April 29, 2013

Trash policy a key focus of lobbyists in Augusta

During the current legislative session, close to $110,000 has already been spent on waste management proposals.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA - There's a lot of money in the trash business.

Just ask the Maine Legislature. 

For the past three months, the media spotlight has been trained on several hot-button topics, including the state's next two-year budget, Medicaid expansion and using a renegotiated state liquor contract to repay Maine's hospital debt. Lobbyists have flocked to those issues, but the most costly advocacy efforts by a handful of interest groups have focused on trash, specifically where it comes from, where it goes and how it's disposed of.

A review of state lobbying compensation reports from January to March showed that close to $110,000 has been spent on two waste management proposals, one of which has yet to become an official bill. 

The $110,000 is neither the total amount spent on solid waste advocacy nor is it a large percentage of the $1.67 million spent on lobbying since January. However, it represents one of the most intensely lobbied topics of the 126th Legislature. 

Other lobbied issues include more than $60,000 spent on the state's next two-year budget and over $40,000 by groups vying for a new state liquor contract. 

The biggest spenders so far include USA Energy Group LLC ($96,717) on solid waste and waste-to-energy proposals; the American Suntanning Association, which spent $30,000 over two months to defeat a bill that would have prohibited minors from using tanning beds; Pew Charitable Trusts, which spent more than $21,000 on oral health care legislation; Casella Waste Systems, which spent nearly $19,000 on solid waste legislation; and the Maine Association of Substance Abuse Programs, which spent nearly $18,000, mostly to fight proposals that could reduce funding for substance abuse. 

With three full months of lobbying reports in, the advocacy activity in the Democratic-led Legislature is close to the spending pace spent the previous two years when Republicans held the majority. Lobbyists spent more than $7.5 million over the two sessions of the 125th Legislature.

During the previous session a number of interest groups attempted to influence policymaking. The Maine Association of Substance Abuse Programs ($193,637), Altria Client Services ($156,808), a subsidiary of tobacco giant Philip Morris USA, and Central Maine Power ($134,157)  spent the most among organizations lobbying at the State House during 2011 and 2012.

Trailing those groups were the Maine County Commissioners Association ($106,508), the Maine Association of Realtors ($96,625), Regional School Unit 20 ($94,722) and the Natural Resources Council of Maine ($90,032).

A similarly diverse set of interest groups have gone to work at the State House this session, sending approximately 180 registered lobbyists to the State House to influence the decisions of 186 lawmakers and Gov. Paul LePage. 

Maine is one of five states where the ratio of lobbyists to legislators is 1-to-1, according to a 2011 analysis by the Center for Public Integrity.

In states such as California and Texas, the ratio is approximately 10-to-1. New York is 24-to-1.

The more than $60,000 spent lobbying lawmakers on the budget is likely to increase as the Legislature continues unpacking and reworking LePage's $6.3 billion two-year proposal.

The lobbying already spent on the budget is also much higher than $60,000 shown in one three-month report. It's impossible to calculate the exact amount because Maine disclosure laws only require groups to report total lobbyist compensation. Activity on a specific bill, such as the budget, is only reported when an organization spends more than $1,000 in one month on one bill. 

Additionally, various disclosure requirements among states make it difficult to compare Maine lobbyist spending to that in other states. 

The most recent comprehensive survey was in 2006 by the Center for Public Integrity. It concluded that there were 40,000 lobbyists -- some not required to register -- at state legislatures. The study also noted that lobbying was a $1 billion a year industry and growing.

In Maine, issues such as the budget are a standard draw for lobbyists. 

However, there are always some surprises, just as there were in 2012, when two groups spent more than $85,000 pushing for a bill that would open up mineral mining on Bald Mountain in Aroostook County. 

This year, it's solid waste. 

The most heavily lobbied proposal hasn't been printed yet. However, the organizations are already spending money to influence it, a sign that they're also involved in drafting the bill.

USA Energy Group LLC, headquartered in Minneapolis, Minn., has spent at least $93,567 on the bill.

Neither USA Energy Group LLC nor its lobbyist responded to requests for comment. 

However, the company recently disclosed that it has struck an agreement with Casella Waste Systems, the company that manages the state-owned, Casella-managed Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town. The deal involves shipping municipal waste from Juniper Ridge to the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co., a waste-to-energy facility in Orrington. USA Energy has a controlling interest in the Orrington operation.  

The deal, however, is contingent on another proposal to send municipal waste formerly incinerated at a waste-to-energy plant in Biddeford to Juniper Ridge. That proposal is currently under consideration by the Board of Environmental Protection.

According to lobbying reports, two groups have spent nearly $12,500 attempting to defeat the bill. Casella Waste Systems and USA Energy Group LLC are lobbying against L.D. 694, a bill sponsored by Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono. The City of Old Town has spent money lobbying the legislation, but has not taken a definitive stance on the bill.

Opponents claim that Cain's bill could derail or delay the plan to send municipal waste formerly incinerated in Biddeford to Juniper Ridge. 

Other lobbying expenditures align with ongoing and more public policy debates. 

Great New England Public Schools Alliance has spent more than $10,600 advocating for "education policy" this session. The group's moniker hints at headquarters close to home. However, the Public School Alliance is headquartered at 825 K Street, Washington, D.C. It has the same address -- and lobbyists -- as StudentsFirst, the group founded by education reformer and charter schools advocate Michelle Rhee.

The Maine Education Association, representing the state's teachers union, is battling the charter reforms. The group has spent over $8,700 on lobbying activity this year. 

Five groups have attempted to influence lawmakers' decisions on the next liquor contract. The biggest spender so far is Dirigo Spirit, a company co-founded by Ford Reiche for the sole purpose of bidding for liquor business. Second on the liquor list is Maine Beverage, the holder of the current contract. All Maine Spirits and Pine State Trading have also lobbied the bills.

The Maine Hospital Association and its 39 member hospitals stand to benefit from the liquor contract, which will be used to repay approximately $484 million in backlogged Medicaid reimbursement payments. The hospital association has spent at least $1,500 lobbying for LePage's payback plan. 

Other groups include Crossroads ($17,306), a women's mental health center in Scarborough, and Day One ($9,241), a substance abuse center in South Portland. Day One is attempting to preserve substance abuse funding in the state budget, while Crossroads is bidding for state subsidies for mental health providers.  

The lobbyist for the town of Brunswick ($11,625) is also among the active spenders. The town hired a lobbyist in January after learning that the LePage administration planned to change the law that defines tax exemptions for municipal airports. 

The legislation was proposed after a disagreement between the town and the agency redeveloping Brunswick Naval Air Station over whether Kestrel Aeroworks, a tenant at the facility, should have to pay property taxes to the town.

The LePage administration ultimately pulled back the proposal. 

 

Correction: An Earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the city of Old Town was lobbying to defeat L.D. 694. The city has spent money lobbying the bill, but it has not take a definitive position either for or against it.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: @stevemistler

 

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