DAVID FARMER

Defending against all sorts of pirates

Posted Oct. 12, 2011, at 5:42 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 12, 2011, at 6:02 p.m.

When it comes to fighting off pirates, the job usually falls to the government.

That was true when President Thomas Jefferson sent the U.S. Navy to fight against the Barbary pirates of North Africa. It was true when President Obama sent Navy SEALs to dispatch pirates off Somalia and rescue an American captain.

And it’s true closer to home, when pump pirates use rigged or broken equipment to short-sell customers who are trying to buy gasoline. But in this case, we don’t need the U.S. Navy. The Maine Department of Agriculture will do just fine.

Earlier this month, Mal Leary reported that the weights and measures unit at the Department of Agriculture found several gas stations that were cheating customers by charging them for more gasoline than was actually being pumped.

Hal Prince, the person in charge of quality assurance and regulations for the Department of Agriculture, told Leary in one of the worst examples, a station was making an extra $2,300 for every thousand gallons of fuel sold.

It’s up to Prince and his inspectors to police these pump pirates and make sure that consumers aren’t being cheated.

Unfortunately, it’s not just gas stations that need to be watched.

The Agriculture Department inspectors do a lot more to protect lives and the economy. They enforce regulations that keep our food safe, manage Maine’s bottle recycling laws, and help to maintain fair and equitable business practices.

While government regulations take a bad rap, especially from the current LePage administration and within the GOP controlled Legislature, regulations aren’t necessarily anti-business.

Instead, regulations are the ground rules that businesses need. Without them, there will always be someone who’s willing to take a chance, pollute the river, cut a corner or put people at risk — either financially or physically — to gain an advantage.

And in Maine, aggressive regulations helped to save an industry that elsewhere went bad and poisoned some of its own customers.

Last year, a salmonella outbreak among Midwestern egg producers sickened almost 80,000 people and were linked to at least 30 deaths. Maine’s industry, which includes at least one of the same owners involved in Iowa, was declared salmonella free in December 2010.

In the late 1980s, Maine created one of the most aggressive salmonella reduction programs in the country. The rules here are a lot tougher than federal rules meant to protect egg-eating consumers, and require that hens be double-vaccinated against salmonella, that they receive blood tests to make sure the vaccines work and that buildings are closely monitored for mice and rats.

If similar rules were introduced today, I believe that they would be called “job-killing.” They would be derided as a product of the nanny state and a costly and unnecessary burden on business.

Regulations have been referred to as a “ big wet blanket on our economy.” And their elimination has become a central rhetorical blank, especially among many Republicans.

But in this case, regulations not only saved an industry in Maine, they may well have saved lives. And that’s true of the regulations that the Department of Agriculture enforces as well as many of the others that are enforced by other state agencies.

As Bruce Bartlett, a former adviser to Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, wrote in the New York Times, Republicans have embraced the idea that government regulations are holding back employment despite offering “no hard evidence of this claim; it is simply asserted as self-evident and repeated endlessly throughout the conservative echo chamber.”

Bartlett goes on to cite two business surveys that show that instead of regulations hurting the U.S. economy, the real drag comes from a lack of sales and demand.

As a small business owner and a former executive at a newspaper that ran a large manufacturing and distribution operation, I understand that the regulatory and tax framework can be difficult to navigate. And I also know that government regulations do not always keep pace with changing technology and changing marketplaces and that they can quickly become outdated or overly complicated.

But when it comes to pirates — be they of the cutlass wielding variety or those running rigged gas pumps — I believe that government provides the best protection.

And I put that faith where my mouth is: By eating Maine eggs and other food that it’s up to the Department of Agriculture to keep safe.

David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. He is currently working on the Yes on 1 campaign. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @dfarmer14.

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