Feed aggregator

Massive overhaul of Maine mining regulations passes committee

Press Herald Politics -

AUGUSTA – A legislative committee gave near-unanimous support Wednesday to a proposed overhaul of Maine’s mining regulations that has also won the support of many of the state’s environmental organizations.

The proposal would ban open-pit mining as well as operations on state-owned public lands, in flood plains and under lakes, rivers or ponds. The bill would also prohibit underwater storage of mine waste and would require mining companies to create a trust fund large enough to cover the costs of cleaning up or treating any environmental contamination on a site for at least 100 years after closure of the mine.

The bill, L.D. 820, has been the subject of months of work by lawmakers, environmental advocates and representatives of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. If passed by the full Legislature and signed by Gov. Paul LePage, the bill would end a years-long stalemate that left the state’s mining rules in limbo and forced lawmakers as well as environmental regulators to return to the subject year after year.

The Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee voted 11-1 – with one lawmaker absent – in support of the bill, which will now go to the House and Senate floors for consideration.

“This is what many of us and many environmental organizations have been asking for all along,” said Rep. Ralph Tucker, D-Brunswick, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee. “Support for these good amendments to the mining statute is not a switch in our position or our values but rather an advancement of that goal, that is stronger rules and protections for metallic mining in Maine that might be allowed in the future.”

The compromise on L.D. 820 received support from a broad range of environmental organizations, including the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Trout Unlimited and the Environmental Priorities Coalition. The bill sponsor is Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell, the former long-time leader of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Yet a core group of vocal activists had been sharply critical of the environmental groups, claiming the bill didn’t do enough to protect groundwater or provide sufficient “financial assurance” to cover the costs of an environmental catastrophe. They also questioned whether large-scale metallic mining can ever be done safely in Maine, a high-precipitation state whose tourism industry is built around a healthy environment.

Rep. Denise Harlow, D-Portland, cited those concerns and others Wednesday before casting the solitary dissenting vote against the bill out of the 12 lawmakers present.

“I felt five years ago – when we passed a statute that we are now amending with L.D. 820 – that it was a bad policy choice then, and I still feel like it is a bad policy choice now,” said Harlow, one of only two lawmakers who have served on committee since the mining debate began in 2012.

Melanie Loyzim, deputy commissioner at the DEP, said the department supported the measure.

“We feel it is a reasonable outcome,” Loyzim said. “It addresses the concerns that have been raised over the last several years. It is very protective but not completely prohibitive.

The five-year debate over mining in Maine was sparked by interest from the J.D. Irving Ltd. – the New Brunswick company with major land holdings in Maine – in mining for gold, silver and other valuable metals under Bald Mountain in Aroostook County. While supporters claimed a Bald Mountain mine would bring much-needed jobs and economic development to the region, opponents warned that the natural arsenic in the ground as well as the resulting “acid mine drainage” from mining operations would threaten the lakes, rivers and streams that are key to the area’s nature-based economy.

J.D. Irving has since stepped back – publicly, at least – from the Bald Mountain project, and several people suggested Wednesday that the ban on open-pit mining and other environmental regulations contained in the bill would likely make mining the site unfeasible.

“There are certainly places in Maine where, under this, you can mine,” said Nick Bennett, staff scientist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, who played a key role in crafting the bill and subsequent amendments. But Bennett said he believes Bald Mountain is “too dangerous to mine under any circumstances” and he said the proposed rules are adequately protective of other potential mining operations.

“This is a very strict set of laws that will require mining companies to jump through a lot of hoops and meet very stringent regulations,” Bennett said.

Lew Kingsbury, a Pittston retiree who has been heavily involved in the mining debate for years, was among the vocal critics of earlier renditions of L.D. 820. But he said the version endorsed by the committee on Wednesday addressed his top concerns, including by banning open-pit mines, underwater storage of mine waste – also called “wet mine waste” – as well as tailings ponds.

“I believe with those four things in place, mining within a massive sulfide deposit will be nearly impossible,” Kingsbury said.

 

LePage joins Trump for signing of order to review designations of national monuments

Press Herald Politics -

Gov. Paul LePage joined President Trump in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday for a signing ceremony on an executive order Trump was issuing on national monuments that are part of the National Park Service system.

A tweet from LePage’s official Twitter account showed a photo of a television image of LePage in the office of the interior secretary, where Trump was signing the order. On Monday, LePage was in Fort Kent, and his trip to Washington was unannounced.

Trump’s order would launch a review of national monument designations that have been made over the last 21 years by previous presidents. But because it would apply only to monuments larger than 100,000 acres, it does not appear to affect the 87,600-acre Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument near Baxter State Park and the town of Millinocket in northern Penobscot County.

The monument was designated by former President Obama in August of 2016 after Roxanne Quimby donated the forest land to the federal government. Opponents to the designation, including LePage, have been critical about putting more working forest land into public ownership and conservation.

Pleased to support President Trump’s efforts to review the federal government’s massive land grab from the American people. #mepolitics pic.twitter.com/pyk82pchme

— Paul R. LePage (@Governor_LePage) April 26, 2017

In introducing LePage, Trump joked about the Maine governor’s recent dramatic weight loss, the result of bariatric surgery LePage underwent in September of 2016. LePage campaigned with Trump during two of the Republican president’s four visits to the state during the presidential campaign.

“I knew him when he was heavy and now I know him when he is thin and I like him both ways, OK?” Trump said.

LePage said this week that he would travel to Washington next week to testify against the designation before a U.S. House committee on natural resources. LePage made no mention of his trip to be with Trump but did say he was going to ask Trump to have the state’s Baxter State Park Authority manage the new national monument in Maine.

In August 2016 Obama designated the forest land in Maine’s North Woods as a national monument, capping a years-long quest by Quimby on the eve of the National Park Service’s centennial.

The monument lies in an area that was once the heart of Maine’s logging and papermaking industry but now faces an uncertain economic future. Within hours of the designation, the National Park Service was in the process of opening offices in the Katahdin region while inviting visitors to discover the monument’s “rivers, streams, woods, flora, fauna, geology, and the night skies that have attracted humans for millennia.”

This report will be updated.

More money for Maine schools won’t fix a broken system

Matt Gagnon - Bangor Daily News -

Since the passage of Question 2 on last November’s ballot, the debate over it has centered around the question of taxes.

Does Maine want to have, depending on how you count it, the highest or second highest income tax rate in the country? Is that what Maine people voted for, or were they just trying to vote for some vague concept of “better schools?” Just how bad will the flight of wealth from Maine to other states be? How many people will decide to never move here because of the new tax rate? What will be the impact on jobs?

And can anyone honestly claim “the will of the people” when the vote tally on the referendum question was so close?

Talk of a deal in the Legislature to mitigate the damage of Question 2 has circulated around this tax question. The conventional wisdom around Augusta is that some kind of deal to eliminate the 3 percent surcharge on incomes over $200,000 is likely, but that Republicans will have to trade significant additions to state funding of schools to get it. Republicans, who are terrified of what the higher tax will do to the economic progress made in the last six years, seem willing to take the deal.

Sadly, this is all going according to plan. Those who designed Question 2 knew that by including multiple provisions — higher taxes and more spending on education — they were increasing the likelihood of getting either one or both of those ideas permanently enshrined in law. Exhausted from fighting one of these (taxes), the conservatives in the Legislature were likely to let the other (gargantuan increases in funding) go without a fight.

The problem is that both the tax increase and the additional funding for education are mistakes. Not just mistakes, but horribly bad policy.

The insanity of the tax increase is readily apparent, which is why it is likely to be mitigated or eliminated, thankfully. Having an income tax rate that high while having your state directly adjacent to New Hampshire, which has no income tax, and while tens of thousands of your citizens spend significant time in Florida, which also has no income tax, is among the most idiotic proposals ever made in Maine.

But then, so is the additional funding for education.

Kerri Wyman, assistant principal at the new Central Community Elementary School, talks to students about where to find their classroom on the first day of school. Gabor Degre | BDN

Oh yes, I know, I know. We like schools. We like kids. We like teachers. We want better schools, smarter kids and better teachers. So how could someone like me oppose spending more tax money on that goal? If I suggest that it is a bad idea to spend that extra money, don’t I hate children?

Well, no, I happen to have three of them and they will all be public school children. I have a vested interest in a better education for my kids, and still I say to you that the extra funding from Question 2 — or whatever deal the Legislature cuts — won’t do anything to make education in this state better.

State education funding has steadily increased virtually every year, in perpetuity, across Republican and Democratic administrations and Legislatures, going up by hundreds of millions of dollars in just the last 10 years. We spent more in virtually every category.

Likewise, local education spending has spiked upward as well, in a very similar trend line to state funding. Some would argue — dubiously in my opinion — that it has actually increased at a sharper rate because the state just doesn’t give them enough money.

So significant increases in both state and local funding.

Meanwhile, student enrollment is cratering. In that same 10-year window, Maine has seen a decline of roughly 18,000 students.

So, if you are keeping track, we have 18,000 fewer students and yet we are spending hundreds of millions of dollars more on education. Since the early 2000s, Maine’s per-pupil spending has risen by roughly $4,000.

Has that made our education system any better? Is spending significantly more per pupil, statewide, resulting in a revolution of education quality? Are schools now significantly better than they were 10 years ago? Better than they were in the 1970s, when student enrollment was nearly 250,000 and we spent peanuts compared to today?

No? So why would hundreds of millions more dollars fix schools? If money correlated to educational attainment, Washington, D.C. would have among the best schools in the country, rather than the worst.

