It is a sad day when the protection of our lakes becomes a political casualty of partisan politics. After 12 years in the Legislature, I shouldn’t be surprised, but it still saddens me when the House assistant majority leader would rather see a veto than try to fix an environmental bill designed to protect Maine’s lakes.
In the late fall, Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade, and I met with the Maine Lakes Society to learn what its priorities were to protect lakes. This meeting resulted in a bill being introduced to fund the Lake Smart Program and the Voluntary Lakes Monitoring Program.
Keschl introduced the bill, L.D. 1694, “An Act to Improve the Water Quality of Inland Waters,” which provided funding for both programs. Based on our understanding with the Lakes Society, Keschl and I worked hard before the start of the legislative session to ensure that this bill would get the approval of the governor, the Department of Environmental Protection, and both the Appropriations and the Environment and Natural Resources committees.
Much to our surprise, Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, submitted L.D. 1744, “An Act To Protect Maine Lakes,” which included provisions to hold DEP accountable for perceived deficiencies in the Lake Program. His bill did not fund either the Lake Smart or Voluntary Lakes Monitoring programs, yet the Maine Lakes Society endorsed his bill, ignoring our previous agreement.
The Environment and Natural Resources Committee killed our bill, and included funding for the two programs in L.D. 1744. In the committee hearing process, many of the perceived deficiencies identified in McCabe’s bill did not exist and were eliminated from the bill. Additions to the bill included a prohibition on fertilizer application within 50 feet of a body of water unless there was a soil test. The modified bill also included an educational component, a partnership development requirement, and web information posting, all of which require additional spending by the Department of Environmental Protection. The DEP properly projected a cost to complete these additional requirements.
Then, without discussion with the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, McCabe introduced an amendment moving the 50-foot restriction to 25 feet, and removed the soil testing requirement. It became an outright prohibition on all fertilizer use within that range.
As a soil scientist, I know Maine soil fertility is very low. Bare soil needs some nutrients to establish a ground cover quickly after disturbance or the soil will erode into the lake. The committee realized this, and its bill allowed for the addition of fertilizer only after a soil test, thus ensuring appropriate fertilizer applications and lowered risks to our lakes. Keschl and I knew that a strict 25-foot prohibition would cause greater risk to our lakes because it would not allow property owners to add nutrients to properly grow protective “buffer” strips that prevent erosion.
Additionally, McCabe removed part of the bill’s web posting, apparently hoping to eliminate the fiscal note that summarizes the bill’s cost. Unfortunately, his amendment did not go far enough as the legislation would still include additional financial burdens on the DEP, additional burdens that do not protect lake quality.
Yes, the Legislature passed the amended version almost unanimously. Many in the Republican caucus did so with the idea that the Appropriations Committee would fund the two programs and strip McCabe’s amendment. This did not happen.
Knowing a veto would result from the reporting requirement and poor shoreline management efforts, we asked McCabe to amend the bill slightly by increasing the prohibited fertilizer zone to 50 feet but allow fertilization only if a soil test was completed. We also asked the web posting be changed to an old-fashioned written report. McCabe answered, “It is too complicated for my caucus to understand.” In other words, I believe he was saying, “Let’s make this a political issue where those who vote to sustain the veto can be looked upon as not wanting to protect our lakes.
Sadly, this amended bill was vetoed. It is sad that the House assistant majority leader was more interested in a political message than protecting lakes. By sustaining the veto, the Legislature voted for lake protection and against environmental partisan politics. Thanks to Keschl, funding for both the Lake Smart and Voluntary Lakes Monitoring programs was included in another bill.
If I return to the Legislature, I promise I will bring this bill back with proper setbacks and soil testing to protect our lakes. It is my hope that McCabe will join me in this effort.
Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, serves on the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee.