Legislative update: LURC imperiled by GOP-led commission

Posted Tuesday, May 31, 2011 in News

Legislative update: LURC imperiled by GOP-led commission

The Moosehead Lake region, one of Maine's pristine wilderness areas under the jurisdiction of the Land Use Regulation Commission.

by Marian McCue

A partisan fight over who will control development and planning in Maine’s sparsely populated unorganized territory came to a head last week as Republican members of the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee pushed through their plan for a Republican-appointed commission that is likely to propose abolishing the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC).

The plan to abolish LURC was a key campaign platform for Gov. Paul LePage. The initial bill to do away with the agency and transfer its planning powers to the counties, starting in six months, was presented at the Agriculture Committee by Senate President Kevin Raye who told the public hearing that LURC was “synonymous with government authority and overeach,” likening it to a Colonial power. LURC oversees planning and development in the 10 million acres of rural Maine that is not organized into municipalities.

Raye’s arguments were resisted by environmentalists and other legislators, who recalled a time before LURC was established when there were no guidelines to protect the land from the early rush of development in the late 1960s.

Hoddy Hildreth, who served in the Legislature that created the LURC legislation,  told legislators that the need for an agency to control zoning in the sparsely populated lands of the Unorganized Terrrtory began when the paper companies began to see the potential for development of their land.

“The early developers, whether they were paper companies or simply entrepreneurial land owners, could pretty much do as they wanted, without regard to the long term effects upon lands and water bodies that would someday be a magnet to those 40 million of our neighbors looking for a place to escape for a week or two from horrors of New Jersey.”

After hearing from impassioned speakers on both sides, the Republican committee leaders sought more time to consider such a dramatic change. Sen. Raye’s office developed a plan to refer the LURC issue to a commission, entirely made up of  LePage administration officials and “stakeholders” appointed by the Governor and Republican legislative leadership.

After several days of tense hearings, and consideration of an alternate Commission put forward by Democrats, the Republican plan passed the committee on a 7-5 vote, and observers expect the Commission  will develop a bill to abolish LURC for the Legislature to consider next year.

With the proposed study commission’s listed duties geared towards abolishing LURC and membership controlled by the Governor and Republican legislative leaders, Democrats and environmental lobbyists saw it as a way to abolish LURC more slowly.

“The (Republican) proposal as drafted is a rubber stamp to abolish LURC,” said Pete Didisheim of the Natural Resources Council of Maine who had lobbied on behalf of making changes to the agency, rather than abolishing it. “We’re looking to get a group that involves lawmakers, and has a broader charge to the group.”

Didisheim worked with Democrats on the Agriculture Committee to come up with an alternate plan that would have included legislators on the commission, and would had some Commission members appointed by Democratic leadership. Its listed duties included improving LURC, rather than abolishing it.  The membership on both commission proposals included county commissioners, representatives of large and small landowners in the Unorganized Territory (UT) and representatives of environmental groups.

But after days of political maneuvering at several workshop sessions last week,  the Republicans pushed their version of the Commission through the committee on a party line 7 – 5 vote on Thursday.

The issue finally came to a vote after a tense workshop session where the legislators from both parties caucused, supposedly trying to find areas of agreement hoping to develop a unanimous report on the amended bill. But just as Rep. Jeff McCabe (D-Skowhegan) began discussing proposed wording changes that might have brought compromise, his efforts were maligned by Sen. Michael Thibodeau (R-Waldo).

Losing patience, Committee Chairman Roger Sherman (R-Aroostook) told Democrats there would be no more compromises. Sherman complained about the painful partisan process in this Legislature,  having just come from a fight on the Senate floor over Gov. Paul LePage’s so-called right to work bill, which drew an angry lecture from Senate President Kevin Raye aimed at Senate Democrats.

 Back in the Agriculture Committee room shortly after the Senate session ended, Committeee Chairman Roger Sherman (D-Aroostook) said working on the LURC bill had taken its toll. He criticized the lobbbyists who he said were active in producing the Democrats’ alternate plan.

“Probably half of their plan came from lobbyists,” said he said, decrying the influence of lobbyists on the State House process.

“There is no thought process in this building,” Sherman continued, alluding to the lack of cooperation. He said the last time there was cooperation in the Legislature was under Gov. Angus King. (Rep. McCabe acknowledged that he had worked with several lobbyists on the Democratic proposal, not an uncommon occurrence in the Legislature.)

 “The majority is going to do what it’s going to do,” said Sherman. “We’ve already given up more than we should. The line has been drawn in the sand.” The question was called, and the 7-5 vote fell along party lines.

Having lost the committee vote, the Democrats are expected to issue a minority report reflecting their plan for the commission, and the issue should come to a debate in the House and Senate.

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