What’s Happening in Augusta

Legislative committees seem to be holding to a strategy of focusing on those bills with strong bipartisan support.  There are exceptions, but for the most part if a bill does not have strong support in committee, it will not advance this year.  No word still on when or if we will see a supplemental budget or bonds. GrowSmart Maine is engaging in bills several committees, as we seek those issues where we can offer a unique perspective to advance the discussion.  These issues are land use regulation, energy, climate change and tax policy.

In 2015, GrowSmart Maine supported a bill brought forward by the Maine Real Estate and Development Association (MEREDA), LD 775, To Streamline Judicial Review of Certain Municipal Land Use Decisions. This bill received widespread support last year, except that the Judicial Branch had concerns with the original version, which proposed to take these appeals direct to the Law Court.  The bill was carried over to this year so that parties could find agreement.  A work session on the amended version of this bill on February 16th resulted in nearly unanimous committee support. The outcome offers a more streamlined judicial process, including an opportunity to file or move these cases into Superior Court’s Business and Consumer Docket which generally averages ten months to reach resolution.

Under this bill, should it pass, whenever a complaint is filed challenging a significant municipal land use decision or the failure to make such a decision,  it may be appealed either with the general docket of Superior Court, which is current law, or directly with the Business and Consumer Docket in the Superior Court. Additionally, if the case is appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court, the Court may, upon the request of any party, expedite the briefing schedule.

A significant municipal land use decision is defined as one of three projects:
(1) One or more buildings that occupy a total ground area in excess of 10,000 square feet or contain a total floor area in excess of 40,000 square feet;
(2) A total ground area occupied by buildings, parking lots, roads, paved areas, wharves and other areas to be stripped or graded and not revegetated in excess of three (3) acres;  or
(3) Final action on an application for a subdivision project consisting of ten (10) or more lots.

PUC-led market-based solar policy design stakeholder solar bill is pending:
We are awaiting release of the bill to come from the PUC-led solar stakeholder group; a process that came from LD 1263 “Resolve, To Create Sustainable Growth in Maine’s Distributed Energy Sector That Uses Market Forces To Fairly Compensate Energy Producers”, sponsored by Rep. Sara Gideon last session.  There are discussions of possible points of disagreement, but a public hearing with the committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology (not yet scheduled) will allow for working through these issues.  Fair and sustainable compensation for the small-scale electricity produced that exceeds usage, currently “net metering”, will be a major discussion point.

GrowSmart Maine supports increased production of renewable energy, particularly on a community scale, as well as ongoing efforts towards reduction of energy use through efficiencies including weatherization, to reduce the $5 billion that leaves Maine each year in the purchase of fossil fuels.  Any efforts to reduce this financial drain will strengthen our communities, families, and businesses.

We weighed in on one particular issue – incentives for solar production in areas that do not impede productive and scenic natural areas. We can avoid the unnecessarily loss of productive farmland for energy production if we provide incentives for other locations.  GrowSmart Maine and others in the solar coalition, particularly municipalities, are eager to see incentives for solar farms on brownfields, retired landfills and rooftops; areas not well suited for other, higher uses such as food production.

LD 1558 “An Act To Make Efficient Electric Heat Pumps Available to Utility Customers, Including Low-income Customers” sponsored by Rep. Martin Grohman of Biddeford. This bill, in the amended form presented at the public hearing, would allow a utility to offer on-bill financing of heat pumps. The amended language excludes a focus on low-income Mainers referenced in the bill title.  Emera testified that the proposal is intended to help not just those with low income or poor credit worthiness, but also those for whom investing in the purchase a heat pump doesn’t make sense, such as renters and short-term homeowners. We particularly enjoyed listening to several UMaine engineering students discuss thermodynamics and other highly technical aspects of this issue, with genuine enthusiasm that outweighed their nervousness.

One concern in the original bill is that the utility would contract for installation, but with many local companies doing this work, the amended version allows the customer to choose an installer.  A final issue to be determined within the committee is whether Maine should shift away from the current strategy of having all energy efficiency and investment programs housed in the Efficiency Maine program, or if this proposal is worthwhile because adds significant value for Maine electric ratepayers.  One of the interesting points we noted during the 2015 Denmark Climate Tour was the perspective that financial institutions should think more broadly when considering a loan for such a purpose.  Investments in more efficient energy usage will reduce current utility bills, so creditworthiness based on current income and expenses does not tell the entire picture.

LD 1398 “An Act To Reduce Electric Rates for Maine Businesses”:  this bill proposes to shift funding from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) from energy efficiency investments to rebates to energy-intensive manufacturers.  GrowSmart Maine is opposed to this bill and we await the language review on several amended versions to come out of the committee.  LD 1398 upends the balanced approach Efficiency Maine offers in its current plan for use of RGGI funds.  RGGI monies leverage private investments in reducing energy costs for both homeowners and businesses.  Using RGGI funds, Efficiency Maine helps Maine businesses, including large manufacturers like SAPPI in Skowhegan and Westbrook and Huhtamaki in Waterville, make capital investments in energy efficiency that they would not otherwise be able to make. This helps them become more competitive and stay in Maine.

LD 493, An Act To Create the Ocean Acidification Council and LD 795, An Act To Encourage Prudent Development along the Coast or in a Flood Zone by Considering Predictions for Sea Level Rise, are both dead following unanimous ONTP reports from the committees. I learned long ago that Maine’s quality of place doesn’t end at our shores. The Gulf of Maine is a component of the environment that is critical to Maine’s communities and economy. The potential impacts of acidification and sea level rise will be felt all along Maine’s coast; in our fisheries, fishing families and our coastal communities.  The economic impact will extend across all of Maine as well.

LD 1519, An Act To Amend the Tax Laws To Strengthen Charitable Institutions, Encourage Home Ownership and Manage Medical Expenses, is being heard on February 24th.  This will address the recently implemented limits on itemized tax deductions including charitable donations to non-profits. GrowSmart Maine has supported similar legislation in the past, acknowledging the value of state income tax deductions for charitable giving, home ownership and extreme medical costs.

LD 1579, “An Act Regarding the Maine Clean Election Fund” will be heard in Appropriations on Tuesday, February 23rd.  We are watching this issue in order to ensure that the economic, social and environmental value of the historic preservation tax credit is recognized, as the Legislature considers how to pay for the Clean Election referendum approved by voters last November.  You may recall that a provision of the referendum called for $3M in funding to come from non-performing business incentives. LD 1579 calls for transferring $2.5 million from the State’s general revenue fund for this purpose.   The Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit Coalition, of which GrowSmart Maine is a lead member, is preparing to release the 2015 update to the economic impact study on this incredibly important incentive.

As always, our Legislature functions best when our elected leaders hear from you, their constituents. Here is the link where you can find contact information for all elected officials:

Statutory Adjournment is scheduled for Wednesday, April 20th.  There is a lot to do between now and then.  We’ll keep you updated here on our blog, our mailing list and on Facebook and Twitter.