Whatever the general opinion of the Legislature’s enactments this session may be, there are certainly some lawmakers who play a very positive role in influencing the outcome of legislation so that the perspective of municipal officials is recognized and the interests of local government are supported. Some legislators are very outspoken in their efforts to support local decision-making; others provide quiet but steady support for the services provided at the local level and the local officials and employees who provide them.
While there are many legislators throughout the 2006 legislative session who have at one time or another supported the municipal agenda or pushed hard to protect the interests of local government on an ad hoc basis, the following members of the 122nd Legislature deserve special recognition. These State Representatives and Senators gave municipal interests a high priority throughout the debates on several controversial issues, including the bills addressing the prospective repeal of the personal property tax on business equipment (LD 2056), ordinance amendment procedures (LD 1481), changes to the eminent domain laws (LD 1870), and the anti-town meeting citizen initiative called the “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” (TABOR).
It Comes Naturally to Some. There are some people for whom a genuine respect for direct democracy and belief in the local decision-making process seems to come naturally. Like everyone else, these people may not always agree with every decision a town meeting or town or city council might make, but they hold a deep-seated conviction that community-based decision making is intrinsically valid, appropriate and empowering. As old-fashioned as the concept might be, it is from a sense of civic duty that many of these people gravitate toward elected positions in local government, some to state government, and some to both. There may very well be dozens of legislators who meet that description, but MMA would like to especially recognize two retiring legislators who fill this bill to a tee, each in their own individual styles. Representative Rod Carr from Lincoln and Representative Barbara Merrill from Appleton can always be counted on to give steady, reasoned and articulate support for the local voice.
Some Rise to the Occasion. The second session of the 122nd Legislature was peppered with several controversial issues. The Legislature was asked to act on issues that pitted industrial businesses against residential taxpayers, business development predictability against citizen initiative rights, and the tax-break expectations of waterfront property owners against the need to adopt a responsible and balanced tax reduction program. None of this was easy. Municipal officials would like to thank the following members of the 122nd for their outstanding work on several important municipal issues.
• Personal Property – The proposed repeal of the personal property tax (LD 2056) seemed to put most legislators into a politico-hypnotic trance. Many legislators supported the repeal in advance and sight unseen, and were completely uninterested in understanding its impacts. Other legislators were not supportive of creating a new business tax break without engaging in a broader type of tax reform which was, unfortunately, entirely off the table as far as the Administration and legislative leadership were concerned.
Despite the general trance, a handful of legislators on the Taxation Committee deserve recognition and thanks from the municipal community for their work to mitigate the negative impact of LD 2056 as printed. The list includes Committee Chair Senator Joe Perry of Bangor, Representatives Thom Watson of Bath and Deb Hutton of Bowdoinham and, watching out for the more intense impacts on their industrial towns, Representatives Herb Clark of Millinocket and Ray Pineau of Jay.
But a special thanks goes to Senator Ethan Strimling of Portland, who was entirely impervious to the politico-hypnosis that swirled around LD 2056. Senator Strimling most vocally, most publicly, and most straightforwardly actually “worked” LD 2056 as any bill before the Legislature should be worked, studying its impacts, probing at its soft spots, and developing alternative approaches to mitigate the printed bill’s negative aspects.
• Eminent Domain – Special thanks to Judiciary Committee members and House Chair Representative Deborah Simpson (Auburn) for their work on the many eminent domain bills filed this year. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Kelo decision, there was a distinct possibility that Maine’s Legislature would overreact and pass anti-eminent domain laws in response to other states’ problems. In fact, at least seven bills were filed in this emergency session to deal with eminent domain issues in response to Kelo. Representative Simpson and Senate Chair Barry Hobbins (York County) did a good job of narrowing the issue down to just a couple of bills and then recommending only one for passage. The Chairs were receptive to amendments important to local government. While the municipal community generally felt no changes to the law were needed in Maine, the Judiciary Committee and its leadership ensured the changes that were made were reasonable and rational.
• Working Waterfront – Last November the voters adopted an amendment to Maine’s Constitution to assess “waterfront land used for or to support commercial fishing activities” under a “current use” methodology rather than at its “just value”. It turns out that amending the Constitution was the easy part. The more difficult step was to craft the law that would implement the new system.
The “working waterfront” interests were many – from lobstermen to boatyards to aquaculture facilities to “grow smart” advocates – and although their perspectives were varied, their various expectations for tax breaks were high.
After a start-up draft was created by Maine Revenue Services (MRS), the Taxation Committee asked MRS, MMA, and a single spokesperson from the “Working Waterfront Coalition” to recommend amendments to that draft to address several of the thornier issues identified at the Committee level. The Working Waterfront representative was Senator Dennis Damon (Hancock County.).
With a constitutional amendment behind him, and representing a group with a wide range of interests and a high expectation level, Sen. Damon could have pushed for a give-away program with low levels of accountability, but he didn’t. He never seemed to forget that a property tax break for some is a property tax increase for others, and insisted throughout the process that a strongly accountable start-up program be enacted so that the new working-waterfront tax program will be well respected by the general public and might earn its right to further development in the future if further development is necessary for the program to achieve its goals.
• Ordinance Amendment Procedures –Although LD 1481, An Act to Amend the Laws Governing the Enactment Procedures for Ordinances, was ultimately enacted by the Legislature, special thanks is owed to Senators Peggy Rotundo (Androscoggin Cty.) and Philip Bartlett (Cumberland Cty.), as well as Representatives Herb Adams (Portland), Kevin Glynn (South Portland), Jonathan McKane (Newcastle) and David Trahan (Waldoboro), for their tireless efforts to change the direction of this legislation. These legislators fought to preserve the system of home rule in the broadest sense of that term, and resisted intrusive mandates on the local decision-making process. In their floor speeches and advocacy efforts, they recognized that community-based decision making is healthy, active and empowering in an age when the real threat is not citizen engagement but citizen disengagement from civic activities.
• Highway Fund Budget – The debate over the supplemental Highway Fund budget, LD 1974, became contentious as the Legislature was asked to address part of the $90 million shortfall through the issuance of a $60 million revenue bond. The bonding proposal, which ultimately failed, was heavily criticized because some legislators, including House and Senate majority and minority leaders, believed that the enactment of the state’s General Fund budget was contingent on the fact that no bonds would be issued this year. House Transportation Committee chair, Representative Boyd Marley of Portland, along with Senate Chair Dennis Damon of Hancock County, did an outstanding job defending the need for the $60 million bond and keeping focus on the many municipal projects will be deferred. Rep. Marley expressed frustration with the Legislature’s ability to let politics get in the way of funding necessary infrastructure projects. He also expressed concern with the ability of the members of the Appropriations Committee, as well as legislative leaders, to enter into negotiations over the General Fund budget that had the presumptive effective of tying-up any negotiations over the Highway Fund budget. The municipal community appreciates Rep. Marley’s efforts to appropriately fund the Highway Fund budget.
Finally, thanks are once again due to Senator Christine Savage (Knox Cty.) and Representative Ross Paradis (Frenchville) for ensuring that the members of the Legislature were kept up to date on issues of municipal interest by allowing a copy of MMA’s Legislative Bulletin to be distributed to each member of the House and Senate every week of the legislative session.