Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Gov. Paul LePage has been taking a beating from Democrats and advocates of the Kids Safe Products Act, a law that identifies and attempts to phase out harmful chemicals from consumer products. The criticism stems from the governor's decision last week to put four chemicals on the so-called priority list, supposedly ending the administration's nearly three-year resistance to a law that it once tried to repeal.
But advocates of the law and Democrats in the House of Representatives called the LePage Administration's list a "sham," arguing that many of the chemicals elevated as a priority -- mercury, arsenic, cadmium and formaldehyde -- were already being phased out of consumer products. Groups like Environmental Health Strategies and the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine argued that the LePage administration's move was "election-year trickery," a move that symbolically put the governor on the right side of a law designed to protect pregnant women and children while not upsetting industry allies.
But there's been more speculation about the timing of the administration's announcement, which closely coincided with the demise of a bill sponsored by Rep. Gay Grant, D-Gardiner, that would have added phthalates to the priority list. Phthalates, added to plastics to make them more flexible and durable, have been in the news a lot lately because they mimic hormones and have been linked to premature birth, adverse impacts on male fetuses and health problems in teenagers."Maine moms won't be hoodwinked by the LePage administration or the chemical industry," said Kathy Kilrain del Rio, director of programs for the Maine Women's Lobby in a statement. "They are not going to stop fighting for common sense policies that will help them protect their kids from harmful chemicals like phthalates."
It's not clear if it was intentional, but LePage and Republicans aren't the only ones implicated in that statement. Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, after all, voted with the Republican minority to spike Grant's bill last week. Alfond's vote has triggered a lot of questions, including whether he voted against Grant's bill in a trade to preserve or obtain Republican votes on other measures, most notably Medicaid expansion, a priority for Democratic lawmakers and a key component of the Affordable Care Act.
At the center of this rumored deal is Sen. Tom Saviello, a moderate Republican from Wilton. Saviello, who has publicly endorsed Medicaid expansion, once played a key role in staving off the repeal of the Kids Safe Products Act in 2011 (Environmental Health Strategies Center thanked him for it). However, Saviello has since drawn advocates' ire for vocally opposing measures to strengthen the law, including one sponsored by former Senate Democratic leader Seth Goodall, of Richmond, whose high-profile bill met a conspicuously quiet death earlier this year. Saviello said he objected to Goodall's bill because it was an overreach and unraveled the compromise he worked to achieve in 2011.
Advocates suspected more nefarious motive, specifically the $5,250 that the American Chemistry Council has donated to Saviello's leadership PAC.
Saviello on Tuesday took exception to the implication that his resistance to Goodall's bill, or Grant's bill, were a quid pro quo with the American Chemistry Council, a leading opponent of the Kids Safe law. He also flatly denied speculation that he threatened to withhold his support for Medicaid expansion if Alfond didn't vote with Republicans to oppose Grant's bill.
"I've already said that I support Medicaid expansion and that's not going to change," he said.
He also added that the ACC isn't the only group donating to his PAC. There are also donations from environmental groups.
"I get it (money) from all over the place because I listen to all sides of an argument," he said. "If someone is going to look at my PAC and try to infer that I'm tainted, I'd say look at my voting record."
Saviello acknowledged that Alfond was drawing some back-channel heat for his vote last week.
"Justin is getting a lot of grief for this and he doesn't deserve it," Saviello said.
Alfond also denied that his opposition to Grant's bill had anything to do with a deal for Medicaid expansion.
"Absolutely not," he said Tuesday. "Whoever is saying that is 100 percent making things up and I don't appreciate it."
There's no doubt that Alfond's vote has drawn scrutiny from fellow Democrats. The day of the vote, he sent an email to Senate Democrats explaining why he sided with Republicans (posted below). He cites the LePage administration's announcement about the four priority chemicals. While he wished that the list was longer and included phthalates, the governor was technically complying with the law.
"Before the KSPA, chemicals were cherry picked individually and there was no rhyme or reason," he wrote. "I don't want to go back to that system."
He added, "Finally, as (you) may know, this bill is a political (lightning) rod (all of you remember Seth's bill) and given the short session and how much bipartisan work is ahead of us, I voted to keep this bill out of the mix."
Steve Mistler covers politics and government for the Portland Press Herald. He spends a lot of time in the hallways of the State House.