AUGUSTA, Maine — Eight Democrats in the Maine House of Representatives broke ranks on Thursday to narrowly endorse Gov. Paul LePage’s bid to block the president’s authority to designate a national monument in the North Woods region.
The bill is likely to face constitutional challenges and is a largely symbolic gesture toward the family of Roxanne Quimby, the millionaire entrepreneur who has been lobbying President Barack Obama to give monument status to her 87,500 acres east of Baxter State Park.
It could be a first step toward Quimby’s goal of gaining national park status, which requires congressional approval, unlike a monument, and has emerged as one of Maine’s most contentious issues.
The Republican governor’s bill passed the House in an initial 77-71 vote, swung by eight Democrats — four rural and four urban — voting against the rest of their party. It now goes to the Senate and faces more votes.
Debate focused on the president’s authority, with Rep. Randall Greenwood, R-Wales, calling it “a modest change that sends a powerful message to the federal government that we do not support unilateral actions by the president.”
“I know we can’t stop it,” said Rep. Stephen Stanley, D-Medway, the bill’s sponsor, “but I think we should go on record saying we are not in favor of a national monument.”
Proponents, including the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce and business and conservation groups, have pitched the park as a massive economic development opportunity for a region reeling from the 2013 closure of its paper mill, but it has sparked vehement opposition in the region amid concerns of its impact on the logging industry.
In November 2015, U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin of the 2nd District sent a letter to the Obama administration citing “serious reservations” about the monument after symbolic votes against the proposal last year in the nearby towns of Medway and East Millinocket.
LePage’s bill would alter the list of federal land uses that the Maine Legislature automatically consents to — such as post offices, courthouses or lighthouses — to exclude national monuments. He has fought the proposal in other ways, including ordering state officials to re-establish access to state land surrounded by Quimby’s property in February.
But in the House, Rep. Roland “Danny” Martin, D-Sinclair, said the bill has “serious constitutional issues.”
An assistant Maine attorney general told a legislative committee in March that no state law could accomplish LePage’s goal and environmentalists said it violated the U.S. Constitution’s supremacy clause, which holds that federal laws take precedent over state laws.
Rep. Christopher Babbidge, D-Kennebunk, cited business support for the monument proposal, saying it’s a reason to “look forward to a more optimistic future” in the region.
“So, I say let’s not [undercut] anybody’s ability to gift their land for the benefit of our descendants,” he said.