January 23 ,  2009  






Bills take aim at rockweed, MPBN, schools

    by Edward French                     

Bills submitted by area legislators would impose a rockweed harvest moratorium, make changes in the school regionalization law, promote economic development initiatives in Washington County, recognize Native American veterans and require that MPBN keep operating its towers in Washington and Aroostook counties. Other bills propose changes ranging from advancing the dates for the coyote hunting season to having prisoners grow vegetable gardens.

Rockweed and scallops

Two bills are being submitted concerning the rockweed harvest in Cobscook Bay. Rep. Howard McFadden of Dennysville has submitted legislation at the request of some residents of Pembroke that would impose a two-year moratorium on the harvest in order to study the impact that it has on other marine life. A bill introduced by Senator Kevin Raye of Perry would regulate the rockweed harvest in Cobscook Bay but does not yet propose any specific language, pending the result of negotiations between critics and local proponents of rockweed harvesting to address concerns about the way in which the harvest in Cobscook Bay was handled last year. A facilitated discussion was scheduled to be held this week. Although the initial push was for a moratorium, Raye says he has since heard from people in the Cobscook Bay area who do not want a moratorium and are interested in setting up a local processing plant for rockweed.

Another marine-related bill Raye has submitted would establish area management for Maine's scallop fishery. Again, the bill does not yet propose any specific language, pending the result of discussions with scallop fishermen led by the Cobscook Bay Resource Center and the Penobscot East Resource Center. Raye says the current "one-size-fits-all" approach to management does not work well for either the fisheries or the fishermen. Area management has worked well for the lobster fishery, and the Department of Marine Resources has been proposing area management in the scallop fishery.

Renaming townships

Following a public hearing this month on renaming unorganized territories in Washington County, Raye has submitted a resolve to change the name of five of the county's 21 townships: Township 14 to Cathance Township; Township 18 to Berry Township; Township 21 to Big Lake Township; Township 27 to Greenlaw Chopping Township; and Township 31 to Day Block Township.

School regionalization

Raye says that there's "a tremendous amount of discomfort" among legislators who voted for the school regionalization law as they see how the regionalization process is playing out. He says there were many school regions that voted for consolidation because of the penalties that they would have faced if they opposed the regionalization plans. If the Secretary of State's office certifies that there are a sufficient number of signatures on the petitions seeking repeal of the law, the legislature will consider the repeal measure during this session.

McFadden, who is a member of the Education Committee, is not sure how the legislature would vote on repealing the regionalization law, noting that 34 regional school units have been formed in southern Maine, and legislators from those areas would have little reason to vote for repeal.

McFadden has introduced emergency legislation that would require a one-year moratorium on the school regionalization law, moving the date for regional school units or alternative organizational structures to be in place from July 1, 2009, to July 1, 2010. He says the bill would prevent the Department of Education from imposing penalties on towns that rejected the formation of a regional school unit and give them more time to form an alternative organizational structure (AOS). The proposed regional school units in both eastern and central Washington County were turned down by voters.

Raye has submitted legislation to allow a municipality to withdraw from a school unit, which would ensure that every town has the ability to determine which school district it partners with. Another bill would require the Department of Education to provide print-outs to each town within an AOS to guide the town-by-town distribution of state education funding. Currently, the department is not required to do so, which creates confusion and conflict, Raye says, and provides "a serious disincentive" for those regional planning committees that may otherwise prefer to form an AOS rather than a SAD-like regional school unit. McFadden has submitted a similar bill, requiring that the state issue a subsidy check to each town in an AOS, which he describes as "a school union on steroids."

Economic development

Both Senator Raye and Rep. Anne Perry of Calais have submitted bills for funding the Washington County Development Authority (WCDA). Raye's bill would capture a portion of the increase in future sales tax revenues generated in Washington County in order to provide revenue for the WCDA to use in support of job creation and economic development in the county. Perry's bill would authorize a study of the proposal.

Raye has also submitted bills to expand the economic development benefit of tax-increment financing in counties that include unorganized territories and to provide $150,000 per year for Maine Rural Partners, Maine's federally recognized rural development council.

