AUGUSTA (AP) — Following seven hearings across the state to take views from businesses, organizations and citizens, lawmakers embarked Monday on what's expected to be a long and arduous path toward overhauling Maine's environmental regulations.
The Joint Select Committee on Regulatory Fairness and Reform held a hearing on Gov. Paul LePage's reform bill, which gets the distinction of being legislative document No. 1 of the hundreds being introduced this session. Scores of people who turned out sat in separate committee rooms where they could hear piped-in testimony.
But even as the hearing got under way, some lawmakers on the panel said they were concerned about a lack of details in the bill, which had only appeared in short, concept form before a longer, amended version appeared Monday morning.
Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell, asked why the bill was appearing "in piecemeal fashion," and which committees would be reviewing portions that hadn't surfaced yet. Others asked which proposals originated from the public and which were submitted by special interests. Their bewilderment was shared by some of those who testified.
"We don't have a clue exactly what we're trying to decide on," Dena Winslow of the Learning Disabilities Association of Maine told the committee. Most of those who testified addressed general themes of not allowing degradation of Maine's environment and heeding pleas of businesses to cut out delays and redundancy.
LePage administration officials said the amendment presented Monday included proposals calling for job and fiscal impact analysis of new rules before they're adopted, creation of an ombudsman's office to help small businesses to navigate regulatory reviews, replacing the Board of Environmental Protection with an appeals panel, and barring rule changes that could invalidate permits that have already been awarded.
A number of other proposals have received public attention but have not yet been fleshed out in legislation. The amendment that appeared Monday did not include proposals to ease regulations over vernal pools, repeal a law that makes manufacturers take responsibility for disposal or recycling of materials they make, revamp pesticide regulation and weaken protections from toxic substances in consumer products, Commissioner Darryl Brown of the Department of Environmental Protection said.
Brown told the committee that the administration is seeking to reduce redundancy, streamline permitting and ensure a "science based" approach to permitting. Brown also sought to assuage fears that the proposals would dismantle the state's environmental protections.
"I pledge will always work tirelessly to maintain that quality and protect that quality," he told the committee.
Advocates, saying Maine's clean environment is "not a mistake" and a draw for business, offered advise on how lawmakers should proceed with their review.
During a State House rally, environmental activists and business leaders offered "guiding principles" that include making sure the new rules benefit Maine people and businesses and not out-of-state corporations. They said changes should focus on improving existing laws rather than weakening current standards, protecting existing jobs and not basing changes on single cases or anecdotes.