The Legislature took several steps this session to aid municipalities. Some of those steps were large, some were small, but all are appreciated.
In general, the Legislature responded favorably to municipal-friendly legislation that was crafted to address a specific problem. Following are some examples (sponsoring legislators are noted):
The Judiciary Committee positively responded to two bills that address recent Law Court opinions that negatively impacted municipalities. LD 1027 (Sen. Peter Mills, Somerset Cty.) creates a new definition of “physical and mental disability” as that term is used in the context of the Maine Human Rights Act (MHRA). The new definition was enacted in response to the Wal-Mart v. Whitney decision of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court that placed Maine’s longstanding but rule-based definition into question because of the wording of the underlying MHRA statute.
LD 1906 (Rep. Deborah Simpson of Auburn) overturns the portion of the Law Court decision in Stevenson v. Town of Kennebunk that held that a municipal board was not authorized to take any action because there was a vacancy on the board. This bill establishes that words in any statute, charter or ordinance giving authority to three or more persons to act on a board or committee of any kind authorize a majority of that board or committee to act, even when there is a vacancy on that board, unless the statute, charter or ordinance specifies otherwise.
The Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee enacted four bills to improve the election process and otherwise assist the work of municipal clerks.
First, LD 27 (Rep. Chris Barstow of Gorham) relaxes the residency requirement for the appointment of election clerks when the municipal officers are unable to appoint a sufficient number of election clerks who are residents of the municipality.
Second, LD 176 (Sen. Ethan Strimling, Cumberland Cty.) requires the Secretary of State to develop the ballot question for state-level citizen initiatives after the proposed initiative has gone through the public hearing and legislative review process instead of before, as is the case now. The Secretary of State must also allow a 30-day period for the general public to comment with respect to the accuracy or suitability of the proposed ballot question.
Third, LD 1761 (Rep. John Patrick of Rumford) makes more than a dozen changes to election laws. One of the most helpful is that a clerk does not have to issue a ballot by mail to a voter outside the municipality if the request is received on election day (all requests) or on the day before (for voters who are not present). The legislation also creates a system allowing municipalities to process absentee ballots the day before the election.
Lastly, LD 1871 (Rep. Patsy Crockett of Augusta) allowed for the consolidation of polling places in connection with the special election held in June where the focus was the transportation bond. This eased the administrative burden of conducting a low-turnout election.
The Natural Resources Committee supported six bills that notably assist local communities. First, it approved LD 1477 (Rep. Ted Koffman of Bar Harbor), which amends the Significant Wildlife Habitat statutes to mitigate the negative impact of rules that were adopted by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and approved by the Legislature in 2006 regarding the protection of vernal pool habitat, wading bird habitat and shorebird feeding and staging areas. The bill relaxes many of the restrictions adopted last year. Second it supported LD 340 (Rep. Dawn Hill of York) which deals with the illegal removal of trees in the shoreland zone. The bill bolsters the ability of municipalities to enforce an obligation of the violator to replace the trees or vegetation removed. As part of that mitigation process, the violator must submit to the municipality a reforestation plan meeting certain standards and developed by a licensed professional forester.
LD 345 (Rep. Koffman) and LD 1108 (Sen. Peter Bowman, York Cty.) clarified the process for calculating building permit limits under local rate of growth ordinances pursuant to state guidelines established last year by the Legislature. LD 1803 (Rep. Koffman) makes several changes to the Growth Management Act in connection with the new Comprehensive Planning rule being finalized by the State Planning Office (SPO). This statute and that rule are designed to streamline and improve the current process by which municipal comprehensive plans are reviewed by SPO.
Lastly, the Natural Resources Committee tackled the issue of outdoor wood boilers by supporting LD 1824 (Rep. Seth Berry, Bowdoinham). This bill establishes both short-term and long-term emission standards for these boilers. In addition, the bill clarifies that neighbors who are upset by the smoke created by the boilers may have a nuisance action. Finally, the DEP is directed to issue rules which articulate additional operational standards such as set-back requirements and stack heights.
The Agriculture and Forestry Committee supported LD 1727 (Rep. Hill) which requires veterinarians who vaccinate a dog for rabies and issue a certificate of vaccination to mail, e-mail or fax a copy of that certificate within 30 days of issuance to the Department of Agriculture which, in turn, must periodically mail, e-mail or fax those certificates to the appropriate municipalities. The goal of this notification process is to obtain increased compliance with dog licensing laws.
