You have to give him this much — Gov. Paul LePage knows how to take over a debate.

Last week, as innkeepers descended on Augusta to argue that Mainers renting out rooms through “shared-space” websites should be subject to the same regulations as those offering more formal lodging, the governor had something else in mind.

Rather than adding short-term residential rooms to the lodging facilities that require inspection, a LePage spokeswoman told lawmakers, Maine should do away with inspections altogether.

As a way to change the conversation, it was masterful. But as a policy suggestion, it was only half right.

In looking at small-scale, short-term rentals, lawmakers should tread lightly before placing restrictions on what is still a very new market. They should also reject any attempt to dismantle the regulations that help ensure Maine’s hotels, inns and bed-and-breakfasts are safe and clean.

State law now requires lodging licenses for any building containing four or more rooms that are offered as sleeping accomodations. L.D. 436, the subject of a public hearing last week, would extend that requirement to all residents who rent out their properties for short periods.

That would include the thousands of Mainers who rent out a room, part of a house, or an entire house for a few days at a time through web-based services like Airbnb. Innkeepers and others in the lodging industry say the change would make for a level playing field, one in which all rental properties are required to meet the same stringent health and safety codes.

But customers who book a room through a shared-space site know what they are getting into, and they know it is different than a room in a hotel or inn, typically without the professional services and enhanced safety. Largely, they are looking for value and for something outside of the usual lodging setting, and that’s what they get, with all its tradeoffs.

Granted, renters who sublet their space on sites like Airbnb should recognize the impact of high guest turnover and give their neighbors – not to mention their landlords – a heads up before proceeding. And it’s also reasonable to expect short-term rentals to meet minimum local residential safety codes.

But many of the people who offer these rentals, who in Maine are typically residents looking to make a little extra income out of unused space, could not afford to make the improvements, including fire sprinklers, that it would take to meet the requirements of a license.

So the bill, while leveling the playing field, would likely take many of these rooms off the market, taking away income from Mainers, and valuable lodging options from visitors.

LePage’s answer is to remove all regulations. However, that would only leave visitors without the layer of protection that state regulations provide, and that tourists expect when they rent a room at a hotel or bed-and-breakfast.

The better move is to keep regulations the way they are. The Mainers who rent through sites like Airbnb are not hotel owners or innkeepers. They know the difference, and the people who rent the rooms know the difference. Until that changes, the law should reflect that difference.


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