AUGUSTA, Maine — If their first two meetings are any indication, lawmakers on the committee that oversees the Land Use Regulation Commission could face a rocky road as they prepare to take up a list of recommended reforms to the state agency.
It took members of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee two meetings to even decide in which form they should begin to consider the list of proposed LURC reforms. And they barely touched upon the meat of the recommendations from a task force that studied ways to improve state oversight of more than 10 million acres in Maine.
The committee, meeting in the Cross Office Building in the State House complex, voted Tuesday to send draft language to the legislative office that writes bills, but not before some members raised concerns about the process thus far.
Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono, criticized Republicans’ decision last week directing the reform panel’s two chairmen to work with the committee analyst to come up with the draft. Schneider was most frustrated by the fact that one of the two chairmen — Department of Conservation Commissioner Bill Beardsley — is a member of the LePage administration and that lawmakers were barred from those discussions.
Schneider said she was not aware of a similar instance in her years “under the dome” and warned it could set a dangerous precedent of allowing the executive branch to help draft committee bills while excluding other lawmakers.
“Today you may be all hunky dory with the process but tomorrow it could come back and bite you,” Schneider told her Republican colleagues.
But Sen. Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said he had seen similar techniques used by Democratic leaders of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee on complicated bills that needed work before lawmakers delved into them.
And the committee chairmen assured Schneider and other lawmakers that the specifics of the bill would get a full airing during public hearings and work sessions.
“There will be plenty of changes to whatever we submit, no matter how we do it,” said Rep. Peter Edgecomb, R-Caribou.
Most of the LURC reform recommendations appear to have bipartisan support. Less-controversial items include: having LURC work with counties to develop regional comprehensive planning and zoning; allowing county governments to take over minor permitting or review responsibilities; allowing the Department of Environmental Protection to handle commercial wind power applications; and transferring enforcement of forestry regulations to the Maine Forest Service.
But a proposal to allow counties to opt-out of LURC after three years is already encountering push-back. And some lawmakers and LURC observers are dissatisfied with a proposal giving county commissioners control over six of the nine seats on the new commission. Currently, all seven LURC members are nominated by the governor and approved by the Legislature.
A public hearing on the LURC reform bill is not expected until mid-February.