The Maine Viewpoint
Bangor Daily News
Showdown over Slots
Having demonstrated that it can play Maine like James Bond at a baccarat table, Penn National Gaming, Inc., owner of Hollywood Slots at Bangor, is now asking lawmakers to change the statutory formula used to collect taxes from the racino. There's not a thing wrong with that.
But it also wasn't a huge mistake for lawmakers to look at the racino as a source of new revenue, except that they did it in a typically ham-handed way. Penn National may not have understood that when lawmakers propose to take millions more dollars from a business based purely on the grounds that they think they can get away with it, this is their way of beginning a conversation. Lawmakers, for their part, didn't understand that Penn National also has a unique conversation opener that includes truckloads of angry construction workers.
The nominal thought behind this dispute was whether the legislature would be violating some pact if it took 1 percent more slot revenues. This was a bad idea for several reasons, primarily because legislators are supposed to be trying to reduce the overall tax burden in Maine, not increase it. Lawmakers also didn't appear to know much about the business of gambling, so were monkeying around with it unaware of what effect they would have. (Not that this has stopped previous legislatures. See health care, for instance.) But their actions were also something short of the Pillage of Bangor.
So there was the work stoppage, the Augusta protest, the threats, the city meeting, and the backing down, and now that Penn National wants to make that statutory change, it is the anti-gamblers' turn to hyperventilate. Dennis Bailey, executive director of CasinosNo!, said of Penn National's request, "Haven't we learned in hostage situations that you don't negotiate with people who make threats?" Apparently, if Maine negotiates, the threateners win.
When all this calms down, the gain will be that the legislature (and all businesses in Maine) will know what uncomfortable consequences could await future attempted tax grabs. Penn National will know it won't always have the stronger hand when playing against the legislature and may adjust its strategy, perhaps with a less dramatic touch, accordingly.
Kennebec Journal, Augusta
A World-Class Art Donation
When they announced the donation of their $100-million art collection to Colby College recently, Peter and Paula Lunder said, "We believe these artworks offer both a window into the American experience and a broad perspective on the world." It was a wonderfully appropriate phrase to describe their gift. For while it is the purpose of art to illuminate both particular and universal experience (and the best art does both), that illumination is also the purpose of a college education. How perfect that the Lunders could accomplish both in one fell swoop, and what a privilege it will be for Colby, Maine, and the world beyond to have our lives enriched and our perspectives broadened through exposure to this work.
The Lunders' gift is one of the finest collections of American art now in private hands. It includes more than five hundred items - works spanning more than a century of American art by Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, James McNeill Whistler, Elie Nadelman, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Donald Judd, and Jenny Holzer. Eighty of those works are already on view in an exhibit at the Colby Art Museum, but it will take construction of a new wing to allow the ultimate display of more of the works.
With the donation, Colby will be propelled into the ranks of the few small liberal arts colleges in the nation with big and important art collections. That will be a boon not only to Colby students and faculty, but a potential boon to Waterville as well. The college is already a stop for art-hungry tourists eager to partake of the museum's strong collection of Alex Katz paintings, works by John Marin and Richard Serra, and a wide range of major works by other American artists. This gift will only add to the draw, and we hope that the college and Waterville will work together to maximize the benefit the collection could bring to the city.
But Colby is a city on a hill, removed from the downtown Waterville setting where it was once located. Visitors to Colby don't always make it very far into downtown Waterville. Perhaps the Lunders' gift could provide the spark for Colby to open a satellite art gallery in the heart of Waterville - one that would bring tourists straight to Main Street. As Portland found after the Maine College of Art opened its doors in an old department store on down-at-the-heels Congress Street, where art goes, people, vitality, and money follow.
