Gov. Paul LePage is trying to defend a Republican lawmaker whom he convinced to oppose a bill that would have released voter-approved bonds for dozens of conservation projects, including one that has support in the lawmaker’s hometown.
Rep. Mike Timmons, R-Cumberland, was one of six Republican lawmakers who initially supported the bill but later changed their votes to sustain the governor’s veto after intense pressure by LePage officials and House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette. The Legislature nearly overrode the veto, but the override fell five votes short in the House.
The proposal was designed to limit LePage’s power to withhold bonds for bargaining purposes and release funding that voters authorized in 2010 for approved land conservation projects through the Land for Maine’s Future program.
Timmons has since come under fire from Cumberland officials because he originally told them that he would support the bill and because the town has a financial stake in a $1.13 million conservation deal called the Knight’s Pond/Blueberry Hill project. The project is one of over 30 projects that are languishing because LePage refused to authorize $11 million in voter-approved conservation bonds unless the Legislature agrees to harvest more timber on public lands.
The Legislature rejected the governor’s proposal to increase logging. The bonds are now set to expire in November, although the Legislature will have a chance to reauthorize them for up to five more years when it reconvenes in January.
In a handwritten note to Cumberland Town Manager Bill Shane dated July 29, LePage said that he won’t sell the bonds – even if the Legislature extends them – unless the Legislature goes along with the increased logging. The governor, in the handwritten note to Shane and a separate Aug. 13 letter to the Cumberland Town Council, also attempted to defend Timmons by describing the bill that would have released the bonds as “politically motivated” legislation that would have usurped the governor’s executive authority.
“Now the bonds will expire in November, reauthorized next year and unfortunately won’t be sold for a number of years … unless of course the Legislature looks at the big picture,” he wrote to Shane.
The “big picture,” is a reference to LePage’s controversial timber harvesting plan, which would increase logging on public lands and use some of the revenue to help Mainers convert their older home furnaces to more efficient heating systems. The governor described the plan has helping “the poor and underprivileged” in his note to Shane while describing the Land for Maine’s Future to the council as “rewarding rich organizations with wealthy donors and big corporate benefactors.”
In the Aug. 13 letter to the council, the governor said that Shane and the council have been “excoriating” Timmons, a reference to a public meeting during which the town manager and members of the Town Council reportedly criticized the Republican for going back on his word.
“Your anger is misdirected,” LePage wrote, before targeting state Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, for rewarding “her wealthy friends at the expense of poor Mainers.”
“She and her liberal allies are more interested in finding ways to take away authority from me,” he wrote.
In fact, the proposal to force LePage to release the conservation funds was sponsored by Republican state Sen. Roger Katz, of Augusta. It was backed by the Republican-controlled Senate, which also voted to override the governor’s veto.
Advocates for The Land for Maine’s Future program have fiercely rejected the governor’s characterization of the program as benefiting the wealthy. The LMF program has helped conserve more than 500,000 acres throughout the state since 1987, through land sales or conservation easements. The majority of those lands were working forest, farmland or commercial waterfront.
Nonetheless, LePage’s correspondence underscore the political — and potentially electoral — consequences facing Timmons and several of the Republicans who flipped their votes on the bond bill. The Land for Maine’s Future program is fiercely supported by environmental groups and hunting and fishing advocates, some of which are active in influencing legislative elections. Timmons narrowly won his district by 16 votes in 2014. His opponent in 2014, Democrat Dale Denno has already publicly criticized Timmons for his vote.
The Republican first felt the repercussions of his pro-LePage vote during a July 27 Town Council meeting. According to a video of the meeting, Councilor Mike Edes told Timmons that the council “expected the support” after he originally told them he would vote for the bill, thus ensuring that Knight’s Pond and a separate project, Wormell Farm, could move forward.
“You knew it was going to kill our trust, it was going to kill the money for Knight’s Pond, it was going to kill (funding) for Wormell’s,” Edes said. “The people from the town of Cumberland want these projects. To think that my representative, and the person representing Cumberland, deep-sixed this thing, submarined it … we needed your vote.”
Shane later told Timmons that he didn’t think the lawmaker represented the interests of Cumberland, two-thirds of which voted to approve the bonds in 2010 and in 2012.
Shane declined Tuesday to comment further on the matter or the governor’s subsequent correspondence. However, his and town officials’ frustration is grounded in the town’s financial stake in the projects.
In February the Cumberland Town Council approved tapping $300,000 from its Open Space Acquisition reserves to share the cost of acquiring the 215-acre Knight’s Pond parcel. The town of North Yarmouth, which owns a slice of the project, voted to spend $100,000. Additionally, the acquisition deal expires in November, the same time that some of the state funding could expire.
During the July 27 council meeting, Timmons attempted to explain his vote by telling town officials that the bill had legal concerns. Those issues, sharply disputed by advocates of the bill, were also echoed in LePage’s letter and note to town officials. Timmons later told the council that he hoped to invite LePage to a council meeting to explain the finer details.
On July 29, council Chairman Peter Bingham wrote Timmons to say that the council believed that the governor’s visit wasn’t warranted.
“We feel that the governor has a busy enough schedule and this issue does not need to be added to his plate,” Bingham wrote.
This article was updated at 9:45 a.m. on August 26, 2015 to correct the margin by which Mike Timmons was elected in 2014.