Republican state Senator Thomas Saviello, at one point widely considered a foe of Maine’s environment, may have just saved it. At the least, he was a leader in saving a good part of it.
Saviello and a few other Republican lawmakers, dubbed “moderates,” joined with — it almost goes without saying — a good number of Democrats to make up a surprising environmentalist majority in the 125th Legislature, which recently ended regular business.
Surprising because when Republican Governor Paul LePage swept into office almost a year and a half ago shoulder-to-shoulder with Republican majorities in the House and Senate, “out-of-state corporate interests” saw their opportunity to gut the environmental laws, says Peter Didisheim, the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM) chief lobbyist.
These corporations and many in-state business interests rushed to Augusta with scores of proposals ranging from eviscerating the bottle-return and shoreland-zoning laws to reversing the state’s commitment to lessen toxic chemicals in the marketplace.
In the Legislature’s first session, environmentalists and their legislative allies, armed with an NRCM poll showing 9 out of 10 Mainers believe environmental protection should be a priority, saw their first victories, defeating or postponing for consideration most of the environmental rollbacks.
This year’s session, too, “ended much better than we thought it would,” Didisheim says. The “worst threats” were defeated — such as a measure to abolish the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC), which Didisheim believes would have meant “the end of the North Woods as we know it.”
As “mainstream business leaders,” Didisheim says, turned against many Republican proposals, so did some key Republican legislators. Although a legislative majority wound up supporting the environmental laws, the numbers were “very close,” he adds.
The moderates didn’t stop some things, such as a weakening of the mining laws meant to benefit a Canadian corporation. Still, they made the difference on several big environmental issues, with Saviello, from Wilton, chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, leading the way.
For Saviello, it was rehabilitation. Seven years ago, as an independent state rep, he allegedly had improper dealings with Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) commissioner Dawn Gallagher over Androscoggin River water-pollution regulations affecting International Paper’s big mill in Jay.
He was then both the mill’s environmental manager and a member of the Natural Resources Committee. The scandal saw Gallagher resigning and Saviello relinquishing his committee seat.
When the GOP gained power and he became committee chairman, Saviello says he knew environmental groups distrusted him: “It was like, ‘You got to watch him.'” But now, he says, the environmentalists may have concluded, “He wasn’t as bad as we thought he was going to be.”
Indeed, Didisheim says Saviello has redeemed himself. He was “a leader on environmental issues the past two years,” adding that he’s a hard worker interested in facts, not anecdotes.
Saviello’s clout is reinforced by his decades studying and working on environmental issues. Now retired, he has a PhD from the University of Maine in forest resources.
LURC KEPT INTACT
Even though the issue didn’t come before his committee, behind the scenes Saviello was active in negotiations over the proposal to abolish LURC, which would have given the commission’s power to regulate development in the 10 million acres of the North Woods to the county governments.
Environmentalists credit Senate Republicans such as Saviello and Roger Katz, of Augusta, along with Bradley Moulton of York, Kimberly Olson of Phippsburg, Russell Black of Wilton, Dennis Keschl of Belgrade, and several other Republican House members with being instrumental in preventing the Legislature from doing away with LURC.
County regulation would have been “a fiasco,” Saviello says. One county might be easy-going on development, another hard-nosed. There would have been no statewide standard.
In the end, the biggest change made to LURC is that large proposed developments will now go before the DEP. Environmentalists seem satisfied. The group Environment Maine is “pretty pleased” with the result, says director Emily Figdor.
“TAKINGS” BILL KILLED
The “regulatory takings” bill, a product of a corporate-legislator coalition, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), would have allowed people or corporations that could prove their property’s value had been significantly diminished by a regulatory action, including environmental regulation, to be compensated by the state for their loss.
A “very substantial effort” to secure passage, Didisheim says, was mounted by a score of lobbyists representing forestry, farming, and other interests.
Senator Katz says compensating people for these losses is good in principle, but “it’s virtually impossible to draft a law that would work well without generating huge amounts of litigation and costs.” He adds: “Only the big developers” would be able to take advantage of it.
Republican Senators Katz, Saviello, Earle McCormick of West Gardiner, Christopher Rector of Thomaston, and independent Richard Woodbury of Yarmouth supported instead the creation of a legislative committee to study the issue. But House Republicans wouldn’t compromise, so the bill died.
MINING OVERHAUL PASSES
The bipartisan passage of the mining bill was the environmental movement’s biggest defeat in the 125th Legislature.
Supported by LePage, this bill overhauls the mining laws to help a company owned by the Canadian Irving corporate empire to develop an open-pit gold mine at Bald Mountain in Aroostook County, in the middle of the North Woods.
Critics see the law making it easier for open-pit mines to be developed elsewhere. Environment Maine’s Figdor says such mines inevitably create water pollution, and under the law taxpayers could end up footing the bill for clean-ups. The outcome here was “really disappointing,” she says.
Environmentalists will carefully monitor DEP rule-making under the new law. The Legislature will have to approve the rules.
LANDFILL TO EXPAND
The Legislature’s permission to expand the Norridgewock private landfill represents “a change in the direction of the state” on waste disposal, says Senator Seth Goodall, of Richmond, the lead Democrat on Natural Resources. Previously, there was a ban on expansion.
Hillary Lister of Athens, the state’s foremost anti-dump activist, says the expansion will encourage the importing of out-of-state waste into Maine, which has grown in recent years.
OTHER ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIONS
A $5-million Land for Maine’s Future conservation bond issue is one of five bonds approved by the Legislature by the required two-thirds majority. It’s unclear whether LePage will sign all or some of them. It’s also unclear if the two-thirds majority will stick together to override a veto.
The Legislature decided to dismantle the State Planning Office — a LePage initiative. The office helped coordinate environmental policy, so now this coordination will be weakened, Didisheim says.
The fusing of the Agriculture and Conservation departments, another LePage priority, was not terribly contentious. The new agency will be the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
The Legislature approved a Department of Transportation feasibility study of the Cianbro corporation’s proposed 220-mile “East-West Highway.” The report will be presented to the next Legislature. “It’s a big issue looming out there,” Didisheim says.
How well did Maine’s beloved environment hold up during the past two years of legislative assault? Better than first feared. But maybe it was a case of “holding the line,” as Emily Figdor concludes.