The Great Rollback
Governor LePage’s effort to dismantle Maine’s environmental protections meets strong resistance.
- By: Colin Woodard
Image Rita Tenaglia/Dreamstime.com
This winter, Maine witnessed a political maelstrom unlike any in recent memory. The normally placid halls of the State House filled with protestors. Fired-up crowds shouted at legislators at public hearings in Belfast and Bangor. National television hosts and London newspapers were quoting the state’s chief executive saying surprising and divisive things, while the editorial boards of the state’s dailies pilloried him for his controversial range of positions, pronouncements, and policy proposals. Business leaders in the Portland Regional Chamber gave him standing ovations, even as progressive activists were organizing a satirical press conference thanking him on behalf of Monied Out-of-State Executives.
Since taking office in January, Governor Paul LePage has shaken the quiet world of state policymaking, polarizing Mainers and generating more controversy than most Maine politicians accumulate in an entire career. A poll conducted March 3-6 showed more Mainers disapprove (48 percent) than approve (43 percent) of him, with self-declared liberals and moderates strongly opposed and conservatives overwhelmingly supportive. Love him or hate him, it’s clear that LePage intends to profoundly reshape the state and isn’t afraid to break a lot of eggs in the process.
Much of the controversy thus far has been generated by the governor’s “Phase 1” regulatory reform proposal, a sixty-four-point plan that would effectively roll back a half-century’s worth of environmental and public health protections. It calls for a repeal of regulations that ban the endocrine disruptor Bisphenol-A (BPA) in children’s toys and baby bottles and require medical sharps to be shredded prior to disposal. Air and water pollution standards are to be replaced with much weaker federal ones, as are rules pertaining to universal solid waste and greenhouse gas emissions. Product stewardship laws — which require manufacturers to contribute to recycling programs for car batteries, mercury thermostats, and electronic waste — are also on the block as, indeed, are any “Maine statutory and regu-latory standards” that exceed federal ones. “Not less than 30 percent” of Maine’s vast unorganized territories — some three million acres of the North Woods — are to be rezoned for development, while the short-staffed Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will be given just thirty days to review any development anywhere in the state.
“The proposals the governor is throwing out are shocking, taken as a whole,” says Horace Hildreth, Jr., chairman of Diversified Communications in Portland, who helped draft some of Maine’s early environmental regulations as a Republican state senator in the late 1960s. “I hope he has the common sense to understand that one of the biggest draws the state of Maine has for bringing businesses, retirees, and other people to Maine is for our environment and our quality of life. If he’s oblivious to this, it’s a little scary.”
“If we allow these repeals to happen, it would really take Maine back to the 1950s, to a place we thought we had left long, long behind,” says Lisa Pohlmann, executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “We have a great deal invested in the tourism economy in Maine, and that completely relies on us maintaining the environment we — and many people across the country and around the world — love.”
LePage — whose staff declined to participate in this article — campaigned on a pledge to “get government out of the way” so as to “allow Maine’s small businesses to create jobs.” After the election, his transition team held a series of “Red Tape Workshops” for Maine business-people. Attendees at these and other public hearings say the refrain was to improve the state’s frustrating and cumbersome regulatory process, not to repeal the regulations themselves.
“What we hear from small businesspeople across the state is the need to be more reasonable in how we implement our regulations and to stop the attitude inside the DEP that people who are trying to run businesses are treated as the enemy,” says Senate President Kevin Raye (R-Perry). “Everyone I know drinks water and breathes air, as do their kids, and they want to be clean and healthy and free of carcinogens. There’s no agenda to try to loosen those protections.”
Indeed, protecting Maine’s environment has long been a bipartisan endeavor, and came in response to a mounting economic and environmental crisis in the middle of the last century. Prior to the 1950s, large out-of-state paper and energy companies controlled the State House, which in turn gave them free reign to treat Maine’s rivers as an open sewer. But after World War II, these industries started a long-term withdrawal to the American South and beyond. “Tourism was becoming the primary replacement for that heavy manufacturing economy and an important part of Maine’s image,” says University of Maine historian Richard Judd. “There was this recognition that if you wanted to project yourself as a tourism paradise, you had to clean up the rivers and the air.”
By the mid-1970s, Maine had emerged as a leader in environmental protection, with wetlands, land use, shoreland zoning, air pollution, and industrial siting laws passed by Republican legislators with the strong support of Democratic Governor Kenneth Curtis and U.S. Senator Edmund Muskie. “The environmental movement was largely spearheaded by Republicans,” says Judd. “The current rollbacks threaten an image of Maine as a natural state that’s important for business, for tourism, and for people’s image of themselves.”
