AUGUSTA — A legislative committee voted resoundingly Tuesday to reject a bill that would have charged Poland Spring 12 cents for every gallon of water the company extracted in Maine for bottling.

For more than a decade, critics of mega-bottler Poland Spring and its corporate parent, Nestle Waters North America, have attempted to impose severance or excise taxes on the hundreds of millions of gallons it bottles in Maine.

But those targeted attempts have yet to pass muster with lawmakers – and it appears likely the 2019 session will be no different.

This year’s proposal sought a 12-cents-per-gallon excise tax on bottlers that extract more than 1.5 million gallons per year. Poland Spring is the only company in that category and would have paid roughly $115 million under the proposal based on the 960 million gallons the company extracted last year. Proceeds from the tax would go to supporting college tuition grants and improving the state’s broadband internet network.

But members of the Legislature’s Taxation Committee voted 9-2 to reject the bill, which will now head to the House and Senate floors for consideration.

“This is a very bad bill for Maine,” said Rep. Donald Marean, I-Hollis, whose district includes one of Poland Spring’s bottling plants. “It sends the wrong message to business that we would identify one business in Maine and tax the devil out of it to raise money for something.”

Opponents pointed out that Poland Spring employs more than 800 people in Maine, many of them in rural areas with few job opportunities. They also noted that Poland Spring pays income taxes, fuel taxes and other fees for its operations in Maine.

Bill supporter Rep. Ryan Tipping, D-Orono, offered an alternative proposal of a 5-cents-per-gallon excise tax with all proceeds flowing into the state’s road and highway improvement fund. Tipping also proposed giving voters a chance to weigh in on the tax proposal this November via a statewide ballot question, should the bill pass the Legislature.

“It’s important to emphasize that these types of companies are an asset to Maine,” said Tipping, a committee co-chair. “But it’s also important to note that there are costs that are not borne by the company … attached to the cleanliness of the groundwater of our state, the brand of our state as being pristine and the high cost of maintaining roads in our state.”

The other supporter on the committee, Sen. Benjamin Chipman, D-Portland, said it all boils down to a fundamental question of whether a company should pay for water extracted from the ground.

“It’s a resource that has a value,” Chipman said. “Obviously, it’s selling for a good amount of money and is producing a good profit for the company but the state of Maine gets nothing for the water.”

But Sen. Heather Sanborn, a Portland Democrat who owns Rising Tide Brewing with her husband, was among several opponents who saw a disconnect between the bill and committee discussions of offering tax credits to specific companies involved in other sustainable natural resources industries in Maine. And unlike gold or fossil fuels, water is a renewable resource in Maine.

“I have a really hard time hearing that both Maine has a plentiful, wonderful supply of water – and that many, many companies might come in and tap it – and that we should tax it,” Sanborn said. “Those two things don’t sit in the same category for me because the aquifers are recharged every year.”


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