Senator Baldacci, Representative Matlack, and members of the Committee on State and Local Government. My name is Pete Didisheim, I am the Advocacy Director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, and I appreciate this opportunity to testify on LD 446, An Act to Reestablish the State Planning Office.
For nearly 45 years, from 1968 until 2012, the State Planning Office (SPO) served the state of Maine well. SPO identified and evaluated trends and challenges facing the state and our natural resources, coordinated economic and natural resource policy development and implementation across state agencies, and provided technical support to towns and regions to help preserve the character of Maine, among other duties.
A brief look at its reports to the Legislature shows that SPO was addressing key issues that matter to Maine people, including energy planning; strategies to increase Maine’s knowledge-based economy and raise household incomes; market trends affecting housing and land use; incentives for keeping land in productive farming, fishing, and forestry; the costs of sprawl; waste management strategies; the status of old-growth forests and ecological diversity; and more.
SPO was created as part of the Executive Branch to help build a sustainable future for Maine’s communities, businesses, and residents, with a primary focus on resource assessment and planning. In a state where the health of our environment and economy are so tightly connected, SPO sat at the nexus of many critical issues affecting the character of our state. As its title announced, SPO was in the business of helping Maine plan for our future.
Planning is important work.
As Benjamin Franklin said: “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!”
But then, about a decade ago, “planning” suddenly and inexplicably became a dirty word for some. In 2011, a previous Administration and Legislature initiated a protracted two-year process to dismantle the State Planning Office, downsizing, dispersing, or simply terminating its functions. SPO’s staff were reassigned to other agencies, or they left government, taking their talents and institutional knowledge with them.
NRCM opposed SPO’s dismantlement and believes the entire process was a mistake, but we recognize that those staff and responsibilities will not be brought back together again.
In lending support for LD 446, NRCM is not suggesting that the SPO be re-created, although that is the title of the bill. Rather, we commend the bill’s sponsors for reviving a conversation about critical functions of government that belong in the Executive Branch that were terminated or weakened when SPO was dismantled, and how some of those functions might be restored.
To further this conversation, it may be useful to amend LD 446 to initiate a study process that evaluates Maine’s diminished capacity to evaluate key economic, natural resource, and land use trends since SPO’s dismantlement. Perhaps a survey would be useful as part of such an analysis, soliciting input from municipalities, town planners, businesses, and nonprofit organizations.
Clearly, the establishment in 2019 of the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future (GOPIF) was a step in the right direction of rebuilding policy capacity in the Executive Branch. GOPIF is doing critical work in areas such as climate policy, the opioid epidemic, and workforce development. We support efforts to build GOPIF’s capacity further, particularly in areas that were lost with SPO’s dismantlement.
As an additional contribution to this discussion, I would like to bring attention to one of the many pieces of SPO that was eliminated in 2012 and could be worthy of resurrecting. It was called the Land and Water Resources Council, and it served as a valuable forum for discussion, coordination, planning, conflict resolution, and policy development across Maine’s natural resource agencies, as well as the Departments of Transportation and Economic and Community Development.
The Land and Water Resources Council focused on significant policy areas, including:
- Developing a management strategy for Maine’s ground water resources;
- Evaluating state policies for hydropower development;
- Improving computerized management of natural resource information;
- Evaluating management strategies of near-shore coastal resources;
- Creating an education strategy for public water supply protection;
- Evaluating the effectiveness of Maine’s coastal plan in meeting the state’s public access and working waterfront policy goals;
- Evaluating sources of mercury pollution in Maine and options for phasing out in-state mercury-containing products;
- Evaluating options for reducing coastal storm damage; and
- Creating an action plan for managing invasive aquatic species.
Each of these topics was useful to address through a multi-agency, multi-stakeholder approach, as was provided through the Land and Water Resources Council. In 2013, the Legislature came close to re-establishing the Land and Water Resources Council (although under a different name, the Resource and Development Coordinating Council) when it passed LD 1427. But that bill was vetoed and the Legislature fell a few votes short of overriding the governor’s veto.
As someone who followed the SPO dismantlement process very closely, I can attest that there was never any open discussion about what would be lost through repeal of the Land and Water Resources Council. It was simply swept away with SPO’s dismantlement. Attached to my testimony is both the statutory language of the Land and Water Resources Council, and the bill language of LD 1427 from the 126th Legislature, which may be of interest to the committee.
In closing, let me reiterate my appreciation to the sponsors of LD 446 for bringing these issues forward. Thank you for the opportunity to testify on the bill. I would be glad to answer any questions that you may have.