May 30, 2020

Panel supports bill on domestic violence Funds lacking for $4.8 million proposal

AUGUSTA – The question of expanded state services for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault will be left to the full Legislature to answer.

The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee on Thursday unanimously endorsed a $4.8 million-a-year measure, even though the price tag exceeds all the cash left if the panel’s proposed current services state budget is adopted.

“This is the first step, but an important first step,” said House Majority Leader Pat Colwell, D-Gardiner, primary sponsor of the measure. “I think we can find all of the money, and even then that is really not enough, to fund this. And if we can’t – if we can’t – we will find a good part of it.”

Colwell said there is a wide range of possible solutions to the funding problem, and he is exploring all of them. He said increasing revenue through a tax increase or some sort of fee is one option, but so is cutting other state programs to provide the funding.

“There is always one issue a session where people coalesce,” he said, “and I think it will be on this issue.”

Senate Republican Leader Mary Small, R-Bath, is a co-sponsor of the bill and said she is personally willing to vote for a tax increase to fund the measure, if other funding ideas do not have support. She said with a total of 145 of the 186 members of the entire Legislature as co-sponsors, there is strong bipartisan support to find the dollars to fund the program.

“My caucus has said no to new taxes to fund the Part I [Budget] but I am not the only one in my caucus that would support raising new revenues to pay for this program,” she said.

The Part I Budget pays for current state services. The Legislature is stalemated, with the House and Senate passing different budgets. The Senate overwhelmingly passed a measure that funds current programs without raising taxes by using state reserves. The House has rejected that approach, arguing it does not solve the issue of how to pay for ongoing programs in future years. That chamber instead passed a budget that has a 26 cent-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax and an extension of the current 7 percent meals and lodging tax to restaurants that do not serve alcohol.

“Until the budget issues are resolved, there is no way the governor can take a position on this [domestic violence] bill,” said Kay Rand, Gov. Angus King’s chief of staff. “Of course he wants to do more, but there are so many ‘what ifs’ unanswered right now.”

In his budget proposal to lawmakers, the governor set aside $250,000 each year for a new initiative that would hire an assistant for Public Safety Commissioner Michael Kelly to help coordinate state efforts to curb domestic violence. Most of the money would be used for a yet-to-be-designed public awareness campaign.

Supporters were thanking lawmakers after the vote Thursday, and were clearly elated at the show of support for the legislation.

“It’s an important step to get a unanimous report out of Appropriations,” said Kathy Walker, executive director of Rape Response Services, an agency that serves Penobscot and Piscataquis counties. “We are working behind the scenes to come up with a source of funding.”

And that could prove a tough hurdle. Even though he made the motion for the panel to pass the measure, Rep. Richard Nass, R-Acton, warned Colwell the source of funding for the measure is crucial to the support of some lawmakers.

“I don’t like some of the things I have been hearing about for tax increases,” he said. “I don’t think that’s where we should be looking for this money.”

Colwell acknowledged he has been floating a lot of ideas, including some tax measures, as a way to fund the services. Among the ideas under discussion are an increase in cigarette taxes and a hike in the tax on beer and wine.

“You know people look at the $5 billion budget and say you should be able to find $4.8 million a year,” he said. “But the reality is over half of that is pass-throughs to schools and to cities and towns. And there are some bills that just have to be paid, so there really isn’t all that much left to look at it in the budget, but we are looking.”

The measure would double to 50 the number of school-based educators to provide prevention programs. It also would fund a statewide public education campaign. A large portion of the funds would be earmarked to increase direct services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assaults.

If approved, the bill would provide the first increase in state funds since 1985 for the 10 sexual assault crisis centers and the 10 domestic violence shelters located across the state.

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