So my question to those constantly demanding more money for Maine schools is simple. How much is enough? At what point is there enough spent on a child in the public school system to ensure they receive a world-class education? When will they be happy?

They don’t have an answer, because there isn’t one. The system is broken. No amount of money will fix it. It is the system itself that has to be reformed.

Maine lawmakers edge closer to tightening ballot question rules

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

The Maine Legislature started a quiet push on Tuesday to put a constitutional amendment on the 2017 ballot that could rein in the state’s increasingly used — and some say abused — citizen initiative process.

It always promised to be one of the big issues facing lawmakers after an election last year in which Maine voters passed four ballot measures: marijuana legalization, a surtax on income over $200,000 to fund education, a minimum wage increase and a ranked-choice voting system.

The November ballot will have two more questions that would expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and hand a York County casino to a controversial developer.

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives and Senate passed a joint order that will allow the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee to formulate a proposed constitutional amendment on Maine’s referendum process.

Amendments require a two-thirds vote in both legislative chambers and ratification by Maine voters. Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, the committee’s co-chairman, said lawmakers’ aim is to get an amendment on the ballot in 2017.

The centerpiece of such a package could be a proposal to require groups trying to qualify for the ballot to get a number of signatures equaling 10 percent of voters in the past gubernatorial election in both of Maine’s congressional districts — rather than statewide under current law.

The idea was floated two years ago by the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, which helped turn back 2015 and 2016 referendums that would have banned methods of bear hunting and instituted universal gun background checks, respectively. However, it fell just four votes short of going to voters in 2016 because of opposition from Democrats in the House.

David Trahan, the alliance’s executive director, said on Wednesday that he thought Democrats opposed the bill then because they didn’t want conservative voters coming out in droves in a presidential election. But he sees a better chance for passage this time.

“I think there’s not as much angst in putting that on the ballot in a non-election year,” he said.

Luchini said there’s “bipartisan support around reforms.” His committee is holding Wednesday work sessions on several referendum bills, including eight proposed constitutional amendments. Keep your eyes peeled for a new campaign to change campaigns. — Michael Shepherd

Quick hits
  • Susan Collins has been named the most bipartisan U.S. senator for the fourth straight year. The moderate Republican again got the honor from the Lugar Center and Georgetown University’s public policy school. Former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, the head of the center, said in a statement that Collins “continues to set the gold standard for bipartisan productivity.” — Michael Shepherd
  • The Real ID compliance bill is on LePage’s desk. LD 306, which puts Maine on a path to meeting federal identification parameters that were enacted because of homeland security concerns, passed unanimously in the Senate on Tuesday and is under consideration by Gov. Paul LePage. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, eliminates a number of exemptions that allow certain license and identification card holders to re-acquire the cards. The bill also allows the secretary of state’s office to implement some forms of security technology such as retinal scanning, facial recognition and fingerprint technology. The bill, which LePage urged the Legislature to enact quickly, allocates nearly $1.2 million between now and 2019 for implementation. LePage has 10 days to decide what to do with the bill. — Christopher Cousins
  • The House sustained a LePage veto of a bill that would have inserted the Legislature into the federal compliance rulemaking process. LD 23 would have repealed a current law that waives legislative review and approval of new state department rules that must be adopted to comply with federal law or qualify for federal funds. In his veto letter, which has not been posted to his website, LePage argued that the current process of negotiations between the executive branch and the federal government works well and that Maine’s part-time Legislature would be unable to keep up with rule changes. The veto was sustained on an almost totally party-line vote with only one Democrat and one Republican voting with the other party. — Christopher Cousins
Today in A-town

The House and Senate are out today. Here are some of the highlights from the committee schedule.

  • The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee will hear testimony on a bill that would prohibit the privatization of state-run correctional facilities and forensic psychiatric hospitals. This proposal comes as the LePage administration is moving forward with the creation of a privately run forensic psychiatric hospital in Bangor, which he is on track to build without legislative approval. The committee is also being presented a bill that would create a drug trafficking offender registration and notification program modeled after the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act of 2013. Anyone convicted of certain drug offenses after October of this year would be in the system.
  • The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, in addition to the citizen petition bills, will consider recommendations on bills that would affect campaign finance filings, including a proposal to eliminate the 24-hour reporting requirement in the days leading up to an election. Another interesting bill would require the correction of false information distributed in a campaign.
  • The Taxation Committee will deliberate on a number of tax-cutting proposals, including one that would exempt certain people over 70 years old from the income tax, eliminating the income tax on state employee pensions, providing relief to people with disabilities on their property taxes, among other proposals. This afternoon, the committee will be introduced to bills that would eliminate or curtail the personal property tax. The committee expects a crowd on those latter bills and has set up an overflow room for participants.
  • The Health and Human Services Committee will debate a number of bills related to prescription medications, including some that would roll back portions of a bill enacted last year that put new restrictions on how much opioid medication can be prescribed to an individual. This afternoon, the committee could take a vote on a bill that would restore public health nursing services in Maine which was spurred by reporting by the Bangor Daily News.
  • The Environment and Natural Resources Committee will hold more work sessions on the bevy of large-scale mining bills that have been under debate for weeks and the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee will be introduced to three bills that seek to expand broadband internet access in Maine.
  • The education committee will hold a public hearing on a bill from Rep. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, that would direct the Maine Department of Education to adopt standards for financial literacy education in Maine schools. Pouliot passed a bill in 2013 to require teaching on personal finance in schools.

There are dozens of other bills on today’s docket. Check out the full list by clicking here. — Christopher Cousins with Michael Shepherd

Reading list Best of Maine’s Craigslist
  • Not a hick, but a redneck? A Waterville farmer who is “not a hick by any means” but is “a little red neck at time but hey we live in Maine” is looking for a female friend and suggests that they could “plant a garden,” “smoke some pot” and “dance all crazy to some good tunes.”
  • They don’t. A “bored” man who lists his location as “ur mind” wonders if “any intelligent woman care to muse about the seduction game.”
  • That is indeed better, given the binary choice. “I love ice with wine,” says somebody. “Better than a daiquiri with laxative.” True. Here’s your soundtrack. — Michael Shepherd

With tips, pitches, questions or feedback, email us at politics@bangordailynews.com. If you’re reading The Daily Brief on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics and policy delivered via email every weekday morning.

Maine sawmill owners welcome Trump’s tariff on Canadian softwood lumber

Press Herald Politics -

Mathew Wight restocks cut wood Tuesday at Hammond Lumber in Portland. President Trump said Monday night that punitive duties on Canadian softwood products will begin next week, in retaliation for perceived unfair subsidies provided by provincial governments there. Staff photos by Derek Davis

Maine sawmill owners are welcoming the Trump administration’s announcement that it is imposing stiff duties on imports of Canadian softwood lumber, intensifying a longstanding trade dispute with the United States’ largest trading partner.

President Trump revealed the decision to a gathering of conservative journalists Monday night, pre-empting the Commerce Department, which had planned to make the announcement Tuesday. Starting next week, the department will impose duties of 3 percent to 24 percent on softwood 2-by-4s, planks and other lumber arriving from Canada. The punitive duties are retaliation for Canadian provincial governments allegedly providing unfair subsidies to their industry.

The action might raise the price of house framing lumber made from spruce, fir, pine and other softwood trees, but Maine’s sawmill owners are greeting the news with a sigh of relief.

“What we’ve desired all this time is a level playing field, and news like this gives us confidence,” said Jason Brochu, co-president of Pleasant River Lumber, which employs 300 people at sawmills in Dover-Foxcroft, Jackman, Hancock and Sanford. “With a strong presence from the government and such an emphasis on trade and jobs, it is timed perfectly for us to expand our operation and increase employment, which is exactly what we are going to do.”

U.S-owned lumber companies have pushed for countervailing duties for years via an ad hoc association, the U.S. Lumber Coalition, which also has claimed Canada is dumping softwood lumber on the U.S. market below cost.

The announcement of new duties “is a very solid and very good outcome which will help level the playing field from unfair Canadian imports that have been devastating to U.S. jobs, communities and owners,” said Zoltan van Heyningen, the coalition’s executive director. “This was not a knee-jerk thing. It was a result based on a long and careful investigation.”

‘CANADA DISAGREES STRONGLY’

The duties vary based on the level of subsidies the Commerce Department believes a given Canadian producer has received. Most firms face a 19.88 percent duty, but the duties against West Fraser Mills and the Canfor Corporation of British Columbia are set at 24.12 percent and 20.26 percent, respectively.

The Maine Forest Products Council says many of its members – like Twin Rivers Paper Co., whose lumber products were available at Hammond Lumber on Tuesday – own mills and forest property on both sides of the border.

One firm has an extremely light penalty: J.D. Irving, the New Brunswick-based wood products powerhouse that is the largest landowner in Maine. Its duty is just 3.02 percent, reflecting the fact that most of its timber comes from privately owned forests, rather than the provincial public forests that critics say are charging too little for logging rights.

J.D. Irving also owns some of the largest sawmills in Maine, demonstrating the complexity of the cross-border lumber trade in a state where the closest sawmill may be in another country.

Ottawa reacted angrily to the news and vowed to defend an industry that exports 70 percent of its production to the United States.

“The government of Canada disagrees strongly with the U.S. Department of Commerce’s decision to impose an unfair and punitive duty,” federal Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr said in a joint statement. “The accusations are baseless and unfounded.”

NB Forests, the trade association of New Brunswick’s forest products industry, did not respond to an interview request.

