Regulatory board proposing two law changes to help Maine businesses

Posted Dec. 20, 2012, at 8:05 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Regulatory Fairness Board will make two recommendations to the Legislature in an effort to improve the state’s regulatory environment and ameliorate the “adversarial relationship” that has developed between regulators and businesses.

The five-member board met on Thursday afternoon to go over dozens of pages of testimony it’s gathered at public meetings over the course of the past year.

The two recommendations are currently in draft form and will be approved at the board’s next meeting, which has not been scheduled, before being sent to the Legislature.

“This may be the shortest report in history, but it may be one of the most salient ones, too,” board Chairman Secretary of State Charlie Summers said.

The board’s first recommendation will be that lawmakers pass a bill to require state and local regulators, at least initially, to make an appointment with business owners rather than make surprise visits that force an owner or manager to step away from the business, no matter the circumstances, to meet with regulators.

“I love it,” said Mark Tyler, the board’s vice chairman and owner of a restaurant and specialty food store in Oakland. “It’s simple. It should be.”

“Business owners aren’t necessarily trying to violate regulations,” Tyler said. “They’re often unaware of them. So instead of this adversarial relationship where a regulator comes in and says, ‘Ha Ha! I caught you!,’ let’s work together and do it in a more businesslike atmosphere.”

Summers described the recommendation as trying “to go about this with the carrot rather than the stick.”

The board’s second recommendation will be to require some form of continuing education for all local and state officials who have enforcement responsibilities, as well as outreach to business owners, so that all stakeholders are kept aware of new laws and regulations passed each year by the Legislature. Summers compared it to the training required of town clerks to keep up on laws regarding elections.

Determining what form that continuing education takes — conferences, seminars, online learning tools, etc. — is not part of the board’s mandate, but its members said such a requirement would help standardize enforcement throughout the state. It also would ensure all businesses are subject to the same regulations and, therefore, any expenses to meet those regulations.

Besides requiring regulatory enforcement training for government officials, Tyler said a more important aspect of the board’s recommendation will be that the state should make efforts to better communicate with business owners about new regulations.

“Let’s say the Legislature passes a bill that affects my business,” Tyler said. “If you’re not making me aware of it, how can I comply with it?”

He beats critics to the punch: “They’re going to say it’s my responsibility, but I’m busy running a business. So, in today’s electronic age, you’re telling me you couldn’t fire me off an email and give me the heads-up on that?”

Another consideration beyond the mandate of the board is what such an outreach program would cost. Tyler admits it would cost money, but said it’s worth it “because the more efficient we become at this, the better.”

Other issues that came up in the public testimony were discussed, but Summers urged the board to zero in on a few key areas and keep the recommendations as specific as possible.

“The more we put in this [report], the more confused the Legislature is going to become, the more quickly they’ll be worn down, and it’ll be less likely they’ll do anything about it,” Summers said.

Doug Smith, another board member and a former legislator from Dover-Foxcroft, said the report should state forcefully that regulatory costs are slowing economic growth in Maine, and use a few examples from the testimony to bolster the contention.

“It seems to me we have to be able to go that far if we really want to fundamentally address this whole issue,” Smith said.

The recommendations will be included in a draft report that Jay Martin, the state’s small business advocate and the board’s staff member, will prepare and submit to the board at its next meeting, which has not yet been scheduled.

The board’s final report is due to the Legislature by Feb. 1, 2013.

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