Maine lawmakers are heading back to the Statehouse to deal with over 100 unfunded bills and bonds

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AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Maine lawmakers returned to the Statehouse on Tuesday to consider funding over 100 bills and bonds.

The Legislature is deciding what, if anything, to do with $141 million in unappropriated surplus funds. The special session is expected to continue Wednesday and Thursday.

Lawmakers are working on spending compromises as advocates and lobbyists push for action on the opioid crisis, tax code reform and impending pay cuts for personal care aides.

A look at what’s driving the debate as the session winds down:

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GOVERNOR SPEAKS OUT

Republican Gov. Paul LePage has his own plans for the special session. He wants lawmakers to delay voter-approved minimum wage increases that he says hurt rural communities.

In 2016, Maine voters approved raising the minimum wage from $7.50 to $9 in 2017, $10 this year, $11 in 2019 and to $12 in 2020. Then, the wage will increase according to a formula tied to rising costs of living.

On Tuesday, the Legislature made public a bill submitted by LePage and Republican Sen. Brian Langley to slow the rate increases by starting with $10.50 per hour in 2020, and then 50 cent increases each year until the minimum wage reaches $12 on 2023. The bill would also eliminate future cost-of-living increases.

LePage also sent lawmakers a memo prepared by his administration claiming wage hikes for minimum wage workers contracted with the state will cost Maine $40 million over two years. A tightening labor market has gradually raised wages in Maine from 2013 to 2017, contends ?Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services Alec Porteous’s memo.

Lawmakers last year removed part of the minimum wage law impacting tipped employees. But other efforts to roll back the minimum wage have failed along party lines.

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BILLS IN LIMBO

Lawmakers began considering bill packages that call for spending nearly $64 million to address opioid addiction, lead abatement, school health centers, reimbursement for personal care aides, Mainers awaiting community services and county jails.

The packages, along with individual bills, could receive rounds of votes this week. The governor could veto or, in some cases, line-item veto such legislation.

The Senate on Tuesday passed a tax code reform bill that would save Maine taxpayers nearly $27 million through mid-2019. The bill makes changes to Maine’s tax code in light of Republican President Trump’s tax reform while adding a Maine family medical leave credit, creating a $300 child and dependent credit and increasing a property tax credit.

Republican Sen. Dana Dow said he expects LePage will veto the bill because it keeps Maine’s estate tax. “We felt it wasn’t a sword we needed to fall on,” Dow said.

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MEDICAID EXPANSION

The LePage administration is currently fighting a court order requiring the governor to file a Medicaid expansion plan needed for Maine to eventually receive over $500 million in annual federal funding.

Mainers voted last fall to expand Medicaid to over 70,000 low-income adults by July 2.

LePage has blocked Medicaid expansion because he says lawmakers must fund Maine’s share of expansion costs under his terms, including no budgetary gimmicks.

The House voted 78-56 Tuesday on a bill to hire 103 staffers to roll-out Medicaid expansion. The House also voted 78-58 on Democratic Rep. Drew Gattine’s amendment to set aside $31 million in surplus funds for Medicaid expansion, and in the case of shortfall, $23.5 million from Maine’s rainy day fund.

Those initial votes aren’t enough to survive a veto. Advocates said the state has enough Medicaid funds to fund the first year of expansion through mid-2019.

“He says he needs the funding? Give him what he said he needs. Make this happen,” Maine Equal Justice Partners Executive Director Robyn Merrill said.