Down East 2013 ©
Bangor Daily News
Saving Sears Island
Political theater shouldn’t be allowed to trump a good deal.
For decades, environmental groups rallied to save Sears Island from industrial development. In recent years, proponents of a port on the island began pushing back, noting the island was purchased by the state in 1998 expressly for future transportation needs. When the liquefied natural gas industry began looking at the 941-acre Penobscot Bay island for a possible terminal facility in late 2003, it seemed another chapter in the forty-year history of debate over the island’s fate was about to be written.
Instead, Governor John Baldacci took LNG off the table, and convened a forty-plus member stakeholder group. That group labored for eighteen months on an agreement that puts two-thirds of the island in permanent conservation for low-impact recreation such as hiking and bird-watching, while reserving the remaining third for a possible port; that port would be built only if facilities at nearby Mack Point can no longer be expanded.
A bit of political theater recently staged by the Rockland-based Penobscot Bay Watch, in which the group’s supporters acted as pallbearers for a coffin symbolizing the Sierra Club, seemed aimed at inciting new conflict over Sears Island. Penobscot Bay Watch sought to embarrass the Sierra Club for the role its Maine chapter played in developing the compromise agreement. The Sierra Club, through lawsuits, stalled construction of the port in the late 1980s and 1990s, so it is a convenient target.
It is true that Sears Island, the largest uninhabited island on the East Coast, is a stunningly beautiful microcosm of the Maine coast. But because its northwestern shore lies adjacent to forty-foot-deep waters, and because the Maine, Montreal, & Atlantic Railway could easily extend a line across the wide causeway that connects the island to Searsport, Sears Island is also an ideal place for a shipping port. With the world’s energy economy in flux, it is impossible to predict what Maine’s future transportation needs will be. But it’s not hard to imagine needing a deepwater port, especially since transporting goods by ship is the most energy-efficient method with the smallest carbon footprint.
Maine taxpayers have spent millions constructing the causeway and jetty and buying the island for transportation needs. That investment is honored by the agreement struck last year.
And the five environmental groups that worked on the agreement should be praised, not shamed, for their courage. They achieved what had eluded others for forty years — permanently conserving six hundred acres on the island. They looked beyond their narrow missions to see the importance of retaining the possibility of a port on the island, whose need may one day be deemed critical to Maine’s economic survival.
Journal Tribune, Biddeford
The claim to names for Dirigo Health
Two special-interest coalitions are presently at war in Maine, one circulating a petition, the other urging voters not to sign it. The controversial petition is seeking the opportunity to wield a “people’s veto” against the Maine legislature. Since we think such a veto undercuts the way government should operate, we advise against signing the petition.
Good government requires patience and compromise. Legislators must serve our interests; if they fail they can be voted out within two years. What sword do we have to hold over the coalitions that claim to represent us?
Even without considering their motives, there is good reason to be skeptical of the campaign for a people’s veto. But the group calling itself “Fed Up With Taxes,” while pursuing the interests of the beverage industry, threatens the underpinnings of a health insurance program serving thousands of Mainers.
The battle revolves around Dirigo Health, and the plan to fund it with sales taxes on beer, wine, and soft drinks. The petition drive, backed by some grocers and bottlers, is opposed by Health Coverage for Maine, a group representing health-care advocates and providers.
Dirigo has yet to achieve its ambitions of making affordable health insurance widely available, but it covers more than 18,000 families, including the proprietors and employees of about seven hundred small businesses. It also continues to pursue public health improvements and cost containment.
Cost savings achieved by Dirigo have been the major source of funding for the program. But this money, raised through a savings offset fee levied on insurers, has been controversial and inconsistent. The sales tax is expected to provide enough money to make DirigoChoice available to the nearly forty thousand Maine people now paying through the nose for insurance in the individual market.
The people’s veto drive threatens to undercut the legislative compromise on Dirigo funding. But as the health care coalition sees it, the problem is more immediate than that. If Fed Up With Taxes gathers more than 55,000 signatures by July 17, the state will be prohibited from implementing the fees pending a referendum vote in November. This will force Dirigo to continue to rely on the controversial offset fee.
