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Opinion

Date: 02/07/11

Time to clean up Maine's toxic business environment

By Rep. Jonathan McKane

Much hay has been made by environmental groups lately over the release of the governor's so-called reform "proposals." This is hardly surprising; these proposals, if passed by the Maine House and Senate, would alter some of the most aggressive environmental laws that Maine has enacted over the past decade.

The governor's proposals stemmed from the many "red tape" listening sessions held by Chamber of Commerce groups over the past two months and from suggestions coming in by mail, phone and email. This data-dump of regulatory changes is not a bill. It's a group of ideas that are going to be looked at by the Regulatory Fairness and Reform Committee and other committees, such as the Environment and Natural Resources Committee. They will be dissected, discussed and thoroughly vetted by scientists, environmentalists, business leaders, community leaders, Democrats and Republicans.

Many laws and rules will not change. Some might. One thing is certain: these committees will not be rubber stamps for anyone's proposals, including the governor's.

We will, however, look closely at some of these ideas, such as the Informed Growth Act, which I co-sponsored. Does this Augusta-mandated impact study make sense for all communities in Maine? And what about vernal pools; is the 250-foot setback requirement excessive? And then there is LURC, the Land Use Regulation Commission. Should we allow more land in northern Maine to be developed? As one northern Maine resident put it, "We can't eat the trees."

Considering Maine's bottom-of-the-barrel economic standing, it is time to look long and hard at these and any of the hundreds of laws and rules enacted as consumer protections, safety protections or environmental protections. There cannot be any "sacred cow" laws. The discussion needs to be open and honest, with all sides weighing in. Have these laws been successful? Have there been any unintended consequences? Who benefits from repeal? Who is hurt?

The idea of regulatory reform is not about "saving money," as some would have us believe. It is about lifting the Maine people up from our dismal economic standing. It is about keeping our high school and college graduates in the state and making sure they have good jobs - jobs that allow them to stay nearby and raise a family. It envisions a Maine where the best jobs are in the private sector, not in the public, taxpayer-supported sphere.

We can and must keep the pristine environment that we all enjoy and at the same time improve our economy. The two are most definitely not mutually exclusive.

At the recent Regulatory Fairness and Reform hearings, we have heard the voice of the environmental community loud and clear. The organizational effort by these lobbying groups has been exemplary. But we've also heard from business owners, community leaders, farmers and contractors who showed up alone, not backed by any group. They want a clean environment, too, but they would like to be able to make a living. They are desperate for a new attitude in Augusta.

They want state bureaucrats to have the same sense of urgency as does a business owner who puts his fortune and his future on the line. They want Augusta to understand that a business owner's family and community depend on his success. They want state government to understand that business is not the enemy.

Fishermen, farmers and foresters, as well as many in the tourist industry, all who depend on our clean and healthy environment, have come forward to ask the state to simply be more reasonable and less hostile. Their stories are different but they share a common problem - a difficulty in keeping up with the rules of a state government, rules that seems to work against their success in a never-ending game of "gotcha."

At one time, not so long ago, there was little respect for Maine's environment. Our rivers and land were little more than dumping grounds for the refuse of homes, businesses and government. Thankfully, those days are gone.

Maine was successful in resurrecting our natural environment. All it took was open minds and hard work. Perhaps we can have the same success with our business environment. ###

Rep. Jonathan McKane (R-Newcastle) is the House chair of the Regulatory Fairness and Reform Committee