AUGUSTA, Maine — A legislative committee postponed a decision Monday on a bill that would legalize fireworks in Maine, opting instead to send the matter to a special subcommittee for more study.
The vote to table the bill and send it to a study group came after State Fire Marshal John Dean told members of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee that, given his years of experience, he could not support legalizing fireworks in Maine.
“There is no way I could say that legalizing fireworks is going to make people safer or enhance public safety,” Dean said. “However, if you move forward with this and the governor agrees with this, my office will work to make it as safe as possible.”
Sponsored by Bangor Rep. Douglas Damon, LD 83 would lift Maine’s current prohibition on the sale and use of consumer fireworks, although municipalities would have the right to ban or restrict them through local ordinance. The measure would also create a licensing system for fireworks sellers.
Damon, R-Bangor, has said fireworks are already so common in Maine that it makes sense for the state to legalize them and collect taxes on their sale. Part of that money could then be used to provide safety training, thereby hopefully reducing injuries or instances of property damage due to fireworks, Damon said.
Several committee members agreed on Monday but said the myriad of issues surrounding fireworks — such as which should be legal and how to update that list — need further exploration before they could cast their votes in support of the bill.
Rep. David Burns, a retired member of the Maine State Police from Whiting, said the bill needs tough penalties for those that break the law, especially when it comes to people who buy fireworks and then give them to children.
“We ought to be very serious about that if we are serious at all about public safety,” Burns said. “Children are not able to handle these safely, whether they are legal or not.”
Other committee members, such as retired Lewiston Fire Chief Rep. Michel Lajoie, said they could not support the bill no matter what emerges from the special subcommittee due to the fire and public safety threat posed by fireworks.
During a public hearing earlier this month, a number of public safety officials and doctors urged the committee to reject the bill. But the committee had been unable until Monday to hear from Dean or anyone else from the State Fire Marshal’s Office because the LePage administration barred them from testifying during the public hearing. The LePage administration favors granting Mainers access to fireworks through incremental changes in state law but believes Damon’s bill is too broad.
Dean said that nationally, July 4 is the busiest day for fires. Legalizing fireworks likely would increase staff workload because of the necessity of regulating sellers and keeping track of ever-changing products, he said.
“We are as busy as we can be with the workload we have, so it would take [additional] people,” Dean said.
Committee co-chairman Rep. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, said the special study group will be composed of a variety of interest groups — including public safety officials and industry representatives — but will not include lawmakers. The group is expected to report back to the committee later this session.