A bill seeking to help secure the future of the Domtar mill in Baileyville would make permanent the successful pilot project enacted four years ago that allows certain trucks to travel between the Calais border crossing and the mill.

Renewable energy

Two bills submitted by Raye concern renewable energy. One bill would create a tax credit for conversion to renewable energy sources and will be folded into a similar bill sponsored by Senator Doug Smith of Dover-Foxcroft. Another bill would build on a federal pilot program authored by U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe to promote "on-bill financing" arrangements through which small businesses can finance energy efficiency improvements with no-interest or very low-interest loans and no initial cash outlay.

Health and welfare

Raye has introduced a bill that would seek to require that the state pay its long-outstanding debt to Maine's hospitals. He notes that the debt "has a very negative impact, particularly on rural hospitals."

Perry, who is House chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, has introduced several bills related to health and welfare. One bill would require mandatory carding of anyone purchasing alcohol and mandatory training for those serving alcohol. The bill aims to prevent underage drinking. Another bill would help nurses with substance abuse problems get into recovery programs; a third would continue a pilot program for the mailing in of unused pharmaceutical waste to the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency to prevent the waste from either getting into the environment or poisoning people. Perry also has submitted a bill that would require pro-rating by health insurance prescription plans so that smaller prescription sizes can be allowed.

Native veterans

Recognition for Native American veterans is the aim of a bill submitted by Passamaquoddy Rep. Donald Soctomah. The bill would set aside a Native American Veterans Day to honor their service to the country. He notes that many tribes sent high percentages of their populations into military service, and many gave their lives for their country. The last U.S. serviceman killed during World War I was a Passamaquoddy from Pleasant Point, Moses Neptune, who died in France. However, Native veterans were not entitled to federal service-related benefits until the 1960s.

State government

Raye has submitted bills to suspend the legislative pay increases for 2009 and 2010. Although the bills would only save about $40,000, he says the pay increase "smacks of a double standard," when cuts are being made across state government.

Another bill Raye has introduced would expand the authority of the state ethics commission to the executive branch of state government. Other legislation he has submitted would change the Maine Clean Election Act by requiring that repeat candidates for state office must have received at least 15% of the vote in their most recent race in order to qualify for taxpayer financing and that candidates must raise requisite seed money to demonstrate viability.

MPBN to coyote hunting

In a measure responding to Maine Public Broadcasting Network's plan to shut down radio and television transmitters in Calais and its radio tower in Fort Kent, Raye has submitted a bill requiring that MPBN, as a condition of receiving continued state funding, must operate all of its existing radio and television transmitters. He says the bill has "struck a chord" with other legislators, who are also concerned about what he calls "the troubling appearance" of the plan that would "disenfranchise parts of Maine."

McFadden has introduced a bill to change the night hunting season for coyotes from January 1BJune 1 to December 1BMay 1. He says that hunters, who requested the bill moving the season back a month, say that bears steal the bait in May, so the hunting is better in December.

McFadden is also submitting bills to promote having prisoners in minimum security facilities work in vegetable gardens to grow food for the prisons and thus reduce costs. Another bill would allow residents in the unorganized territories to obtain motor vehicle plates from the unorganized territory supervisor.

At the request of a constituent who runs an RV park, Perry has introduced a bill to amend the law in order to resolve problems caused by the overnight parking of recreational vehicles in shopping center parking lots, including the issues of waste disposal. Although there is a law limiting the parking of RVs in parking lots, there is some question about who enforces that law.

Other bills are also being sponsored by the members of the Washington County legislative delegation. Soctomah says he needs to discuss his other bills with tribal officials before releasing specific details.

Soctomah is uncertain if the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission (MITSC) will be having any legislation introduced, although a recent MITSC report recommended that eight recommendations by the governor's Tribal-State Work Group be enacted into law. Last year, that legislation was stripped of most of its provisions by legislators. Soctomah notes that the Penobscot Nation presently is not participating in MITSC, and the Passamaquoddy Tribe is supporting the Penobscot's position. Without tribal participation, MITSC has lacked a quorum to make any decisions.



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