January 21, 2020

Ante up, environmentalists

Three years ago the Maine Legislature passed solid waste legislation which banned new private landfills, scheduled the closure of grandfathered municipal dumps, and created the Maine Waste Management Agency (MWMA) to coordinate solid waste policy and site two (now one) special waste landfills. The Legislature was strongly influenced by the lobbying efforts of Maine Audubon and the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM); their silence during the implementation process has been deafening.

It’s not surprising, because the last thing a special interest group wants (be they Maine Audubon or the National Rifle Association) is to be held accountable for the policies they advocate; credit is one thing, responsibility quite another. Our two leading environmental interest groups (or envirocrats, as the EarthFirst! types call them), find themselves between a rock and a hard place. If they were to positively support the process and policies their lobbying engendered, they would risk alienating members and funding sources (e.g., “Audubon supports ash-dump site,” or “NRCM applauds higher tipper fees”).

On the other hand, if they should actively oppose the implementation process after having helped to create it in the Legislature, their future effectiveness in that body could well be impaired. Instead, they have simply walked away.

But to paraphrase another great environmentalist, this cannot stand. For both specific and general reasons, interest groups must be drawn into the implementation process and held accountable for the policies they advocate.

The single biggest problem the MWMA has in the site-selection process is a lack of trust. No matter what the technical merits of any site they might select, they will encounter local opposition. No matter Director Sherry Huber claims the recent rejection of the Arundel, et al. sites shows that the MWMA can be trusted to do the right thing; their credibility is already severely impaired.

The MWMA needs a creditable and trustworthy third party to vouchsafe both the process and the selection criteria. By virtue of the fact that Maine Audubon and the NRCM stand at least as midwives, if not biological parents, to our current solid waste policies, those groups have a responsibility to stop walking away.

On a general level, the idea of interest group accountability is long overdue. Involving interest groups in policy implementation should improve the efficacy of that process, and the value of accountability is two-fold: First, accountability should ameliorate extreme policy demands somewhat, by tempering short-run positions with long-run effectiveness concerns; and second, the rise of interest group power and importance relative to political parties, and the subsequent governance problems that presents, is only a concern because interest groups have somehow been able to avoid accountability. That cannot be allowed to stand.

So, pull up a chair and ante up, environmentalists. It’s bad manners to leave the table before the game is over, and those who do may not find a chair next time.

Jon Reisman is an associate professor of economics and public policy at the University of Maine in Machias. He is also a candidate for the Democratic nomination of the Washington county commissioner.

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