Sun Journal, Lewiston
New Paper For A Green Bean
If the recent Board of Environmental Protection hearings regarding discharge permits for the Androscoggin River were a retrospective of environmental issues surrounding Maine's paper industry, the gambit announced afterward by L.L. Bean is a preview of coming attractions. Maine's most recognizable company declined to renew its contract for catalog paper with Verso, which has mills in Jay and Bucksport. L.L. Bean said Verso was unable to meet the company's new standards for environmental friendliness in timber harvesting.
In its decision, L.L. Bean flexed the market's muscle by making environmentalism a benchmark for doing business. Papermakers in Maine already feel environmental pressure from advocates and government - the market is a potent new voice in the debate.
The market is uninfluenced by lobbying or appeals. Its impact cannot be delayed, like the Clean Water Act has been regarding the Androscoggin River mills. No commission oversees it, it accepts no testimony, and it cares little about preserving jobs and sustaining local economies.
And unlike the efforts of government and environmental advocates, the modern paper industry in Maine is unequipped to deal with market forces like those exerted from L.L. Bean. Divested of its landholdings, the influence of paper companies to dictate its forestry practices has waned.
This puts Maine paper at a disadvantage, not only to concerns of major clients like L.L. Bean, but also against global competitors. The control over large tracts preserved by papermakers in Brazil, for example, has been cited as key to that country's assumption of superiority inside the industry.
Canadian paper consultant Neil McCubbin, on behalf of the National Resources Council of Maine, testified on May 9 before the Board of Environmental Protection about Verso's Androscoggin Mill; he said investing in environmental protection would improve the mill's economic stability by lowering operating costs. "It is well known that the American paper industry is in decline, with many mills having already been closed," McCubbin testified. "It is widely accepted within the industry that only the more efficient ones, with lower operating costs, will survive."
Verso refuted McCubbin, and claimed he had grossly underestimated his costs to remedy environmental concerns at the Androscoggin Mill. Yet Verso, and other mills, shouldn't disagree with McCubbin's simple conclusion: environmentalism, whether in the beginning of the process through timber harvesting, or the end through wastewater discharge, is critical to economic sustainability.
Now, not just environmental advocates are making this claim. With the decision by L.L. Bean, the free market is also going far to prove it.
Making Shoreland Rules Work
The recent revision of Department of Environmental Protection rules regarding development setbacks to protect shoreland birds is a good example of how the system is supposed to work. Citizens, upset with the original legislation, petitioned for changes. The debate was long and contentious, but the rules were changed to lessen their impact on waterfront property owners.
Adopted by the last legislature as part of a major package of environmental regulations, the shoreland birds law seemed to have slipped under the radar. But after passage, the legislation drew plenty of attention, primarily from property owners in Washington County worried that they no longer would be able to develop their waterfront tracts.
As implemented last July, the rules required a 250-foot setback from all shoreland bird feeding and roosting areas. Because shorebirds feed almost everywhere along the coast, property owners worried this would effectively halt all shorefront development. Previous law required that structures be located at least a hundred feet from the water, and vegetation removal within seventy-five feet of the water was limited. No clear openings could be created.
The legislature now has passed a series of changes. Roosting areas still require a 250-foot setback; and the setback from feeding areas reverts to a hundred feet, although more tree-clearing would be allowed.
Representative Ted Koffman, D-Bar Harbor, one of the original proponents of the more stringent setbacks, was surprised by the outrage over the shoreland bird protection rules last summer. To his credit, he traveled throughout Down East Maine, listening to the chorus of complaints - some of them quite venomous - and began negotiating for changes. Along the way, he consulted state regulators, powerful environmental groups, real estate agents, developers, and scores of private citizens.
The bill adopted by the legislature represents a careful compromise that balances the concerns of property owners and the worries of government agencies charged with protecting the environment. Some property owners may grumble that the rules still are too restrictive. Those in environmental circles may complain that the rules do not go far enough.
But far from being symptoms of failed policy, those complaints are perhaps the best signal that this compromise is just about right.
