Maine’s unhealthy business climate was a key issue during this past election. Most candidates — Republicans, Democrats and independents — included promises to address this problem as part of their campaigns.
In addition to our high taxes, energy costs and health insurance costs, our regulatory environment is considered a major impediment to the success of businesses in this state.
To confront regulatory reform head-on, Senate President Kevin Raye along with Speaker of the House Bob Nutting co-sponsored LD 1, an act to ensure regulatory fairness and reform.
A special committee was formed specifically to hear and work LD 1, the Joint Select Committee on Regulatory Fairness and Reform, with its charge being “to improve the business climate in the state and encourage job creation and retention and expand opportunities for Maine people.”
Jon Courtney, Senate majority leader, was chosen as the Senate chair and I was chosen as House chair.
We proposed seven off-site hearings and held them around the state in January and February. The objective was to bring the Legislature to the people — to the business owners, workers, community leaders, farmers, fishermen and entrepreneurs who put their fortunes on the line to make a better life for themselves and their families. Hundreds testified.
We heard their stories of unnecessary, duplicative and burdensome regulations and suggestions for their reform. The overall message to state government was quite clear — collaborate with us instead of standing in our way and keep the environment clean.
What followed after the off-site hearings was another hearing in Augusta, several work sessions, yet another hearing and more work sessions. Many of the suggestions we heard were passed on directly to legislative policy committees. The larger, more nebulous issues stayed in our committee. The final product was a unanimous report and near unanimous support of the entire Legislature.
The LD 1 bill itself is composed of 32 pages of a dozen or so sections dealing with a diverse set of reforms. Here’s some of what it does:
• Creates incentives for businesses to voluntarily disclose and correct environmental violations.
• Authorizes agencies to conduct a benefit-cost analysis of proposed rules.
• Modifies the “Business Ombudsmen” program to assist businesses with the state bureaucracy and proposes to develop a consolidation of licenses for businesses such as convenience stores, restaurants and campgrounds.
• Creates the office of “Special Advocate” within the Secretary of State’s office to assist small businesses in seeking resolutions to agency actions that may result in the closure of the business or termination of employees.
• Requires agencies to include sources of information relied upon by the agency when proposing rules.
• Directs the Department of Environmental Protection to adopt rules allowing certain hazardous materials to be more easily re-used or recycled.
• Clarifies that agency “guidelines” are not by themselves enforceable rules.
• Changes the Board of Environmental Protection allowing it to be more focused and efficient.
• Expands the authority of municipalities to issue fire permits, if authorized by the commissioner of public safety.
• Creates a stakeholder group to review options for paperwork reductions for businesses.
• Allows legislative committees to direct agencies to review specific rules for relevancy, clarity and appropriateness and report back to the committee.
• Directs the Department of Economic and Community Development to collaborate with other agencies and businesses to apply to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service for designation as an EB-5 state regional center.
LD1 is a big first step toward a better business climate in Maine and makes several major accomplishments. First, it is a true bipartisan work and illustrates what can be accomplished when all sides — Democrats, Republicans, environmentalists, businesses and state government — work toward the same goal. Second, and more important, it represents a change in attitude in Augusta from one that rarely considered the plight of businesses in Maine to one that realizes the importance of a strong business environment and the challenges those businesses face on a daily basis.
Jonathan McKane, R-Newcastle, represents District 51 in the Maine House of Representatives. He is the House chairman of the Joint Select Committee on Regulatory Fairness and Reform.