The phrase “red tape,” used today to describe the labyrinth of the government permitting process, comes from the centuries-old practice of tying legal documents together with red cloth ribbons. Cutting red tape is Gov. Paul LePage’s top, or at least first, priority, as signaled in his LD 1, a proposal to change regulations affecting businesses. A hearing on the concept for the bill is set for Monday. Though it is Valentine’s Day, the hearing is not likely to be a love-in.

By focusing on red tape, the governor would see broad support, even among many of those in the 61 percent of voters who chose another candidate in November. After all, Maine’s business climate has so many things going against it, such as its cold weather, a small, scattered population and its location at the end of major transportation links. Those handicaps become especially troubling as the state seeks to get its piece of an anemic economic recovery.

If business owners and operators can catch a break from state government through rules that require fewer filings, less frequent inspections, easier paperwork, they will have more time to devote to growing profits. And the permitting process for those wanting to start businesses shouldn’t resemble a scavenger hunt.

But somewhere along the line, cutting red tape morphed into regulatory roll-backs. Rather than focus on taking the long, laborious curves out of the state oversight system, the thrust of LD 1 has become making the road to profits so straight that it risks paving over what makes Maine an attractive place to live and work.

Last month, in making his pitch for the regulatory rollbacks, the governor made it clear he sees rules, not red tape as the problem: “Job creation and investment opportunities are being lost because we do not have a fair balance between our economic interests and the need to protect the environment.” He also said: “We must defend the private sector the same way that the environmentalists are protecting the tree frogs and Canadian lynx.”

Such pronouncements are stirring to those inclined to see rules tied to health and the environment as frivolous. But at the listening sessions held around the state, many echoed what Maine State Chamber of Commerce President Dana Connors said, that protecting the state’s natural environment is key to sustaining Maine’s valuable quality of place.

Structural changes to the regulatory bureaucracy in Augusta will help ease the burden on businesses. Accomplishing the needed changes is enough of a challenge and will take at least four years without also debating the tenets of the Clean Water and Clean Air acts.

Little is to be gained and a lot will be lost by returning to the past, when brake fluid leaked from rusting cars and runoff from open landfills polluted drinking water; when factories pumped their waste into rivers; when trees were cut along lakes and streams causing erosion and silting. Cleaning up those messes cost money and will again. And more to the point, if filling in a wetland and stockpiling hazardous waste is the difference between profitability and loss for a business, it has greater problems than red tape.

The committee charged with reviewing LD 1 must keep this in mind.