A bipartisan group of lawmakers will propose legislation Tuesday that would force Gov. Paul LePage to issue voter-approved bonds, setting up a possible showdown over conservation money that the governor is using to gain political leverage.
The bill, announced by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, would almost certainly be vetoed by LePage, who is withholding $11.4 million previously approved by voters for the Land for Maine’s Future program until legislators agree to increase tree cutting on state-owned land. Lawmakers would need a two-thirds majority in both the Senate and the House to override a veto.
The LMF program provides funds to complete land preservation deals around the state. The funds being withheld include roughly $6.5 million in bonds approved by voters in 2009 that will expire if unsold by the end of the year.
LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, declined to comment on Katz’s bill. However, LePage reiterated his position Monday in a letter to the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, and said he would introduce legislation to increase the harvest and sale of timber through Rep. Jeffrey Timberland, R-Turner.
“The Maine people own this land,” LePage wrote. “They should benefit from increased timber revenue.”
Maine harvests and sells 141,500 cords of wood taken from public land each year. LePage wants to increase that annual tally to 180,000 cords, and divert $5 million of the proceeds to help rural Mainers improve their home heating systems. Opponents say such programs already exist through Efficiency Maine.
Last year, legislators rejected an identical plan from the governor, citing the same objections.
Conservationists and members of both parties have decried LePage’s tactic, saying his use of the bonds as political leverage threatens 30 projects already approved for funding around the state, including a plan in Cumberland and North Yarmouth to preserve 215 acres at Knight’s Pond and Blueberry Hill.
Voters in the two communities have combined to appropriate $400,000 for the project, and local conservation groups have raised $465,000 more. The final $225,000 needed to preserve the land was supposed to come from the LMF.
“It’s now time for Gov. LePage to follow through on Maine voters’ commitment to conservation,” said Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth. Local residents and donors “feel very betrayed” by the withholding of state funds, she said.
The owner of the 215 acres in Cumberland and North Yarmouth, Rebecca Leland-Swiggett, did not respond to a message left at her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Leland-Swiggett was on the verge of selling the land to developers two years ago – trees still bear paint marks for clearing – when the coalition of local conservation groups intervened. Leland-Swiggett offered them an option to buy that runs out in June.
Penny Asherman, president of the Chebeague and Cumberland Land Trust, said time is running short for finalizing the deal.
“We are fortunate to have a patient and willing landowner who has given us the opportunity for two years to raise the money,” she said. “Opportunities like this don’t come around very often. Now is the time to act and protect it forever for all to enjoy.”
If the logjam in Augusta isn’t resolved before the June deadline, Asherman said there are preliminary discussions to give conservation groups more time to raise the money.
Democrats held a news conference Monday morning at Knight’s Pond to put pressure on the governor. Standing before the pond, which also had attracted a group of honking Canada geese, advocates highlighted the natural, recreational asset that they said the public could lose if the Cumberland-North Yarmouth project fails because LePage refuses to approve the money.
Reps. Michael Timmons and Paul Chace, local Republicans, also have supported release of the bonds for the Knight’s Pond project, signing onto an April 21 letter to the governor inviting him to walk the site.
During his first term LePage also withheld conservation bond money for political leverage, using it to pressure lawmakers to approve a deal to repay the state’s debt to hospitals.
Details of the legislative group’s proposal were being worked out Monday, but Katz and others are expected to elaborate at their Tuesday news conference in Augusta.
Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: