- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 23, 2015

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - Weary Maine lawmakers plowed through dozens of bills on Tuesday as they marched toward the end of a six-month legislative session that has been marked with partisan fights over taxes and welfare.

The Legislature gave final approval to a bill that would ensure immigrants seeking asylum in Maine continue receiving general assistance benefits and blocked the latest effort to expand Medicaid coverage to 70,000 more residents. Meanwhile, Democrats who hold the majority in the House killed measures to overhaul welfare programs that have long been sought by GOP lawmakers and Gov. Paul LePage.

Lawmakers had planned to head back to their districts last week, but the more than 100 bills that LePage has vetoed so far have dragged out lawmakers’ work, frustrating members of both parties.

While they moved Tuesday to finish sorting through most of the bills still in play, their work is far from over. They plan to return on June 30 to try to overturn outstanding vetoes - including, potentially, the $6.7 billion state budget - and Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves warned lawmakers to prepare for a marathon session.

“I would plan for a very long day on the 30th,” he said.

Among the vetoed bills that lawmakers likely will have to try to overturn next week is a measure that would allow roughly 1,000 asylum seekers in Maine to qualify for municipal welfare benefits. LePage is expected to reject the bill because he says the state shouldn’t provide benefits to people who aren’t citizens when many of its own residents are languishing on a waiting list for health care services.

Just hours before passing that bill fiercely opposed by LePage, lawmakers killed several of his efforts to overhaul welfare programs, including a ban on the use electronic benefit transfer cards for certain purchases and requiring people to show they’ve looked for a certain number of jobs before they could get benefits.

Democrats said his proposals would harm people struggling to get back on their feet, but LePage accused Democrats of wanting to “revert to the broken welfare policies of the past.”

“They have ignored the wishes of hard-working Mainers who see welfare fraud and abuse every day firsthand and are crying out for reform,” LePage said in a statement.

Lawmakers also once again killed a measure that would expand Medicaid coverage to roughly 70,000 residents - a proposal that was the center of several fierce debates last session and has been vetoed many times by LePage. After winning approval in the House, the bill was rejected by the Senate with an 18-17 vote.

While the Senate nixed a measure that could open the door to a casino in southern Maine, supporters were working hard Tuesday evening to keep the bill alive. The measure was amended in the House to change the tax rate on casinos, among other things, in an effort to earn more votes in the Senate, which only fell a few lawmakers short of passage. The bill faces final votes in both chambers.

It would create a competitive bidding process and have the state seek proposals for a resort-style casino in York or Cumberland county.

Opponents questioned the need for more gambling in a small state that already has two casinos. They also pointed to voters’ repeated rejection of more casinos.

But lawmakers who’ve long pushed to create a comprehensive policy to guide the expansion of gambling in Maine warned that if the state doesn’t approve this bill, groups will simply continue to use the citizens’ initiative process and the ability to set license fees and other things will be outside the state’s reach.

“We will have more referendum coming, and some of those are going to pass,” said Democratic Rep. Diane Russell.

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Follow Alanna Durkin at https://www.twitter.com/aedurkin

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