Gov. Paul LePage said Monday that he will sell $5 million in bonds for the Land for Maine’s Future program, freeing up funds for conservation projects caught in a months-long political dispute between the administration and lawmakers.
In letters to the state treasurer and legislative leaders, LePage wrote that he will issue about $5 million in bonds in June and sell an additional $6.5 million if lawmakers reauthorize the expired bonds early next year. But LePage strongly criticized lawmakers for rejecting his proposal to divert timber harvesting revenues to a home heating assistance program, and reiterated his hotly disputed statements that the popular Land for Maine’s Future program primarily benefits the wealthy.
The tone of LePage’s letter to House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, suggests that the debate is far from over, and that tensions remain high between the governor and some lawmakers.
“My position all along has been that if rich Mainers, wealthy landowners and well-funded conservation organizations are going to benefit from selling their often over-valued properties to the taxpayer-funded LMF program, then senior citizens and other low-income Mainers should get a commensurate benefit,” LePage wrote in the letter. “Politicians pay lip service about helping the poor, but this whole issue demonstrates yet again that when forced to choose, legislators will give in to environmental special interests to the detriment of Maine’s poor every time.”
LePage has been sitting on $11.5 million in bonds, trying to use them as political leverage with lawmakers as he pushed to increase timber harvesting on state-owned lands to pay for a program to help low-income and elderly Mainers convert to alternate heating systems. But a bipartisan task force balked at that proposal this month, saying such a diversion is “not likely to withstand a constitutional challenge.” And the administration’s critics have accused LePage of holding hostage a popular program that helps guarantee public access to land for all Mainers, regardless of income level.
More than 30 conservation projects have been in limbo since the spring, forcing some to seek extensions with sellers or find alternative funding sources to close on deals. In response, members of the board that reviews and selects projects for funding have strongly criticized the delays and uncertainties created by the governor’s position.
Tim Glidden, executive director of Maine Coast Heritage Trust, said it is “very, very good news,” and that he expects the Land for Maine’s Future board’s review process of applications to move forward.
Tom Abello with the Maine chapter of The Nature Conservancy added: “Maine people and communities all over the state have made it clear over the past few years how important Land for Maine’s Future is to keeping working forests and farms healthy, and ensuring public access to our lands and waters for fishing, hunting and outdoor recreation which are so critical for rural economies.”
Reaction from lawmakers was largely positive, although Democratic leaders remained cautious and even leery of the governor’s intentions.
Thibodeau said he is pleased that the governor will release the voter-approved bonds.
“I look forward to his cooperation as we reauthorize the expired LMF bonds so they can go out to the market as soon as possible,” Thibodeau said in a statement. “Senate Republicans have repeatedly supported efforts to provide heating assistance to low-income Mainers, and we will continue to work collaboratively to achieve that goal.”
Eves, meanwhile, told LePage to “finish the job” and called it “unconscionable, but not surprising, that the governor continues to stand in the way of voter-approved funds” for projects.
“The fact that the governor’s inaction resulted in the expiration of $6.47 million dollars in funds is another failure of leadership,” Eves said in a statement. “Projects must be able to move forward unimpeded in their mission to ensure the preservation of Maine’s unique and vital natural resources.”
But Republican Assistant Minority Leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, applauded LePage “for his actions on the LMF bonds and for bringing integrity and accountability to the bonding process here in Maine.”
Started in 1987, Land for Maine’s Future has helped conserve more than 500,000 acres of working forests, farmland and commercial working waterfronts through land sales or conservation easements. Project applicants must match every dollar from the state with private or federal money, and all conservation land projects also must provide access to the public for recreational activities such as hiking, hunting or fishing.
The program has enjoyed broad public support at the ballot box, with bond measures typically passing with more than 60 percent support. But the program has been caught up in State House politics since the spring, when LePage began using the bonds as leverage to push his timber harvesting plans.
In October, LePage released $2.2 million in “cash on hand” to allow some of the more than 30 projects to proceed. A spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, John Bott, said Monday that projects are moving through the pipeline but that none has received funding yet. The first likely to receive funding is the Central Maine Sportsman’s Access project in Somerset County.
In his letter to Eves and Thibodeau, LePage also accused the Legislature of being “willing to ignore the destruction of the Northern forest” by not authorizing heavier logging on state-owned lands to reduce the spread of the spruce budworm. While he pledged to “respect the will of the people” regarding bonds, he said the public’s expectations also include “managing our state’s debate and rooting out greedy politicians.”
LePage has repeatedly singled out one project in the pipeline – a proposal to conserve 164 acres of forested hills directly behind the State House – as evidence of how Land for Maine’s Future benefits the wealthy.
During a “town hall” meeting in Portland last week, LePage said two individuals stand to make $1.2 million from the Howard Hill parcel – though he never named it – even though a commercial appraiser told him the land is only worth about $1,000 an acre as forestland. Land for Maine’s Future appraisals are often based on “the highest and best use” of land, so a tract’s potential interest to developers can drive up the appraised value of some farmland or forests.
“I am not going to sign off on a bill that is going to give 164 acres to a town (Augusta) and two people are going to make a half-million dollars each,” LePage said. “I think that is gouging the taxpayers of the state of Maine and I won’t do it because it is corrupt.”
Such statements raise questions about whether LePage will try to influence the work of the Land for Maine’s Future staff or board.
“The board itself, as well as elected officials, will not sit back and allow the governor to cherry pick projects,” said Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, the Democratic majority leader. McCabe also said he “takes a great deal of offense” to the governor suggesting that the program primarily benefits the wealthy, noting he operates a park preserved with Land for Maine’s Future funds that he said provides public access to Mainers of all income levels.
Glidden, whose Maine Coast Heritage Trust has been a major participant in Land for Maine’s Future projects, said comments from people throughout the state show most people reject that view.
“I think the people of Maine understand that the beauty of this state and its natural resources are vital to their livelihood and the quality of their lives and of their children’s lives,” said Glidden, a former director of the program. “And that is not tied to any socio-economic status.”