Maine Governor Paul Le Page is the Biggest Loser: Attack on Maine's chemical safety law falls flat

In a victory for common-sense, protecting public health and reforming our failed system for regulating toxic chemicals, Maine’s state Senate this week unanimously voted in support of a bill to carefully amend the state’s Kid Safe Products Act.  The Senate vote follows last week’s unanimous vote by the state House of Representatives.  The bill was negotiated between legislators with the help of key stakeholders including the Environmental Health Strategy Center and the Maine Chamber of Commerce.

The consensus of the entire state legislature for modest adjustments, including strengthening changes, is a major defeat for freshman Governor Paul Le Page who took office barely six months ago and put gutting the Kid Safe Products Act at the top of his legislative agenda.  It is actually the second major defeat on the issue of chemical policy reform during the Governor’s short but noteworthy (and newsworthy) tenure.  The novice Guv’s campaign to revoke the state’s proposed restrictions on the use of the endocrine-disrupting chemical bisphenol A from baby bottles, sippy cups and water bottles was both a complete failure and, from a PR perspective, a total disaster.

I haven’t yet mentioned the partisan affiliation of anyone involved in Maine’s public fight over the fate of its chemical policies, but now I will: both the House and Senate in Maine are controlled by the Republican party.  That isn’t remarkable.  Support for chemical reform in Maine has long been bi-partisan – with the public and their elected representatives.  What is remarkable is how badly Governor Le Page, who was elected with strong Tea Party support, misjudged the will and desires of the citizens of Maine and the entire state legislature on this issue.  What accounts for his attack on a popular law, in complete disregard for peoples’ views, and his resulting thorough defeat? 

I think it is because the Governor wasn’t really listening to the people of Maine.  Instead, the Governor surrounded himself with staff who worked as paid lobbyists for the chemical industry, and large industries that use a lot of chemicals (like the toy industry and grocery manufacturers who use food packaging that contains chemicals whose safety is increasingly being questioned). The chemical industry and others saw the election of Governor Le Page as an opportunity to roll back a precedent-setting public health law in Maine, and create their own momentum for defeating or overturning similar proposals that are in play in legislatures across the country. So the Governor received from his staff a heavy dose of the perspective of their former clients, not the people.

A win in Maine for the chemical industry and their allies would have – from their perspective – also provided a bit of a release valve from the pressure building for strong reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) at the national level.  It would have been a feather in the cap of the industry lobbyists as they attempt to spin members of Congress in Washington  DC as to why now is not a good time for reform, why proposals along the lines of what was adopted in Maine are too "extreme," a “non-starter” that should be considered “dead on arrival,” and why they have failed to offer any affirmative proposals of their own.

But Mainers – including its legislators, health groups, and home grown business interests – wrote a different script.  What just happened in Maine is instead further proof that:

1)      the public strongly supports sensible chemical policy reform;

2)      state-based politicians -- who are closer to their constituents than to lobbyists for the chemical industry – also recognize the need for reform, and support it with strong bi-partisan majorities;

 3)     it is possible to work out important differences, and address legitimate concerns of business with chemical reform proposals, while ensuring strong public health protections are adopted, if both sides are serious about negotiating, and not just stalling.

So, for chemical reform, as far as Maine is concerned, Governor Le Page is clearly the biggest loser.  Nationally, the chemical industry is the biggest loser.  The biggest winners – or potential winners -- are any politicians in Washington – Republican, Democrat or Independent – who wake up to what is going on across the country (and across the globe) and seize the opportunity to work in good faith to craft strong, sensible legislation to reform our broken chemical safety law.  They will be rewarded by their constituents, whether the chemical industry likes it or not.