Gov. Paul LePage’s bill to take away municipal government’s ability to enact local pesticide ordinances closely mirrors a model bill written and promoted by a secretive national group that helps large national corporations ghost-write laws for sympathetic state legislators.

The governor’s bill – which a legislative panel will take up again next week – would prohibit Maine municipalities from restricting a wide range of chemicals used for everything from treating lawns to killing household pests and invasive moths. It has the support of local pest control and lawn care companies, but is opposed by environmental groups, the Maine Municipal Association and towns that have adopted ordinances to protect vulnerable local resources such as lobster.

Not disclosed during a lengthy May 1 public hearing is that L.D. 1505 is almost identical to a model bill advanced in state houses across the country by a business-backed organization called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, and drafted by one of its task forces with corporate members such as pesticide makers CropLife America, Dow AgroSciences and the American Chemistry Council.

While ALEC claims to be a nonpartisan professional association for state legislators, virtually all of its funding comes from its corporate members, who give “scholarships” for lawmakers to attend ALEC conferences, where the group works with them to draft legislation. The Washington-based group conceals the identity of its rank-and-file members – including more than 1,500 state legislators – and until recently hid the content of its model bills from public view, frustrating efforts to determine who was behind a given piece of legislation.

The pesticide measure is one of at least three recent ALEC-modeled bills to be introduced in Maine seeking to restrict the powers of local governments. In a state with a strong home rule tradition, none has been passed into law.

The language of the governor’s bill – a one-paragraph substitution to existing law – was borrowed from the operative paragraph of ALEC’s State Pesticide Preemption Act, which was originally drafted in 1995 and reapproved by the group’s board of directors in 2013. State Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Newport, is one of ALEC’s 26 directors, and Sen. President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, served on the task force that deals with pesticides as recently as 2011, when documents leaked to the group Common Cause revealed rank-and-file members for the first time.

‘No city, town, county, or other political subdivision of this state shall adopt or continue in effect any ordinance, rule, regulation or statute regarding pesticide sale or use, including without limitation: registration, notification of use, advertising and marketing, distribution, applicator training and certification, storage, transportation, disposal, disclosure of confidential information, or product composition.’

– ALEC’s model bill

‘A municipality may not adopt or enforce any ordinance or rule regulating the sale or use of pesticides, including without limitation ordinances relating to pesticide use limitations, registration, use notification, advertising and marketing, distribution, applicator training and certification, storage, transportation, disposal or product composition or the disclosure of confidential information related to pesticides.

– Gov. LePage’s bill

With many state governments controlled by Republicans, ALEC long has sought to preempt or limit the ability of cities and towns to introduce their own ordinances on everything from raising the minimum wage to tightening restrictions on guns. This legislative session, ALEC’s Maine state co-chairman, Rep. Nate Wadsworth, R-Hiram, introduced another ALEC model bill that would hamper municipalities who tried to build public broadband networks.

“Preemption is one of their main goals, preemption of the democratic process by having higher levels of government supersede the local level,” said Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, a Washington-based nonprofit that has tracked ALEC’s efforts. “Industry adopted pesticide preemption before ALEC, but ALEC has taken up the mantle and been the predominant force in advancing it for some time.”

Arn Pearson, general counsel of the Wisconsin-based Center for Media and Democracy, a nonprofit that scrutinizes ALEC, says the group’s corporate members fear that local ordinances might become precedents for statewide policies. “ALEC is a Republican operation,” Pearson said, “and now that the Republicans have control over the majority of states, they have been turning very aggressively to strip municipalities – which often have more Democratic control – of their ability to pass local laws.”

But the effort has not gotten much traction in Maine, where even tiny, rural communities have incorporated municipal governments – the majority of them Republican-controlled – and many citizens prize local control and prerogatives.

A legislative panel took up the pesticide bill Monday, but after lengthy discussion tabled it until next week.

The bill that sought to restrict local governments from setting up high-speed internet networks when private providers declined to do so received a withering welcome from officials from a wide range of Maine towns at a public hearing last week. A legislative panel voted 12-0 against the bill last Wednesday, effectively killing it.

In 2015, a two-sentence measure introduced by Cushing sought to stop all municipalities from raising the minimum wage in their communities, echoing ALEC’s Living Wage Mandate Preemption Act. This bill also died in the Legislature.

“Maine has a long tradition of localities being fairly autonomous and independent, and therefore towns guard their powers and their ability to make their own decisions,” said Amy Fried, head of the political science department at the University of Maine in Orono. “Legislators are from those areas and steeped in those traditions, and they are also accountable to local constituencies. And therefore they would not want to just simply hand over the powers to state government.”

Ron Schmidt, associate professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine, agreed. “Maine voters prefer a pragmatic approach to politics – the pothole fixing as opposed to an ideological battle,” he said. “It’s a longstanding boogeyman that people or institutions from outside will try to intrude on what Mainers read as very practical, locally based issues.”

It is not clear how the governor’s bill came to mirror the ALEC bill. The official who introduced the bill before the Legislature, Commissioner of Conservation, Forestry and Agriculture Walt Whitcomb, said through a spokesman that he was “not aware of any connection” between the bill and ALEC. “The department has had no contact with ALEC,” John Bott said via email.

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett declined to speak with the Portland Press Herald about the bill.

ALEC referred an interview request to its director of the task force responsible for the model bill, Kenneth Stein, who confined his comments to the need for the bill itself. He said the central problem was that municipalities did not have the expertise to evaluate chemical safety, but state environmental protection departments do.

“It also makes sense as a practical matter: It simply doesn’t make market sense for hundreds of municipalities to approve or disapprove of hundreds of different chemicals,” Stein said. “The economy couldn’t function if each decided what could be used in their town but not in the next one.”

Stein said he did not know the particulars of how ALEC’s model bill came to be introduced in Augusta.

In his legislative testimony in support of the bill, Whitcomb said local ordinances were creating a confusing “patchwork” of regulations that often exceeded state and federal regulations, even though towns lacked the technical expertise and resources to evaluate pesticide safety. He also said many towns were being advised by unnamed “national advocacy groups.”

“A Washington, D.C., organization has been active in multiple meetings and has organized training sessions on how to develop ordinances,” he told lawmakers. “Maine once again is a staging ground for political advocacy, to the detriment of sound decision-making. … Out-of-state advocacy groups are impacting Maine people and business using Maine law to champion their own agenda.”

Colin Woodard can be contacted at:

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