Members of the Land for Maine’s Future board will continue Tuesday to push the LePage administration to release funding for the popular conservation program mired in a months-long policy dispute between the governor and lawmakers.
Board members publicly rebuked Gov. Paul LePage in September over his refusal to release money already budgeted to the program or issue voter-approved bonds to complete several dozen land conservation deals. While members had discussed asking the attorney general whether the governor could legally withhold certain funds, the board did not have enough members to submit a formal request because all three LePage administration representatives were absent.
On Tuesday, the board will once again convene in Augusta and is expected to have a quorum. And while several members said they are unsure what actions, if any, will be taken, they said they expect a lively meeting as the issue continues month after month without resolution.
Member Ben Emory said “the anger is growing,” fueled by feedback from a broad array of people who don’t want the board to back down.
“I think the sense of the public members is we want to look for ways to push the governor, but we don’t want to make a ruckus,” Emory said. “The main thing we are trying to do now is keep this in front of the public’s eye in order to encourage the Legislature to take action.”
Also Tuesday, the board is expected to discuss a LePage administration review of the LMF program that identifies several “emerging issues” – such as the need to improve public awareness of lands protected through Land for Maine’s Future – but does not identify any major problems with the nearly 30-year-old program.
“What is clearly lacking in the report is the effect the governor’s actions have had on this program . . . and the missed opportunities,” said board chairman Bill Vail.
Roughly 30 conservation deals have been in limbo since LePage made clear last spring that he would use $11.4 million in voter-approved bonds as a bargaining chip with lawmakers. The governor wants to increase timber harvesting on state-owned lands in order to fund a program to help senior citizens and low-income Mainers heat their homes.
At the same time the board is meeting, a task force will meet across the Kennebec River to continue examining how the state manages roughly 400,000 acres of public reserved lands at the center of LePage’s request. LePage reaffirmed his stance at least twice last week during an Auburn town hall meeting and in a radio interview.
“All they’ve got to do is help the poor and I will be more than happy to do it tomorrow morning,” LePage said last week when asked about releasing the funds on the George Hale-Ric Tyler Show on WVOM.
But LePage’s decision to use Land for Maine’s Future bonds as political leverage – his second such move in two years – has infuriated some legislators, who have introduced a myriad of bills to reduce the governor’s involvement in the program.
The situation has also forced land trusts to seek extensions with landowners, borrow money or take other steps as they await word on whether they will receive funds already approved by the board.
Some of the 30 pending projects are once again on the board’s agenda, both to accept the recommended appraisals and to allocate funds to the proposals when money is available. The question Monday was whether there will be enough support to move forward with the projects – even in the absence of revenues from bonds – assuming that LePage’s commissioners vote “no.”
Started in 1987, the Land for Maine’s Future program has helped conserve more than 500,000 acres throughout the state – including well-known spots such as Moosehead Lake’s Mount Kineo and Cutler’s Bold Coast – through land sales or conservation easements. The majority of the protected areas are working forests, farmland or commercial working waterfronts.
The program is financed through bonds approved by voters and requires that all lands provide access to the public for recreational activities such as hiking, hunting or fishing. All project recipients must match Land for Maine’s Future dollars with an equal or greater amount of money from private donations or other sources, including federal funds.
When asked about Tuesday’s meeting, board chairman Vail replied “I truthfully don’t know what to expect” but said he remains optimistic that LePage will release some of the funds “in the near future.” But Vail also acknowledged the public members of the board are frustrated by their inability to move forward with projects.
“We have chosen to continue to serve and do what we agreed to do” on the board, said Vail, a LePage appointee. “We’re not going to walk off from the program and we will continue to support the program. I just hope cooler heads will prevail.”
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at: