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Maine’s green future debated

Governor wants rules streamlined; foes see assault on environment

LIGHTNING ROD FOR CRITICS Maine Governor Paul LePage has made controversial proposals to reduce the state’s $4.3 billion budget shortfall. LIGHTNING ROD FOR CRITICS
Maine Governor Paul LePage has made controversial proposals to reduce the state’s $4.3 billion budget shortfall.
By Jenna Russell
Globe Staff / March 7, 2011

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Paul LePage, Maine’s Republican governor, has attracted national attention in his first two months in office, not for his policy proposals, but for inflammatory public statements. He has sparred with the NAACP, inviting its leaders to “kiss my butt,’’ and scoffed at laws banning the chemical known as BPA. The worst side effect of exposure to it, he asserted at a press conference, might be women growing “little beards.’’

Now, though, the new governor has offered up a more substantive cause for controversy: a plan to streamline state environmental protections, eliminating or reducing more than 60 regulations on pollution and development.

Supporters of the controversial measure, including members of the state’s Tea Party movement, say the changes are needed to cut through red tape and revitalize a stagnant economy. Opponents, including environmental groups that are rallying money and manpower against it, say the move would strike at the heart of Maine’s appeal and an engine of its economy — its rambling, rocky coastline and northern wilderness.

“It’s a wholesale retreat from the values Maine people hold dear,’’ Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, a statewide public health organization, said of LePage’s proposal. “Everyone knows the essence of Maine is the quality of its environment. It resonates deeply in the psyche of Maine people, and it’s the backbone of the economy, drawing tourists from all over the world.’’

The fate of the plan rests with the Legislature, where Republicans gained control in the last election. Lawmakers have filed dozens of related bills, some going even further than LePage’s plan, according to environmental groups. A repeal of Maine’s bottle bill and the elimination of the planning board for Maine’s north woods are among the proposals, they said.

Like other conservative candidates with Tea Party support, LePage talked more about regulatory reform than environmental issues on the campaign trail. But his focus on reducing government and reining in state spending, like that of other, like-minded governors, has raised the possibility that state environmental safeguards, some of them in place for decades, could be rapidly, dramatically scaled back.

In New Jersey, to similar outrage from environmentalists, Governor Chris Christie previously introduced many of the same proposals put forth by LePage: establishing a fast track to approval for development proposals, shifting authority from environmental boards to administrative judges, and prohibiting state standards that are stricter than federal regulations.

Florida’s new governor, Rick Scott, used his recent budget recommendations to eliminate funding for the state’s land conservation program, Florida Forever, and to drastically downsize the state agency in charge of managing sprawl, the Department of Community Affairs, by slashing its budget from $779 million to $110 million, according to Sarah Bucci, a field associate with the advocacy group Environment Florida.

In Maine, a less developed and less populated state, the deregulation effort is expected to collide with a well-funded network of environmentalists, who will use LePage’s plan to raise money for their cause.

A spokesman for LePage, Dan Demeritt, said the Maine initiative has been miscast by critics and is not meant as an assault on natural resources. It evolved, he said, from a series of public meetings held around the state in which hundreds of citizens offered ideas on how to make Maine more business-friendly.

“The governor is not suggesting we turn our backs on what makes Maine great,’’ said Demeritt. “It’s about finding middle ground and the right protections, and why it takes a million dollars to get a project approved.’’

The proposal that has received the most attention would suspend the Kid-Safe Products Act, a law overwhelmingly approved by legislators in 2008. The law, which has yet to take effect, would ban the sale of baby bottles and other products containing bisphenol A, or BPA, a chemical compound linked to health concerns in animal studies. Supporters of the law say LePage is catering to out-of-state corporations who helped fund his campaign. Demeritt said the governor simply wants “sound science’’ to be the standard for state regulations, and with BPA, “the science is not there.’’

Speaking to reporters last month, LePage went further, appearing to mock the health concern with his “little beards’’ remark. His spokesman described the comment as a “joke gone awry.’’ But it sparked fresh criticism of the governor, whose run-in with the NAACP had already inspired the creation of a “61 percent’’ bumper sticker, a reference to the percentage of Maine voters who cast ballots for other candidates last November.

Belliveau said LePage’s antics work against him.

“In a perverse way, it helps raise the profile of the issue and makes the governor politically toxic,’’ he said. “Moderate Republicans are the swing voters who control the outcome, and they don’t take well to extreme agendas or outrageous comments.’’

State Senator Peter Mills, who ran against LePage in a seven-way Republican primary last year, said the governor’s deregulation plan contains important, necessary changes at its core, some of which are likely to be approved. But he criticized LePage for taking a “slash and burn’’ approach instead of focusing strategically on key reforms.

“You need to get people used to your perspective, instead of throwing everything against the wall,’’ said Mills. “It creates huge resistance and doesn’t get it done. . . . All he did was get environmentalists fired up.’’

In private, even some Tea Party members admit they have tired of LePage’s headline-grabbing public statements, said Andrew Ian Dodge, the Tea Party’s former Maine coordinator, who recently announced his plan to run against US Senator Olympia Snowe in 2012.

“But if he delivers the goods, they will put up with it,’’ Dodge said. “The reason the environment is at the core of the Maine economy is because other industry has been driven out by taxation and regulation. . . . Something radical has to be tried.’’

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.