Lloyd Irland, a forest products and timber consultant in Wayne who has worked for both U.S. and Canadian clients, said it isn’t at all clear that Canadian sawmills have unfair advantages, especially when it comes to the fees they pay to cut public forests – “crown lands” in Canadian parlance. “The crown forests out there are often very remote – it’s often small trees and long hauling distances – and so the (timber) just isn’t worth that much,” he said. “There are irritants in the trading relationship, but it’s hard to make a blanket statement that the Canadians are trading unfairly on the resource.”

He also noted that J.D. Irving and other Canadian firms have invested in sawmills in Maine, which wouldn’t make a lot of sense if they were getting timber at a cut rate in their own backyard. “Why are they competing with themselves?” he asked rhetorically.

While the softwood tariffs please Maine-owned sawmills, the state’s forest products industry as a whole is divided on the issue.

“We have commerce going back and forth between Quebec and New Brunswick, and we have members who own mills and forest property on both sides of the border,” said Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, which also represents paper mills, loggers, landowners and wood pellet plants. “We certainly understand the members who want to have a level playing field, but we have to understand that up in the northwest corner of the state, some of the closest mills to the landowner community are just across the border in Quebec and of interest to some of our members.”

LONG-SIMMERING TRADE DISPUTE

The softwood trade dispute, which has been simmering on and off for decades, is one of the most contentious between the largest trading partners in the world. A 1996 agreement that established quotas and tariffs on Canadian imports expired in October 2015, allowing Canada to export lumber tariff-free for one year while the parties negotiated. When they failed to come to a new agreement last October, interests such as the U.S. Lumber Coalition were free to file fresh trade grievances.

Mathew Wight works at Hammond Lumber’s Portland warehouse on Tuesday. While some Maine manufacturers celebrated news of a U.S. tariff on Canadian lumber, a forest-products industry consultant said “it’s hard to make a blanket statement that the Canadians are trading unfairly.”

Maine sawmills employed 1,996 people last year, down from 2,365 in 2001, according to state labor statistics. The state’s lumber and solid-wood products sector – which includes plywood and furniture – has an annual output of $1.1 billion and supports more than 11,000 jobs, according to the forest products council. Harvesting operations – which cut trees bound for paper mills, wood pellet makers and firewood dealers as well as the lumber trade – employ another 2,200.

Maine imported $168 million worth of wood construction products in 2016, $158 million of that from Canada, according to WISERtrade, a trade analyst service. China was the second-largest exporter to Maine, at $4.7 million.

EFFECTS ON CONSUMERS AREN’T CLEAR-CUT

Canada provides a third of the lumber used in the United States as a whole, and 95 percent of the imported lumber.

In contrast to Maine sawmill owners, the National Association of Homebuilders said it was “deeply disappointed” with the Trump administration’s announcement, calling it a “short-sighted action” that “will negatively harm American consumers and housing affordability.”

The homebuilders said it takes 15,000 board feet of wood to build a typical American home and that, after lumber prices spiked 22 percent in the first quarter of the year, the price of a new house increased by $3,600.

The U.S. Lumber Coalition’s van Heyningen disputed those calculations. “The average cost of the dimension lumber in a U.S. home is about 2 percent of the overall cost of construction, so the impact of bringing about fair trade is negligible at best or near zero for consumers,” he said. The housing association, he said, included in its calculations a range of non-softwood wood products that are not affected by the tariffs.

Irland, the forest products and timber consultant, said it wasn’t yet clear what effects the tariffs would have on U.S. softwood lumber prices, which are a commodity set by a variety of market forces. But even if prices did increase by 20 percent, the effect on would-be homeowners would be small.

“It’s a small portion of the price of a new home,” he said. “But if you’re building hundreds of thousands of homes a year in the country, it does add up.”

Colin Woodard can be contacted at:

cwoodard@pressherald.com

Another Republican health care plan emerges

Press Herald Politics -

WASHINGTON — White House officials and several Republican lawmakers claimed Tuesday they were nearing a deal on health-care legislation with the House Freedom Caucus, with at least three leading figures in the hard-line group ready to support an overhaul after the dramatic collapse of talks last month.

Reps. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, – all leaders of the Freedom Caucus and central figures in the latest discussions – signaled Tuesday they are ready to support a new plan, according to two White House officials who were not authorized to speak publicly. A lawmaker close to the Freedom Caucus later confirmed that those members were close to or ready to support the tweaked bill.

“There’s no definitive statement yet,” Meadows said on his way into the House chamber on Tuesday evening.

“We’ve got a meeting tomorrow night!” remarked Jordan, who refused to elaborate.

Labrador refused to comment entirely.

The agreement at the crux of the revised bill would allow states to opt out of some insurance regulations in the Affordable Care Act. Through a federal waiver, insurers could be freed from a requirement to cover certain essential health benefits as defined by the federal government. And while they’d still be required to cover people with preexisting conditions, they could charge those patients higher premiums.

The language was crafted jointly in recent days by Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-N.J., the co-chairman of the moderate Tuesday Group, and Meadows, who heads the Freedom Caucus, with White House officials involved in those conversations, the people said.

White House officials said Tuesday that MacArthur made clear during the discussions that he wanted states like New Jersey to be able to keep some mandates under the law, while Meadows wanted states to have the option of opting out of the insurance requirements.

There was no text of the new bill available on Tuesday, however, and any new proposal would have to surmount the same obstacles that stalled the House GOP leadership’s plan before Congress left for a two-week recess in early April.

The president has been trying to restart health-care talks after House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., abruptly pulled the American Health Care Act from the floor at the end of March.

Trump at first said health care was dead, but then revived talks. He seems intent on getting a concrete legislative win, or at least flashes of progress in that direction, as his administration approaches the 100-day mark.

Republicans close to House GOP leaders said Tuesday they remain skeptical of how much support would be behind any new legislation, and said House leaders are not driving the discussions with the Freedom Caucus.

Some other Freedom Caucus members, such as Rep. David Brat, R-Va., told reporters Tuesday evening they are likely to support the s compromise, while others declined to comment saying they have not yet seen the text of the agreement.

The carrot for conservatives is the opportunity for states to apply for waivers from some of the ACA’s mandates, including its requirement for insurers to cover essential health benefits and its ban on swelling premiums for people with preexisting health conditions. Many conservatives don’t like leaving the law’s insurance regulations in place, but the waiver provision allows them to argue they’re giving states more control over the situation.

But the revisions would also restore the law’s federal essential health benefits requirements for states that don’t obtain a waiver from them. The original bill would have turned over those regulations completely to the states.

The developments follow a weekend of intense private discussions among various blocs that previously balked at the House GOP leadership plan, which Trump embraced.

Those talks, according to the White House officials, were mostly concentrated on the insurance requirements in the current law, with Freedom Caucus leaders offering recommended changes to the White House. Many of their changes were accepted, according to multiple people involved at both the White House and on Capitol Hill, although the specifics were not shared.

A House leadership ally, requesting anonymity to speak candidly, said the White House was potentially “setting itself up to fall'” since the House leadership was not intimately involved in crafting a revised bill – that ally remained doubtful of the caucus’s commitment to securing passage. White House officials, in response, said they remained confident that progress was being made.

The officials added that the House chief deputy whip, Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., was fully briefed on the negotiations and had kept up to date other House leaders on the deliberations.

Key administration figures involved in the talks included Vice President Mike Pence, Office of Management and budget director Mick Mulvaney, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, and chief strategist Stephen Bannon, an official said.

Australian prime minister keen to meet Trump on May 4

Press Herald Politics -

CANBERRA, Australia — Australia’s prime minister said on Wednesday he is looking forward to meeting with U.S. President Trump next week when they attend Battle of the Coral Sea commemorations in New York more than three months after their heated telephone conversation over an Obama-era refugee deal.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the May 4 visit in a statement after meeting in Afghanistan with Defense Secretary James Mattis and greeting Australian troops in the Middle East ahead of Veterans’ Day commemorations on Tuesday.

“I’m delighted to travel to the United States next month to meet with President Donald J. Trump,” Turnbull said.

Turnbull met in Sydney over the weekend with Vice President Mike Pence, whose visit was intended to smooth over any lingering hard feelings after the prime minister’s contentious phone call with Trump on Jan. 28 over a refugee resettlement deal struck by the previous Obama administration.

Trump and Turnbull will mark the 75th anniversary of a World War II naval battle by visiting the USS Intrepid, a floating museum in New York.

Bill to allow more than 10 charter schools in Maine fails in committee

Press Herald Politics -

Members of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee voted against a charter school bill Tuesday that would lift the “10 schools in 10 years” cap and open the process to more schools.

Lifting the cap only five years into the process would be too soon, several lawmakers on the committee said. The committee voted 7-4 that L.D. 1158 ought not to pass.

“We need to take a careful look,” said Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, noting that the charter schools are considered “an experiment.”

“Are they doing what we intended them to do? That’s the piece that hasn’t gelled, in my thinking,” Farnsworth said. “We probably need to bring in an evaluation team to look at the charter schools to identify strengths and weaknesses and all that and come in with some recommendations.”

The committee issued a “divided report” to the full Legislature, meaning that supporters could attempt to revive the measure on the House or Senate floor. A minority report from the bill’s supporters offered a compromise: A bill that would lift the cap, but allow only one charter school approval per year until 2021, when the cap would be lifted entirely.

About 2,000 of Maine’s roughly 182,000 students attend charter schools. State funding for the schools, which are continuing to add whole grades at a time as they expand in their startup years, is expected to be about $23 million in 2017-18.

There is political momentum behind charters now, particularly with President Trump appointing Betsy DeVos, a major charter school advocate, as secretary of education. The Trump administration also is expected to add incentives to encourage the growth of taxpayer-financed, privately operated charter schools across the nation.

