervention when students’ behavior presents a risk of injury or harm to themselves or others. Schools are also required to document such incidents and notify parents and Maine DOE.

On May 13, the Legislature’s Education Committee will take up a bill to apply more transparency to the use of physical restraint and seclusion in schools. LD 1376, sponsored by Rep. Richard Farnsworth (D-Portland), would direct schools to make annual reports of these incidents and would require Maine DOE to report biennially to the governor and the Legislature on data regarding the use of physical restraint and seclusion.

Gov. Mills’ Climate Action Bill

The Environment and Natural Resources Committee will hold a public hearing May 17 on Gov. Janet Mills’ ambitious climate action proposal. LD 1679, sponsored by Sen. David Woodsome (R-York County), would establish the Maine Climate Change Council to mitigate, prepare for and adapt to climate change. It would require the state to procure 80 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050. The measure has been praised by environmental groups.

“Governor Mills’ vision would set us on a clear path to achieve substantial, science-based reductions of climate-changing pollution,” said Lisa Pohlmann, CEO of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, in a statement. “We commend the governor for proposing a new Maine Climate Council that will serve as an inclusive forum for creating a comprehensive Climate Action Plan based on the best ideas, science, analysis, and input from Mainers across the state.”