AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage has gone back on his word and is holding nearly $11.5 million in voter-approved bonds hostage, according to state lawmakers and conservation groups. They say he is using the money targeted for conservation projects as leverage to gain approval for his proposal to harvest more timber on public lands.
Legislators, conservationists and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine said LePage’s decision to withhold funding for more than two dozen projects to protect areas for hunting, fishing, farming and recreation contradicts his statements last year that he would release the money.
LePage made the assurances after initially refusing to release funds for the state’s Land for Maine’s Future program in 2013 until the Legislature authorized his hospital debt payback plan. The plan was enacted, but the bond money, approved by voters in 2010 and 2012, has yet to be released.
“The governor’s latest decision to withhold LMF funds contradicts his previous statements, including the good-faith commitments his administration made affecting dozens of landowners in July of 2014,” Maine Coast Heritage Trust President Tim Glidden, a former director of the LMF, said in a written statement. “This approach erodes the trust between businesses, local community partners and state government, while resulting in lost opportunities to strengthen Maine’s vital tourism, farming, forestry and fishing economies.”
LePage reacted to the criticism in remarks after a maple syrup season ceremony Tuesday at the Blaine House, saying “I don’t know, I’d have to look into what they’re complaining about. I’ve got bigger issues right now.”
BOND MONEY CAUGHT UP IN POLITICS
Established in 1987, the Land for Maine’s Future program has helped conserve more than 500,000 acres throughout the state. The program is popular with conservationists, hunting and fishing groups, and private landowners because it keeps land in private hands – and therefore on the tax rolls – but uses conservation easements to guarantee public access for hunting, fishing, hiking and other outdoor recreation.
Roughly 315,000 of the 500,000 acres were working forests, farmland and commercial waterfront.
Now it appears the LMF program could become a pawn in a larger political battle in Augusta.
Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, said Tuesday that the governor’s senior economic adviser, John Butera, told him about a month ago that the administration was considering withholding the LMF funding in order to gain political support for increasing timber harvesting on state-owned lands. The added revenues would be funneled into home weatherization projects for low-income households – a proposal the Legislature rejected last year.
Saviello, a forester who co-chairs the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee, said he supports environmentally responsible increases in timber harvests, but described it as “unfortunate” that the LMF funding would be tied up in the harvesting debate.
“Politics are politics,” he said. “It happens all of the time around here.”
AT ‘STANDSTILL’ ON RELEASING FUNDS
The governor also has proposed eliminating the Bureau of Parks and Lands, which oversees more than 600,000 acres in the state, and dividing management of state parks and other state-owned lands into separate divisions. The bureau has said it plans to increase timber harvesting on state-owned lands by 27 percent, from 141,500 cords per year to 180,000 cords.
On Tuesday, several lawmakers on the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee grilled Maine Forest Service Director Doug Denico on the rationale for the two proposals. They also asked Walt Whitcomb, commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, about the status of projects that were approved by the LMF board in July.
“We’re not at this point in time releasing funds for those,” he responded.
Lawmakers did not press Whitcomb on why the money was being withheld.
“We are at a standstill,” Whitcomb said. “I don’t think I can describe it in any other way at this point.”
RUMORS ABOUT GOVERNOR’S MOTIVES
David Trahan, executive director for the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, told the Press Herald on Tuesday that he had tried to meet with the LePage administration to address speculation that the governor planned to use the bonds to keep conservation groups on the sidelines during the harvesting debate. That meeting never came, he said.
“I had been hearing rumors that (the bonds) were going to be part of the budget negotiations, much like they were on the hospitals (debt bill in 2013),” Trahan said. “I was hearing those rumors from all directions.”
As for LePage’s statement that he wasn’t aware of the bond issue, Trahan said, “The governor says he doesn’t know what we’re talking about? Well, then I’d say that that’s a great thing because he’s just eased the burden on the minds of all the people in this state who care about land conservation.”
He added, “If the governor is still supportive of those land projects, then we’re ecstatic and we thank the governor.”
LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, declined to confirm or refute speculation about the governor’s motives.
Critics of LePage’s move said the LMF’s $2.2 million cash reserves can fund only some of the projects approved by the board. The others are now in jeopardy. Also, if the funding is not released by November, authorization for $6.47 million from the 2010 bond could expire by the end of the year.
Rep. Russell Black, R-Wilton, said the governor’s stalling on bonds could have a chilling effect on conservation efforts.
DEMOCRATS HOLD BACK CRITICISM
Democrats had harshly criticized LePage when he previously delayed the release of voter-approved bonds, but partisan criticism was muted Tuesday. Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said he was glad that conservation groups and landowners were expressing their concerns.
“I think for legislative leaders it’s easy for us to grab headlines,” he said, “but it’s nice to see some of these other groups … stepping up to put pressure on the administration.” McCabe said he had discussed LMF bonds with the administration over the past month, but not the governor.
“For me,” he said, “the concerning part is that some of these projects will be in limbo and there are some business decisions that have been made based on these funds.”