Why legislating mining in Maine is so hard, in one survey

Good morning from Augusta, where a University of Maine student has informed the simmering debate on proposed mineral mining legislation with some of the only detailed survey data that we’ve seen on the subject.

It shows what you might suspect — mining is a complicated issue with many trade-offs in the eyes of Mainers. That and a general lack of awareness on the issue helps explain why there has been such a struggle over rules.

This fight goes back to 2012, when legislative Republicans passed a law aiming to allow mining at Bald Mountain in Aroostook County. Since then, Democrats have blocked sets of rules drafted by regulators that environmentalists have routinely blasted as weak.

Now, the Legislature’s environment committee is nearing a potential compromise. Over the weekend, Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell, worked with the Natural Resources Council of Maine to add further protections to his bill, which is seen as the likeliest vehicle for a mining law overhaul this session.

Earlier this month, Andrew Morgan, a graduate student in UMaine’s School of Forest Resources, and Sandra De Urioste-Stone, a tourism professor at the school, presented a preliminary report on survey data to the committee.

Mainers see a trade-off between the environment and jobs, but the environment wins. While 78 percent said mining would increase employment opportunities, 63 percent said negative impacts of mining outweighed benefits. Supermajorities said that fish and wildlife health (69 percent) and water quality (67 percent) would decrease if a mine were developed near their city or town.

But they don’t know much at all about Maine’s nonexistent mining industry. There’s no mining currently in Maine, but 40 percent of respondents thought there is. Also, 64 percent said they aren’t aware of the Legislature’s mining debate.

Slim majorities think that mining jobs would be welcomed in their communities, but roughly the same percentage thinks mining would hurt tourism. While 55 percent agreed that their communities support mining jobs, 54 percent said mining would decrease levels of nature-based tourism. Tourism jobs are more valued, with 87 percent saying their communities support tourism jobs generally.

(There are caveats: This was a mail survey of 500 with a 20 percent response rate, researchers oversampled areas close to mineral deposits, with 18 percent of respondents from Aroostook County and 53 percent of respondents had a bachelor’s degree or more, compared to just 28 percent of Mainers. Party affiliation, however, roughly mirrored the state as a whole.)

Legislators get their cues from the public, and the potential economic impact of mining has kept the issue afloat in Augusta. But it seems that most Mainers agree with treading a careful path on the environment. — Michael Shepherd

Quick hits

  • Maine’s U.S. senators aren’t panicking yet about the state of the Senate’s Russia investigation. Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee were complaining on Monday to CNN and other outlets about the pace of the Republican-led panel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. But Maine’s senators — who are both on the committee — don’t share those concerns for now. A spokeswoman for Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, said she has “full confidence that the Senate Intelligence Committee’s bipartisan investigation will be thorough and follow the evidence (wherever) it may lead.” In a statement, Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said while he “had hoped” it would move faster, the investigation “has been conducted in a nonpartisan manner and I believe that’s worth the deliberateness in the schedule.” — Michael Shepherd
  • The 2017 Measures of Growth report is due today. The Maine Economic Growth Council will release its annual report card — which has been coming yearly for 23 years — for Maine’s economy today during a news conference at the State House. What’s the big deal? Among all of the piles of reports received every year by the Legislature, this is one that receives more attention in legislative deliberations than most of the others. The reports typically rate Maine in 25 areas ranging from education to housing to job creation. Last year, the report gave Maine low marks in its cost of doing business, as well as three education benchmarks including post-secondary education attainment. If you’re interested, today’s noontime news conference will be live-streamed on the Maine Development Foundation’s website. — Christopher Cousins
  • Scholarship money in danger of going unclaimed. The deadline to apply for $16,000 in scholarships through the Maine Legislative Memorial Scholarship fund is May 1 and according to organizers, there are only 18 applicants so far. No one from Cumberland, Piscataquis, Sagadahoc, Lincoln and Knox counties has applied. The scholarships are intended for Mainers who are enrolled or planning to pursue a full- or part-time post-secondary degree or attend a technical school in Maine. The judging criteria are academic excellence, contributions to community and employment and financial need as demonstrated by the applicant’s student aid report. To apply or for more information, click here. — Christopher Cousins

Today in A-town

The House and Senate are in session this morning.

The House calendar opens with a resolution to recognize Second Chance Month for people with criminal records to rehabilitate themselves. The House is also likely to vote this morning on a gubernatorial veto of LD 23, which would exempt the Legislature from reviewing major substantive rules written by state departments if the rules are meant to comply with federal regulations.

There could be some debate and votes around a number of bills, including but not limited to an act to reduce the age limit for carrying a concealed handgun from 21 to 18, a bill to increase physical activity for schoolchildren and another bid to require photographic identification for voting.

In the Senate, several enactment votes are scheduled, including on bills that would bar Clean Election funds from paying for post-election parties, allow campgrounds to operate low-stakes bingo and beano games and make a report on state’s current bond debt available to voters deciding on a bond issue.

In committees, there is a slew of public hearings and work sessions scheduled, as is usual this time of year. Here is a sampling:

  • The Transportation Committee will hear testimony on a bill that would require all highway flaggers to submit to substance abuse testing. Here is their soundtrack.
  • The Insurance and Financial Services Committee has a timely bill considering the onset of spring: a bid to require health insurance coverage for the diagnosis and treatment of Lyme disease.
  • The Energy Utilities and Technology Committee will continue a debate from last year around the creation of a Cabinet-level Maine Energy Office. This year’s proposal — which again, comes from House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport — would allocate $300,000 from the Efficiency Maine Trust annually to support the department.
  • The Health and Human Services Committee has three work sessions on bills related to substance abuse. One would create a pilot project to reduce substance abuse disorders among youth that would be modeled after an existing program in Piscataquis county; another would create new requirements for prescribers of opioids to inform patients about addiction risks; the third would establish a commission to study the location of a drug treatment facility in northern Maine.
  • Two bills that could impact education funding are up for debate and possible votes in the Education Committee. One would remove the 10-school limit on the number of public charter schools in Maine; the other would increase funding for charter schools.

If you want to read the whole committee schedule, click here. — Christopher Cousins with Michael Shepherd

Reading list

Budget ‘promises’ in the State House hallway

It’s possible that my life is pathetic and that I think things are interesting that are definitely not.

Take the state budget, for example. I spend an embarrassing amount of time wondering when it will be finally voted out of the Appropriations Committee and how it will fare in the House and Senate. (Somebody, please help.)

However, I know I’m not alone as long as Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, and Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, are in office. Both are members of the Appropriations Committee.

Some other reporters and I ran into Timberlake in the State House hallway Monday and asked him when we’re going to have a budget from the committee. He’s always quick with an answer.

“June 5,” he said, though by statute, he explained, the committee is supposed to have the budget voted out by around May 22. Just then, Martin walked by.

“What’s going on?” he said. “Why is the press here, with him?”  

We asked him if Timberlake’s June 5 prediction sounded reasonable. This is when I need to point out that everyone was kidding from this point on — though as one of my editors once taught me, some things said in jest contain the purest truths.

Martin said there is plenty of money in the governor’s budget for the parties to reach compromise.

“Where the hell are you finding all this money?” said Timberlake.

“In the governor’s budget,” said Martin, who has been involved in state budget back-and-forth since 1965. “It’s all there.”

“Don’t worry, Martin, you guys [Democrats] have spent it all already,” said Timberlake.

As Martin walked away, he cast a final sarcastic jab.

“Not yet,” he said. Here’s their soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins

Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.