Gov. Paul LePage has frozen $2 million in bond money that Land for Maine’s Future already has on hand – the latest effort by his administration to assert control over the program that distributes voter-approved bond funds to conservation projects.
About 30 applicants who are seeking funds to move their projects forward received a letter this month from Sarah Demers, director of Land for Maine’s Future, telling them that money targeted for legal costs and other expenses is now unavailable.
“This letter is to inform you that at this time, LMF funds are not available for acquisitions and legal review of due diligence items necessary to complete your project,” the letter reads. “We ask that you continue to keep … (LMF) informed of your plans to either continue with the project or to forgo LMF funds.”
Founded in 1987, Land for Maine’s Future is a competitive grant program for conservation projects. To date, more than 570,000 acres across the state have been protected, the majority of which have been working forests, farmlands and commercial waterfront property.
The program operates through the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, but money for the projects comes from bonds that must be approved by voters and then released by the governor. It is the state’s primary funding stream for land conservation, and is nearly always supplemented by funds from other sources, including the federal government, municipalities, private corporations, land trusts and individual donors.
PROJECTS STALLED, LMF FRUSTRATED
Demers said Monday that although she received no written directive from the governor’s office to withhold funds, the request did come from LePage through her boss, Walter Whitcomb, commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
However, Jonathan LaBonte, director of the LePage administration’s Office of Policy and Management, which is currently investigating LMF’s operation, said the directive is not new.
“The governor has said consistently that there would not be a drawdown of bond funds for projects,” he said.
LePage already has withheld $6.5 million in bonds approved by voters in 2010 and another $5 million approved in 2012. The 2010 bonds have effectively expired and must be reauthorized by the Legislature if they are to be used.
The governor has acknowledged that he has held back bonds to gain political leverage for his plan to increase timber harvesting on state-owned lands to help pay for residential energy-efficiency programs for low-income Mainers.
The difference between those actions and his freezing of the $2 million or so in current cash on hand is that the latter already has been bonded and is sitting in an account available to the LMF program.
LMF board member Neil Piper said he was never under the impression that the governor was going to freeze the existing funds, and that he has become increasingly frustrated with LePage’s interference.
“We’re in a tough bind as public (board) members trying to do what’s best for the public’s interest,” he said.
Among the 30 projects that have been approved but still await funding are conservation of 215 acres around Knight Pond and Blueberry Hill in Cumberland and North Yarmouth, and the 164-acre Howard Hill project across from the State House in Augusta.
Theresa Kerchner, executive director of the Kennebec Land Trust that is working on the Howard Hill conservation, has said the project is in limbo because of the governor’s actions, and the trust has been debating whether to borrow money to keep the project on track.
INVESTIGATIVE REPORT DUE NOV. 1
Depending on how long the current freeze lasts, other projects also could be at risk.
Piper said it’s unfortunate that worthy projects are being held up for political reasons.
The LMF board is made up of six public representatives – all appointed by the governor – and the commissioners of the departments of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife; Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry; and Marine Resources.
At a meeting in July, four board members – including the three from LePage’s Cabinet – were absent and the board had no quorum to vote on agenda items.
The next board meeting is scheduled for Tuesday. Demers expects a quorum to be present, but Piper said the board may decide against holding future meetings until the governor “makes clear what his intentions are.”
The latest hold on funding comes as the LePage administration prepares an investigative report on the Land for Maine’s Future program. The due date for providing the report to lawmakers is Nov. 1.
Board members will hear an update on that effort Tuesday from LaBonte, who has led the review of LMF’s operation over the past few months.
Demers provided a copy of the 50-page draft report from the governor’s office Monday, but said it is not complete. Although the draft includes information about how Land for Maine’s Future was formed, how it operates and how it’s funded, it doesn’t outline any issues raised or provide recommendations for improvements, which the administration has said was the point of the review.
Piper said what he’s seen is little more than “boilerplate, cut-and-paste material.”
“I’m not hopeful at this point that there is going to be anything useful,” he said.
LaBonte didn’t dispute Piper’s contention on the material that has been provided so far.
“That was the stuff that was easy to punch out,” he said. “We wanted to get that in the board’s hands.”