Legislators who gathered for a public hearing Wednesday, Jan. 26, with the goal of getting feedback from the public on what changes should be made to Maine’s regulatory climate instead got a clear message from the audience: don’t gut Maine’s existing environmental regulations.

That message came in response to a proposal submitted by Gov. Paul LePage earlier in the week. LePage’s package of proposed changes focused on environmental regulations, and includes such changes as replacing the state’s Board of Environmental Protection with a full-time professional administrative law judge system, as well as requiring that not less than 30 percent of the Land Use Regulation Commission’s jurisdiction be zoned for development.

LePage’s proposals were submitted to the Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on Regulatory Fairness and Reform, which has been tasked with writing an all-encompassing bill aimed at reforming regulations. When chairman Sen. Jonathan Courtney (R-York County) opened the committee’s public hearing at University of Maine’s Hutchinson Center in Belfast Wednesday, he explained the group’s mission.

“We are here to listen to suggestions and comments on how to improve the regulatory climate in Maine,” he said. “We want to find out how to make Maine a better place to create jobs.”

The first member of the public who spoke, however, came at the issue from a slightly different angle and offered a viewpoint that many who followed her seemed to share. Belfast City Councilor Marina Delune referenced Maine’s official motto, “Dirigo,” and then said the state’s unofficial motto is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

“I would urge you to be very careful before gutting any regulations that protect our fair state,” said Delune.

When the next speaker tried to offer commentary on Darryl Brown, LePage’s pick to head the Department of Environmental Protection, Courtney said the hearing was not the time or place to discuss that matter.

“We want to hear about either problems you’re having or issues you’re facing,” he said. “This tour is to listen to suggestions on how we deal with regulatory reform in the state.”

Judy Berk, a Northport resident who works as the communications director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said she was there representing the organization’s 12,000 members. Berk said LePage had made positive statements about environmental regulations at a meeting the week before, and then “completely contradicted” those statements with proposals submitted this week.

Courtney interrupted to again remind everyone what the purpose of Wednesday’s hearing was, concluding his comments by saying, “This is a listening tour.”

“Then listen!” came the reply from several audience members.

Berk said she believes everyone wants government to work effectively, but said LePage’s proposals would “basically be a prescription to destroy our environment here in Maine.” Berk said protecting the environment is good for businesses in the state.

That theme was echoed by other speakers who followed: Maine’s environment — natural, not regulatory — is the state’s big draw for people looking to visit as well as for people looking for a new place to live. Some speakers called the environment Maine’s “brand,” while others referred to it as the state’s “calling card.”

“Keep Maine’s promise of ‘The way life should be,'” said Swanville resident Lynn Doubleday.

Lucy Carver, who has lived in Northport and Belfast for the past 40 years, made reference to the bottle redemption bill passed in the 1980s, and said it was a regulation that had not harmed business but still made Maine a better place.

As more people continued to speak, Courtney occasionally had to interject reminders about the focus of the hearing. That didn’t sit well with Liberty resident (and former Democratic state senate candidate) Diane Messer, who told committee members they should listen to what people had to say even if it didn’t “fit into your neat little box.”

“We are here because we are frustrated and we feel stifled,” said Messer. Like others, she said it is important the quality of Maine’s environment be protected.

Messer did offer a suggestion for some regulatory reform, though — suggesting licensing and permitting processes could be streamlined, and that the state might offer some type of “one-stop shopping” form. Others who spoke during the hearing offered similar thoughts.

Lincolnville resident Will Brown agreed with previous speakers who said they were surprised and dismayed by suggestions LePage offered.

“When I looked at the governor’s proposal, I saw that it had more red flags than an ice fishing derby in Greenville,” said Brown.

Northport resident David Foley said LePage has already damaged the state’s reputation with his “thoughtless remarks,” and offered a question to underscore what he saw as the dramatic nature of LePage’s proposals.

“Would we call decapitation ‘Dandruff reform?'” asked Foley.

Legislators did hear from some people who offered the kind of feedback the committee seemed most interested in. Belfast resident Jill Goodwin, who said she works for a construction company in Camden, expressed frustration with having to fill out a survey of construction wage rates each year.

“It would be better to get work then to have to fill this out,” she said.

Searsport resident Bob Ramsdell, who chairs that town’s shellfish committee, spoke of the group’s struggle to reopen clam flats that have been closed since 2007 due to water tests that indicated pollution. Ramsdell said the state needs to send people out to test the water more often, but said the group’s efforts to offer assistance had been turned down because the state didn’t consider them adequately qualified.

“We’ve offered all kinds of volunteer help, because we know they’re short-staffed,” said Ramsdell.

Another Searsport resident offered testimony about her business experiences. Astrig Tanguay, co-owner of Searsport Shores campground, said she often feels like a “criminal” when completing paperwork for state agencies because she is afraid she will get in trouble if she makes even a small mistake on that paperwork.

“Every piece of paper I sign, I sweat it,” she said.

Tanguay recalled recently being told she would have to pay a $125 fine for making a $25 mistake on a sales tax report. She said she has received multiple notices about the mistake, which she said was likely made due to the complex and confusing tax structure.

“That’s absurd,” she said, regarding the fine. “There wasn’t even a moment of saying, ‘Gee, they might have made an honest mistake.'”

After three hours of comments from the public, the hearing concluded and Courtney thanked people for their input in the process. The committee will host similar hearings around the state in coming weeks, before the regulatory reform bill is finalized.