A bill that would arm Maine’s forest rangers was overwhelmingly supported by the House of Representatives on Tuesday afternoon, but that landslide vote was set aside when the bill was immediately tabled pending a possible amendment.
“There was some discussion on whether an amendment is needed to look at a training requirement,” explained Rep. Jeff M. McCabe, (D-Skowhegan) the assistant majority leader.
The House voted 139-7 to accept an ought-to-pass committee recommendation after a parade of representatives urged their colleagues to pass the bill overwhelmingly. McCabe said he expects the House to revisit the matter on Wednesday in order to see if any amendment has been proposed.
The hope, more than one representative said, was to send a message to both the senate and the governor’s office that the bill was worth passing, and funding.
“[The first reading of a bill] is not typically when the debate occurs, but it did this time,” McCabe said, citing the “temperature in the room” that was strongly in favor of passage. “And the governor has not come down clearly if he supports it or not.”
By law, Maine’s forest rangers are not allowed to carry firearms, despite the fact that they are classified as law enforcement officers. Rangers carry pepper spray and handcuffs.
LD 297 seeks to change that, and has faced an uphill battle against those prefer the status quo, and who say arming rangers might lead to “mission creep” away from their present duties.
Rep. Paul D. McGowan (D-York) was the lone legislator among the 13 who spoke to actually oppose the bill.
“I would submit that [the theory that rangers will be safer if armed] is based on a lie,” McGowan said. “The lie that the more we arm people, the safer they’ll be. The evidence tell us this is not true.”
McGowan spoke first during the floor debate, and was followed by a steady stream of supporters from both sides of the aisle.
The fiscal note attached to the version of the bill that was debated on Tuesday called for a total of $86,000 to be spent in order to arm and train rangers, according to Rep. Catherine M. Nadeau (D-Winslow). The cost of the bill’s implementation has steadily dropped as different options have been ruled out, from a beginning point of $2.5 million, Nadeau said. She held out hope that future grants could even further reduce the impact on Maine taxpayers.
“Times have changed, and so have the challenges that our forest rangers face,” Nadeau said.
Rep. Larry C. Dunphy (R-Embden) said he learned a lot about the bill by talking to some of the state’s forest rangers. All of the state’s rangers signed a petition stating their desire to carry sidearms.
Dunphy said one thing a ranger told him resonated with him as he considered the bill.
“[He told me] two classes of people are not allowed to carry [firearms in Maine],” Dunphy said. “One is a Maine Forest Ranger. The other is a convicted felon.”
Rep. Craig V. Hickman (D-Winthrop) said LD 297 was the kind of bill he wanted to champion when he became a legislator.
“When I ran for office, I vowed to provide a voice for those who cry in the dark,” Hickman said. “Many forest rangers feel unappreciated and undervalued, but they still love their work and they take great pride in it … We have heard their voices loud and clear. Today, we have a chance to validate those voices with our vote.”
Rep. Corey Wilson, (R-Augusta), has been among the most steadfast supporters of the bill.
“In my opinion, if we were ever to consider funding a bill, this is one of the most important,” Wilson said. “This bill is truly a matter of life and death.”