Despite a pandemic and a crisis in national leadership, Maine’s forest industry keeps adapting to changing conditions as it works to remain competitive in a global marketplace. Many Maine residents, especially those in rural communities, are dependent on our members’ success in surviving these challenges. So we want to ensure that every newly elected Maine legislator understands the relationship between supporting businesses in their community and protecting jobs.
Legislative exuberance is rarely limited, so at last tally, Rep. Christopher Kessler, D-South Portland, had the highest LR number on the list – LR 1957 An Act To Enact the Zero Tolerance Hazardous Air Emissions Act.
There are many important ideas legislators are putting forward that are pandemic related (i.e. healthcare, employee COVID safety, business protection). So it’s no surprise LD 1 An Act To Establish the COVID-19 Patient Bill of Rights was sponsored by Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Aroostook, and House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford.
“We cannot have cost be a barrier to testing or to treatment,” Fecteau said. “Also, the importance of requiring insurance companies to cover immunizations for COVID-19 is critical,”
There also is an urgent need to focus on approving a budget in these tough economic times. On Jan. 8, Gov. Janet Mills released her $8.4 billion budget proposal, which largely holds state government spending flat while increasing education spending and a key reserve fund.
“To me, it’s a no-nonsense, no-drama document, plain and simple,” Mills said during a briefing with reporters.
Narrowing my focus to bills that may affect our forestry businesses directly, I have placed 106 titles on my preliminary watch list. A title doesn’t always convey the total intent of a bill, but we can flag concerns and seek clarification from legislative authors before the bill language is drafted in the Revisor’s Office and referred to committees of jurisdiction.
The Agriculture Conservation and Forestry Committee’s docket includes last session’s bill by Senate President Jackson to eliminate aerial applications of glyphosate (currently it’s just LR 577 An Act To Prohibit the Aerial Spraying of Glyphosate and Other Synthetic Herbicides for the Purpose of Silviculture).
Landowners spent considerable time and expense with field studies and an ACF tour in 2019 (see video below) to help inform committee members about the importance of this silvicultural tool, so it is discouraging to see Sen. Jackson has not changed his approach to this issue. Our agriculture colleagues also will be dealing with a number of pesticide issues and we’ll need to work together to continue to educate policymakers. On a positive note, a bill to replace Maine Forest Service helicopters through bonding has been proposed.
The Environment and Natural Resources Committee (ENR) will be reviewing several climate change bills. As a member of the Climate Change Council, I’ll be participating in a presentation to the committee on Jan. 27. We also will be revisiting several PFAS bills, which would affect our pulp & paper businesses, that were dropped last session.
In the Energy and Utilities Committee (EUT), we will be talking about the MFPC sawmill residuals bill that encourages investments in community Combined Heat and Power projects (CHP). This is a modest request (50MW of capacity) within the larger discussions about increasing wind and solar energy production. Some additional CHP bills have been introduced as well. There also will be a debate about the merits of a publicly owned utility structure in Maine.
Recommendations from the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Task Force will be reintroduced this session in the Judiciary Committee since these issues were unresolved when the 129th legislature shut down. We continue to be concerned with changing the sovereign rights of a group of landowners and the effect of those actions on the greater landowner community and forest manufacturing base. I am hopeful that this discussion will be respectful of the many perspectives that are at stake.
It would not be the beginning of a new legislative session without the three Sunday hunting proposals in the queue. Two Tree Growth bills that were dropped last session are returning to the Taxation Committee. Sen. Jackson has reintroduced his bill on cabotage, which perpetuates the false narrative that federal transportation laws are being violated. Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, feels compelled to make another statement that public access is a condition of Tree Growth program enrollment.
Yet despite COVID, a pulp digester explosion, and changing markets, the Maine forest economy remains resilient and a strong economic engine. I’m also optimistic that the majority of the legislators believe healthy forests and forest products are an important part of Maine’s economic, ecological and societal future. We look forward to working with them this session.