Thursday, July 21, 2011

LURC, Democracy and Developers in Maine's North Woods

This past session, legislators contemplated eliminating the state agency that regulates development in Maine's unorganized territories, a vast region of commercial forests and undeveloped lakes, streams, rivers, and ponds that encompasses roughly half the surface area of Maine. Proponents of this approach say land use and development policy should be devolved to the counties as a matter of local control. Critics argue that the Land Use Regulation Commission should be reformed, not eliminated, or the future of the largest contiguous forest this side of the Mississippi will be dim indeed.

I explored the issue for my latest piece in Down East, which has been in subscribers' hands for a week or so, but just posted online. As you'll see, the facts generally support those who wish to keep LURC around - as do the county commissioners in that most unorganized of counties, Piscataquis, the longtime head of the Sportsmen's Alliance of Maine, and the Republican legislator who helped create LURC some four decades ago.

Two documents mentioned in the article that may be of interest to Maine's political class: the memo from Haynes and Gardner from which the governor lifted his proposal to rezone 30% of the North Woods for development; and the minutes of the meeting between Sen. Raye, timberland owners, and the commissioners of the eight affected counties where the initiative to eliminate LURC was fleshed out. Enjoy.

Gov. Paul LePage and Republican legislative leaders will be appointing a special commission to look into the issue this summer and fall and report back to the legislature with their findings.

[Update, 7/31/2011: I've reposted the Haynes and Gardner memo with the missing page included.]

The LePage Files, Volume I

Maine Governor Paul LePage's regulatory reform agenda was created by lifting entire passages from memos received by favored lobbyists and industry groups, confidential administration dossiers reveal, suggesting he and his staff made little attempt to shape policies themselves.

The dossiers, obtained via a Freedom of Access Act request, also indicate some of the governor's priorities going forward, including measures targeting striking workers and Maine's participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Who wanted to weaken air quality standards? Who inserted language to reduce all environmental laws to the weaker federal standards? Who wants the same done with civil rights and restaurant tip sharing laws? These answers and many more are in my cover story in this week's Portland Phoenix.

I requested the documents back in March, after the governor's then-communications director, Dan Demeritt, refused to answer questions about the origins of controversial elements of the governor's infamous "Phase I" regulatory reform agenda, much of which was subsequently rejected by the Republican-controlled legislature. They provide a detailed look into how LePage formulates policy and whom he sees himself as representing, issues I've written about in two previous Phoenix stories, "LePage's Secret Bankers" and "LePage's Secret Puppeteers."

Also today, take note of the blistering accusations leveled against LePage by his commissioner for marine resources, who resigned after allegedly being ordered to please discrete interests in the industry. Among the serious charges is that LePage refused to help groundfishermen because they are concentrated in Portland, a city that is "against me," and proposed creating another port somewhere else in the state. (Maine media watchers will not be surprised to learn the Sun Journal's Steve Mistler broke this story as well.)
[Update, 7/21/2011, 1358: Maine's Majority -- seeing a thematic link between these two stories -- has put out this press release charging "LePage must answer" for his cozy relationships at his Dover-Foxcroft "capital for a day" event.]

Monday, July 18, 2011

Maine politics: Raye for Transparency; Crafts in the Clear

Two updates from Maine political stories I've been following:

Raye for Transparency: In my last Working Waterfront column, I called attention to a critical shortcoming in our state's lawmaking process: the relative inaccessibility of public testimony and supporting documentation submitted to legislative committees to influence their stand on proposed laws.

Senate President Kevin Raye (R-Perry) sent me a note this weekend saying he and the senate chair of the Government Oversight Committee, Roger Katz (R-Augusta), had seen the piece and agreed that these materials should be available online. He said they would ask David Boulter, Executive Director of the Legislative Council, to
add this item to the agenda for the council's August meeting.

"As we consider ways to make the legislative process more efficient and transparent, I want to explore the feasibility of making electronically available to the public not only written testimony before legislative committees but also the memos prepared for committees by [the
Office of Policy and Legal Analysis] recapping the information received during public hearings," Sen. Raye wrote. "Both play a very significant role in how committee members perceive and handle bills."

