Despite snow, cold and the demands of work, scores of local business people, non-profit leaders and interested residents turned out at the Rockport Opera House on Jan. 20 for the Camden Hills iteration of the “Red Tape Audit Workshops” that have been taking place throughout Maine since mid-December.
At the request of Gov. Paul LePage, chambers of commerce throughout Maine have been hosting these gatherings, inviting all interested parties to present their thoughts on both the good and bad of regulation. The goal is to provide the governor with ideas from the business community as to which specific regulations, statutes or rules ought to be addressed by his administration. On Jan. 20 Mark Ouellette of the Department of Economic and Community Development represented the governor and the new Legislature.
The Camden-Rockport-Lincolnville and Penobscot Bay Regional Chambers of Commerce teamed up to host the event and invited members and nonmembers alike from across our areas of service to come and join the conversation.
In the light of a hard-fought election, big changes in Augusta and the increasing political polarization of society in general, I have to admit to being nervous about the tone and content of the debate. I entered the Opera House to moderate proceedings with fingers crossed that wherever participants fell on the political spectrum their comments and suggestions would remain focused on practical subjects. I need not have worried.
All involved acquitted themselves wonderfully and for the most part sought positive solutions to real life problems. The spread of opinion in the room reflected the breadth of opinion in the wider community, and each person who stood up to speak was afforded respect and attention as they made their point. Differing opinions were delivered without recourse to trashing the opposite position. While many of the frustrations raised obviously were felt keenly, more often than not they were accompanied with constructive suggestions for reform or improvement.
I felt that the conversation produced two major themes. First, there was concern about ill-conceived or overly complicated regulation. Much of this discussion fell into the category of “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” the idea that while the law or rule was designed to protect or support a specific thing, said thing was more at risk due to an overly complex or burdensome process involved in complying with said rule. Based in part on previous media coverage of similar events one might have expected this category to dominate, but it actually took a back seat to a much more subtle and complex set of issues.
Second, and much more prevalent, were issues with what could be described broadly as “customer service” at the state agency level. Much of the concern in the room was over inconsistency of rule making, enforcement or interpretation between or even within government departments, over enforcement that took a default position that businesses were in the wrong from the outset and had to prove otherwise, and over the perceived rudeness or adversarial stances of some state government workers.
The collective sentiment was plain: We don’t mind rules as long as they are fair, evenly enforced and don’t inflict more damage than they are supposed to prevent. All in all, it was a very Maine message that the local business and nonprofit community sent to Augusta: Work with us, and we’ll work with you.