AUGUSTA — The Legislature unanimously approved a bill Thursday that revives $6.5 million in bonds for the Land for Maine’s Future program and sent the measure to Gov. Paul LePage’s desk.
The Senate voted 34-0 to approve reauthorizing the bonds for five years, two days after the House voted 145-0 for final passage of the bill. The unanimous votes, as well as the effort by legislative leaders of both parties to revive the expired bonds, suggest lawmakers would have little problem overriding a veto from LePage.
The LePage administration had sought a six-month reauthorization of the bonds rather than the five years allowed under the Maine Constitution. A frequent critic of the land conservation program whose political maneuvering led to the bonds’ expiration, LePage acknowledged Thursday that he lacked the votes to sustain a veto but indicated he would allow the bill to become law without his signature.
“I’m not going to sign it, absolutely not,” LePage said on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network’s “Maine Calling” program. “It will go into law without signature.”
Program supporters cheered the movement on bonds after months of uncertainty.
“Why it’s important to me is it ensures this land will be available now and into the future for our children, our grandchildren and future Mainers,” said Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton. “It will be allowed for their use – whether it be hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, ATVing – it will be available to them.”
Maine voters approved the $6.5 million in bonds for the Land for Maine’s Future program in November 2010. But the bonds expired last year after LePage sought to use them as leverage with lawmakers to support his proposal to divert revenues from timber harvesting on state-owned lands to help pay for a home heating assistance program.
LePage’s use of the bonds as a political bargaining chip left several dozen land conservation projects already approved by the LMF board in limbo as they awaited funding. It also angered lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle, given the program’s popularity among Maine voters.
Sen. Cathy Breen, a Falmouth Democrat who has four projects in her district affected by the political stalemate, said Thursday that the Maine people “have spoken loudly, clearly, consistently with one voice to say that these bonds must be issued.”
LePage said in a letter to state Treasurer Terry Hayes last month that he planned to sell $5 million in Land for Maine’s Future bonds, which are still valid, and that he would also sell the $6.5 million in bonds if the Legislature reauthorized them. However, his administration had pushed for a six-month reauthorization rather than the five-year reauthorization contained in the bill, L.D. 1454, now headed to his desk.
Established in 1987, the Land for Maine’s Future program 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 must provide access to the public for recreational activities such as hiking, hunting or fishing.
The program has enjoyed strong support over the years both at the ballot box and in public polling. The program has helped preserve well-known Maine places such as Moosehead Lake’s Mount Kineo and the Bold Coast trail in Cutler, but has also been used to keep large swaths of Maine land as working forests with guaranteed public access for recreation.
But LePage said Thursday that he is “not a fan” of the program and continued to link the issue to his push for lower taxes.
“The problem with Land for Maine’s Future is people take all of this property off of the tax rolls and then they come to the state and ask the state to buy the land and pay for it,” LePage said on the MPBN program. “And then they ask the state for more revenue sharing because they don’t have enough money and they don’t want to raise their taxes. You can’t have it both ways, and you can’t have prosperity if you keep taxing people beyond their means.”