The wind power industry was not happy in 2013 when its plans to keep building hundreds of wind turbines in rural Maine were threatened by the administration of Gov. Paul LePage.
That summer, the state Department of Environmental Protection had made things harder for wind developers by putting more requirements into permit applications. The wind lobby believed the new rules from an administration opposed to wind power would slow down – or even kill – the expansion plans of their multimillion-dollar industry.
They needed help, and by the summer of 2014, they got it from then-Maine Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland.
The connection between the industry and Alfond was not only philosophical – Alfond, like many Democrats, supports renewable energy – but also political. Two political action committees run by Alfond had received $9,100 from the wind industry. Alfond used the money to help Democrats get elected to the Legislature, Democrats who then supported him in his bid to be Senate president.
As the new legislative session opened this week in Augusta, the tale of what became a bill called L.D. 1750, “An act to amend the Maine Administrative Procedure Act and clarify wind energy laws,” shows how special interests can hold sway in the Legislature.
The coordination between Alfond’s office and the wind industry on this legislation “is how bills get done,” Alfond said. “It’s very typical. Sometimes it’s me who brings a problem to the advocacy groups, sometimes it’s them that bring the problem to me.”
Alan Michka, a FedEx pilot who makes his home in rural Lexington Township, has a different view.
Michka has been working for several years – without success – at the State House, along with neighbors and friends, to undo provisions of the state’s Wind Energy Act that they believe took away their power as citizens to affect where wind towers are built.
“I went into this in the State House with this idea that it was a fairly level playing field, they were all looking out for the people of Maine,” Michka said. “After spending a couple of years at the State House, it wasn’t about us at all. It’s about the people who have money and influence, several large law firms and corporations, and people who can make donations.
“I’m embarrassed that I thought I was even in the same ballpark with these people,” he said.
To document the story of L.D. 1750, the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting reviewed hundreds of pages of emails between Alfond, his staff and wind industry lobbyists and lawyers, and interviewed key figures on both sides of the issue.
The center’s work shows that industry lobbyists and lawyers wrote the bill at Alfond’s request and worked closely with him and his staff to shepherd it through the legislative process. Alfond also used industry support to keep uncooperative Democrats in line.
Alfond said he approached the industry in mid-2014 and said he wanted to do something to help it during the legislative session. What the industry needed was a law to undo actions taken during the past year by the DEP that made it harder to get a development permit.
In a Sept. 27, 2013, email to an Alfond staff member, wind industry lobbyist and attorney Dan Riley argued that the DEP’s new requirements made a mockery of LePage’s L.D. 1, which aimed to decrease red tape for businesses.
Riley and others from the law firm Bernstein Shur who worked for wind developer First Wind and the Maine Renewable Energy Association wrote a bill that would overrule the DEP action and gave it to Alfond to submit to the Legislature.
Later that day, Alfond’s chief of staff, Michael LeVert, emailed Riley and some of the other lawyers: “The bill is in. Pres. Alfond is sponsor. Talk with you all soon.”
The bill would do four things: ensure that the DEP followed existing law when composing application requirements for wind projects; require that DEP decisions be based on the opinions of experts; stop the DEP from requiring wind projects to provide proof of their energy benefits; and ensure that wind power energy, environmental and economic benefits are taken into account by the DEP.
The emails show that industry representatives, including the Bernstein Shur lawyers; lobbyist Jeremy Payne, head of the Maine Renewable Energy Association; and Juliet Browne, a First Wind attorney at Verrill Dana, were asked many times by Alfond’s staff for their comments during the bill’s progress. In turn, the wind industry submitted editing changes and an amendment, most of which were adopted by Alfond.
Emails also show that the industry and Alfond’s office worked closely in reviewing and amending the bill’s language.
An amended version of the bill was endorsed by a legislative committee. But on the floor of the Legislature, some Democrats in the House voted against it, prompting parliamentary moves that gave Alfond and the industry time to pressure the stray party members into line for follow-up votes.
Ken Hardy, Alfond’s policy chief, emailed lobbyist Payne and lawyer Riley with a “call list” and asked them to contact recalcitrant Democrats.
“Jeremy, attached are the member (sic) to call regarding (L.D.) 1750. They are planning on caucusing in the House again tomorrow morning. … The president is also calling through the list,” Hardy wrote.
Seven of the 10 Democrats who initially voted against the bill switched their positions. However, LePage vetoed the bill and the Legislature failed to override his veto.
Lobbyists like Payne say the coordination between lawmakers and such interests is the way things work.
“It’s Legislation 101,” he said. “You express a concern or an idea … you discuss it with potential sponsors, or with people whose opinions are important to involve, determine whether they share your concern. Sometimes they say ‘We’ll draft it,’ other times they’ll say ‘You draft it.’ ”
But others take a darker view of the way things work under the State House dome.
Democratic Rep. Ralph Chapman, D-Brooksville, who has been a critic of special interests’ influence in the State House, voted against L.D. 1750. He’s concerned about “the degree to which legislators are corporate clients, rather than spokespeople for the people they represent.”
“A lot of major legislation is written by law firms representing the clients whom the legislation is designed to help,” Chapman said. “Sometimes it’s the case that help to those clients is help to the state – and sometimes it’s not.”
Michka, the Lexington Township resident, reflected on how hard it has been for citizens like him to gain traction in the State House.
“I will tell you one thing that a legislator said to me, a Democratic legislator. He told me, ‘We don’t want you here. We say we do, we act like we do and we welcome you, but in truth, we don’t want you here. In truth, you clog up the works and make us feel bad. We don’t analyze bills so much as we rationalize.’
“If democracy is about citizens,” Michka said, “then this isn’t really democracy.”