AUGUSTA — As expected, Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a bill Tuesday aimed at forcing him to sell $11.4 million in bonds for the Land for Maine’s Future program that he has been using as political leverage with the Legislature.

But in a twist, LePage sent the one-page bill back to lawmakers via a four-page veto letter that was as long as his veto of the state’s $6.7 billion budget.

LePage had made clear that he would veto the bill, L.D. 1378. It was introduced after his administration revealed it was withholding the issuance of bonds for the Land for Maine’s Future program, which helps conserve forests, farmlands and working waterfronts. Several dozen land conservation projects awaiting funding are now in limbo as LePage unsuccessfully attempted to pressure lawmakers to allocate state timber revenues to a home heating assistance program.

In his lengthy veto letter on Tuesday, the governor laid out a host of constitutional concerns about the bill.

“What L.D. 1378 proposes is more than simply forcing the executive to issue a handful of currently authorized but unissued conservation bonds,” LePage wrote. “Rather, this bill is a complete overhaul of Maine’s entire bonding process that would apply to ‘all general obligation bonds’ – past and future. This is a major departure from our current bonding process that must be carefully considered, not simply passed in a fit of pique at the executive.”

LePage wrote that the bill “attempts to redefine” the governor’s authority to sell general obligation bonds and “the executive would be stripped of all discretion related to issuance of these bonds. He portrayed the Legislature as attempting to infringe on the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches, pointing out that the language of the bond bills approved by voters specifies that the state treasurer will issue bonds “under the direction of the governor.”

The administration suggested that passage of the bill would “create overall uncertainty in our finely crafted bonding process” and drive up the borrowing costs borne by taxpayers.

Critics of LePage’s tactics have, in turn, suggested that the governor’s repeated use of bonds as political leverage could create uncertainties that undermine Maine’s reputation on the bond markets.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, has said the Legislature would be setting “a terrible precedent” by sending a message that any future governor – whether Democrat or Republican – could use bonds already approved by voters to attempt to negotiate unrelated policy issues. Land conservation groups and sportsmen have also criticized the LePage administration for potentially undermining the viability of conservation projects negotiated over years with willing landowners.

The program has helped conserve more than 500,000 acres of forests, farmland and working waterfronts across the state since 1987 through a combination of land sales and conservation easements. The program is financed with bonds approved by voters and requires that all lands provide access to the public for recreational activities such as hiking, hunting or fishing.

It is unclear whether Legislature will override the governor’s veto. The bill passed the House with barely the two-thirds margin needed to override a gubernatorial veto, meaning supporters will need to preserve those votes.

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