After a bitter partisan fight over health insurance reform, legislative Democrats and Republicans came together Wednesday to pass a significant regulatory reform package almost unanimously.
The new law, LD 1, was high on the Republican legislative priority list and was co-sponsored by Senate President Kevin Raye and House Speaker Robert Nutting.
Their goal was to make state government more business-friendly and to speed up regulatory decision-making, and the new law seems to do that.
It was developed after seven public hearings conducted across the state, but many of the more controversial changes suggested by Gov. Paul LePage have been eliminated or separated into other bills.
The best ideas in the new law include:
• A variety of incentives, including reduced penalties, for businesses that self-report and quickly correct environmental violations;
• Authorization for agencies to conduct cost-benefit analyses of proposed environmental rules;
• Creation of a Business Ombudsman Program to help businesses resolve problems with state agencies and serve as a clearinghouse for licenses and permits;
• Authority for the ombudsman to annually report to the Legislature and governor on changes the state can make to help businesses;
• And creation of a Bureau of Special Advocate within the Department of the Secretary of State to represent small businesses facing state regulatory actions.
Perhaps the most sweeping change in the new law is the way it clips the wings of the state’s Board of Environmental Protection and shifts power to the Department of Environmental Protection commissioner, a gubernatorial appointee.
The size of the board is reduced from 10 to seven members, and three of those members must now have “technical or scientific backgrounds in environmental issues.” That makes sense.
But the new law also limits the board’s role to adopting “major substantive rules or amendments” and gives the commissioner power to adopt “all other” rules of the department.
The commissioner will now approve all consent agreements in environmental cases, rather than the board.
Only the commissioner can revoke or suspend a license or permit, not the board.
The board can no longer reconsider its actions or change them after approval.
It can no longer even advise the commissioner on enforcement priorities, or on penalties and enforcement activities.
Basically, the board’s authority has been curtailed and the authority of the commissioner expanded.
On another environmental front, the Legislature is considering a bill to eliminate the Land Use Regulation Commission and transfer its powers to county commissioners.
We have previously pointed out that county government in Maine is incapable of providing the technical and scientific expertise necessary to rule on large-scale development projects in the state.
Eliminating LURC and severely curtailing the power of the Board of Environmental Protection would certainly speed the way for development projects, particularly in unorganized territories.
Citizens in those areas are already complaining that the expedited process for siting industrial wind-power turbines isn’t as long or demanding as it should be.
It will be interesting to see how these changes speed development, and to see how happy residents are about that.
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and editorial board.