AUGUSTA — The battle over management of Maine’s North Woods may be one of the fiercest and longest-running feuds in the state Legislature.

That’s why lawmakers last year handed the issue to a task force and ordered it to leave the heated halls of the State House and come back with a compromise that stops the fighting.

That’s not going to happen.

The 13-member task force led by Conservation Commissioner Bill Beardsley presented its recommendations last week to the Legislature’s Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation Commission. Many of its unanimous recommendations seemed to have broad support, such as opening the door to more local influence and zoning to manage development.

But the feud resumed as soon as the report was presented. Some Republicans wanted to immediately turn the recommendations into a proposal to be moved forward, while Democrats complained they hadn’t even had a chance to discuss it. After a round of brisk arguments and side conversations, a majority of the committee asked task force members to help draft a formal bill, which will be discussed Tuesday.

Democrats and conservation groups issued statement last week criticizing the committee process as unusual and unfair. They also criticized some of the recommendations to shift oversight of the region — 10 million acres of sparsely populated unorganized territories — from the state to individual counties, which tend to favor more intensive development.

One especially controversial proposal would allow northern Maine counties to eventually opt out of state oversight and take on planning and zoning themselves.

“Nobody can explain to me how the counties would pay to do these services,” said Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan. “What are they going to do, raise the property taxes for people in the (unorganized territories)?”

Residents of the region have long resented the fact that preservation-minded people in Portland and other parts of the state have as much say about activities in the unorganized territories as they do, said Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry.

And he warned that pulling out certain recommendations to please southern Maine and urban constituents is no way to settle the feud.

“This group worked hard and got a well-rounded proposal that leaves both sides dissatisfied,” he said. “From what I understand it was a delicately crafted compromise.”

Gay marriage decision soon

EqualityMaine will probably announce this week whether it plans to go forward with another attempt to legalize gay marriage in Maine.

A decision has been made, says Executive Director Betsy Smith.

She’s just not saying what it is.

The group has gathered more signatures than needed to get a question on the November ballot. Local, regional and national gay-rights advocates recently came to Portland for what Smith described as a “go, no go” meeting.

“As much as I’d love to tell you what the decision is, I can’t,” she said.

In the past, Smith has said they were considering putting the question to voters this November because it’s a presidential year when younger, more progressive voters tend to cast ballots. After losing at the polls in 2009, 53 percent to 47 percent, advocates are also trying to decide whether enough people have changed their minds to produce a different result this time around.

The group has until Jan. 30 to turn in signatures if it decides to move forward.

Running against LePage

You’d think Gov. Paul LePage was on the ballot in November, judging by a new fundraising Web video put out by the Maine Democratic Party.

Complete with scary music, the one-minute, 36-second video highlights many of LePage’s now-famous comments from his first year in office. Those include a reference to women growing “little beards” because of a chemical found in plastics, his decision to remove the labor mural and his comment to the NAACP to “tell them to kiss my butt.”

The video uses clips from liberal television personalities Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann. And it shows LePage yelling at a former Kennebec Journal reporter, finger pointing and all.

“Mainers haven’t trusted the GOP to run Maine for 40 years,” according to words on the screen. “After one year we remember why.”

It’s been no secret that the Democrats will make LePage an issue this year as they try to win back both houses of the Legislature. Of course, LePage himself, should he choose to run again, won’t be on the ballot until 2014.

Emrich opposes Sunday session

The Rev. Bob Emrich, a pastor at a small Baptist church in Plymouth and best known statewide for his work to oppose same-sex marriage in Maine, says he won’t attend the Maine Republican Party convention this year.

That’s because the second day of the two-day event is a Sunday.

“There’s so many people of faith who are an active part of the GOP it forces people to choose between the two, and that’s a poor choice,” he said. “The committee did a disservice to their own people by doing this.”

The convention committee heard complaints about the event two years ago because it started on a Friday and people couldn’t take a day off from work to attend, said GOP Chairman Charlie Webster. He’s gotten a mixed response to the decision to try a Sunday session, he said.

“My emails run pretty even,” he said. “Blue-collar folks are excited. Other people feel Sunday is a holy day. It’s a tough decision.”

For the record, the convention is set for May 5-6 in Augusta. Democrats meet in Augusta from June 1-3, which also includes a Sunday.

Speaking of the convention

A committee of Republicans will recommend a new platform to replace the tea party-backed document voted in two years ago, Webster confirmed.

Party insiders were surprised last time when an insurgent group of Knox County tea partiers pushed through their own platform, which included a call for the return to Austrian economics, the elimination of the Department of Education and a prohibition against “any participation in efforts to create a one-world government.”

Webster said he’s seen only some of the new platform, but noted it was written by a committee that considered input from all factions of the party. He said it was partly his fault that more voices weren’t considered last time, which led to the tea party document being voted through.

He predicted much smoother sailing this time around.

“It will be an easy vote at the convention,” he said. “All the factions were involved. Before, we just didn’t have an open process.”

Call to prayer Tuesday

The Maine Legislative Prayer Caucus will hold an event Tuesday in the Hall of Flags to announce a legislative agenda.

Described as a bipartisan event, the group will also announce that it is the seventh such group in the country and will celebrate the “overwhelming Congressional vote to re-affirm and display our national motto: In God We Trust,” according to the group’s website (

Top state officials, including the governor, Secretary of State Charlie Summers and Attorney General Bill Schneider, are expected to attend.

MaineToday Media State House Writers Susan Cover and John Richardson contributed to this column.

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