NEWPORT, Maine — Owners of local businesses large and small met at the Newport Cultural Center on Saturday to air their dissatisfaction with existing state regulations they say inhibit the success of their enterprises and prevent the state’s economy from improving.
Owners of about 15 businesses including a car dealership, a day care center, a bed-and-breakfast, and an antiques and collectibles shop gathered around a large table to share their stories. On hand to listen were three Republican members of the Maine Legislature who promised the entrepreneurs that the business climate in Maine will improve under the leadership of Gov. Paul LePage.
The meeting was one of several recent “red tape audits” being held around the state, hosted by local chambers of commerce and other business groups hoping to capitalize on the new governor’s pro-business, anti-regulatory philosophy.
Rep. Stacey Fitts, R-Pittsfield, serves on a new joint select committee formed to explore ways to improve Maine’s business climate, recently named worst in the nation by Forbes magazine.
“We’ll be bringing forward a bill that fixes some of these issues and makes the regulatory world we live in a little more manageable,” Fitts told the business owners. He was joined by local legislative colleagues Rep. Dean Cray, R-Palmyra, and Sen. Douglas Thomas, R-Ripley.
Steven Hartley, owner of Hartley Auto Mall in Newport, told the lawmakers that onerous state regulations —including redundant tax filing requirements, hazardous-waste policies and construction material specifications — make car dealerships “the most highly regulated business in the state of Maine.” While some government regulation is essential, he said, some Maine agencies and officials go too far in creating make-work restrictions that serve little purpose and tie up business owners’ precious time and money.
“Some of these people need to be shown the door,” he said.
Kevin Bowman of Bowman Constructors in Newport said his company regularly bids on state jobs such as schools. “They know us,” he said, “but there is a pre-qualification process we have to go through every time we bid.”
The bureaucratic process adds significantly to the cost of the company’s operations, he said, “and I think it just creates a job for someone down there in Augusta.”
Sandy St. Pierre, who provides day care for 12 children in her home in Newport, says demand is growing in the area. But her efforts to expand into a former school building where she can care for as many as 49 children and hire up to 10 workers have been frustrated by state regulations requiring measures such as a $3,500 water test and costly firewall construction. The state also prohibits her from having a kitchen range in the new day care center unless she installs a commercial-grade exhaust hood, which could cost as much as $10,000, St. Pierre said.
“This school was safe for 300 children when it closed in June, but now it’s not safe for 50 children?” she asked pointedly.
“It looks like we’re finally going to be able to open,” St. Pierre said after the meeting, “but it has been a constant roller coaster.”
Innkeeper Mark Stevens, owner of a bed-and-breakfast in Dexter, took aim at the Energy Maine program, set up to help businesses achieve energy savings. Stevens said the program received $1 million in federal funding from the Obama administration but rarely releases any money to those who apply for it. He lobbied Energy Maine for more than two years, Stevens said, before an official let it slip he might be eligible for a low-interest loan that allowed him to replace a wasteful heating system in his historic bed-and-breakfast.
“All they tell you about is light bulbs and refrigerators, but I was finally able to reduce my heating bill by 70 percent,” Stevens said. Maine officials should be more forthcoming about funding available to help small businesses, he said.
Bob Tremble of St. Albans said business dropped off at the “tiny collectibles shop” he runs with his wife after the state tourism office recommended a scenic route that bypasses their storefront. Agencies should think about the impact such decisions have on mom-and-pop businesses like his, he said.
At the end of the meeting, Fitts said his “pet peeve” is economic development efforts that aim to attract new businesses to Maine communities. “I would rather take businesses that are already here and remove all the obstacles you possibly can, rather than spending all kinds of money to attract businesses from out of state,” he said.
Comments at the meeting were recorded by Adrienne Bennett of the governor’s office, who said LePage is committed to improving the business climate in Maine. More red tape audits like the one Saturday are slated for communities across the state, she said, and any community that wants to host one can do so by contacting LePage’s office at www.maine.gov and clicking on the governor’s photograph.