AUGUSTA, Maine — Fourth of July celebrations in Maine likely would be more festive and a lot noisier next year under a bill to legalize fireworks that passed the first legislative hurdle on Monday.
Members of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted 8-5 in support of a measure, LD 83, that would allow consumers age 21 or older to purchase some fireworks from authorized, stand-alone fireworks stores in Maine.
The bill now heads to the full Legislature for consideration.
Supporters said fireworks are already prevalent in Maine and legalizing their sale would generate additional tax revenue while helping the state better control the types of pyrotechnics used by consumers.
“It is going to be essentially what you can buy in New Hampshire,” said Rep. Douglas Damon, R-Bangor. “So Maine citizens who want fireworks can have them and they do not have to go to New Hampshire to get them.”
Critics, however, said legalizing fireworks would inevitably result in more injuries and property damage.
“Frankly, I think we have enough opportunities to enjoy fireworks in the state” without having them ruin the peace and quiet of camp owners, said Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland.
While LD 83 would greatly expand the number of fireworks available for sale in Maine, it would not legalize some of the most common — and dangerous — types that are so popular at Fourth of July festivities.
Bottle rockets, missile-like fireworks and other types of airborne pyrotechnics would still be prohibited in Maine, which was one of several substantive compromises bill supporters made in order to win more support.
Additionally, fireworks could only be sold at dedicated, stand-alone fireworks stores. In other words, consumers will not be able to purchase fireworks from retail stores or from temporary tents and roadside stands.
The amended bill also requires any fireworks sold in Maine to meet Consumer Products Safety Commission standards, and vendors would be required to obtain federal and state licenses as well as to maintain a minimum of $2 million of insurance coverage.
Although Monday’s committee discussion was relatively brief, the issue has already created some fireworks of its own.
Some critics of legalizing fireworks were angered earlier this year when Maine State Fire Marshal John Dean — who has repeatedly testified against such efforts in the past — did not speak during the public hearing. That is because the Fire Marshal’s Office is part of the executive branch, and Gov. Paul LePage supports loosening Maine’s prohibition on fireworks.
Dean did express his safety concerns about legalizing fireworks during subsequent committee work sessions, telling lawmakers, “There is no way I could say that legalizing fireworks is going to make people safer or enhance public safety.”
Lawmakers responded by appointing a special work group to develop the current compromise. Dean served on that work group.
On Monday, Dean said he felt more comfortable from a safety standpoint with the version of the bill endorsed by the majority of committee members. In particular, Dean said, requiring third-party certification of fireworks and prohibiting sales at big-box stores and roadside stands helped address some of his concerns.
But he said statistics show the number of injuries increases as fireworks become more available.
“One year from now, I would love to say my concerns about safety are no longer a concern,” Dean said.
The Maine Fire Chiefs Association did not take a position either way on the bill. But speaking on behalf of the association on Monday, Bangor Fire Chief Jeffrey Cammack said his organization would like to see some of the additional tax revenues flow toward training for fire crews.
“We anticipate that we are going to be responding to more calls and we anticipate that our firefighters are going to need training on how to deal with these,” Cammack said.
One lawmaker who voted against the bill, Rep. Anna Blodgett, D-Augusta, said she would prefer to see the measure rewritten so that fireworks only could be used on specific days, such as July 4, and then only on waterfront properties. Blodgett said she was concerned about the fire danger of allowing pyrotechnics in more crowded areas, such as Augusta.
The bill directs the fire marshal to develop a system for collecting information from hospitals and doctors about firework-related injuries. It also requires vendors to distribute written information about firework safety.
“I have a lot of faith in the people of the state of Maine,” said Rep. Stephen Hanley, D-Gardiner. “I think they have common sense and are responsible. I don’t think they want to set anyone’s camp on fire.”