We realize there is room for disagreement on how health care should be reformed. But anyone willing to give Dirigo more time to build on its modest success should not sign this petition.
Kennebec Journal, Augusta
The promise of wood pellets
If Maine is going to sprout new and successful business ventures, it’s likely that more than a few of them will be based on local resources and local traditions. The new will have its roots in the old. So it’s no surprise that Maine’s third wood-pellet mill began operation recently on the edge of the northern forest in Athens.
That’s where Maine Woods Pellet Company is making small slugs of compacted pulp wood and sawdust to be burned as fuel. In what’s called a vertically integrated operation, the pellets are made from the leftovers — tree limbs and tops, for example — of the logging operations run by two of the project partners. As long as those logging operations continue, there will be a guaranteed source of material to manufacture the pellets.
Maine Woods Pellet Company plans to expand production to a hundred thousand tons of pellets per year. Now, they’re making 120 tons daily and, so far, they have one large industrial customer, Sappi Fine Paper of Skowhegan. Two other mills in the state, in Corinth and Ashland, together produce 95,000 tons of wood pellets. Another mill is slated to begin operation this fall in Strong, on the site of the former Forster Manufacturing toothpick mill, which closed in 2003.
And at a recent meeting of the Maine Pulp and Paper Association, state Conservation Commissioner Pat McGowan said the state has the capacity to annually produce nine hundred thousand tons of pellets based on the wood fiber that’s left in the woods after harvesting. All these pellets need a market, and that’s the good news. With oil prices rising almost daily, the production of an alternative, indigenous, sustainably grown, and cheaper fuel source has strong market potential.
Pellet manufacturers in Maine and elsewhere in the country, where production facilities have sprung up from Florida to Pennsylvania, are eyeing Europe as a potentially lucrative market — if they can figure out how to ship pellets there cheaply.
Shipping to a faraway market isn’t the only challenge facing the nascent wood-pellet industry. There are frustrated murmurs from the forest products industry that pellet manufacturing will diminish the supply of fiber to the state’s paper mills. There’s a shortage of qualified technicians to install wood-pellet stoves. There’s no system for distributing the pellets within the state.
While both the state and federal government have been helpful with grants and loans to get the pellet operations up and running, there’s more room for assistance by the state’s economic development arm in helping the industry address these challenges. Which is just what the governor is doing by making the expansion of the wood-to-energy industry and market a state priority. By concentrating on homegrown raw materials and an industry that has its roots deep in the Maine forest, he’s placing his bets on an emerging sector that can be built on the foundation of a prosperous past.
Maine Sunday Telegram, Portland
Two Maines, two sets of ethics
What do you know? There really are two Maines. Not, as we have long been told, northern and southern or rural and urban, but the Maine that exists under the State House dome and the one that the rest of us live in.
In the first Maine, everyone knows everyone else and understands that citizen legislators come to their demanding part-time jobs with a lifetime of associations. But they use their discretion to stay out of situations in which their personal or business interests would come into conflict with the interests of the people who elected them.
In the other Maine, the legislature is a closed world, from which a few familiar faces occasionally emerge to announce the important decisions that have been made, which will affect our lives. We never know exactly who influenced those decisions, but we are expected to have confidence that the process was fair.
The two Maines came into conflict this legislative session over the issue of ethics rules for lawmakers, and the first Maine came out on top. If the second Maine is going to continue to have confidence in the fairness of the legislative process, the next legislature should come back and do a better job.
Much of the bill sponsored by House Speaker Glenn Cummings, D-Portland, has become law and is a sign of progress. Citizens will now be able to file complaints against legislators at the state Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, a privilege that was previously only given to other legislators. But opposition in the Senate forced Cummings to strip important language from the final bill that would have more broadly defined a conflict of interest and would have prohibited lawmakers from serving on committees that oversee the same agencies they lobby when they are not working as legislators.
