ELLSWORTH — U.S. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Angus King (I-Maine) and U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine) were among lawmakers who testified before the International Trade Commission (ITC) on Tuesday in opposition to tariffs imposed by the Commerce Department that have caused the price of newsprint to rise over 20 percent in recent months.
“The tariffs will hurt the U.S. paper industry because they will cause permanent harm to newspapers, printers and book publishers, shrinking the U.S. paper industry’s customer base,” Collins told the ITC, a federal agency that advises the government on trade policy.
The duties, which were imposed on Canadian newsprint at the beginning of the year, will eventually lead to “less production of newsprint by U.S. manufacturers as customers cut their consumption once and for all,” said Collins, and “are harming the very U.S. industry they are intended to protect.”
Collins said communities without access to broadband internet still rely on printed newspapers.
“For many of our small town and rural newspapers, these tariffs, if finalized, would harm the dissemination of information about our communities, our government, and the world around us,” Collins said.
King said he understood the conflict between obeying tariff laws and protecting free speech and freedom of the press, but that applying the law in this case “makes no sense both because it would hurt the industry it’s designed to help, and it would be an arrow in the heart of the First Amendment because it would reduce the information that’s available to Americans.”
Poliquin focused on Maine’s struggling paper mills, such as Catalyst Paper in Rumford.
“It is true that in some cases tariffs can help U.S. producers by raising prices,” Poliquin said. “In this unique case, however, a price increase will only exacerbate and quicken the already declining customer base for paper products in the United States.”
The Commerce Department is expected to announce the results of an investigation into Canada’s alleged dumping of newsprint by Aug. 2 and to decide on whether to keep the tariffs shortly thereafter.
The department’s decision to impose the tariffs was triggered by a petition filed last August by a single paper mill in southwestern Washington. The mill, North Pacific Paper Co., claimed that government-subsidized Canadian newsprint producers were dumping paper below production costs in the United States.
The cost of newsprint skyrocketed, around 26.5 percent for The Ellsworth American, according to Publisher Alan Baker. The American buys its paper through a nonprofit cooperative that represents several hundred newspapers. The cost increase has also been passed on to smaller papers, such as The Bucksport Enterprise and Penobscot Bay Press newspapers printed on The American’s presses.
Some of the newspaper industry’s largest trade groups have opposed the tariffs, and have criticized North Pacific Paper Co. in particular.
In May, Collins and King announced the Protecting Rational Incentives in Newsprint Trade Act of 2018 (PRINT Act). The legislation proposes suspending the tariffs and requires the secretary of commerce to study the economic vitality of the newsprint and newspaper publishing industries.
The PRINT Act is still in the first stages of the legislative process, having been referred to the Senate Finance Committee.
The fate of the newsprint industry is closely tied with that of mills across the country, including in Maine, where mill closures have resulted in the loss of hundreds of jobs around the state in recent years. The American once purchased all of its newsprint from Great Northern in Millinocket, said Baker, but the mills eventually were closed, leaving no newsprint manufacturers in the Northeast corner of the country.
“So far, we’re trying to absorb it,” said Baker, when asked whether the papers would be forced to eventually raise the price of a subscription. “We’re being careful about everything.”
Newsprint is the third-largest expense of the paper, behind salaries and circulation costs, said Baker, adding, “We’re just toughing it out.”