A bill that would enshrine the right to a clean and healthy environment through an amendment to the Maine Constitution failed a vote in the House on Tuesday, where it needed support from at least two-thirds of lawmakers, after some Republicans made false and misleading claims about the measure.
The bill, LD 489, also known as the Pine Tree Amendment, was put forward last year by Sen. Chloe Maxmin (D-Lincoln) and carried over to this year’s session.
As Beacon previously reported, the amendment would add the following to the state’s constitution: “The people of the State have the right to a clean and healthy environment and to the preservation of the natural, cultural and healthful qualities of the environment. The State may not infringe upon these rights. The State shall conserve, protect and maintain the State’s natural resources, including, but not limited to, its air, water, land and ecosystems for the benefit of all the people, including generations yet to come.”
The proposed policy is part of a movement to secure “green amendments” protecting the right to a healthy environment in states across the country. Pennsylvania and Montana have already had such amendments for decades, and New York voters passed a measure in their state late last year. Along with Maine, green amendment initiatives are active in over a dozen states.
Supporters of the legislation argue that the amendment would protect the state’s climate now and for decades to come by giving the public a tool to hold governments accountable if they pursue environmentally destructive policies. “It ensures that our environmental and climate laws aren’t subject to political whims,” Maxmin told Beacon in January.
House debate Tuesday
While the measure passed initial votes in the House and Senate last year, enactment in those chambers requires a two-thirds margin before the bill can be sent to the voters for a final decision on whether to amend the constitution. The measure failed that vote in the House on Tuesday, however. In a mostly party-line decision that saw nearly all Democrats support the measure while almost all Republicans opposed it, the chamber voted 77-59 in favor of the bill but fell short of the two-thirds margin needed.
During floor speeches, Republicans repeatedly said they support clean air and water but were opposed to a bill that would simply enshrine the right to a healthy environment into the constitution. House Republicans also argued the bill was overly expansive and made a series of claims about potential consequences of the amendment that proponents said mischaracterized the measure.
“It is so broad that anyone could come up and say that the bike path that we’re building is affecting clean water, that road that we’re building is affecting the air. This is way too broad,” said Rep. Michael Perkins (R-Oakland).
During his speech, Rep. Will Tuell (R-East Machias) claimed that the amendment could be interpreted in a way that would “unintentionally ban the burning of firewood.”
In addition, Rep. Michael Lemelin (R-Chelsea) attacked the bill as a measure designed to “give activists extreme power.”
“This is a very, very deceiving, deceptive bill,” he said during his floor speech. “This bill is only to give activists supreme power and I want all my people to know that.”
As Rep. Bill Pluecker (I-Warren) pointed out during the debate Tuesday, there is nothing in the Pine Tree Amendment that warrants the fears raised by some Republicans.
“We’re looking into our constitution to provide protections for our citizens, to provide protections for our state,” he said. “This does not target businesses, this does not target bike paths.”
Those arguments by House Republicans were also described as a mischaracterization of the measure by a member of their own party, Sen. Rick Bennett (R-Oxford), a co-sponsor of the Pine Tree Amendment.
“They were just wholly inaccurate and overblown,” Bennett said of such claims, pointing out that the concerns raised by House Republicans have not occurred in Pennsylvania or Montana, the two states that have had green amendments in their constitution for decades.
Bennett said the debate in the House and the chamber’s vote on the Pine Tree Amendment were disappointing.
“I look at the amendment first and foremost as a check on governmental power and a clear expression of the rights of individual citizens,” he said. “The narrative seemed to change with some to think that it was somehow threatening to individual rights and supportive of governmental overreach, and that’s the exact reverse of the intent of the amendment and certainly of the way I would see it working.”
The senator added that qualms expressed by Governor Janet Mills’ administration also didn’t help generate support for the amendment. Bennett said the Maine Department of Transportation sent an email to lawmakers earlier this year raising concerns about the measure, which he argued bolstered opposition to the bill.
A spokesperson for the Maine DOT confirmed that the department sent an email on Jan. 25 to members of the legislature’s Transportation Committee expressing concerns about the Pine Tree Amendment, including that the language of the bill was too broad and could be used to bring court challenges aimed at halting department infrastructure projects.
“While we are not in support of LD 489, MaineDOT supports a healthy natural environment, and our employees and contracting partners design and build infrastructure to support that goal,” department spokesperson Paul Merrill said in an email to Beacon on Wednesday.
Future of Pine Tree Amendment
Maxmin, the sponsor of the Pine Tree Amendment, agreed that the vote in the House on Tuesday was disappointing. She added that arguments on the House floor that the bill catered to activists and would ban firewood burning and curb bike path construction were “profoundly inaccurate.” Such rhetoric was particularly frustrating, she said, as supporters of the bill made repeated efforts to educate GOP legislators about the bill and the need to protect environmental rights in the constitution.
“I had talked to many of those folks personally and they told me they would really look at it and so I was disappointed because the facts were wrong that were said on the floor and there was so much opportunity for folks to really have the chance to learn about it,” Maxmin said.
The bill will next move to the Senate, where Bennett said it could either go to the Appropriations Table because it has a fiscal note or potentially simply be moved to the full Senate since the allocation for the bill is only related to the ballot initiative triggered if the measure passes.
Either way, the initiative would need two-thirds support in the Senate. Bennett said that margin is possible, but added that the vote will likely be close. If it’s approved by a two-thirds margin in the Senate, he said the measure would go back to the House. However, it would then likely run into the same opposition it faced Tuesday.
Maxmin said it’s unlikely the bill will be approved by lawmakers this year. However, she emphasized that the grassroots campaign in support of the Pine Tree Amendment — which has been spearheaded by constituents of her Lincoln County district — will endure.
“Whenever I go out somewhere I see a Pine Tree Amendment sign on someone’s lawn. They’ve done such incredible work getting businesses and organizations and citizens to stand up and get behind the Pine Tree Amendment and that’s not going to die,” she said. “That’s going to keep going.”
Photo: Sen. Chloe Maxmin at the State House with supporters of the Pine Tree Amendment | Via Facebook
Evan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He then worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper before joining Beacon. Evan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Beacon, April 6, 2022, https://mainebeacon.com/