October 18, 2019
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LePage bars fire marshal from hearing on Maine fireworks bill

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Bangor's largest Fourth of July fireworks display in 2005. The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Monday takes up Rep. Douglas Damon’s bill to remove from Maine law a prohibition on the sale and use of consumer fireworks.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers heard testimony Monday from supporters and opponents of legislation that would allow the sale and use of a wide range of fireworks in the state.

But perhaps the idea’s most vocal opponent was conspicuously silent.

That’s because Gov. Paul LePage — whose administration supports the sale and use of some consumer fireworks — did not allow anyone from the State Fire Marshal’s Office to testify before lawmakers Monday. The fire marshal’s office has consistently opposed similar legislation in the past.

“In his role as fire marshal, [John Dean] has offered testimony on similar bills in the past, and I don’t think it would be fair to him to ask him to express an opinion contrary — well, not exactly contrary — to what he has said in the past,” said Dan Billings, Gov. Paul LePage’s chief legal counsel, on the administration’s decision not to allow Dean to testify.

Dean could not be reached for comment Monday.

Billings said the LePage administration supports allowing the sale and use of more consumer fireworks, just not all of those allowed by the federal law on which the proposed Maine legislation is based.

“The administration believes [the bill] is too broad, and the committee should work through the list to determine what the state wants to allow,” said Billings, who did relay some of the fire marshal’s safety concerns to the committee Monday.

Rep. Douglas Damon, R-Bangor, sponsor of the bill, said he took the definition in his proposal from federal law. He believes with so many people in the state already using consumer-type fireworks — such as firecrackers, bottle rockets and Roman candles — the state should allow the sale and use of fireworks and benefit from businesses that would sell the fireworks and taxes that would be generated.

“Fireworks are here, whether we like it or not,” he said. “We have a problem. We have the fireworks, but we don’t have the safety training for handling them. That has to change.”

Damon’s legislation would divert funds from the sales tax on fireworks to provide training for handling the fireworks allowed in the state. A bill defeated two years ago was estimated to raise $400,000 in sales tax revenue for the state.

“This state needs all the business it can get,” said David Sleeper of Hermon, the owner of a Bangor real estate company and former owner of Perry’s Nut House in Belfast. “I realize this is a very tiny little portion, but nevertheless, this will enhance the economics of the state of Maine and have a minimal impact on people.”

But the potential impact on people was the concern of opponents to the legislation, such as local public safety officials and doctors who have dealt with injuries from fireworks.

Dr. William Atlee is an ophthalmologist who practiced in Augusta until he retired recently. He told lawmakers that the fireworks that are currently legal — sparklers — cause a lot of serious injuries and that those proposed would cause even more.

“Particularly to children under five,” he said. “They are fun, they look nice, but they burn at surprisingly high intensity at a documented 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and a very light touch can cause a second- or third-degree burn.”

Andy MacLean, Vice President of the Maine Medical Association, said the organization opposes the legislation. He said there is great concern among doctors about the widespread use of fireworks outside of professional displays.

“There is no way that sufficient safety training requirements can be imposed on the average citizen that would outweigh the significant public health risk that this poses,” he said.

Bill Vickerson of the Maine State Federation of Firefighters said his organization discussed the bill and was astonished it was introduced.

“When our legislative committee was discussing this, it was kind of hard for any of us to think that anyone thought this is a good idea,” he said.

Vickerson said lawmakers should recognize that while neighboring New Hampshire allows the sale of fireworks, it does not allow the use of those fireworks by its citizens. He said there are a lot of costs to fire agencies from fires caused by fireworks, even with the current limitations on sale and use.

Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, a former co-chairwoman of the committee, said that while previous administrations have blocked state officials from testifying before the panel, she does not like the practice, because the Legislature has the oversight role over executive branch actions.

“The fire marshal’s office voice should have been heard during this debate,” she said. “They are the ones with the expertise.”

But Rep. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, the co-chairman of the panel, said he was not concerned at the gag order on the fire marshal. He said the office would be at the work session on the bill and committee members will have the benefit of the expertise in the office as they consider the proposal.

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