During the public hearing, bill opponents pointed out that the original 10-school limit was crucial to getting political support to pass the initial legislation, and was intended to give the state time to evaluate the schools and the charter school oversight process before lifting the cap.

Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon, who sponsored L.D. 1158 as well as the original charter school bill, said the waiting lists at Maine’s nine charter schools show the demand for more schools, and argued that the charter school commission that approves and oversees charters in Maine is providing strong oversight.

He also noted that there are no charters in many geographic areas of Maine, and groups could be discouraged from applying with only one opening left. Lifting the cap could spur new groups to apply for a charter, Mason said.

“There is only one slot left,” Mason said. “There may be some good ideas out of Bridgton or Lewiston. Those kids may not get served, or they will have to wait until 2021.”

Rep. Heidi Sampson, who served on the Maine Charter School Commission, argued for a limited cap.

“It’s a tough uphill climb to be able to be approved,” said Sampson, R-Alfred. “I think it’s reasonable to lift the cap to one or two a year. It’s not opening the floodgates, but it gives the people who want to do this hope.”

Maine’s nine charter schools include two virtual schools and two schools that offer residential options. There is no limit on the number of charters that could be opened by a local school board within the boundaries of its school administrative unit, but so far no district has pursued a charter.

Charter schools have been controversial in Maine, particularly in the early years when opponents argued that the schools were untested academic experiments that would siphon away state aid that would otherwise go to traditional public schools.

Financing initially came directly from the districts that send students to those schools, creating huge expenses at a handful of districts located near charter schools. School Administrative District 54 in Skowhegan sent about $1 million to two nearby charter schools – Cornville Regional Charter School and Good Will-Hinckley in Fairfield – before the funding mechanism was changed in 2015 to spread out the charter school costs statewide.

While concern over financing has eased, opponents note poor results on standardized tests at some of the schools, large numbers of students enrolling and then dropping out of a virtual school, and data that suggests charter schools enroll fewer poor students.

The Maine Charter School Commission also has taken steps to avoid some aspects of charter schools that have faltered in other states. The application process is rigorous and the commission, the sole authorizer of charter schools, requires regular audits, visits and reports from the schools. Some states have multiple authorizers with varying criteria and minimal oversight.

Rep. David McCrea, D-Fort Fairfield, said he also wanted to see an independent analysis of the schools and system.

“I see it as a grand experiment,” McCrea said. “I’m very impressed with the distance and miles charters have come and I do feel they have a ways to go. That’s to be expected.”

The state department of education is currently evaluating the charter schools and plans to issue a report to the Legislature.

Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com

Twitter: noelinmaine

Maine needs expanded, higher-level energy office, Republican leader says

Press Herald Politics -

AUGUSTA — Mainers spent $7.6 billion on energy in 2015, but the state does energy planning and policy work with only two full-time positions that are part of the governor’s office, some part-time temporary help and a bare-bones budget.

Maine would be better served by having a Cabinet-level energy agency, with a commissioner and adequate staff, to handle complex issues that affect the state but are national and regional in scope.

That view was expressed Tuesday not by environmental advocates, but by House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport. During testimony on the bill he was presenting to lawmakers at a public hearing, Fredette acknowledged that Republicans typically don’t look to add people to the state’s payroll.

“But we really aren’t staffed up to deal with a lot of these issues,” he said, referring to topics that include offshore wind energy, nuclear waste storage at the former Maine Yankee power plant in Wiscasset, and the growing use of solar energy.

PROPOSAL RESONATES

Fredette’s bill to create a Maine Energy Office resonated with members of the committee that deals with utility and energy matters. There’s some dispute over how to pay for a beefed-up energy office. And it may be best, some said, to study the issue after the legislative session ends and tee up a plan for when the next governor takes office in 2019. That would short-circuit partisan bickering about the future of an office now controlled by Gov. Paul LePage, an outspoken opponent of renewable energy.

LePage has declined to appoint a new director for the Governor’s Energy Office since last fall, when Patrick Woodcock resigned. But his acting director, Angela Monroe, expressed support Tuesday for Fredette’s idea. She said her office would need at least five people to properly handle the workload.

There was wide agreement at the hearing that Maine is way behind what other states are doing to help their residents and businesses lower energy bills, benefit from new technologies and navigate a maze of rules and regulations. During Tuesday’s testimony, it was brought out that New Hampshire’s energy office has a staff of 14 and gets $600,000 a year from its general fund. Vermont’s office has 10 people and is funded mostly by ratepayers and utilities.

Finding the MONEY

Maine’s office relies largely on a federal grant pegged at between $350,000 and $400,000 this year for operations. But Fredette and others fear the program that helps support state energy offices may be at risk under budget proposals from the Trump administration.

Fredette said he saw the need to elevate Maine’s profile after a recent trip to Washington, D.C., where he met with staff from the Department of Energy and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. He’s also a legislative liaison to Canada, which has vast hydroelectric resources being developed for export to New England.

In his bill, Fredette proposed taking $300,000 from the Efficiency Maine Trust to help form a new state energy office. But some lawmakers wondered why it wouldn’t be better to get the money from the General Fund, a debate that’s likely to extend past this session.

Efficiency Maine was created by state law in 2009 to consolidate spending on consumer efficiency programs for homes and businesses. The trust spent $47.8 million in 2016, according to its annual report. Funding came from sources that include Maine ratepayers and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. In the last fiscal year, programs helped homes and businesses avoid $300 million in energy costs.

If Maine creates a more robust energy office, it would be revisiting the past. State energy offices were established after the 1973 Middle East oil embargo, as a response to the nation’s dependence on imported petroleum. Maine’s Office of Energy Resources was set up in 1975 during the term of Gov. James Longley.

An emphasis on cutting oil use and developing local renewable power led to growth in the agency during the administration of Gov. Joseph Brennan. Gordon Weil, who directed the office under Brennan from 1980 to 1982, said in a phone interview before Tuesday’s hearing that he recalls having 20 to 25 people on his staff. But an economic downturn led the Legislature to dissolve the agency in 1989, placing some functions within the now-defunct Maine State Planning Office and other agencies.

The lack of coordination that followed led lawmakers in 2001 to create the Energy Resources Council, which had members of various agencies working together on energy policy. But the function returned to the governor’s office in 2003 when then-Gov. John Baldacci created the Office of Energy Independence and Security.

LePage renamed it the Governor’s Energy Office when he took over in 2011. The cost of energy has been a major focus under LePage, but he has run a lean office. Until last year it functioned with a director and senior planner.

The office now operates with Monroe as acting director and a senior planner, Lisa Smith. Recently, Jim LaBrecque, an informal energy adviser to LePage, and Larry Dunphy, a former legislator, have joined in temporary positions to ease the workload during the session. Dunphy’s work will end after the session, Monroe said. LeBrecque is a consultant under a temporary contract.

In town hall tirade, Gov. LePage gets fundamental tax facts completely wrong

Mike Tipping - Bangor Daily News -

BDN File

At a town hall that he held in Fort Kent last night to promote his plan to give a massive new tax break to Maine’s wealthiest 2%, Gov. LePage repeatedly and condescendingly made false claims about how taxes work in Maine.

LePage apparently doesn’t understand that the 3% surcharge put in place with the passage of Question 2 in November only applies to annual income over $200,000. In other words, under current law, someone making $200,001 a year would pay only three cents total in additional taxes.

Here’s the exchange:

“Anybody who makes $200,000 family income, in the state of Maine, pays 10.15%, the highest income tax,” declared LePage, in response to a question on his budget priorities.

“No, that’s not correct, because 3% of that is only on the incremental revenue above 200,000,” correctly pointed out an audience member.

Instead of admitting his mistake, the governor doubled down.

“It’s for the full 200,000. It’s ten percent of the full amount, sir. It’s not incremental, it’s the top dollar. Once you hit $200,000, you are paying 10. If you’re paid $200,001, you are paying 10.15% after your deductions. Sorry, that’s the way it works,” said LePage.

You really have to listen to this audio provided by an audience member to believe it:

https://bdn-data.s3.amazonaws.com/blogs.dir/115/files/2017/04/lepage_fk_tax.mp3

It is absolutely horrifying that the governor of our state doesn’t know how taxes work. This isn’t on the same level as his oft-repeated lies about millionaires leaving the state because of tax policy (they aren’t) or rich people moving to New Hampshire (more are actually moving here). This is a bedrock part of our tax system (and of his budget) of which he is obviously completely ignorant.

It’s not like the surcharge is some new and different policy element. This is how tax brackets have always worked: you pay the higher rate only on income over a certain level.

Perhaps this misunderstanding on Gov. LePage’s part explains some of his fervency in attempting to overturn the referendum. If he thinks people making $250,000 a year (those poor souls) are being taxed an additional $7,500 instead of the actual $1,500, I guess his over-the-top defense makes some small amount more sense.

For the record, even with the surcharge, the wealthiest 1% in Maine still pay a lower overall effective tax rate than the middle class. We have a way to go before tax rates are fair and equitable.

Real ID bill passes, headed to LePage’s desk for signature

Press Herald Politics -

AUGUSTA — A bill to bring Maine into compliance with federal Real ID standards is headed to the governor’s desk.

On Tuesday, the Maine Senate gave final approval to legislation directing the Secretary of State’s Office to begin designing next-generation driver’s licenses and state-issued identification cards that meet the minimum security standards under Real ID. The bill, L.D. 306, allows state residents to opt out of receiving a Real ID-compliant driver’s license or identification card.

