GUEST COLUMN

Tell the green nanny to back off

Posted March 27, 2011, at 8:05 p.m.

The Republican majority in the Maine Legislature should pass LD 1129 to amend the Kid-Safe Products Act. The environmental left and the Democrats will howl and raise lots of money whilst doing so, but one thing is certain: The GOP was not elected to continue the green nanny state.

The past regime passed and implemented a chemicals regulatory policy that put the state in the position of implementing an undefined version of the “Precautionary Principle” in a risk and environmental policy area where there is a wide divergence of risk assessment and tolerance.

The Kid-Safe Products Act applies to a much wider swath of products than “kid” implies. The regulatory thresholds to trigger scrutiny and action are set very low, reflecting a very risk averse set of values. Broad regulatory overreach, high risk aversion and less than transparent policy making are not a combination to improve Maine’s business climate.

LD 1129 does not repeal the green nanny state, but it does tell the nanny to back off a bit. It raises the threshold levels of scrutiny and action to more reasonable levels of risk and risk tolerance. It’s much easier to implement the Precautionary Principle if you never mention or discuss it.

The bill restricts scrutiny to products that are for kids, as the title of the law sponsored by then Majority Leader Hannah Pingree implies. There was an alternative governor’s bill sponsored by then-Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ted Koffman, now the head of Maine Audubon, which applied to a broader spectrum, but it was future Speaker Pingree’s Kid-Safe Products bill which was enacted.

It dials back some of the alarmist, technophobic and extremely risk-averse values that underlie the law and are a major part of why Maine has a lousy business and entrepreneurial climate.

The Environment and Natural Resources Committee can improve the bill, sponsored by current House Committee Chairman Jim Hamper, R-Oxford, by initiating a process whereby risk and environmental policy standards and values, and most particularly the Precautionary Principle are openly discussed before one particular set of risk preferences and risk assessment views are put into policy and law.

Much has been made of the “bipartisan” support for Rep. Pingree’s bill three years ago. I think my column against it, “Pingree, Koffman bills toxic to Maine” (BDN, Feb. 25, 2008) was one of the only published comments.

Alarmism and moral and religious grandstanding from environmental advocates created a faux political consensus, because the subtle but effective message was if you opposed the efforts to protect kids you were an immoral, heartless person who probably hated kids and loved money — and it was clear that the bill was going to pass anyway, so why make a fuss with little political reward and high political risk? This is one of the dangers of overlaying religious and moral sentiments into the environmental policy debate.

LD 1129  does not address concerns about the wisdom and competency of the state, or a state agency, making risk policy decisions. Whose risk preferences and risk assessments shall govern? The most risk averse? The most technophobic? The most anti-capitalist? The most statist? How much power will the state have to control consumer and producer choices?

All those questions needed open discussion and answers before the Kid Product Safety Act was passed in the first place. Hopefully, a process to correct that flaw will be approved as part of this bill.

Jon Reisman teaches environmental policy at the University of Maine at Machias. He can be reached at jreisman@maine.edujreisman@maine.edu

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