Crunch time getting closer on state budget

Patrick sig

Our weekly policy calls have ended and I would love to be able to say this legislative session is winding down. It’s true that most of the committees’ activity is complete and most bills are headed to the House and Senate for debate. But if you’ve been watching or reading the news, you’ll know the rhetoric is heating up as it comes closer to crunch time on the budget.

A shutdown in the making? I hope not. There’s still a long way to go to reach that two-thirds majority, but little time before the statutory adjournment June 17. The appetite for true tax reform seems to be waning although each party is trying to establish their own variation of tax reform. Fundamental differences on revenue-sharing and social service program funding take center stage over our ACF budget issues. If I had to predict outcomes of the budgeting process I would say the arming of rangers is in limbo. Much of the work done in the ACF committee has been modified. It seems clear that the Tree Growth changes have been eliminated and the official transfer of the Bureau of Public Lands to the Maine Forest Service is not likely to happen. But in the scope of things, the ACF budget might approach 2 percent of the total state budget, so priorities will be set in other arenas.

I’m spending time on the third floor of the State House and we may call on members to contact their legislators to support or oppose particular bills. I’ve included brief updates on some bills below. Basically we’re in good shape on most of our core issues, but I’ll be giving you a more conclusive report when the dust settles.

LD 870 An Act to amend the Spruce Budworm Management Laws.   Modifying the outdated budworm act was an important focus of the MFPC membership this session. This was a Maine Forest Service bill and I worked with the Nature Conservancy, Maine Audubon and the Natural Resources Council of Maine to achieve a unanimous report from the ACF Committee. The bill moves us forward into rulemaking and designs a variance approach that can be used in the event of severe budworm infestations.

LD 828 An Act to Improve Regulatory Consistency within the Jurisdiction of the Maine Land Use Planning Commission. This bill has been one of the most contentious for landowners and residents in the LUPC jurisdiction. Despite our revisions to the purpose and scope of LURC in 2012, we find ourselves in a zoning policy battle over landowner rights. In 2008 the Baldacci administration recognized the tension within the LURC zoning process while debates were occurring on the Plum Creek zoning petition. At the same time, the Council was strongly concerned about the Comprehensive Land Use Plan (CLUP) which was focused more on public values than landowner rights. The administration created a process to examine wind power citing in Maine. Legislation was enacted that created an expedited zone for wind power permitting. I was one of the few people testifying with concerns about the bill, but it passed with overwhelming support.

Now five years later there has been an outcry by some UT residents that they weren’t given an opportunity to protest their township being included in this zone. History is being modified to build a case for the rights of residents in the UT, when in fact nobody understood the issues of windpower citing then; It is only in hindsight individuals are demanding more input.

It’s clear there is less political support for  windpower  since the early days, but my concerns are about the precedent that would be created. LD 828 swung the pendulum too far by empowering only a few residents of a region the ability to remove areas as large as a as a single township (22,000 acres) from the expedited zone. The landowner community has acquiesced to a short window of opportunity for residents to petition LUPC for removal of their region from the expedited zone, but the majority report does not allow landowners due process, since their land can be removed without a hearing. There will be a battle over this issue in the remaining weeks and we will keep interested parties informed.

LMF/Public Lands harvest

Land for Maine’s Future and public lands funding of low-income heating assistance (LD 1397) has been a very controversial issue. The Governor made it clear in his letter to the ACF committee that he would release funding for the current pipeline of projects in the cue, only after his forthcoming bill on creating the transfer of funds to a new account was approved.  Subsequently Sen. Roger Katz, R-Kennebec, introduced his bill (LD 1378) to require the Governor to release bond funding when approved by the voters. I’ve been participating in discussion to help find a path through the apparent impasse, but at this point I am not optimistic.

LD 1373 An Act to Put ME to Work Program. House Speaker Mark Eves presented this bill as a result of his statewide tour of manufacturing facilities. His goal is to build more public-private partnerships between community college system and industries in search of trained employees. Dana Doran, representing Professional Logging Contractors (PLC), testified in support of the bill along with MFPC and others in the industry. The LePage administration brought up its concerns about the structure of the bill, and has stated their concerns about the technical college approach, preferring to build a program within the Maine Department of Labor. We’ll monitor the progress on this issue.

LD 750 an Act to Allow Regulated Metal mining in Maine.  The Environment and Natural Resources Committee worked diligently on a second review of the mining rules. Many environmental groups had input into the process, but it is not clear to me if they ever intended to support the rules.. Many changes were made to the rules that increased environmental controls, but the collective ENGO community is still portraying these rules as week. I testified that it is time to approve the framework of rules and determine if a project can be permitted to the standards of environmental excellence land managers in Maine have established. As stewards of the natural resources we would be the last group interested in contaminating ground water, but economic development opportunities in rural Maine deserve consideration. This debate in the House and Senate will be rigorous and we’ll keep you posted on when it may occur (any time!)

The Energy and Utilities Committee was faced with a wide variety of energy policy issues important to our members. We will prepare a special report on these issues in our next newsletter.

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