by Steve Mistler, State House Bureau
AUGUSTA â Lawmakers overwhelmingly advanced a bill aimed at beefing up the state program designed to phase out toxic chemicals in children’s products, but final passage is still in question.
The proposal, L.D. 1181, sponsored by Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, would require manufacturers of 49 chemicals on the so-called “high concern list” to report what products contain the chemicals identified by the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention. It passed the Senate unanimously on Tuesday and the House voted 108-37 Wednesday to approve it.
The bill has been the subject of significant political wrangling among lawmakers, state officials and the chemical industry.
It was opposed by the Le-Page administration, which has backed a 2011 effort to repeal the law the bill seeks to bolster, the Kid Safe Products Act of 2008.
Competing interests, including advocates of the law and the chemical industry, prompted lawmakers to alter the original bill.
But despite strong support among lawmakers the compromise plan faces another hurdle: price.
“My guess is that this law will pass and then it will die” in the budget-writing committee, said Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, who crafted a different version of the bill that was rejected by the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
The Department of Environmental Protection administers the Kid Safe program.
When L.D. 1181 passed out of committee, the department estimated it would cost $1.47 million over the next two years because it required hiring additional staff.
Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Maine-based Environmental Health Strategy Center, which advocates nationally for chemical policy reform and strongly supports the law, said Tuesday that the department estimate, known as a fiscal note, was “politically motivated.”
Belliveau cited a seven-month investigation of the DEP by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram which found that department staff members were under pressure not to vigorously implement the priority chemical list.
In the 2½ years since Gov. Paul LePage took office, the DEP has failed to put forth a new toxin to add to the priority list identified by the Baldacci administration.
Fiscal notes are verified by the Legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal and Program Review. Director Grant Pennoyer told the Press Herald on Monday that supporters of the bill were going to be “disappointed” with his analysis.
Pennoyer was correct. His review dropped the DEP price tag by only 20 percent — an amount still seen as prohibitive amid budget constraints.
On Tuesday, the Senate passed an amended version of the bill designed to further reduce the cost.
The new fiscal note is more than $373,000 for two years.
It would pay for the hiring of a toxicologist and an environmental specialist at the department to administer the law.
The bill faces additional procedural votes on the floor of the Legislature. It will next be reviewed by the Legislature’s budget-writing panel, the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, which is charged with reconciling legislation with a fiscal note and paying for it within the state’s next two-year budget.
The debate over L.D. 1181 will shift there.
Advocates of the law and L.D. 1181 hope lawmakers will be persuaded to enact the bill. On Tuesday supporters circulated to lawmakers copies of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram series, which found that Patricia Aho, LePage’s commissioner at the Department of Environmental Protection, had stalled implementation of the law.
“Shame on Governor Le-Page for representing the toxic chemical industry, rather than protecting the health of Maine families,” said Amanda Sears, associate director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, in a press statement issued Monday. “The Governor should drop his opposition to the Healthy Kids bill, and put Maine people before toxic politics.”
Saviello, who along with Goodall brokered the 2011 compromise that averted repeal of the Kid Safe law, sharply disagreed with the newspaper’s findings.
He said he didn’t support the amended version of L.D. 1181, but agreed with its intent.
Saviello also noted that issues identified in the legislation could very well be dealt with through a new movement in Congress to revamp the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, a largely dormant chemical safety law designed to regulate potentially harmful chemicals in industrial and consumer goods.
The law directs the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to test chemicals.
But of 85,000 registered for use in the United States, only 200 have been tested since 1976.
Congress is reviewing efforts to strengthen the federal law. That effort is backed by Maine’s U.S. senators, Republican Susan Collins and Independent Angus King.