The legislation is aimed at avoiding a situation in which Maine residents are no longer able to use their driver’s licenses to pass through airport security or to gain access to federal facilities next year because the state’s licenses do not comply with the federal standards, such as digitized photos that can be used with facial recognition technology. Already, some Maine veterans who use a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health facility in New Hampshire, as well as contractors at federal defense facilities, have been turned away.

Sen. Bill Diamond, a Windham Democrat and former secretary of state, said he’s been assured by federal officials twice that those restrictions will end as soon as the state begins working toward Real ID compliance. Additionally, the federal government will offer Maine an extended waiver to allow state residents to continue using noncompliant ID cards beyond January 2018, which is when additional prohibitions were slated to begin unless the Legislature acted this session.

“Passage of this bill will guarantee Mainers have the same ability to come and go as they please that any other United States citizen enjoys,” Diamond, the sponsor of L.D. 306, said in a statement. “In my communication with the Department of Homeland Security, I’ve been assured that passage of this law will end these punitive enforcement actions and free Maine veterans and other residents to go about their business. People expect their elected officials to solve the problems they face. This law avoids a bureaucratic nightmare that would have brought normal life in Maine to a grinding halt.”

Republican Gov. Paul LePage has called on the Legislature to pass Diamond’s bill fixing the Real ID issue and vetoed a stop-gap measure intended to help veterans being turned away from the New Hampshire VA facility because it did not go far enough. He is expected to sign the bill, although he has 10 days to sign, veto or allow the bill to become law without his signature.

Maine is one of a handful of states that have refused to comply with the Real ID law, which federal officials insist is necessary to help thwart terrorism. Under Real ID, states must use digitized images of cardholders that are compatible with facial recognition software and must maintain a database of birth certificates, photographs and other records. But Real ID opponents have questioned the constitutionality of the requirement and argued that maintaining a database of personal information – such as Social Security numbers, birth certificates and other documents – puts Mainers’ information at risk from hackers.

Maine’s current secretary of state, Matt Dunlap, led the fight against Real ID in the Legislature. Dunlap said Tuesday that it will take time and money – estimates are from $2 million to $3 million – to redesign driver’s licenses and acquire all of the scanners, software and other equipment necessary to make the switch.

Dunlap said he believes the state could begin issuing the new Real ID-compliant licenses and identification cards by July 1, 2019, calling that a “realistic timeframe” absent any major roadblocks. Mainers who don’t opt out would not have to get the new licenses until their current ones expire.

LePage should see national monument land he criticized, donor’s son says

Press Herald Politics -

A key proponent of a national monument in Maine is challenging Republican Gov. Paul LePage to spend some time on the land before criticizing it.

The governor described the land as “cut over” on Monday and said it’ll take decades for the land to recover. He plans to testify against the monument created by former Democratic President Obama at a House subcommittee hearing next week.

Lucas St. Clair, son of entrepreneur Roxanne Quimby, who acquired the land, said Tuesday that the governor should see Katahdin Waters and Waters National Monument before criticizing it. He called the 87,500 acres of donated forestland “an amazingly beautiful place.”

Republican President Trump is expected to announce a review of monument designations on Wednesday. But it’s unclear if Trump can undo any monuments.

Maine House rejects requiring voters to present photo IDs

Press Herald Politics -

AUGUSTA — The Maine House rejected a bill Tuesday that would have required voters to present photo identification at their polling places in order to cast a ballot.

Majority Democrats prevailed on a 76-67 vote that split mostly on party lines in rejecting L.D. 121, which required a voter provide proof of identity with a photographic identification, such as a driver’s license or state-issued identification card.

The bill will likely still receive a vote in the state Senate, but it appears all but dead for 2017 with the House’s rejection.

Rep. Karl Ward, R- Holden, the bill’s primary sponsor, expressed frustration with Democrats via Facebook following the vote Tuesday. He wrote that the measure would have “prevented virtually all voter fraud in Maine,” and vowed to defeat Democrats at the polls in 2018.

Maine’s Republican Gov. Paul LePage has also suggested that, without providing proof that voter fraud was widespread in Maine, while President Trump has charged that “millions” of unlawful ballots were cast in the 2016 presidential election, also without providing evidence.

Maine civil rights advocates, however, hailed the vote Tuesday, saying it rejects discrimination and protects voters’ constitutional right to polling place access.

“While President Trump, Gov. LePage and other elected officials have made false statements about voter fraud, proponents of such laws have failed to show that voter fraud is an actual problem, either in Maine or nationwide,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine said in a statement.

Oamshri Amarasingham, advocacy director of the ACLU of Maine, said voter photo identification laws are designed to obstruct voters.

“Voting is the cornerstone of democracy, protected by more constitutional amendments than any other right,” Amarasingham said. “Today’s vote against L.D. 121 recognizes that the best way to protect the integrity of elections is to encourage more qualified people to vote, not to make it harder for them to do so.”

Negotiators are making progress on a federal spending bill

Press Herald Politics -

WASHINGTON – Congressional and White House negotiators made progress Tuesday on a must-pass spending bill to keep the federal government open days ahead of a deadline as President Trump indicated that U.S. funding for a border wall with Mexico could wait until September.

But a big stumbling block remains, involving a Democratic demand for money for insurance companies that help low-income people afford health policies under former President Obama’s health law, or that Trump abandon a threat to use the payments as a bargaining chip. Trump’s apparent flexibility on the U.S.-Mexico wall issue, however, seemed to steer the Capitol Hill talks on the catchall spending measure in a positive direction.

Republicans are also vetting proposed changes to their beleaguered health care bill that they hope will attract enough votes to finally push it through the House.

Both efforts come with Congress back from a two-week break just days before Trump’s 100th day in office, an unofficial measuring stick of a new president’s effectiveness. With little to show in legislative victories so far, the Trump administration would love to claim achievements on Capitol Hill by that day – this Saturday.

The same day, federal agencies would have to close unless lawmakers pass a $1 trillion spending bill financing them or legislation keeping them open temporarily while talks continue. Republicans hope to avoid the ignominy of a government shutdown while their party controls Congress and the White House.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Monday that administration negotiators including Trump’s budget chief, Mick Mulvaney, “feel very confident” that a shutdown won’t occur.

Democrats, whose votes are needed to pass the budget measure, had a less charitable version of negotiations. In a conference call with reporters aimed at criticizing Trump’s first 100 days as ineffective, party leaders said the biggest shutdown threat was from Trump’s demand that the spending bill include funds for the barricade along the Mexican border.

That threat appeared to be easing Monday evening when Trump told reporters from conservative media that he would be willing to return to the funding issue in September. Two people in the room described his comments to The Associated Press.

Those comments represented a retreat from just last week, when Mulvaney said getting money for Trump’s wall in the budget bill was one of the administration’s “priorities.”

Nonetheless, Trump tweeted Tuesday, “Don’t let the fake media tell you that I have changed my position on the WALL. It will get built and help stop drugs, human trafficking etc.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., approved of Trump’s apparent shift. “The president’s comments this evening are welcome news given the bipartisan opposition to the wall, and the obstacle it has been to the continuing bipartisan negotiations in the appropriations committees,” she said in a statement late Monday.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said, “It’s good for the country that President Trump is taking the wall off the table in these negotiations.” Both Democratic leaders had criticized Trump earlier Monday.

Trump had told supporters Mexico would pay for the wall, but with Mexico refusing to foot the bill he now wants Congress to make a down payment. The wall’s cost estimates range past $20 billion. Republicans are seeking an initial $1.4 billion in the spending bill.

Separately, the White House and congressional Republicans are gauging whether a plan to revise the GOP’s stalled health care bill would garner enough converts to rekindle hopes for House passage of the legislation.

Their initial bill would repeal some coverage requirements under Obama’s law, offer skimpier subsidies for consumers to buy care and roll back a Medicaid expansion. GOP leaders avoided a planned House vote last month, which would have failed due to opposition from GOP moderates and conservatives alike.

The proposed changes would retain several requirements imposed by Obama’s 2010 statute, including obliging insurers to cover seriously ill customers.

But states could obtain federal waivers to some of those requirements. Those include mandates that insurers charge healthy and seriously ill customers the same premiums and cover specified services like hospitalization and emergency room visits.

Supporters say the proposal is significant because it would retain guaranteed coverage for people with costly illnesses. Critics say it would effectively weaken that assurance because insurers in states getting waivers could charge sky-high rates.

Those waivers may not help win moderate support. They have opposed the underlying GOP bill because of its cuts in Medicaid and to federal subsidies Obama’s law provides many people buying individual policies.

But it might persuade conservatives who felt the earlier Republican bill didn’t erase enough of the statute, though it’s unclear it will win over enough of them to achieve House passage.

The proposed changes were negotiated by Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., head of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, and Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-N.J., a leader of the centrist House Tuesday Group. Vice President Mike Pence also participated, Republicans say.

Those two groups plan to meet separately this week to consider the proposal.

Associated Press writers Catherine Lucey and Kevin Freking contributed to this report.

LePage moves ahead with bid to gain Trump’s OK for stricter Medicaid rules

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Gov. Paul LePage after LePage introduced him at a Portland campaign rally in March 2016. (Reuters)

Maine will ask President Donald Trump’s administration to let it further rein in the state’s Medicaid program, announcing on Tuesday that the Department of Health and Human Services will have a comment period and two public hearings in May ahead of a formal request.

The move was no surprise: Gov. Paul LePage’s administration announced its plan in January to ask the Republican president to grant several changes to MaineCare, the state’s version of Medicaid, the federal low-income health care program.

