The elections are over and it is time to prepare for the 127th Legislature. With one of the largest freshmen classes of legislators in recent history, a lot of relationship building and education will need to take place. After spending time hosting regional breakfasts throughout the state and meeting many wonderful candidates, it’s time to congratulate the winners and get down to business. We hold our traditional Legislative Reception at MFPC’s office in February and we are always available to provide tours to our member mills and forest operations.
At MFPC’s Board meeting Nov. 13, we had a lot of discussion about the next four years and especially the upcoming legislative session. We heard from Maine State Forester Doug Denico; John Butera, senior economic advisor to Gov. Paul LePage, and Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Penobscot, the assistant Senate majority leader. We’ll also be meeting with Democratic leaders. We’ve also starting the effort to build understanding of our industry with a mailing to all legislators, introducing the Council and some of our important issues.
The return of Gov. Paul LePage is welcome news for our industry. His focus on natural resource issues and, in particular, the forest products industry gives us the opportunity to work with the administration in building a strong business plan as our markets begin to resurge. The return of manufacturing to the United States, which I’ve written about before, requires Maine to focus on the assets that it has (in our case a sustainably managed forest) and determine what are the things government can do to help private industry expand and create more jobs and products. I’ve been looking a lot at how we benchmark our costs against other wood product states such as Wisconsin and Michigan and will report on these comparisons in the next few months. The comparisons will help us focus on public policies and initiatives that will make us more competitive.
As starting points we know energy costs are going to be discussed in the Legislature. Costs are expected to spike this winter and some mills will be faced with a decision to temporarily shut down during the winter or operate at a loss. The council has been working on our energy platform that we will publish in our next newsletter. Increasing natural gas supplies is critically important, but we also need to determine how our important biomass energy businesses will be affected and their future role in Maine’s renewable energy portfolio (Maine is a leader in biomass energy production).
We also need to focus on jobs and training as the industry seeks to replace retiring loggers and mill workers. If we are successful in building more forest resource businesses we will also need to plan for recruitment of additional workers. Efforts within the industry are being discussed, but there will be a role for the Legislature in directing resources and priorities for the state of Maine.
The recently released draft of the budworm response plan provides a base of discussion about the potential return of this bug and its effect on the spruce-fir landscape and forest policy the last time it arrived. In Quebec 10 million acres of forest were defoliated this year and while we may have several years before it might reach Maine (MFS bug trapping is showing increased populations) the time for dialog is now while we have time to do some intelligent planning. It is also the time to discuss the structure of the Maine Forest Service who will have an increasingly important role in monitoring invasive insect and disease issues and assist landowners in seeking variances in cases of severe threat from insects.
When legislators hear about forest rangers interested in becoming armed with guns, we hope they will ask us why we are opposed and think a better idea for the long-term future of the Maine Forest Service is to invest in protecting the forest rather than turning rangers into law enforcement personnel. Limited resources need to be used to beef up the entomology and management mission of the agency.
Business taxes are anticipated to be in the forefront of discussions in the Legislature. We welcome a comprehensive review and will provide examples from other forest products states with whom we compete, to see what differences exist. We are also vigilant about protecting the Tree Growth Tax Law, the state’s most successional conservation law. It helps landowners maintain a long-term commitment to grow trees, rather than succumb to the pressures of land development if their property were taxed for its value for development.
That’s my anticipated preview of issues, but I’m always amazed at the creativity of legislators as they bring their ideas into play. Legislators who have ideas for bills to be introduced that affect the forest industry should feel free to seek input from our members. Our weekly policy call will be initiated as we see legislative titles being introduced. Our Policy Committee is the most active committee in the Council and our review of bills and discussion on policy positions is some of the most important work that we do.
My hope for this legislative session is that we can accomplish some meaningful work that will build on the opportunities for Maine’s forest sector and allow the people who work in it to prosper. There are encouraging signs despite some recent setbacks in Millinocket and Bucksport. Housing starts are increasing, biomass energy markets remain robust, and the paper industry continues to diversify and grow in Maine.
I’m looking forward to representing all the members and our diverse needs as we seek to educate and connect with the new class of important policy makers.