AUGUSTA — The LePage administration made its case Wednesday for funneling money from logging on state-owned lands into home heating assistance, a proposal caught up in a larger political fight over a popular land conservation program.

But environmental and conservation groups told members of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee that the proposal could lead to more intensive timber harvesting on public lands while creating a dangerous budget precedent for future legislative “raids” on special funds.

“We think diverting the funds is inappropriate and poor public policy,” said Kaitlyn Bernard with the Appalachian Mountain Club, which manages some of its 70,000 acres in Maine for timber. “We support finding funding to help low-income Mainers keep warm, but this isn’t the way to do it.”

The bill, L.D. 1397, is similar to a measure from Gov. Paul LePage that failed to pass during the last legislative session. This year, however, LePage is vowing to withhold more than $11 million in voter-approved bonds from the Land for Maine’s Future program unless lawmakers go along with his plan to divert some timber revenues toward programs aimed at helping low-income Mainers heat their homes.

More than 30 projects approved for funding through the LMF program are awaiting the outcome of a political showdown with potentially major implications for the program’s future.

FOES WARN OF ‘SLIPPERY SLOPE’

Patrick Woodcock, director of the Governor’s Energy Office, said the trust fund that receives revenues from timber harvesting on state-owned public reserved lands now holds $8 million. While that money is currently restricted to paying for management of Maine’s state parks and public lands, Woodcock argued the Legislature can decide to earmark it for other “public benefits.”

Woodcock pointed out that Maine’s 2-1-1 telephone assistance line received more than 5,700 calls from Mainers seeking information on heating assistance between July 2014 and March 2015, which was more than 2,000 calls above the next request for assistance. Yet the current programs that help Mainers convert to more efficient heating systems have inadequate funding for the demand, he said.

“It’s a choice,” Woodcock told the committee. “I’m not saying there aren’t benefits to the public of investing in trails, investing in maintenance. There are real needs there. But I think we can also use some of this account to address what I see as one of Maine’s biggest problems, and that is heating costs.”

Yet LePage’s willingness to tie up funding for LMF – a popular program that has conserved more than 500,000 acres – for an unrelated initiative is causing angst among fellow Republicans at the State House. A separate committee is expected to vote soon on a bill sponsored by Augusta Republican Sen. Roger Katz that aims to force the governor to release LMF funding.

LePage’s attempts to use LMF funding as leverage came up several times during Wednesday’s public hearing. Opponents primarily warned, however, that the proposal created a “slippery slope” by encouraging the Legislature to dip into one dedicated financial account to pay for other priorities.

“This bill pits committees, agencies and legislators against each other and violates the disciplined structure of dedicated revenue accounts and the orderly management of our state budget,” said Eliza Donoghue, North Woods policy advocate for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “It’s not really hard to imagine the precedent in this bill coming back to haunt legislators.”

LICENSED FORESTER HAS WARNING

The legislation would create an Affordable Heating from Maine’s Forests Funds to be administered by the Efficiency Maine Trust, the quasi-governmental agency that already administers a number of energy programs.

The program would begin with a transfer of at least $1 million in timber revenues contained in the Public Reserved Lands Management Fund. Subsequent transfers would be based on the fund’s revenues in 2012, when substantially less timber was harvested.

Timber harvesting on public lands has been an unexpectedly contentious issue in Augusta this year.

Roughly 400,000 of Maine’s 600,000 acres of public reserved lands are managed for timber. Since LePage took office in 2011, timber harvests on state-owned lands have increased by more than 34 percent, from 115,167 cords to 155,152 cords last year, while timber revenues nearly doubled to $7.8 million.

Lawmakers already have rebuffed a push to increase the allowable harvest to 180,000 cords next year, but appear poised to approve a more modest increase to 160,000 cords. LePage’s proposal to use some of that revenue for home heating programs received a lukewarm to chilly response from committee members on both sides of the aisle on Wednesday.

“We are sending a message to future Legislatures that trust funds are just so many words,” said Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, the committee co-chairman.

Tom Abello, senior policy adviser with the Maine chapter of The Nature Conservancy, cautioned that using 2012 figures to calculate future funding for home heating programs could lead to larger transfers because timber harvesting has increased substantially since then.

Roger Merchant, a licensed forester for more than 40 years in Maine, said the proposal reminds him of the “We’re broke – cut the woodlot” mentality he has seen in Maine.

“This scenario is a potential blueprint for forest mismanagement and depletion, weakening of timber value and unsustainable forestry,” Merchant said.

Kevin Miller can be reached at 791-6312 or at:

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