MaineCare has long been targeted by LePage, whose administration has touted culling 67,000 from the program between 2011 and 2015. The Republican governor has also vetoed Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act five times.

Maine will vote on a citizen’s initiative that would force the state to expand in November and these changes are seen as a way to undercut that effort.

They include:

  • A system of premiums and co-payments. Able-bodied adults will have to pay tiered monthly premiums based on income. If they don’t pay, they will be booted from the program. Maine also wants to require $20 co-pays for unnecessary emergency room use and allow doctors to charge MaineCare patients for missed appointments. These changes are aimed at increasing accountability for patients. A 2016 report from the progressive FamiliesUSA said five states charge monthly fees in Medicaid, but it said they were often unaffordable and led to thousands being dropped from the program.
  • Making MaineCare enrollees subject to work or service requirements. Able-bodied enrollees, with some exceptions, will have to work at least 20 hours per week or volunteer for 24 hours per week, similar to work requirements instituted in Maine’s food stamp program in 2014.
  • An asset test. LePage instituted a $5,000 asset limit in the food stamp program with several exceptions and his administration wants the same in Medicaid.

The LePage administration is expected to submit the request after a 30-day public comment period from April 25 to May 25 and two public hearings in Portland on May 17 and Augusta on May 18.

Why legislating mining in Maine is so hard, in one survey

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Good morning from Augusta, where a University of Maine student has informed the simmering debate on proposed mineral mining legislation with some of the only detailed survey data that we’ve seen on the subject.

It shows what you might suspect — mining is a complicated issue with many trade-offs in the eyes of Mainers. That and a general lack of awareness on the issue helps explain why there has been such a struggle over rules.

This fight goes back to 2012, when legislative Republicans passed a law aiming to allow mining at Bald Mountain in Aroostook County. Since then, Democrats have blocked sets of rules drafted by regulators that environmentalists have routinely blasted as weak.

Now, the Legislature’s environment committee is nearing a potential compromise. Over the weekend, Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell, worked with the Natural Resources Council of Maine to add further protections to his bill, which is seen as the likeliest vehicle for a mining law overhaul this session.

Earlier this month, Andrew Morgan, a graduate student in UMaine’s School of Forest Resources, and Sandra De Urioste-Stone, a tourism professor at the school, presented a preliminary report on survey data to the committee.

Mainers see a trade-off between the environment and jobs, but the environment wins. While 78 percent said mining would increase employment opportunities, 63 percent said negative impacts of mining outweighed benefits. Supermajorities said that fish and wildlife health (69 percent) and water quality (67 percent) would decrease if a mine were developed near their city or town.

But they don’t know much at all about Maine’s nonexistent mining industry. There’s no mining currently in Maine, but 40 percent of respondents thought there is. Also, 64 percent said they aren’t aware of the Legislature’s mining debate.

Slim majorities think that mining jobs would be welcomed in their communities, but roughly the same percentage thinks mining would hurt tourism. While 55 percent agreed that their communities support mining jobs, 54 percent said mining would decrease levels of nature-based tourism. Tourism jobs are more valued, with 87 percent saying their communities support tourism jobs generally.

(There are caveats: This was a mail survey of 500 with a 20 percent response rate, researchers oversampled areas close to mineral deposits, with 18 percent of respondents from Aroostook County and 53 percent of respondents had a bachelor’s degree or more, compared to just 28 percent of Mainers. Party affiliation, however, roughly mirrored the state as a whole.)

Legislators get their cues from the public, and the potential economic impact of mining has kept the issue afloat in Augusta. But it seems that most Mainers agree with treading a careful path on the environment. — Michael Shepherd

Quick hits
  • Maine’s U.S. senators aren’t panicking yet about the state of the Senate’s Russia investigation. Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee were complaining on Monday to CNN and other outlets about the pace of the Republican-led panel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. But Maine’s senators — who are both on the committee — don’t share those concerns for now. A spokeswoman for Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, said she has “full confidence that the Senate Intelligence Committee’s bipartisan investigation will be thorough and follow the evidence (wherever) it may lead.” In a statement, Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said while he “had hoped” it would move faster, the investigation “has been conducted in a nonpartisan manner and I believe that’s worth the deliberateness in the schedule.” — Michael Shepherd
  • The 2017 Measures of Growth report is due today. The Maine Economic Growth Council will release its annual report card — which has been coming yearly for 23 years — for Maine’s economy today during a news conference at the State House. What’s the big deal? Among all of the piles of reports received every year by the Legislature, this is one that receives more attention in legislative deliberations than most of the others. The reports typically rate Maine in 25 areas ranging from education to housing to job creation. Last year, the report gave Maine low marks in its cost of doing business, as well as three education benchmarks including post-secondary education attainment. If you’re interested, today’s noontime news conference will be live-streamed on the Maine Development Foundation’s website. — Christopher Cousins
  • Scholarship money in danger of going unclaimed. The deadline to apply for $16,000 in scholarships through the Maine Legislative Memorial Scholarship fund is May 1 and according to organizers, there are only 18 applicants so far. No one from Cumberland, Piscataquis, Sagadahoc, Lincoln and Knox counties has applied. The scholarships are intended for Mainers who are enrolled or planning to pursue a full- or part-time post-secondary degree or attend a technical school in Maine. The judging criteria are academic excellence, contributions to community and employment and financial need as demonstrated by the applicant’s student aid report. To apply or for more information, click here. — Christopher Cousins
Today in A-town

The House and Senate are in session this morning.

The House calendar opens with a resolution to recognize Second Chance Month for people with criminal records to rehabilitate themselves. The House is also likely to vote this morning on a gubernatorial veto of LD 23, which would exempt the Legislature from reviewing major substantive rules written by state departments if the rules are meant to comply with federal regulations.

There could be some debate and votes around a number of bills, including but not limited to an act to reduce the age limit for carrying a concealed handgun from 21 to 18, a bill to increase physical activity for schoolchildren and another bid to require photographic identification for voting.

In the Senate, several enactment votes are scheduled, including on bills that would bar Clean Election funds from paying for post-election parties, allow campgrounds to operate low-stakes bingo and beano games and make a report on state’s current bond debt available to voters deciding on a bond issue.

In committees, there is a slew of public hearings and work sessions scheduled, as is usual this time of year. Here is a sampling:

  • The Transportation Committee will hear testimony on a bill that would require all highway flaggers to submit to substance abuse testing. Here is their soundtrack.
  • The Insurance and Financial Services Committee has a timely bill considering the onset of spring: a bid to require health insurance coverage for the diagnosis and treatment of Lyme disease.
  • The Energy Utilities and Technology Committee will continue a debate from last year around the creation of a Cabinet-level Maine Energy Office. This year’s proposal — which again, comes from House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport — would allocate $300,000 from the Efficiency Maine Trust annually to support the department.
  • The Health and Human Services Committee has three work sessions on bills related to substance abuse. One would create a pilot project to reduce substance abuse disorders among youth that would be modeled after an existing program in Piscataquis county; another would create new requirements for prescribers of opioids to inform patients about addiction risks; the third would establish a commission to study the location of a drug treatment facility in northern Maine.
  • Two bills that could impact education funding are up for debate and possible votes in the Education Committee. One would remove the 10-school limit on the number of public charter schools in Maine; the other would increase funding for charter schools.

If you want to read the whole committee schedule, click here. — Christopher Cousins with Michael Shepherd

Reading list Budget ‘promises’ in the State House hallway

It’s possible that my life is pathetic and that I think things are interesting that are definitely not.

Take the state budget, for example. I spend an embarrassing amount of time wondering when it will be finally voted out of the Appropriations Committee and how it will fare in the House and Senate. (Somebody, please help.)

However, I know I’m not alone as long as Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, and Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, are in office. Both are members of the Appropriations Committee.

Some other reporters and I ran into Timberlake in the State House hallway Monday and asked him when we’re going to have a budget from the committee. He’s always quick with an answer.

“June 5,” he said, though by statute, he explained, the committee is supposed to have the budget voted out by around May 22. Just then, Martin walked by.

“What’s going on?” he said. “Why is the press here, with him?”  

We asked him if Timberlake’s June 5 prediction sounded reasonable. This is when I need to point out that everyone was kidding from this point on — though as one of my editors once taught me, some things said in jest contain the purest truths.

Martin said there is plenty of money in the governor’s budget for the parties to reach compromise.

“Where the hell are you finding all this money?” said Timberlake.

“In the governor’s budget,” said Martin, who has been involved in state budget back-and-forth since 1965. “It’s all there.”

“Don’t worry, Martin, you guys [Democrats] have spent it all already,” said Timberlake.

As Martin walked away, he cast a final sarcastic jab.

“Not yet,” he said. Here’s their soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins

Medical marijuana providers seek first chance at retail sales in Maine

Press Herald Politics -

AUGUSTA — Medical marijuana dispensaries and caregivers are quietly lobbying state lawmakers to allow them to sell pot to recreational users before retail cannabis stores open in Maine next year.

Later this legislative session, lawmakers are likely to consider bills that could give segments of Maine’s well-established medical marijuana industry a potentially lucrative toehold in the recreational market. Supporters hope that Maine will follow the lead of states such as Colorado and Oregon, which allowed medical marijuana businesses to offer “early sales” of cannabis products to adults while policymakers worked out the details of licensing new businesses catering to recreational users.

But questions about who would qualify to participate in the temporary “early sales” marketplace could fan long-standing tensions between the few large, tightly regulated dispensaries in Maine and the state’s thousands of small, individual “caregiver” suppliers of medical marijuana.

