2016 Legislative Wrap-up

capitol sunsetAs the Second Regular Session of the 126th Legislature has come to a close, we share an update of noteworthy legislation, a mix of carry-over bills from the 2015 session as well as new bills submitted for this short session.  Some bills moved through the session quietly, while others drew quite a bit of worthy attention.

Here is a summary of a few bills key to GrowSmart Maine’s mission, related to issues of land use, energy and infrastructure.

ENERGY

One of the most significant policy efforts in 2016 was LD 1649, “the Solar Bill”, sponsored by Rep Sara Gideon of Freeport. In 2015, the Legislature passed a Resolve which initiated a 6-month stakeholder process leading to this legislation. The bill was the focus of heated debate throughout the session, and the House was unable to override the Governor’s veto. Our support of this bill related to the potential it presented to both reduce the $5 billion that leaves Maine every year in the purchase of fossil fuels and the hundreds of new jobs anticipated in the solar sector given the predictable and reasonable compensation it offered solar producers. The bill truly balanced the interests of all stakeholders and the failure to pass it is a missed opportunity for this legislature to have strengthened Maine’s economy, environment and its communities.

As we move forward, members of the coalition are creating a series of educational events that will provide information to existing Maine solar owners and prospective solar owners on the current status of solar energy in Maine. Watch for updates and news, as the first forum is set for Freeport on June 2nd, 6:30-8 pm at the Freeport High School. The program is open to the public and will focus on the PUC review, possible outcomes, and the risks and opportunities in the current market.

Meanwhile, recent news highlights the decisions by several towns to postpone investments in significant solar installations on capped landfills. http://www.pressherald.com/2016/05/18/maine-municipalities-pull-back-on-solar-projects-after-veto/

LAND USE

LD 775 “An Act to Streamline Judicial Review of Certain Land Use Decisions,” a bill providing a clear and predictable process when there is opposition to a municipal decision on land use permitting passed with little press coverage, but a positive impact across Maine. LD 775, which was carried over from last session, provides a balance in the public process between the need for developers to have timely resolution to lawsuits, and the public’s ability to intervene effectively in the regulatory process.

Here is a summary of the law from the Maine Real Estate and Development Association (MEREDA):
For years, opponents to key development projects in Maine have used the court system as a tool to delay projects knowing that delay itself could cause projects to fail. Project opponents know that if they appeal a municipalities’ approval, the case could be stuck in Superior Court for months, if not years. In response to this problem, last year MEREDA introduced LD 775 to expedite the land use appeals process in Maine and help facilitate development throughout the State. The legislation became law on Tuesday, April 19 and will become effective 90 days from the date the Legislature adjourns.

This new law represents progress for the real estate and development community. Now, when a municipal land use decision on a significant project is appealed to Superior Court, any party will have the option of removing the case to the Business and Consumer Docket (“BCD”), and the BCD must accept the case. Unlike the regular docket of the Superior Court, which has been known to take two to four years to resolve a land use appeal, the BCD aims to resolve its cases within 10 months. The new law improves predictability and efficiency in the local permitting process. MEREDA worked closely with the Judicial Branch and the Legislature to craft this new law, ensuring that it will be an effective and coordinated approach to expediting land use appeals in Maine and encouraging investors and developers to pursue new projects throughout the State.

LD 646 “An Act To Provide Incentives for Municipal Cooperation and Shared Services” would have provided an incentive for municipalities to enter into cooperative agreements for shared services. The incentive, in principle, would work like TIF districts to provide a benefit to municipalities by sheltering property value from the state’s calculation of revenue sharing and general purpose aid to education, as well as the county tax. This concept would provide a strong financial incentive for municipalities to join into collaborative partnerships for services without any additional appropriation from the state. It would also reward municipalities that have been working collaboratively for years to reduce costs to the local taxpayer. The bill did not move out of committee due to the complexity of the related formulas. Its sponsor, Senator Nate Libby of Lewiston, intends to bring the issue forward in the next future legislative session.

INVESTMENTS

Investments in Infrastructure are essential to making headway in strengthening Maine’s economy without sacrificing the quality of place that defines this state. Bonds to support economic development and transportation were passed and will be sent to voters, though efforts to increase state investment in broadband were not successful.

A Transportation bond totaling $100 million will be on the voter ballot this November. $80 million will provide funds to construct, reconstruct or rehabilitate Priority 1, Priority 2 and Priority 3 state highways and associated improvements, for the municipal partnership initiative and to replace and rehabilitate bridges. $20 million will fund facilities, equipment and property acquisition related to ports, harbors, marine transportation, aviation, freight and passenger railroads, transit and bicycle and pedestrian trails that preserve public safety or otherwise have demonstrated high transportation economic value.

An Innovation bond totaling $50 million will be on the voter ballot in June 2017.  $45 million to the Maine Technology Institute will fund investment in research, development and commercialization in the State’s 7 targeted technology sectors to be used for infrastructure, equipment and technology upgrades that enable organizations to gain and hold market share and to expand employment or preserve jobs.
$5 million to the Finance Authority of Maine will provide funds to recapitalize the Small Enterprise Growth Fund in order to create jobs and economic growth by lending to or investing in small businesses with the potential for significant growth and strong job creation.

Maine Broadband Coalition (MBC) is an informal collaboration of public policy professionals, educational institutions, businesses, non-profit organizations and individuals who care deeply about Maine’s economic future. An important purpose of the MBC is to assemble cogent, fact-based information to help public policy makers and Maine citizens make the best choices about building a robust and productive information technology infrastructure — decisions we are all facing right now. We welcome one and all to this effort.  GrowSmart Maine serves on the Steering Committee for the coalition.

Two bills to increase state funding for municipal broadband failed to pass this session. Rep. Saucier of Presque Isle proposed to increase funding to ConnectME to $5million.This bill was amended to $1million but was still unsuccessful. A carry-over bill sponsored by Rep. James Campbell of Newfield would have authorized a $10m bond for municipal broadband, had it passed.

The Coalition worked with ConnectME on their strategic plan, which put in place the planning grants for communities considering approaches to improved broadband and created a municipal guidebook that ConnectME is using to help communities begin a local broadband conversation.  Coalition members have also weighed in on the beginning of the Pole Attachment process, looking at rules limiting shared use of existing utility poles. The coalition continues to explore potential funding models for broadband in rural areas, as this is a significant barrier to increasing fast, affordable and reliable internet access in much of Maine.

Learn more about the coalition and become a member at https://mainebroadbandcoalition.org/

Now that the session is over, your legislators are back in your neighborhoods – it’s a great time to thank them for voting for the bills that matter to you – or to let them know your concerns if they voted against them.  Some may be running for election this fall, some may be retiring from service. Remember your vote matters in November – get to know the candidates running in your town and support the ones you like. Our citizen legislature is made up of farmers and firefighters, teachers and lawyers, hairdressers and small business owners. Mainers, just like you. Make sure they hear your voice.