Streamlining Business Regs

Posted Dec. 22, 2009, at 6:14 p.m.

State and local officials who regulate Maine businesses must never disregard their responsibility to protect consumers, the general public, workers and the environment. But their regulations should be based on agreed-upon goals and they should be sensible and fair. Regulations should also be as consistent, clear and as easy to understand as possible.

There’s nothing like a recession to add urgency to the perennial complaints about Maine’s unfriendly business climate. As the Legislature prepares to return to work next month, the state’s Regulatory Fairness Board heard testimony recently on where improvements can be made. The board advises the governor and Legislature on the state’s business climate.

Business leaders such as Chris Hall, senior vice president of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, told board members that the relationship between regulators and business owners has grown hostile. According to Mr. Hall, the hostility is coming from the regulatory side of the table. Business owners and managers “feel like they got pulled over for a speeding ticket,” he told the board, the Kennebec Journal reported.

Mr. Hall said duplicate paperwork from several state agencies is one specific problem. He told the board the state, after a new governor is elected, ought to establish “an office of regulatory streamlining.” There may be less cumbersome and less bureaucratic fixes.

The state Department of Economic and Community Development, whose charge can reasonably be seen to include promoting an efficient regulatory climate, has created on its Web site a business answers section (maine.gov/businessanswers). By clicking on Business Licensing Assistant, users can select the sort of business they would like to start; the extensive list includes art gallery, bakery, campground, firearm dealer, gym, ice cream shop, pawn shop, redemption center and taxicab. Users answer a series of questions, then are shown which licenses they need and which state departments is-sue them.

In developing this feature, DECD staffers might have seen where there is duplication, and where unnecessary multiple departmental regulation exists. Though DECD is not a regulatory agency, it might advocate a smoother regulatory process.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the state Department of Environmental Protection was the target of many business complaints. DEP actively redefined itself and became more user-friendly. A similar transformation is possible across state departments.

Business advocates probably will always argue for fewer and less-stringent government regulations. But state and local officials must recognize that there are times when those advocates are right, or at least right about the mazelike nature of regulations. Periodic evaluation of the regulatory climate is essential to keeping the state’s economy healthy.

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