“It has to be an equal playing field,” said Paul McCarrier, the president of Legalize Maine. He wants to ensure that caregivers – not just dispensaries – have an opportunity to participate.

Marijuana became legal for adults age 21 and over in Maine on Jan. 30. But the state is not required to begin accepting applications for retail marijuana sales licenses until February 2018 in order to give agencies and lawmakers time to draft rules and enforcement policies.

That has created a legal quandary for recreational users who can possess and use marijuana but still have nowhere to buy it legally. Their only options are to grow it themselves – adults can possess up to six flowering plants – or turn to the illegal black market. Adults also can “gift” marijuana to other adults in Maine.

David Boyer of the Maine chapter of the Marijuana Policy Project said an “early sales” marketplace is desperately needed and would help steer people away from the black market.

“People ask me all of the time how they can get marijuana, and I have to say, ‘You have to go get a medical marijuana card to buy it legally,’ ” Boyer said.

Supporters of an early sales market contend it also would generate much-needed tax revenue that could be used to help cover the costs of crafting the rules on licensing marijuana businesses.

Maine first legalized medical marijuana in 1999 and then significantly expanded the program a decade later by creating a regulated system of dispensaries and caregivers.

The state currently has eight dispensaries licensed to grow and sell marijuana on a large scale. And there are an estimated 3,200 caregivers who can grow and sell marijuana for up to five “qualifying patients” at a time.

Two bills propose allowing medical marijuana suppliers to step into the early sales marketplace.

Both of the bills, L.D. 1448 and L.D. 1491, would allow dispensaries to sell cannabis products to Mainers who are 21 and over. Caregivers also could sell any excess cannabis products not needed for their patients to dispensaries, but they could not sell directly to recreational users. L.D. 1448 is sponsored by Rep. Matthew Harrington, R-Sanford, while L.D. 1491 is sponsored by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, the co-chair of the Legislature’s Marijuana Legalization Implementation Committee.

A concept draft version of a third bill, L.D. 1499, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Troy Jackson of Allagash, also appears to only allow dispensaries to obtain “provisional licenses” to sell cannabis prior to the establishment of retail shops.

Maine’s network of dispensaries and caregivers have had an uneasy and oftentimes distrustful relationship going back nearly a decade.

Dispensaries are more tightly regulated than caregivers – subject to stringent inspections, quality control and security requirements – and are capped, by law, at eight operations statewide. In comparison, there is no cap on personal caregivers, whose numbers have swelled dramatically during the past two years as the state moved toward recreational legalization. Some caregivers, meanwhile, regard the much-larger dispensaries as representing a corporate culture intent on monopolizing the potentially lucrative cannabis market.

A representative for the state’s largest dispensary, Wellness Connection, could not be reached for comment Monday. But Boyer said he believes any early sales program should be “done equitably,” in part by allowing caregivers with a proven track record to apply to become dispensaries. And McCarrier, of Legalize Maine, said dispensaries should not be allowed to “stifle the competition” and that caregivers who are paying sales tax and are willing to be inspected should be given an opportunity to open retail store fronts.

“Why can’t ‘craft cannabis’ have access to the recreational market?” asked McCarrier, referring to small-scale growers.

Maine won’t be treading new ground if it allows medical marijuana businesses to get into the recreational marketplace first. Both Colorado and Oregon gave preference to established medical marijuana businesses, and Nevada plans to begin allowing medical marijuana shops to sell to the recreational markets this July, six months before retail shops open.

Lawmakers on the Maine Legislature’s Marijuana Legalization Implementation Committee also are debating whether individuals involved in the state’s medical marijuana industry should be given preference when regular retail sales licensing begins next year.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

kmiller@mainetoday.com

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH

White House ‘confident’ of averting shutdown as Trump shows flexibility on wall

Press Herald Politics -

WASHINGTON — The White House sought Monday to calm a jittery Washington ahead of a showdown with Congress over spending, and President Trump softened his demand that a deal to keep the federal government open include money to begin construction on his long-promised border wall.

Despite one-party control at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, the brinkmanship that came to define spending battles in the Obama years has tumbled into the Trump era, as have the factional divisions over strategy and priorities that have gripped the GOP for a decade.

But with a Friday deadline looming to pass a new spending bill, the Trump administration projected confidence that a shutdown would be avoided. In the face of fierce Democratic opposition to fund the wall’s construction, White House officials signaled Monday that the president may be open to an agreement that includes money for border security if not specifically for a wall, with an emphasis on technology and border agents rather than a structure.

Trump showed even more flexibility Monday afternoon, telling conservative journalists in a private meeting that he was open to delaying funding for wall construction until September, a White House official confirmed.

“The president is working hard to keep the government open,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters Monday. White House press secretary Sean Spicer said he was “very confident” that an agreement would be reached by Friday, but he pointedly said he could not “guarantee” that a government closure would be averted.

At issue is whether the spending measure will explicitly allocate funds toward building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border – a campaign promise that was a rallying cry for Trump’s base and one on which he is eager to demonstrate progress by Saturday, his 100th day in office.

Democrats, meanwhile, gave the White House an opening, saying they would agree to some new money for border security – so long as it did not go toward the creation of a wall, something House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has called “immoral.”

In a speech on the Senate floor, Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., blasted the idea of a wall while suggesting that a combination of smart technology and law enforcement, including the use of drones, would be “a much more effective way to secure the border” without hitting an impasse in Congress.

Republicans were working to define Trump’s campaign promise down, arguing that any form of border security would fulfill it.

“There will never be a 2,200-mile wall built, period,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a supporter of immigration reform who challenged Trump in the 2016 primaries. “I think it’s become symbolic of better border security. It’s a code word for better border security. If you make it about actually building a 2,200-mile wall, that’s a bridge too far – but I’m mixing my metaphors.”

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a key appropriator and member of Senate leadership, said that “there could be a wall in some places and technology in other places,” implying that there would not be funding for the wall sketched out in campaign rhetoric. “I think you’re going to get a down payment on border security generally,” he said.

Trump has asked Congress for $1.5 billion in new money to start construction on the wall, and he wants an additional $2.6 billion for the fiscal year that begins in October. The wall, experts say, would cost $21.6 billion and take 31/2 years to construct.

At the White House, Spicer portrayed Trump’s position not as a demand but rather as one of two priorities – the other being additional military funding – in evolving negotiations with Congress. He left open the possibility that the president could agree to funding for border activities generally, such as additional fencing or drones.

“I’m not going to get ahead of the negotiations that are ongoing,” Spicer said.

Should lawmakers fail to find consensus by Friday, there are plans ready to quickly pass through the House and Senate what is referred to as a “short-term C.R.,” a continuing resolution to keep the government open until discussions are finalized.

The Senate returned Monday night and the House returns Tuesday from a two-week recess, leaving only three days this week when both chambers will be in session.

The more conciliatory language emanating from the White House did not stop Trump from continuing to hammer away on Twitter at what he claims is an urgent need for the wall. In a pair of posts, Trump sought to build public pressure on lawmakers to pass funding for wall construction.

“The Wall is a very important tool in stopping drugs from pouring into our country and poisoning our youth (and many others!),” he wrote in a morning post.

In another message several hours later, Trump wrote that if “the wall is not built, which it will be, the drug situation will NEVER be fixed the way it should be! BuildTheWall.”

Still, Trump has left himself wiggle room to agree to sign a government funding bill that does not include money for the wall.

“My base understands the wall is going to get built, whether I have it funded here or if I get it funded shortly thereafter,” Trump said in a recent interview with the Associated Press. “That wall’s getting built, OK? One hundred percent.”

Asked if he would sign a bill without wall funding, Trump told the news service, “I just don’t know yet.”

The debate over wall funding is just one of several moving pieces congressional leaders are trying to address this week to avoid a partial government shutdown. In 2015, President Barack Obama made a deal with congressional lawmakers to fund government operations through April 28, 2017. If a new agreement isn’t reached by then, many federal employees will stop being paid, national parks will close, and a number of other changes will kick in – as in 2013, the last time the government shut down.

Since new rules about spending bills went into place after Jimmy Carter’s administration, a government shutdown has never occurred when a single political party has controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress.

Paramount for many Republican lawmakers is funding the government, as opposed to the wall specifically. If the government shuts down, they fear, voters could blame the GOP for failing to govern, and the party could suffer the consequences in the 2018 midterm elections.

“I’d like to make it as clean as we can and fund the government,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. “I wouldn’t mind funding the wall, but it’s a question of what we can do. The question is, what’s doable and will we make the deadline?”

Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, said that an effective “wall” along the border had been “authorized years and years and years ago,” in the Secure Fence Act of 2006.

“It’s been partially built and partially funded. He wants to fund the rest of it and build it – perfectly legitimate debate that should take place on that,” Risch said.

Asked if that debate could happen in three days, Risch chuckled. “Things get done quickly around here when they want it to get done,” he said.

Even when Republicans controlled the House during the Obama administration, they could rarely pass spending bills without Democratic support. That is because a number of the House’s most conservative members often refused to support such bills, making a bipartisan majority coalition a necessity. In addition, 60 votes are needed to pass a requisite procedural vote in the Senate. With just 52 seats, Senate Republicans will need bipartisan support in that chamber as well.

Among other guarantees, Democrats want assurances that insurance subsidies through the Affordable Care Act will continue to be funded. There have been discussions among Republicans that Democrats could agree to provide money for the construction of the wall in exchange for those health funds, but Democrats have refused.