The Marine Resources Committee approved LD 403 (Rep. Stan Gerzofsky of Brunswick) which greatly improves the ability of municipalities to have input with the Department of Marine Resources regarding local clam flats that have been closed to individual clammers but which are opened by the Department to large-scale harvesters who clean the clams with a special “depuration” process.
The Transportation Committee assisted municipalities with LD 1018 (Senate President Beth Edmonds of Freeport). The bill restores the pre-URIP rule regarding DOT transfers of roads to municipalities. When the responsibility for maintenance of a section of state or state aid highway is to be transferred to a municipality as a result of a population growth or the road to be transferred is within a “compact” or “built-up” section of town, and when the municipality is not eligible to opt out of summer maintenance, the department must prepare a capital and maintenance plan to ensure that the section of state or state aid highway is in good repair at the time of transfer.
Finally, the Taxation Committee supported a bill to assist towns in need. LD 1558 (Rep. Richard Woodbury of Yarmouth) amends the laws governing the system of expediting adjustments to a municipality’s state valuation in response to a “sudden and severe” disruption of value. Specifically, the bill allows municipalities experiencing a sudden loss in value greater than 2% that is attributed to a mill closing or other significant valuational change related to a single taxpayer to apply for the adjustment of state valuation at any time, rather than the prescribed time frames established in current law. The bill further allows the State Tax Assessor to determine the appropriate adjustment in state valuation and when that adjustment should be applied, and further allows related changes in school subsidy that may be associated with the state valuation changes to be provided from the state’s budget stabilization fund.
SIDEBAR: Securing Maine’s Transportation Future
As a member of the Transportation Committee, Representative Doug Thomas of Ripley deserves credit for attempting to protect the interests of rural Maine. Due in part to his efforts, LD 1790, An Act to Secure Maine’s Transportation Future, sponsored by Sen. Dennis Damon (Hancock Cty.), was amended to exclude a proposed change the formula used to issue local road assistance funds to municipalities. Under one version of LD 1790, 218 municipalities would have received less state aid for roads.
Although LD 1790 was enacted by the Legislature, due to a technical problem the Governor has “held” the bill. The Legislature will be provided an opportunity to address the technical issue and finally enact the bill when it next reconvenes.
The version of LD 1790 amended by Committee and the Legislature before being held by the Governor, creates several capital improvement and reporting goals for focusing legislative and Department of Transportation (DOT) resources on rebuilding the state’s transportation infrastructure over the next 15 to 20 years. Included in the goals are directives to: 1) improve and modernize the interstate system; 2) reconstruct the arterial system to nationally accepted standards by 2022; 3) reconstruct state major collectors to nationally accepted standards by 2027; 4) extend the service life of the state’s bridge inventory by 2027; and 5) annually report to the Legislature by January 15 of each odd-numbered year on the progress DOT has made in fulfilling each goal.
The Act also creates the policies the Legislature must follow when borrowing the funds necessary to meet the state’s capital improvement goals. The policies set maximum bond-to-revenue borrowing ratios as well as the terms for three bonding systems:
General Obligation Bonds. The Legislature is authorized to issue general obligation bonds in an amount not to exceed a rolling three-year average debt-to-Highway Fund revenue ratio of 10%. (Currently, the Highway Fund’s debt-to-revenue bonding ratio is 7%.) The policy also requires these bonds to be repaid over a period of 10 years. In addition, the voters of the state must approve the issuance of general obligation bonds.
GARVEE Bonds. The Legislature is authorized to issue GARVEE bonds to address extraordinary and unanticipated capital improvement needs. GARVEE (Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle) bonds allow states to borrow against future federal highway funding grants. A GARVEE bond cannot exceed a debt-to-federal highway fund revenue ratio of 15%. These bonds must be repaid over a period of 15 years and the funds can be used only for capital projects with an anticipated useful life of at least 20 years. The Legislature can issue a GARVEE bond without voter ratification.
Revenue Bonds. The Legislature is authorized to issue revenue bonds through agreements with the Maine Municipal Bond Bank. Revenue bonds allow entities to pledge future revenues as the source of payment on borrowed funds. As provided for in the Act, the state would be authorized to issue revenue bonds to be repaid over a period of 15 years to fund capital projects with a useful life of at least 20 years. The Legislature can authorize the issuance of a revenue bond without voter ratification.