Legislative Update Jan. 19

The Legislature is back in action at the State House.  Our formal legislative preview is being polished and will soon be released.  In the meantime, here’s a sense of what we’re working on and what’s happening.

Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC)
The LURC Reform Commission, created by the Legislature last session, has finalized its unanimous recommendations.  Although we agree LURC can be improved, we remain very concerned that several of the Commission’s recommendations undermine LURC’s statewide approach for land use planning, zoning and permitting in Maine’s North Woods.  The Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee heard the Reform Commission’s report last week and (it was a pretty horrific process) voted to send the recommendations on to become a bill.  The Committee has clarified that it doesn’t endorse all of the recommendations but wanted to put the recommendations in bill form for the public to see and comment on. They indicated that the public hearing would likely happen in mid February.
Last year, the Legislature also created a study committee to look at regulatory takings issues.  The majority of the Regulatory Takings Study Committee is proposing legislation that would allow landowners to file lawsuits against the State demanding compensation for diminished property value as a result of complying with state zoning and land use regulations, as long as the value is reduced by 50% or more.  If passed, the legislation would be devastating for Maine, both fiscally and ecologically.  Litigation could cost the state tens of millions of dollars; and since no funding source has been established, the only way to soak up these inevitable costs is through Maine taxpayers or waiving the regulation altogether.  When looking at other states who’ve considered adopting takings laws, it’s no wonder why the vast majority of them have defeated such measures.  The Judiciary Committee will be hearing the study committee’s report next Tuesday the 24th at 9:30.
Land for Maine’s Future program (LMF)
The Land for Maine’s Future (LMF) program helps conserve lands with high recreational and ecological value, in addition to conserving working farms, forestlands and waterfronts, all of which form the foundation of our natural resource-based economy.  Lands conserved through the LMF Program provide significant economic value in the form of natural goods and services.  This important program has been funded in the past by bonds that are approved by legislators and then voters.  The program has received widespread support – from both parties and from over 65% of the public –  since its creation in 1987.  LD 852, carried over from last session, would provide additional bond funding for LMF.  The Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee has not yet scheduled a public hearing.

Inland Waterfowl and Wading Bird Habitat (IWWH)
Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is proposing to change the way it regulates important inland waterfowl and wading bird habitat (IWWH).  This proposal would allow major development, such as residential subdivisions and gas stations, in the critical buffer areas of IWWH without even getting a permit. Such development would be allowed under permit-by-rule (PBR), a streamlined process which allows development to proceed without a thorough review from state biologists and wetlands experts.  The Board of Environmental Protection (BEP) has strengthened the DEP’s proposed rule to increase the required habitat buffer and to require consultation with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife if the proposed activity is to occur during a particularly sensitive time of year.  While we would have liked to see the BEP improve the proposal even more, we think this is a reasonable compromise.  We remain concerned that there will be an effort to weaken the proposal when the Environment and Natural Resources Committee takes it up this session.  A hearing has not yet been scheduled.
Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (DIFW) Funding
The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (DIFW) has seen a decline in its traditional funding sources and needs additional, stable revenue for its education, enforcement, and non-game programs in order to ensure the future sustainability of allMaine wildlife and wildlife habitat.  Maine Audubon continues to work with its allies to find new sources of funds and Senate President Kevin Raye has submitted a bill to direct some funding to DIFW.  The bill, LD 1652, is being heard by the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee this Monday at 10 am. While we have some concerns with the specific funding source proposed, we are strongly supporting the effort to find additional funding sources for wildlife and will be urging the Committee to create a working group to look for funding opportunities.
Wind Act Review
Last session, the Legislature charged the Office of Energy Independence and Security with conducting a study and review of the Wind Act and other important issues surrounding the development of wind energy.  Maine Audubon has been working with its partners on this review and has been analyzing more closely the areas in the state that will likely have the fewest conflicts with wind from a natural resources perspective and considering how meeting the current goals for wind power will affect our landscape.  We are hopeful that the Legislative discussion about reevaluating the wind goals will be a positive step forward in Maine’s continuing effort to refine the Act.  The study is not yet complete.
Elimination of State Planning Office
The Administration is proposing to eliminate the State Planning Office, eliminate a number of positions and distribute some functions to various agencies.  Of prime concern are: the loss of staff at the Land Use Planning Team, the loss of an assistant attorney general who provides support for the Board of Environmental Protection and the Department of Environmental Protection, and the loss of a person to manage the Land for Maine’s Future program.  The State and Local Government Committee heard the report addressing how the State Planning Office will be eliminated this week.  They asked many tough questions.  David Emery, who presented the report on behalf of the administration, indicated that the land use planning position and the assistant attorney general position would be saved.  The Committee also voted to amend LD 769 (Rep. Brad Moulton’s concept draft bill on reconfiguring the State Planning Office).  The amendment largely reinstates many of the Office’s functions.  This is a strong move by the Committee sending a clear signal to the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee (has jurisdiction over dismantling the Office) that it has concerns with the administration’s proposal.
Reorganization of DEP, DOC and DIFW
We will be paying attention to proposals to reorganize the natural resources agencies.  Stay tuned for details.