After a week of serious lobbying by supporters and opponents, the Maine House approved the ACF merger bill, 93-49, Friday on first reading.
Executive Director Patrick Strauch called the last few days “a rollercoaster” for the “regular team,” including Tom Doak and Bill Williams of SWOAM, Jon Olson and Clark Granger of the Maine Farm Bureau, Bob Meyers of MSA, Kimberly Cook of the Wild Blueberry Commission and Michele MacLean, MFPC lobbyist. Members of the Natural Resources Network sent a letter to all legislators outlining why they support the merger.
“We’ve also had a significant amount of help from Tom Abello of the Nature Conservancy and Jeff Roman from Maine Coast Heritage Trust,” Strauch said.
The Senate is expected to take up the bill next week and Strauch urged MFPC members to contact their senators and urge them to support it.
“I think that’s really important, even though we had all three senators on the ACF Committee vote in favor of the bill,” Strauch said. “The Senate remains the last place where those opposed to it can work hard to turn around those legislators.”
The debate on LD 837 lasted 45 minutes, but about a third of that time was taken up by Rep. Peter Kent, (D-Woolwich), one of only two legislators to speak in opposition (along with Rep. Joan Welsh, D-Rockport). Kent also was one of the two ACF Committee members (along with Rep. Brian Jones) who voted against the bill. Kent argued Friday that the merger was too heavily weighted in favor of agriculture and that conservation concerns and efforts would suffer. He repeatedly asked that someone tell him how the merger would benefit conservation.
“This proposed new department is focused on agriculture,” Kent said. “At its core it’s about farming and the Department of Conservation — boosting agricultural programs and shifting programs in the merged department away from stewardship and preservation toward economic development potential.”
Rep. Kent represented the position of NRCM and Audubon, which was that the Department of Conservation should only be about their definition of conservation. Kent never mentioned forestry. We were happy that other legislators talked about the importance of a combined focus on land uses for agriculture, conservation and forestry and emphasized how conservation is reflected in all farming and forestry activities. Several ACF Committee members spoke in favor, including Rep. James F. Dill (D-Old Town), Chair, Rep. Craig V. Hickman (D-Winthrop), Rep. William F. Noon (D-Sanford), Rep. Dean Cray (R-Palmyra), Rep. Donald G. Marean (R-Hollis), Rep. Russell J. Black (R-Wilton) and Rep. Jeffrey L. Timberlake (R-Turner).
“We had plenty of support and it was remarkable to see Rep. McCabe and Rep. Fredette stand up and speak in favor of a bold new approach going forward,” Strauch said
In other legislative action,
- At around 5:30 a.m., the Appropriations Committee reported it had reached unanimous agreement on the $6.3 billion biennial state budget. To close the budget gap, the committee approved a .5 percent increase to the sales tax for two years and a 1 percent increase to the meals and lodging tax for two years. Read news story.
- LD 1559, the omnibus energy bill, won both Senate and House (131-7) approval on their first votes. “IECG MPPA and many other groups participated in the process,” Strauch said. “Concepts include a reduction in rates, which is important to all ratepayers in Maine. We’ve asked the question: Can government get involved in establishing natural gas infrastructure? And agreed to do that in this energy bill.” Read news story.
- In an 18-17 vote, the Senate rejected LD 1302, a bill that would have a rewritten a mining bill passed last session, which is still in the rule-making process. The House has passed the bill 91-49 Wednesday. The Senate’s vote makes it unlikely to pass, though it faces further action in the House. “That was a good vote and involved a lot of hard work by Sen. Tom Saviello, (R-Franklin) and Sen. Troy Jackson, (D-Aroostook) to push off any changes until we see a complete set of rules, which will come at us next year,” Strauch said. “That’s the process that we all agreed to last session and it’s the right way to go forward instead of creating so much uncertainty. I think that’s a great outcome. There has been some discussion about a conference committee discussing whether the issues could be resolved. But we’re not sure if that’s the path that we’ll be taking.” Please let senators know you’re against this bill – especially Sen. Edward Youngblood, R- Penobscot, and Sen. David Dutremble, D-York, who supported the bill. It was a tight margin and we need to hold the second vote in the Senate. We were very pleased that Sen. Emily Cain, D-Penobscot, voted no on LD 1302. Read news story.
- LD 1259, Resolve, Regarding Legislative Review of Portions of Chapter 17: Rules Regarding Proof of Ownership and Recruitment by Employers Employing Foreign Laborers To Operate Logging Equipment, a Major Substantive Rule of the Department of Labor, got an 86-56 approval vote Thursday, but that wasn’t the two-thirds majority required for failed to get the two-thirds vote required for emergency action. “So I Imagine the emergency clause will be stripped out and they’ll try to put it through the house again,” Strauch said.