LEWISTON — Gov. Paul LePage on Tuesday continued his audit of state regulations that business owners believe are hindering economic development during an early-morning stop at the University of Southern Maine's Lewiston-Auburn College.
The "red tape audit" was hosted by the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce. It was attended by representatives from at least 40 local businesses who voiced frustration over a variety of rules, including workers' compensation requirements for temporary workers, vernal pool setback requirements and contradictory regulations among various state agencies.
LePage has held several of the forums since December. He said he was hearing some common problems and themes.
"The message is very consistent," he said. "We're over-regulated and it's very difficult to do business with the state of Maine. The unfriendliness of the state versus the private sector is resounding throughout the state."
LePage said his administration had already identified several regulations that he will seek to change, either through legislative action or executive order. He also plans to set up "account executives" within the Department of Economic and Community Development to help small business owners with licensing and permitting.
"They'll chase down each agency and get them to talk to each other," LePage said. "If need be, I'll go and sit through the permits myself."
Some of LePage's rule changes will be taken up by the Legislature in LD 1, An Act to Ensure Regulatory Fairness and Reform, a bill sponsored by Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Washington County.
LePage did not specify how many regulations he wanted to change, or how many would be addressed by the Legislature.
However, he indicated that he would seek to alter the state's vernal pool setback limits, an oft-cited annoyance for land developers.
Dan Keneborus of Camden National Bank said the state's expansion of vernal pool restrictions to protect "polliwogs and salamanders" was "insane."
Lucien Gosselin, head of the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council, cited several issues, including a lengthy permitting process, high-energy costs and unpredictable rule enforcement.
Afterward, LePage identified several state agencies that had been the focal point of frustration, including the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Labor.
LePage has vowed to change not only the regulatory environment, but what he says is an "adversarial" attitude some agencies have toward businesses.
That attitude was raised a couple of times Tuesday, as some business owners claimed that some officials were more focused on enforcement than on helping businesses understand complicated regulations.
LePage said he would do what he could to change the state's regulatory environment, but legislative issues would require business owners to make their voices heard.
"Pressure your representatives and your senators," LePage said. "Otherwise, they'll ignore me."
Although the focus was on regulatory red tape, some business representatives hoped the governor would help with other matters.
Kate Egeland of International Paper hoped LePage could help work on reliable freight rail service for shipping. Rick Small, executive director of the Good Shepherd Food-Bank, hoped his organization would be able to grow and process its own food to better service needy clients.
LePage also heard from representatives from St. Mary's Regional Medical Center about the state's $400 million debt to hospitals for Medicaid reimbursement. LePage has made paying the debt a priority and last week announced he was setting aside $248 million in his supplemental budget.
The payment represents about two-thirds of the money owed by the state. On Tuesday, Lee Myles, St. Mary's CEO, asked LePage when hospitals could expect to see the rest.
LePage said he hoped to pay the balance in the first year of the next biennial budget.
The state has paid hospitals a total of $2.7 billion in regular weekly payments since 2003 and nearly $1 billion more in debt payments since 2006, cleaning up money owed between 1993 and 2007.