Politics & Other Mistakes: Green around the gills

6 mins read

Spotting environmentalists used to be easy.

You didn’t need to look for hemp clothing or sandals made from recycled tires. You didn’t have to hike through the puckerbrush to yurts heated with wood from organically grown forests and powered by geo-thermal systems constructed under contracts that strictly adhered to the Kyoto protocols on global warming. You could avoid going into fair-trade coffee shops, where the music of indigenous people was playing and the walls were covered in earth-tone weavings from the coats of free-range llamas raised under humane conditions, as certified by PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Art.

Al Diamon

All you had to do to identify environmentalists was check their party registrations. If they were Republicans, they weren’t.

There were exceptions, of course: Teddy Roosevelt, Percival Baxter, Captain Planet (no really, he was a Log Cabin Republican). But, in general, membership in the GOP wasn’t compatible with hugging hemlocks, cuddling conifers or petting with poplars.

For evidence, voters had only to check the legislative ratings compiled by the Maine League of Conservation Voters (MLCV). Every two years, this nonpartisan (no really, stop laughing) group would target about 10 bills for passage or defeat. After the sessions were completed, the league would release its scorecard.

In 2005-2006, the average House Democrat supported the league’s positions 82 percent of the time. Dem senators backed the group on 78 percent of their votes.

Republican representatives got a 33 percent mark. Their Senate counterparts scored 38 percent.

Those figures haven’t changed much over the years. Traditionally, Democrats snuggled up to endangered New England cottontail rabbits and detoured around fragile vernal pools full of spotted salamander eggs. Republicans made stew out of the bunnies and caviar out of the eggs.

But in the 2007-2008 legislative sessions, it was as if the GOP had lost its fervor for building Wal-Marts on wetlands or dumping tainted Chinese baby formula into Maine rivers. The latest ratings from the MLCV show Republican scores almost doubling, with the average House GOP member agreeing with the league on 64 percent of the issues, and the average senator hitting 76 percent.

Democrats’ numbers went up as well, but not as dramatically. Senate Dems came in at 86 percent. House donkeys rose to 91 percent.

What happened?

If ratings by the pro-business (OK, pro-GOP) Maine Economic Research Institute (MERI) mean anything, Republicans still seem to have a taste for smokestacks and clear cuts. The 12 Republican senators who scored 67 percent or better with the MLCV also backed MERI’s position an average of 89 percent of the time. And lest you think MERI has gone green, the group’s ratings for Democrats continued to look like the returns on hedge funds backed by subprime mortgages.

Republican legislators seem happy with their new status.

“This year, I’m not a bum,” said GOP state Rep. Sarah Lewin of Eliot of her rating of 70 percent. “For a change, we had some bills we could support.”

Over her previous two terms, Lewin had averaged an MLCV score of 8.5 percent.

“The bills they chose were more realistic,” said Republican state Rep. William Browne of Vassalboro, who got a grade of 80. “We always get a bad reputation as being anti-environmental, but we aren’t.”

In his first four years in the Legislature, Browne’s average league rating was 20 percent.

Maureen Drouin, the MLCV’s executive director, attributes the higher GOP scores to a couple of factors. Drouin said the league developed its agendas for recent legislative sessions after consulting with 25 environmental organizations. She said this process created a priority list of bills with broad support. But even those measures, she said, were sometimes amended in committee to remove controversial provisions. The league’s ratings don’t reflect committee wrangling.

“It’s how people vote that we grade them on,” Drouin said, “not their deepest, darkest beliefs.”

The MLCV is now considering ways to reflect committee actions in future scorecards.

That doesn’t help voters this year in sorting the protectors of the ecosystem from the despoilers. For that, they’ll have to look a little closer by going to the league’s Web site (mlcv.org/products/2008–Final-MLCVScorecard–924KB.pdf), and checking the vote on L.D. 2257, “An Act To Force Legislators To Bulldoze Or Get Off The Machine.”

Just kidding. It’s actually “An Act To Establish a Uniform Building and Energy Code.” On this league-backed bill, which squeaked through the Senate by a single vote, legislators reverted to their “deepest, darkest beliefs,” which is to say most Republicans voted against it and most Democrats voted for it. Like in the good old days.

You won’t need a windmill to see which way this breeze is blowing. Although, once you know, you’ll probably want to stand upwind.

It won’t be a hazardous waste of your time if you e-mail your comments to me at aldiamon@herniahill.net

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