Maine Sunday Telegram, Portland
A Better Direction For Plum Creek
Plum Creek. The name of the company proposing the largest-ever development for Moosehead Lake in northern Maine is apropos. "Creek" conjures images of Maine's rustic North Woods. "Plum," on the other hand, has a more business-like definition - a promise of material reward.
The project does pose the possibility of great reward to its developer, Seattle-based Plum Creek Timber Company, but also to the greater Greenville community, where economic opportunity would increase for residents and area businesses if the plan were approved. How all of that economic gain and development can coexist with the pristine nature of Moosehead Lake, however, is where the fur starts to fly.
The plan's harshest critics have maintained, since it was unveiled two years ago, that it is completely out of scale for the rural area. Yes, the plan is ambitious, entailing 975 house lots and two resorts.
The developers, however, have been willing to alter the design in response to criticisms. For the second time, the developers have offered a notable compromise. Plum Creek Timber now says it's willing to reduce, by 40 percent, the shoreline development portion along Moosehead Lake and various ponds and lakes in the area.
Plum Creek proposes to counter that concession by adding some lots closer to the town of Greenville. It's a change that is positive - moving housing units closer to areas that are already somewhat populated. The measure is also seen as laudable by the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
Overall, Plum Creek is moving in the right direction. It deserves credit for changing designs that truly did not fit. In the end, Plum Creek won't satisfy its most ardent critics, who simply want it to go away. That won't happen, nor should it, because the right plan can be hammered out.
Times Record, Brunswick
Too Many Bills, Too Little Time
There ought to be a law… against waiting until the last five weeks of the legislative session to consider the merits of almost nine hundred proposed laws. But if someone introduced a resolution to enact such a law, there'd be no time for state lawmakers to review it properly.
Maine law recognizes the dangers of allowing tired truckers and tired teen workers to exceed their capacities. A similar standard should apply to the elected officials entrusted with making Maine laws. Late-night, end-of-session decisions made by legislators fatigued as a result of marathon floor debates and overwhelmed by cascades of fine print inevitably reflect lawmakers' desperation for sleep more than their commitment to sound governance.
The mad rush to wade through biennial sinkholes of legislation also provides fodder for dissatisfied constituents who grow increasingly tempted to pass citizen-initiated referendums - Palesky and TABOR, for example - that would wrest key governance functions from the legislature. In part, they reason that voter-imposed formulas would do a better job of governing than a legislative body that's so swamped by its own inner workings that lawmakers can't effectively conduct the people's business.
First-year state representative Elizabeth Miller, D-Somerville, affirmed that notion in her response to a question about whether she believed her proposal to enroll the legislature in the Dirigo Health insurance program would pass. "I haven't heard anybody say, 'What a stupid idea,' " she said. "The question is just how bogged down the (Insurance and Financial Services) committee is with a huge array of issues. We are at a crunch period,"… when "even moderately good ideas" get dropped for lack of time.
The legislature would do lawmakers and Mainers a huge service by changing the way it functions. A first step would be to establish a clear set of priorities for each two-year legislative cycle. Before easing into esoteric discussions about establishing a "sense of place" or holding press events to honor nurses and bikers, state government should pass a biennial budget.
Having a balanced spending plan in place would apply an important reality check to legislative deliberations on tax reform, public education, health care, and other policy initiatives that should not be detached from Maine's financial framework. Senator Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, makes sense in proposing that the legislature focus on a budget and emergency legislation during the first year of its two-year cycle, reserving the second year for more careful scrutiny of proposed legislation.
Likewise, party leaders must impose greater discipline and discernment in determining what proposals warrant committee hearings and public debate. It's counterproductive to allow lawmakers to introduce 2,200 pieces of legislation for consideration during a six-month session, as was the case this year. Good ideas get swept away as the giant ball of red tape that rolls through the State House every other June gains momentum, leaving fractured public confidence, imperfect laws that need immediate fixing, and droopy-eyed, discombobulated lawmakers in its wake.