“I believe in real, strong environmental laws,” Gov. Paul LePage said last week.
This week, eliminating the Board of Environmental Protection, weakening state air and water quality laws, designating a third of the state’s Unorganized Territory for development and reducing fines for violating state environmental rules topped his list of regulatory reforms.
The disconnect between the governor’s words and actions is astounding — and troubling.
The governor’s office says the list of 36 specific policy changes is just a blueprint and that the proposals are meant to lead to attitudinal changes among regulators. In reality, the document suggests a change in direction that would reverse decades worth of work, done with the support of Republicans and Democrats, to improve Maine’s environment.
It is unclear where the impetus for the laundry list came from. Both a legislative panel on regulatory reform and a “red tape audit” team are traveling the state to hear what business owners and others would like to see changed in Augusta. It is unlikely that reversing a ban on bisphenol-A, a chemical used in plastic bottles and food packaging that has been linked to cancer, or revising an electronics recycling program so that “manufacturers don’t have to pay to recycle their consumer products” or repealing regulation requiring that “medical sharps be shredded prior to disposal” came up often in these meetings. These all read like items on wish lists of big businesses, most of which aren’t even in Maine.
Other proposals range from the very specific — repeal a recently enacted statute on culverts — to the quixotically unenforceable — requiring the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to “provide comprehensive evidence of wildlife habitat before delaying projects” while requiring “land-owner permission prior to gathering data that will be used in public venues for zoning and regulatory purposes.”
A proposal to require that no less than 30 percent of the territory under the jurisdiction of the Land Use Regulation Commission — that would be at least 3 million acres — be zoned for development is just fanciful. Are businesses clamoring to locate in the state’s Unorganized Territory?
Maine businesses regularly cite two major impediments to growing in Maine: high energy costs and the lack of a skilled work force.
The governor’s regulatory reform proposals do nothing to address either of these concerns.
Business owners do complain about regulations in Maine. But, mostly they say they want rules to be easy to understand and want a decision made quickly on whether they can add to a building or start a new venture, for example. And, they don’t want the runaround from Augusta.
Creating a small business ombudsman in the Department of Economic and Community Development, which is included in the reform list, would help in this regard. So too would the proposal to have one agency coordinate permitting for a project that requires review by several state departments.
Rolling back Maine’s rules to match federal regulations, which the governor has proposed, may sound good, but is dangerous for a state that touts its quality of life and natural resources as its trademark. Federal regulations are a minimum. In many areas, Maine — through a legislative process that includes public hearings and, often, bipartisan votes — has decided that more stringent rules are needed.
Industries that rely on the “Maine brand,” such as aquaculture, ski areas, bottled water companies, guides and outfitters, hoteliers and restaurateurs — along with conservation and health groups — must remind the governor and lawmakers why tough but fair environmental regulations are needed.