BANGOR, Maine — Gov.-elect Paul LePage’s effort to engage Maine entrepreneurs in his attempt to improve the state’s business climate is well under way, though that same effort is still unfolding under the Capitol dome.
With state government gearing up this week for LePage’s inauguration and the return of lawmakers to Augusta on Wednesday, Mainers are about to see what becomes of the new Republican majority’s marquee campaign issue of improving the state’s business climate. Legislators will have lots of suggestions from the private sector, judging by early attendance at an extensive series of public meetings.
To date, six of 16 “Red Tape Audit” meetings called for by LePage and organized by the state’s chambers of commerce have taken place. According to LePage Communications Director Dan Demeritt, who said he has been to every meeting, there has been healthy atten-dance and even healthier discourse.
“At every one of these meetings we get new ideas and really good anecdotes about what people out there are having to deal with,” said Demeritt. “There have been a lot of really descriptive and heart-felt examples of people just trying to make it and deal with the business climate.”
Demeritt said there have already been a myriad suggestions, with a few broader themes emerging, such as the cost of employer-based health insurance and the state’s tax burden.
Another common complaint is about difficulties dealing with state agencies and the perception that government is an impediment to business when it should be an ally.
“What frustrates people the most is the attitudinal stuff,” said Demeritt.
In a recent memo to the LePage campaign, Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce President and CEO John Porter reported a “lively” Dec. 11 red tape audit at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor.
Concerns identified by chamber members ranged from the inability to hire juveniles for seasonal employment to one businessman who said, “If I have to hire an attorney to be able to follow a rule or regulation, then you’ve made it too complicated.”
With another 10 Red Tape Audit meetings scheduled before Feb. 4 and several more being organized, there are ample opportunities for public input. Regardless, legislative leadership is scheduling a separate series of public hearings on the same theme. The public hearings will be presided over by the Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on Regulatory Fairness and Reform, which was formed this session to work on business climate issues.
Rep. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, the assistant House majority leader, said legislative leaders are planning to have the committee meet in several locations across Maine that can be broadcast over the Internet wherever possible.
“There are a lot of folks out there who have good ideas that just get lost,” said Cushing. “We want this to be about people feeling that they understand more of the process and can give us insights.”
Cushing said legislative leaders will meet this week to draft a formal schedule.
With the deadline for legislators to submit bills at the end of this week, Cushing said, there are already at least 25 submissions that deal with improving various aspects of the state’s business climate. The first bill submitted, known in government parlance as L.D. 1, is titled “An Act to Ensure Regulatory Fairness and Reform.” The bill, which will be written by the committee in the course of the legislative session, will be influenced heavily by what is learned from the public, said Cushing.
“Having a depth of knowledge in any given area is difficult unless you have a career in that field,” said Cushing. “As a legislator it’s important to me to have folks who I can rely on to tell me how whatever legislation we’re passing would hurt or hinder them.”
Though Republicans hold the majority in the House and Senate for the first time in decades, Democrats also will play a role in the process. Rep. Robert Duchesne, D-Hudson, who is the ranking House member on the regulatory fairness committee, said improving Maine’s business climate is one issue where there is little disagreement between the parties.
“We are not coming into this with the idea that this is the majority versus the minority,” said Duchesne. “As Democrats we have all the interest we always did in these issues. Our ideas will be part of the equation.”
Duchesne said he’s heard “literally nothing” about how the regulatory fairness committee will operate, which concerns him with the Legislature reconvening this week and mammoth budget challenges facing LePage and the Legislature.
Demeritt said LePage will nominate two key cabinet members — the commissioners of environmental protection and economic development — perhaps as early as Monday.
Demeritt would not identify the nominees, but said they share LePage’s vision of a business-friendly state and his goal of creating business advocates within state government.
“We’re not looking to grease the skids for bad projects, but we’re looking for that type of mentality where as a business owner you have someone you can count on who’s pushing for you,” said Demeritt.
Red Tape Audit meetings are scheduled 10 a.m.-noon Tuesday with the Portland Regional Chamber and 9-11 a.m. Saturday with the Sebasticook Valley Chamber at the Newport Cultural Center.
A link to Paul LePage’s transition website where users can suggest ways to improve the business climate, among other issues: www.lepagetransition.com/maine-ideas/
The following Red Tape Audit meetings are scheduled for the next few weeks and more are in the process of being scheduled. For more information about the meetings, contact the Chamber of Commerce involved.
Tuesday, Jan. 4: Portland Re-gional Chamber, 10 a.m.-noon, location to be decided.
Saturday, Jan. 8, Sebasticook Valley Chamber, 9-11 a.m., Newport Cultural Center in Newport.
Tuesday, Jan. 11 (tentative), Aroostook County Chambers (Fort Fairfield, Presque Isle, Katahdin, Caribou, Fort Kent), time and location to be decided.
Wednesday, Jan. 12, Booth-bay Harbor Chamber of Com-merce, 8:30 a.m., location to be decided.
Thursday, Jan. 13, Pis-cataquis Chamber of Com-merce, 7:30 a.m., location to be decided.
Friday, Jan. 14, Sanford Chamber of Commerce, 8 a.m., Sanford City Hall.
Tuesday, Jan. 18, Androscog-gin Chamber of Commerce, 7:30 a.m., Androscoggin Chamber of Commerce conference room.
Wednesday, Jan. 19, Biddeford-Saco Chamber of Commerce, 8:30 a.m., Saco Ra-mada.
Friday, Jan. 21, York Cham-ber of Commerce, 8-10 a.m., Cape Neddick Inn Restaurant in York.
Friday, Feb. 4, Jay-Livermore Falls Chamber of Commerce, 8-9 a.m., LaFleur’s Restaurant in Jay.