Progressive nightmare

With their values under attack, many Mainers view this legislative session as the stuff of bad dreams
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  March 16, 2011

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The sky is actually falling for Maine progressives, whose core values are under attack in Augusta. When Republicans reclaimed both houses of the Maine legislature and the state's executive branch in November 2010, conservative organizations set to transforming electoral success into policy momentum, leaving left-leaners to fret about the fates of environmental protections, women's rights, and social services such as welfare. Turns out, those fears were more than justified.

In stand-alone bills and budget proposals, Governor Paul LePage's administration and GOP legislators are launching a multi-pronged assault on longstanding environmental policies, reproductive rights, organized labor, and assistance for low-income families, immigrants, and the elderly — not to mention state employees and teachers.

"I think we are seeing the Maine version of the nationwide assault on the middle class," says Portland representative Jon Hinck, a Democrat. "And there are a bunch of other casualties along the way."

Some of the proposals have been seen before, but in previous sessions and different political climates, they didn't get much traction. Others are brand new, or mirror similar legislation around the country. It's a lot to keep up with; most organizations are tracking hundreds of bills. It's easy to picture the average citizen's head starting to spin as she receives yet another urgent e-mail alert. Family planning, pensions, and bisphenol-A, oh my!

While conservatives are being bold out of the gate, it remains to be seen, even in this receptive legislative atmosphere, how far these proposals will get as the budget process unfolds and legislative language gets hammered out. Will Maine's middle and working classes wake up from what can only be characterized as a progressive nightmare?


Environment and Energy

So far, the governor's regulatory reform proposal and legislators' stand-alone bills have included measures to repeal or weaken everything from Maine's bottle-recycling program to energy-efficiency building codes to pesticide protections to the state's Land Use Regulation Commission, which oversees Maine's North Woods. And who could forget that whole "little beards" brouhaha, which stemmed from a discussion about banning bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical additive found in some plastic.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine identified at least 50 bills that amount to what NRCM advocacy director Pete Didisheim calls "a widespread assault on laws that protect Maine's clean air, clean water, and the health of Maine people and wildlife." Those include:

• Eight bills that would eliminate or weaken MAINE'S BUILDING AND ENERGY CODES, which were implemented to help save energy costs in Maine's old homes and buildings. Between these bills and the governor's anti-bonding stance (state bonds are a major source of efficiency money), "it looks as though we will be going in the direction of fewer investments in energy efficiency," Hinck says.

• Three bills that abolish or "reform" the LAND USE REGULATION COMMISSION. One would shift LURC's responsibilities to the counties. Representative Paul Davis, the Sangerville Republican who proposed one of the bills, claims that counties would be better (and cheaper) suited to planning what happens in the state's unorganized territories. Opponents say divided stewardship could lead to chaos and less protection for more than half of Maine's land area.

• At least two bills that alter the existing notification requirements about AERIAL PESTICIDE SPRAYING. Requirements like these give locals time to shut their windows before pesticides are sprayed onto crops by aircraft, helicopters, or pump-trucks.

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