That's one of the many things I like about my native state: when common sense problems get identified -- even in a modest setting -- it's not that uncommon for our political leaders to take corrective action.

Crafts in the Clear: While covering Rep. Dale Crafts' (R-Lisbon) effort to pass a law to help the infamous egg magnate Jack DeCoster, I became curious as to the legislator's motivations, particularly following his giving erroneous testimony before his fellow legislators, both at the labor committee and, later, the house floor. Was Mr. DeCoster a major donor? Certainly not to Crafts' own campaign, as he is a clean elections candidate, but what about to his political action committee, the Working People for Hope and Change PAC?

Dirigo Blue also noticed, Rep. Crafts' PAC raised a suspiciously large quantity of funds from small (thus, unreportable) donors in a short period of time: almost $7000 in a little over four months, all from contributions of less than $50. Did a relatively green legislator from a rural, not particularly affluent district, who hadn't had to build a fundraising apparatus of his own really manage to get some 140 people to donate to his obscure PAC (which funneled most of it on to Sen. Douglas Smith's Still Fed Up With Taxes PAC)?

The answer is yes., he did exactly that.

I asked the State Ethics Commission to review Rep. Crafts' PAC contributions to ensure they really did come from small donors. Officials there met with Crafts who, indeed, produced photocopies of the individual, $49 checks from small donors, which accounted for all but $122 of the PAC's funds. Let the record show that Crafts is an effective retail fundraiser. Whatever his motivations for helping DeCoster, PAC donations isn't among of them.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Talking Maine "culture clashes" on History Channel

Brian Unger and the History Channel's How the States Got Their Shapes crew were in town last summer putting together an episode on "culture clashes" within various states (a topic I delve into in great detail in my forthcoming American Nations.) The resulting episode is apparently currently running on The History Channel. It's also currently available online at their site.

I haven't had a chance to watch it yet, but they were in Maine exploring the "two Maines" hypothesis. Readers of The Lobster Coast will not be surprised to learn I argued that, yes, there's a culture clash, but that it's not geographic, but cultural in nature, fueled by Maine's post-colonial relationship with Massachusetts Bay and centuries of attendant resentments and conflicts between "natives" and people "from away." The latter group is more dominant in the "have" part of Maine -- essentially Congressional District 1 -- thus, the mistaken notion that there is an actual geographic divide, the way there is in Maryland, Texas, or Oregon. Will be interested to see what comes across in the episode!

[Update, 7/13/11: Watched it. Fun segment, though I disagree with the assumption that the split is between the coast and interior (Washington County is absolutely the "other Maine") or that the "native" culture of these regions are fundamentally at odds with one another. Waldo County in, say, 1965, was probably poorer than Piscataquis or Aroostook, so in broad historical terms, the split is an illusion. But explaining this would, indeed, make for pedantic and boring national television!]

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Talking tidal power on PRI's Living on Earth

I've been covering the infant tidal power industry -- which happens to be taking shape here in the Gulf of Maine region -- for several years now. Last month, perhaps the world leader in the field -- Ocean Renewable Power Co. of Portland -- towed their prototype turbine down from Eastport to show off to the public and the media.

Public Radio International's Living On Earth covered the event, and interviewed me thereafter for some of the context. The segment is airing week on public radio stations nationwide and is up online at PRI's website.

For some of my previous coverage of the tidal industry, start with my Christian Science Monitor and Down East features.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Not so public public testimony at Maine's legislature

One lesson of the DeCoster bill scandal: there's not enough transparency in regards to the public testimony given before Mainers' elected representatives at the State House.

The only way to obtain written testimony submitted at legislative committee hearings by stakeholders, lobbyists, and other interests is to drive to Augusta, find the responsible clerk, and borrow a manila file long enough to make photocopies. Why, one might ask, are these things not posted online as PDFs, just as their equivalents everywhere from the committees of the City of Portland to those of the United States Congress?

I probe this question in my latest Parallel 44 column in Working Waterfront, available online.