In the first Maine, those restrictions would get in the way of citizen legislators using their expertise to develop new laws and would open them up to politically motivated ethics complaints. In the Maine where the rest of us live, these are common-sense rules that would assure us that our representatives are really only representing us.
The right to file a complaint is nice, but doesn’t mean much when conduct that should be prohibited is acceptable practice under current rules. On Election Day, voters in the second Maine, where the rest of us live, should make sure that candidates for the under-the-dome Maine understand the need for change.
Keeping government open
When candidates run for public office, one of the most frequently stated goals is to cooperate with other levels of government in an effort to provide more efficient use of taxpayers’ money. But once in office, that goal evaporates faster than a puddle on a hot summer day. This lack of communication is a mystery.
Several years ago, the Rockland City Council and School Administrative District 5 board held a joint session. As the officials were ending the meeting, they commented how pleased they were with the discussions and how it should become a regular event. Common sense should dictate that the city council, school board, and county commissioners meet together at least once a year.
The city council gets high marks for operating with the greatest of openness. City council meetings are aired live on the public access channel and then rerun frequently. This televising of meetings is a great service. There are few secrets that can be hidden when business is transmitted to the homes of nearly every Rockland home.
SAD 5 has spurned every effort to have its meetings televised. There has been a list of excuses, but the bottom line is that the board does not want its sessions viewed by the general population. The district, as required by law, does publicize its meetings and those times, dates, and places are published in the newspaper. Board members are volunteers, and their time serving the community should be applauded, but the general public is not going to spend hours each week going to a meeting.
And Knox County. . . .
The commissioners also could hold its meetings at city hall, which already is wired for live broadcasts. Instead, they meet during the day when the working public is unable to attend. Their sessions are not broadcast.
In the end, when the property tax bills are sent, it is the city of Rockland’s name on the bills, even though the majority of money will be going to SAD 5 and Knox County. The city council should take the bulls by the horns and “invite” the school board and county commissioners to meet to discuss potential areas of cooperation. At a time of economic difficulty, maybe some arm-twisting by the city could convince both government agencies that business as usual is not the best course in 2008.
Sun Journal, Lewiston
A laudable promise
A byproduct of running one of America’s most-watched campaigns for the U.S. Senate is, all of a sudden, having a lot of friends you wished you didn’t. This is Representative Tom Allen’s quandary, and the genesis of his surprising announcement — or declaration, rather — toward outside parties interested in tearing down his opponent, Senator Susan Collins: your uninvited assistance is now entirely unwelcome.
“I want to make it clear to these outside groups . . . that if they plan to attack Senator Susan Collins, don’t,” says Allen. Of course, this could be interpreted as Allen calling off the hounds after they’ve smelled the rabbit. Independent political groups, like MoveOn.org and others, have been pushing Allen’s candidacy at Collins’ expense for months.
Allen has also been criticized for his financial support from MoveOn members, a charge he considers specious, because of MoveOn’s membership criteria.
“All it takes is giving them an e-mail,” he says. But the figures are anything but specious — MoveOn members raised $250,000 for Allen last year, which he then touted in an interview as “you [making] a difference.”
“Frankly, I’m going to be relying on the netroots,” Allen said in a July 27, 2007, interview with Jonathan Singer, of mydd.com. “Because it alters the whole balance of power here in Washington, and I don’t have to depend on oil companies and pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies to raise money for a campaign.”
While interesting, such outside intervention is only a sideshow. Allowing others to run roughshod with their own agendas does hurt this race. The voters’ decision shouldn’t be influenced by others’ desires to tilt the Senate’s demographics one way or the other. Allen is right to try to return this campaign to the people who will decide the election.
That is idyllic thinking, though. Truth is, Allen cannot control these outside groups.
Through this pledge, Allen may be trying to distance himself from some of his more vicious supporters, who could do his campaign more harm than good.
He is right in asking them to stop.
But what he wants doesn’t matter. What matters is whether they listen.