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The pace of life around the State House is starting to quicken as legislative committees begin to meet.

We will learn more about specific areas of Gov. Paul LePage’s $6.3 billion budget throughout the week when commissioners and program directors give presentations to members of the budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.

Those presentations will kick off this afternoon at 1 p.m. when Commissioner Walt Whitcomb from the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry is slated to talk to the committee.

LePage is proposing a few significant changes within the ACF department that are sure to generate plenty of discussion. For starters, he wants to create a new type of law enforcement officer patrolling the Maine woods and blueberry barrens.

These “natural resources law enforcement officers” within the department will, according to the language in the budget:

“have statewide law enforcement powers equivalent to those of a sheriff, or a sheriff’s deputy, in the sheriff’s county, including the right to execute or serve criminal and civil violation processes against offenders, make warrantless arrests for crimes, investigate and prosecute offenders, require aid in executing forest ranger duties and deputize temporary aides.”

The forest rangers now working for the department – in addition to relegating all law enforcement responsibilities to these new officers – will take on more responsibilities for monitoring the state’s 17 million acres of forestland for threats.

Forest rangers would “maintain a statewide surveillance system to detect and monitor insects, diseases and abiotic agents, including air pollution and acid deposition potentially injurious to the forest resources of the State.”

Rangers already do some of that work in concert with the entomologists and foresters working for the department and other state agencies. But the budget language seems to be a policy recognition that Maine’s forests – the heart of the state’s second-largest industry (forest products) and a big part of its largest (tourism) – face a litany of natural threats these days. In addition to the steady creep of the highly destructive emerald ash borer toward Maine’s borders (it is now in New Hampshire), foresters are preparing for a new outbreak of the spruce budworm that devastated Maine forests in the 1970s and 1980s.

At the same time, the budget proposes reducing the number of authorized state foresters from 16 to 10.

And then there’s this little section of the proposed budget:

“This Part repeals the requirement that the former Department of Conservation sell all bullet proof vests, firearms and related equipment. It also repeals the prohibition that the Commissioner of Conservation (now Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry) may not purchase bullet proof vests, firearms or related material without specific authorization from the Legislature.”

Sounds like another fight is brewing over arming forest rangers – or in this case, probably the newly proposed natural resources law enforcement officers.

 

Other budget presentations:

Here’s a quick list of other notable presentations to the Appropriations Committee this week, with the first being a potential big one given the governor’s tensions with this particular board, as covered by our PPH colleague David Hench here:

  • Board of Corrections and Department of Corrections (Tuesday)
  • Department of Education (Wednesday)
  • Department of Health and Human Services (Wednesday)
  • University of Maine System Chancellor James Page (Wednesday)
  • Judicial department presentation by Chief Justice Leigh Saufley (Thursday)

Thorium energy? Pet-less pet stores?

State offices were closed Monday, so there were no newly printed bills available to read actually read the legislative language (which is sometimes only partly helpful in gleaning the intent). But here are a few more intriguing bill titles:

“An Act To Prohibit the Sale of Dogs and Cats in Pet Stores” from Kimberly Monaghan, D-Cape Elizabeth.

“An Act To Ensure Humane Conditions for Egg-laying Poultry” from  Rep. Matthea Daughtry, D-Brunswick.

“An Act To Prevent the Shackling of Pregnant Women” from Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland.

“An Act To Allow a Person To Take a 20-minute Break from Monitoring Ice Fishing Traps” from Sen. Davis, R-Sangerville.

“An Act To Standardize Pints of Beer Sold in Maine” from Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford. (Is there a problem with short pints in Maine?)

“An Act To Authorize the Development of Thorium Energy” from Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn. And what is thorium energy, you ask? It is what some regard as the next-generation nuclear energy using the radioactive element thorium, named for Thor, the Norse god of thunder.

King on high-profile Middle East trip

In non-Augusta political news, Maine Sen. Angus King continued to meet with Middle Eastern leaders as part of a congressional trip to a part of the world that often dominates U.S. foreign policy.

On Monday, King and about a half-dozen other senators led by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On Friday and over the weekend, the congressional delegation met with leaders from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, including Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz.

 

A big topic of conversation? How to arm and train the Syrian opposition movement in order to combat the Islamic State terrorist group.

King holds seats on two committees – Senate Armed Services and Senate Intelligence – that put him in the middle of debates over how the U.S. should respond to the non-stop turmoil in the Middle East and, well, seemingly almost everywhere else in the world these days.

The Maine independent developed a close working relationship with former Sen. Carl Levin,, D-Mich., and went on a “fact-finding” mission with the then-chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee in summer 2013 to Jordan and Turkey to talk Syria. So the fact that King is now accompanying McCain, the new committee chairman, on a high-profile trip could be a sign that McCain respects King’s viewpoints on issues.

The meetings in Israel also coincided with news that the International Criminal Court had launched in inquiry into possible Israeli war crimes within Palestinian territories, a decision that provoked angry responses from Israeli and U.S. leaders. As reported Monday in this Jerusalem Post article, Netanyahu planned to bend the ears of his U.S. visitors on the issue:

“Speaking at the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said the moves would not deter Israel from doing what it feels it needs to do to defend itself, and will fight against the ICC moves with full force, as well as enlist others to do so as well,” the Israeli newspaper reported.

“His chance to enlist others will come on Monday, when he is scheduled to meet Japan’s visiting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird, and a bipartisan delegation of nine U.S. senators headed by Sen. John McCain, the head of the senate’s Armed Services Committee. The ICC issue, and how to get the court to step back from investigating Israel, is expected to be a major point of those discussions.”

The trip is almost certain to come up in a free talk on international issues King is slated to give at 3 p.m. Friday at Lincoln Auditorium on Main Street in Farmington.

UPDATE:

King’s office released the following statement on Tuesday after the congressional delegation’s return from the Middle East:

“After several days of productive and informative conversations with Saudi, Qatar, Israeli, and Palestinian leaders, as well as with members of Syrian opposition forces, I am convinced that strong and thoughtful American leadership and diplomacy is not only welcome – but necessary – to the future of the Middle East,” King said. “From the mission to eliminate the ISIL threat and the negotiations to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapon capability, to the struggle to end the Syrian humanitarian crisis and the effort to achieve lasting peace between Israel and Palestine, we all share the common goal of rooting out the extremism and fanaticism that threatens the region and our national security. The United States will have an important role to play as we work with our partners and allies across the globe to solve these difficult international challenges, and Congress will consider many, if not all, of these issues over the course of the coming year. As a member of the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, this trip will inform that vital work, and I look forward to partnering with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle – just as was done during this trip – to make progress for the future.”