It’s hard to find someone in Maine who doesn’t think it’s a good idea to protect and ensure public access to our state’s natural features. That’s why proposals to borrow money for land acquisition through the Land for Maine’s Future program have consistently won the backing of Maine residents at local ballot boxes across the state.
This broad base of support, however, is no match for Gov. LePage. By refusing to release voter-approved conservation funds, the governor has stalled an effort to preserve Maine’s assets, undercut the state’s natural resource-based tourism industry and put his constituents’ priorities dead last.
Rich in unspoiled beauty, Maine’s beaches, mountains, farmlands and trails are a huge draw for both those who live here and visitors to the state. In 2007 alone, fishermen, hunters, wildlife watchers, hikers and other outdoorspeople generated nearly $3 billion in retail sales and supported over 47,700 in-state jobs.
Because Maine has one of the nation’s lowest rates of public land ownership, however, access to these natural treasures depends on conservationists’ success at keeping special properties open to the public. That’s where Land for Maine’s Future comes in. Financing its purchases primarily through bond sales, the program buys private property and preserves it for fishing, farming, hunting and recreation.
In 2010 and 2012, 60 percent of voters approved nearly $11.5 million in LMF bonds for over two dozen projects, but LePage said he wouldn’t sell the bonds and release the funds until the Legislature authorized his plan to pay back the debt the state owed to Maine’s hospitals. Lawmakers approved the repayment proposal in June 2013, and the governor declared at that time that he was ready to make good on his promise to issue the bonds.
The bond money, though, has yet to be released, and without it, Land for Maine’s Future can’t fund all of the projects approved by its board – placing some initiatives in jeopardy. And if funding isn’t made available by November, authorization for $6.47 million from the 2010 bond could expire by the end of this year.
There’s been much speculation about what’s driving the governor this time. But while analyzing LePage’s motivations is undoubtedly diverting for Augusta insiders, what really matters is that the chief executive of Maine is brushing aside a decision made by the voters of Maine regarding a program that benefits their state’s economy and its environment. This is shameful, and it isn’t how a democracy is supposed to function.