Legislative update and view of ranger task force
By Patrick Strauch, MFPC Executive Director
My thanks to Mark Doty, John Cashwell and Tom Doak as we all took turns representing the large and small landowner slots on the task force, it was not an easy assignment because that group was focused on an expanded public safety role for the rangers while we were trying to explain the how limited resources need to be focused on resource protection. Commissioner Walt Whitcomb presented the group with a compromise position based on research based on rangers in other states. In this proposal a smaller unit of conservation officers would be created to deal with potentially more risky encounters (I.e. arson investigations, delivery of summonses) and the rangers would remain in a core position of fire fighting and resource protection. This proposal did not make it in to the final report, but it was a compromise we supported.
The Criminal Justice Committee was wise to decide to send their chairs to consult with the chairs of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee so that a discussion of both policy and funding can take place.
For rangers to be trained at a level to work with other law enforcement personnel the costs and time commitment will be high. In the meantime budworm, ash borers, woolly adelgid and more harmful insects are marching our way; outreach to southern Maine forest landowners to promote forestry is waning, and the state foresters’ role in budworm salvage operations is being planned. We are hopeful that this discussion can take place in the ACF Committee and will keep you up-to-date on this issue, so that you can let your legislators know your views.
EUT Committee discussing renewable energy bills
The Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee (EUT) has conducted several meetings to review hold-over bills from last session. A cluster of renewable energy bills as well as the committee’s role in the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard were discussed. Carryover bills must be voted out of committees by Friday, Jan. 24.
Determining an overall bill that encompasses feed in tariffs, net energy billing increases and removal of the 100 megawatt cap on the RPS standard for hydropower seems like a daunting task for the committee with limited time dedicated this session to hold over bills. Presentations by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) were informative but sobering. PUC Chairman Tom Welch said he believes no matter what we do to install hydro or increase gas capacity, we will be living with high electricity prices for the next three years (the time it would take to bring these resources on line.) Director of Energy Patrick Woodcock commented on the renewable energy matrix presented by the PUC as informative, but all scenarios will add to the cost of energy. The elements within the omnibus energy bill passed last session may be the best we can hope for in terms of new energy initiatives this session.
On Wednesday, the EUT Committee discused LD 616, which is a process to exclude certain townships from the expedited wind energy zones. It is a challenging and precedent-setting issue for landowners who have been focused on creating expanded zoning opportunities in the unorganized territories instead of reducing zoned uses. That’s why we are concerned with the precedent that will be established. MFPC was instrumental in bringing the planning process closer to the people of the region through regional planning, but the idea of creating rights for individuals within the UT to de-zone uses on the land of others is problematic. It would be a similar battle in organized towns if zones were changed to limit uses. Several options are being discussed and will be reported in the newsletter in the future.
- After six meetings the Tax Expenditure Task Force did not achieve consensus on any actions, but have listed items discussed as a group in their final report. The objective was to find savings/funding that would fill the $40 million gap, which otherwise would be achieved through reduced revenue sharing to municipalities. A specific proposal to tax amusements and entertainment was abruptly dropped by the committee at their last meeting. Some committee members believe business needs to feel the pain (i.e. cuts to BETR), a frustrating proposition to those manufacturers struggling to survive in Maine. Thanks to Jon Block at Pierce Atwood for his insights into the task force process.
- The BETR /BETE Task Force reach agreement on a four-year plan to transition BETR into BETE. There was some disagreement about allowing retail businesses into the BETE program. Faced with a loss of revenue sharing, the Maine Municipal Association, in general, is against losing any taxable property to BETE.