Friday, October 11, 2013

State News Update

Federal Government Shutdown

I trust that you have been closely following the mess that is the federal government shutdown. I find it a reckless, irresponsible failure of our elected federal officials to properly govern a nation at a crossroads. Certainly not a shining example of governance for the rest of the world to witness. Certainly not the best way to protect the public health and promote the well-being of our citizenry.

The lives of too many Americans have been negatively affected by the cessation of vital programs and services, our struggling-to-recover economy will be potentially forced to the brink, and here in Maine, hard-working families have already felt the pain. All 52 state employees at the Disability Determination Office at the Carleton Mills building on Route 202 in Winthrop were temporarily laid off without pay. Uncertainty rules the day.

Recently, Gov. Paul LePage declared a civil emergency in Maine due to the federal shutdown, a declaration that has led to many people -- in our district and outside of it -- contacting me to find out what this all means.

Historically, Maine governors have used the civil emergency powers during disaster relief to respond to a crisis. Gov. John Baldacci declared a civil emergency in response to the H1N1 outbreak to expedite flu vaccinations. Gov. Baldacci also issued a civil emergency in 2007 when the price of diesel went up by $1. Gov. John McKernan declared a civil emergency during the shutdown of state government in 1991.

The Civil Emergency Proclamation grants authority to the governor to not follow the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with state employees who are facing layoffs resulting from the shutdown.

The governor has said that he is doing so to reduce the financial impact to state employees so that they can receive unemployment benefits and health insurance. He has also said that the layoffs will terminate at the conclusion of the shutdown.

During a meeting with the governor and Republican leaders, Democratic leaders proposed an amendment to the proclamation which would clarify the scope of his power so it would not suspend the state's labor relations law and not circumvent the CBA and also provide an end-date. The governor refused to do this.

More than 2,700 state employees' jobs are at risk.

No other state or governor in the country has declared a similar civil emergency in the wake of the federal shutdown.


Food Supplement Impacted as Stimulus Package Expires
The expiration of the federal stimulus package, which temporarily increased funding to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), will reduce the monthly benefit provided through the Food Supplement program to all recipients beginning November 1.
The SNAP benefit, still commonly referred to as “food stamps,” was temporarily increased in 2009 with the passage of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, often referred to as the stimulus package. The temporary increase expires on November 1 and all SNAP recipients will see a reduction.
The SNAP, a federal program of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), is fully funded by the federal government and administered by the state. In Maine, more than $30 million in SNAP benefits are distributed each month.
Adding confusion to this benefit decrease is that in October, many SNAP recipients will actually see a small increase in benefits due to the annual cost of living adjustment. The Office for Family Independence (OFI) has sent notifications to the more than 132,000 households that currently receive SNAP benefits to explain the changes.
“Due to the ARRA sunset, States must adjust all SNAP allotments twice this year: once on October 1, 2013 and again on November 1, 2013,” wrote Bonnie Brathwaite, Director of the USDA’s Northeast Region of SNAP. “Because these are statutory provisions, they cannot be waived or consolidated into one effective date.”
The reduction in benefits will range from $1 a month for those who receive the minimum monthly benefit, to an average of around 5 percent for those who receive the maximum benefit. As an example, a family of four receiving the maximum benefit of $668 per month in October will see a $36 reduction. In Maine, the average monthly benefit for a family of four is $351.
Another OFI mailing will follow in mid-October that will tell members the exact amount of the reduction beginning November 1.


Secretary of State Reminds Mainers of new Motor Vehicle Laws Now in Effect
Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap would like to remind Maine motorists that new driving regulations, passed into law by the 126th legislature, went into effect on Wednesday, October 09, 2013. These laws are among others that became active 90 days after the close of the legislative session. 
“We hope these laws continue to improve safety on the road,” said Secretary Dunlap.  “Some of the changes are designed to improve convenience and accessibility, while others impose stricter sanctions for dangerous behavior.  Our goal is always to advance the experience of all responsible drivers and others who use our roads.”
The following are noteworthy changes to Maine law that will affect drivers; for additional information please refer to Title 29-A, Motor Vehicle laws, 2013-2014 Edition:
  • A driver who is cited for texting while driving will receive a $250 minimum fine for a first time violation and a $500 fine on a second or subsequent offense within three years. In addition, texting violations will now include a 30-day license suspension on a second offense; a 60-day suspension on a third offense; and a 90-day suspension on a fourth or subsequent violation.  These suspension periods are mandatory, without a right to a hearing. 
  • The minimum practice time for a driver under the age of 21 who applies for a learner’s permit on or after October 9, 2013, has increased from 35 to 70 hours, including an increase in night driving from five to 10 hours.  Drivers completing their practice time must be accompanied by a parent, guardian or licensed driver at least 20 years of age.  Additionally, while the permit exam is administered by the driving school prior to program completion, the law now requires all learners’ permits to be issued only by the Secretary of State.
  • Previously, active duty military personnel had 30 days to obtain a non-military identification card or license after discharge from service; they will now have up to 180 days. 
  • Bicyclists are now part of the definition of “traffic” and a collision between a motor vehicle and a bicyclist or roller skier is prima facie evidence that the motorist violated the three foot law.
  • Police officers as well as the BMV may now accept proof of current insurance in electronic form. 
  • An officer may, at his or her discretion, issue a permit to travel directly home or to the BMV if a driver is found to be operating illegally on an expired license. 
  • The suspension period for an Operating Under the Influence (OUI) offender with three or more previous offenses within 10 years has been increased from six years to eight years.
  • The license of a person with four or more OUI offense may be eligible for early reinstatement after serving four years of the suspension period if an approved ignition interlock device (IID) is installed for a period of four years.

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