“The real head-scratcher is that none of the governor’s proposals actually create new jobs here in Maine,” says Representative Bob Duchesne, the ranking Democrat on both the environment and regulatory reform committees. “The public isn’t asking for this stuff. Even the business interests are saying they don’t want to repeal this stuff. It’s a list of things that the lobbyists got beat on and now they want a second bite at the apple.”
Indeed, in February it came out that the governor’s “Phase 1” reform list had actually been written by one of the state’s premier lobbyists, Ann Robinson, who heads the lobbying division at Preti Flaherty Beliveau & Pachios, an influential Portland law firm. Robinson, who served as co-chair of LePage’s transition committee, is the registered lobbyist for the Toy Industry Association of America, the drug industry association PhRMA, and other companies that would benefit from the changes. This placed her in the enviable position of being able to ghostwrite the governor’s policies on behalf of her paying clients.
Shortly thereafter, LePage announced he had hired another Preti Flaherty attorney, Carlisle McLean, as his natural resources policy advisor. (She is an expert on the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC), the agency that regulates development in the unorganized territories, and represented the Plum Creek Timber Company in their efforts to build the largest real estate development in the state’s history on Moosehead Lake.) He also named a new deputy commissioner at the DEP: Patricia Aho, a Pierce Atwood lobbyist whose pharmaceutical and oil industry clients hired her to oppose the Kid Safe Products Act banning BPA, and who fought the ban on a toxic flame retardant on behalf of the manufacturers.
“We’ve been battling with these powerful national consumer product associations and chemical manufacturers for the last five or six years, and now they actually have their lobbyists being employed by the LePage administration,” says Hannah Pingree, the Democratic Speaker of the House from 2008 to 2010. “They don’t want to see little states like Maine take action, because that can lead to a domino effect where California or Illinois follow suit and that starts having an effect on their bottom line.”
Meanwhile, the governor is bunkering down. His communications director, Dan Demeritt, refused to speak to Down East about this story or to answer any of a written set of questions submitted at his office’s request. However, Phil Harriman, a retired Republican legislator and sometime political pundit, says he knows all the lobbyists in question, and he came to their defense. “These are people of high integrity who have earned their reputations long before Paul LePage was governor and I suspect will be engaged in public policy discussion long after LePage,” he says. “I think they will demonstrate with their deeds that they won’t put themselves in a situation where their reputations will be sullied by a perceived conflict.”
But it’s difficult to find sources willing to support the governor’s proposed repeal of the bans on BPA and other chemicals, which appear to have become politically toxic. Demeritt has claimed the BPA ban was requested by the Maine Grocers Association (MGA), and the governor’s office produced a letter they received from the group to back their assertion. But the letter’s author, MGA Executive Director Shelley Doak, denies this, pointing out that the letter asks that the implementation of the ban be postponed, not repealed. (“What I was suggesting was that we make sure by postponing the rules that we’ve given it a thorough reviewing of the science and go from there,” she says.) Even the pro-business Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce has distanced itself from parts of the governor’s “Phase 1” agenda. “I don’t think anyone in the business community thinks we have to sacrifice the quality of our environment to make business better,” Vice President Chris Hall told the Portland Press Herald, adding that ending recycling of e-waste would likely cost Maine jobs. “Let’s just have conversations and see what makes sense.”
Meanwhile, legislative sources say these and other more controversial proposals appear to have little hope of being implemented as they seek to undo laws passed with strong bipartisan support. “The agenda seemed to include any idea put forward from anywhere, and a lot of the ideas may have come from out of state companies and their lobbyists,” says Representative Dana Dow (R-Waldoboro), who co-sponsored the Kid Safe Product Act. “I’m the type of person who likes to put everything on the table and take a look at it, but it doesn’t mean everything that’s there is worthy of eating. There’s probably some junk food there that you’ll probably feed to the dog.”
Indeed, the governor has already apparently bowed to pressure, removing many of the most controversial items from the draft of the initial regulatory reform bill, though his staff has promised to reintroduce them later. Many of the remaining measures do have a local constituency, such as eliminating the Bureau of Environmental Protection (a citizen’s review board) or repealing the Informed Growth Act (which requires studies of how “big box” retail developments affect local economies). Others expected to surface later have political traction as well, including proposals to revamp or replace LURC. (“It has the tendency to diminish the views and concerns of the people who actually live in the unorganized territories, and to treat private property there as if it isn’t quite private,” says Senator Raye. “This isn’t an environmental question, it’s about the control of the land and about rural Maine’s destiny.”)
“It could be that the governor just put this forward as the opening move in a negotiation,” says University of Southern Maine political scientist Ron Schmidt. “But if he’s trying to carve out a position as an independent figure who can appeal to people from across Maine’s political spectrum, it wasn’t very effective.”
- By: Colin Woodard