Bill banning flavored tobacco loses funding in state budget compromise

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Jun. 29—A bill that would ban the sale of flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, could be on its way to defeat in the Legislature as a bipartisan budget compromised brokered over the weekend excluded funding for the measure.

The tobacco legislation, which would cost the state about $32 million in lost sales tax revenue if approved, is among about 45 bills lawmakers will take up when they return to session Wednesday morning.

The Legislature will also take votes on 11 vetoes issued by Gov. Janet Mills in recent days, including one on a bill that would force the closure of the Long Creek Youth Development Center, the state's only juvenile prison.

Also on deck is a bill that would move Maine toward a statewide vote on whether a new consumer-owned electric utility should be created to takeover Central Maine Power and Versant Power companies.

Mills, a Democrat, had signaled her support for the tobacco bill last month in a budget proposal that set aside $32 million in surplus revenue to cover the cost of the measure. But the Legislature's Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee cast a unanimous vote Sunday on a budget change package that excludes funding for the bill.

Supporters of the measure, including health advocates who work to keep kids from smoking and vaping, expressed their disappointment Tuesday.

"Tobacco has taken over our schools and our children's lives," Dr. Deborah Hagler, a Brunswick pediatrician and President of the Maine Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics said in a prepared statement issued by Flavors Hook Kids, a coalition supporting the bill. "Menthol, candy, and dessert flavors lure them, then nicotine gets them hooked."

As both a doctor and a parent, Hagler said she was "astonished" by the committee vote. "Our kids are being relentlessly targeted by the tobacco industry, and lawmakers are doing nothing to protect them," she said.

The American Lung Association also criticized the Legislature's decision. The organization noted that the state has also reduced funding for tobacco prevention programs in the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention by $5 million.

"In the midst of a respiratory pandemic, worsened by tobacco use, this is a double blow to the long-term health of Mainers," the association's senior advocacy director, Lance Boucher, said in a written statement. "Today, Maine is failing to protect our children, including the one in three Maine high school students who currently use some form of tobacco."

The bill, L.D. 1550, enjoyed bipartisan support at a hearing in May but has since faced opposition from organizations supportive of small businesses, especially convenience store owners, who derive some of their income from the sale of tobacco products.

Mills' press secretary, Lindsay Crete, said Mills supports the budget deal reached by lawmakers and was unlikely to try to make line-by-line changes to it.

"The Governor is interested in garnering broad, bipartisan support for the budget, not in line iteming portions of it," Crete wrote in an email. "She applauds the Appropriations Committee's unanimous, bipartisan agreement, which she believes will make important, meaningful and historic progress for Maine people, including finally meeting the state's obligation to fully fund education, increasing revenue sharing and property tax relief, and making health care, like dental care, more accessible."

Crete also confirmed Mills fully supports a provision in the budget deal brokered by minority Republicans that will send a $300 payment to those who worked throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in Maine.

"Many Maine people worked hard throughout the pandemic to keep our economy going, despite the risk to themselves and their families, and she believes they deserve recognition for their efforts," Crete wrote. "She applauds Republicans and Democrats for coming together to create this provision."

Crete also reiterated Mills' concerns around the power company takeover bill. That measure failed enactment in the Senate by one vote earlier this month but could face additional votes, including on a recent amendment aimed at addressing concerns over lost property tax revenue. Crete said the last-minute move to amend the bill was more evidence the legislation needed more work.

"The unveiling of this amendment — one day prior to a vote on it, which also will be the same day the Legislature is scheduled to consider a host of serious matters, including the budget — leaves little time for serious public consideration and feedback and simply underscores one of the Governor's primary concerns: that proponents of the legislation are attempting to too quickly advance a bill that would have massive implications for the state without having addressed its serious questions in a robust way," Crete wrote.

"(Gov. Mills) is sympathetic to the concerns about Maine's utilities, but she continues to believe that this bill presents a rosy solution to a complicated problem and, if advanced, would create more problems than it actually solves."

Also on Mills' desk is a bill that would allow the four Native American tribes in Maine to open casinos on tribal lands. For decades the tribes have worked to regain gambling rights allowed to them under federal law but denied to them under a law that settled a land dispute between the tribes and the state in 1980.

Crete said Mills' office would likely be announcing additional bills she had signed into law or vetoed over the next 48 hours, but she did not offer any specifics.

Both the state House and Senate are set to convene at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

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