Sunday morning, congressional Democrats submitted to Republicans a compromise spending plan, which included some new money for border security but only if it did not go toward a wall. Democrats also asked for assurances that the health insurance subsidies would continue to be funded, language that would shore up benefits for coal miners and a change that would expand Medicaid benefits to people in Puerto Rico, according to a senior Democratic congressional aide.

Pelosi told reporters on a conference call Monday that Congress was “on the path to get it done until (Trump) did intervene” and that the administration’s actions so far belied his campaign promise to “make Mexico pay” for the border wall.

James Norton, a former deputy assistant undersecretary for homeland security under President George W. Bush, said funding for technologies, such as cameras and radars, on the border has dropped off since the early 2000s. He said to get money for the wall or other border security measures, the administration will have to “sell specifics” to lawmakers.

“Each part is going to need to be sold in a specific way to Congress, and they’re going to have to hit the Hill hard,” Norton said. “It won’t be easy.”

Lobstermen tired of conflicts support bill to allow GPS tracking of boats

Press Herald Politics -

AUGUSTA — Lobstermen fed up with cohorts who violate fishing regulations testified in favor of a bill to allow Marine Patrol officers to secretly install tracking devices on fishing vessels suspected of illegal activity without first obtaining a warrant.

While a smaller faction opposed the bill, both sides agreed that Maine faces a growing “epidemic” posed by a small number of law-breakers fueling dangerous conflict and threatening the stewardship ethos within the state’s most valuable fishery. They also agreed that the Maine Department of Marine Resources needed more enforcement tools, but lobstermen differed on whether DMR’s commissioner should be allowed to authorize the installation of GPS tracking devices without getting a judge’s approval.

“It is coming to a point where violence will happen and I don’t want to see it happen,” Jason Joyce, a Swans Island lobsterman. “I’ve fished my whole life … the department is full of people who (committed to) criminal justice and they are not trying to impose anything on us as an industry. They are trying to help us out and they need the tools to do it.”

Critics raised concerns about giving the DMR commissioner – a political appointee – too much power and criticized what they said was overly broad or sweeping language in the bill.

“We need to help our law enforcement, yes, but the way the bill is written presently is not the way to do it,” said Rock Alley, a Jonesport fishermen and president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Union.

Lobstering in Maine always has been a rough-and-tumble industry where territorial disputes, personal conflicts or perceptions of wrong-doing can lead to sabotaged traps, sunken boats and occasional violence. But those tensions have risen to new levels in recent years, including the loss of more than $350,000 in gear during an intense “trap war” in the Swans Island-Stonington area last year, and one lobsterman’s boat being sunk at its mooring three times.

Maine lobstermen hauled in 130 million pounds of the crustaceans last year worth an estimated $533 million.

State law already allows Marine Patrol officers to obtain a warrant from a court to covertly install surveillance devices such as GPS trackers on vessels when officers have probable cause to believe the operator is engaged in criminal violations. But many serious crimes in Maine’s lobster industry – such as fishing more than the maximum 800 traps or hauling another fisherman’s gear – are civil violations that therefore require officers to provide targeted fishermen with at least 24 hours’ notice before installing tracking devices.

The bill under consideration in the Legislature, L.D. 1379, would allow the DMR commissioner to authorize the covert installation of a GPS tracking device in cases where Marine Patrol officers show “probable cause” of a civil violation.

Commissioner Patrick Keliher said conflicts between lobstermen are “indisputably” increasing as some lobstermen fish too many traps, set gear outside of their designated zone or fish “sunken trawls” without buoys to evade detection. Keliher, who called the bill “the most important piece of legislation” of his tenure as DMR commissioner, said he feared the actions of a few bad apples threatened to erode the conservation ethic of the industry.

“On many occasions when conducting suspension hearings in my office, I have asked the fishermen what led him to commit these violations?” Keliher told members of the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee. “Many times, the unfortunate response is that they witnessed other fishermen getting away with it and finally grew tired of the uneven playing field.”

Seeking to address concerns raised by numerous fishermen, Keliher said the department would gladly clarify that the bill would only allow installation of GPS tracking devices and not video or audio surveillance equipment.

CONSTITUTIONAL ISSUES

But the bill drew strong opposition from the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, both of which raised constitutionality concerns about what they said amounts to a secret, warrantless search.

“You would be allowing a political appointee to make a decision to allow for electronic surveillance of an individual. That is unheard of anywhere in the law,” said Walt McKee, representing the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “There is no other provision in Maine law for any other commissioner of any other organization to allow electronic tracking … to track someone or to observe someone in their own private places. That is an incredible, broad power that you would be allowing this commissioner to engage in and, I would suggest to you, is an incredibly slippery slope.”

Fishing too many lobster traps and molesting other people’s gear used to be a criminal offense, however DMR and lobster industry leaders were frustrated that so many offenders received small fines or no punishment at all. As a result, they successfully petitioned the Legislature to change those violations to civil offenses. Opponents of L.D. 1379 suggested reverting back to the old system, thereby allowing Marine Patrol to covertly install surveillance equipment with a judge’s approval.

But the clear majority of lobstermen who traveled to Augusta to testify Monday – including a contingent of eight from Swan’s Island – were in favor of the bill, albeit with amendments. They wanted the bill to specify that it only allowed GPS tracking and support requiring the Attorney General’s Office to sign off on any warrantless surveillance. Keliher said he already consults with the Attorney General’s Office on major cases.

Dave Cousens, a South Thomaston fisherman who serves as president of the Maine Lobsterman’s Association, estimated that a half-dozen people are stealing in excess of $150,000 in lobster every year. Those people are taking money directly out of the pockets of other lobstermen in those zones, which Cousens said “leads to social unrest” and fuels anger among honest fishermen who see others fishing 1,200 or even 1,600 traps with no punishment.

“Right now, there is a lot of lobsters being caught,” Cousens said. “I would say the major problem we are facing right now is cheating by not a lot of people but enough people so that it is becoming a huge problem.”

The Marine Resources Committee will hold a work session on L.D. 1379 at a future date.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

kmiller@mainetoday.com

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH

Trump’s orders will aim to expand offshore drilling, reconsider national monuments

Press Herald Politics -

WASHINGTON – President Trump will sign executive orders this week aimed at expanding offshore oil drilling and reviewing national monument designations made by his predecessors, continuing the Republican’s assault on Democratic President Obama’s environmental legacy.

The orders could expand oil drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans and upend public lands protections put in place in Utah, Maine and other states. The Antiquities Act of 1906 authorizes the president to declare federal lands of historic or scientific value to be “national monuments” and restrict how the lands can be used.

Administration officials on Monday confirmed the expected moves. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to freely discuss the president’s upcoming actions.

Obama used his power under the Antiquities Act to permanently preserve more land and water using national monument designations than any other president. The land is generally off limits to timber harvesting, mining and pipelines, and commercial development.

Utah Republicans were infuriated when Obama created the Bears Ears National Monument in December on more than 1 million acres of land that’s sacred to Native Americans and home to tens of thousands of archaeological sites, including ancient cliff dwellings.

Republicans also objected when Obama created the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine last summer on 87,500 acres of donated forestland. The expanse includes part of the Penobscot River and stunning views of Mount Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain.

Republicans have asked Trump to reverse the two designations, saying they add an unnecessary layer of federal control and could stymie commercial development.

Trump’s staff has been reviewing the decisions to determine economic impacts, whether the law was followed and whether there was appropriate consultation with local officials.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he was grateful that Trump was moving to roll back what Hatch called “massive federal land grabs” by presidents dating to Bill Clinton. Hatch and other Utah Republicans have long lamented Clinton’s 1996 designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah.

“For years, I have fought every step of the way to ensure that our lands are managed by the Utahans that know them best and cherish them deeply,” Hatch said in a statement. “That’s why I’m committed to rolling back the egregious abuse of the Antiquities Act to serve far-left special interests,” including Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Environmental groups blasted Trump’s action.

“Utah’s national monuments are our first line of defense against the very real specter of climate change, providing resiliency to not only the species within them, but also to nearby communities,” said Jen Ujifusa, legislative director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “President Trump and the Utah delegation should focus their energies on solving America’s challenges, rather than unraveling the solutions that are already working.”

Trump also is taking aim at Obama’s action to restrict offshore drilling, notably a December order designating the bulk of U.S.-owned waters in the Arctic Ocean and certain areas in the Atlantic Ocean as indefinitely off limits to future oil and gas leasing.

The move was seen as an effort to put some finishing touches on Obama’s environmental legacy while also testing Trump’s promise to unleash the nation’s untapped energy reserves.

Obama cited an arcane provision in a 1953 law to ban offshore leases in the waters permanently. The statute says “the president of the United States may, from time to time, withdraw from disposition any of the unleased lands of the outer Continental Shelf.”

White House officials said when Obama imposed the order they were confident it would withstand legal challenge, adding that the language of the statute provides no authority for subsequent presidents to undo permanent withdrawals. Environmental groups say a similar logic applies to national monuments and note that no president has acted to undo a monument designation made by a predecessor.

The Atlantic waters placed off-limits to new oil and gas leasing are 31 canyons stretching off the coast of New England south to Virginia. Existing leases aren’t affected.

While Trump appears eager to issue executive orders before his first 100 days as president, the drilling order is “ill-timed, falling just one week after the seventh anniversary of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history,” said Dustin Cranor, a spokesman for the environmental group Oceana. He was referring to the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Expanding offshore drilling into now-restricted areas in the Arctic and Atlantic would put vibrant ocean ecosystems at risk and harm businesses, including tourism, recreation and fishing, Cranor said.

Pages

Subscribe to As Maine Goes aggregator