AUGUSTA — A task force has recommended against using revenues from logging on state-owned lands to help low-income Mainers heat their homes, dealing another blow to a proposal that the LePage administration has tied to land conservation funding.

The commission’s recommendation Tuesday, while non-binding, makes it less likely that the Legislature will consent to Gov. Paul LePage’s plan to increase timber harvesting on Maine’s public lands to pay for a new home heating program.

In a letter accompanying their report, commission members said proposals to divert money for home-heating programs or to support state parks “are not likely to withstand a potential constitutional challenge and therefore should no longer be pursued as viable options.”

The commission’s stance was based, in large part, on guidance received from Attorney General Janet Mills regarding constitutional limitations on the use of Maine’s public reserved lands, which are held “in trust” by the Legislature for residents.

Instead, the Commission to Study the Public Reserved Lands Management Fund offered a series of recommendations on using surplus timber revenues – now estimated at $7 million to $8 million – to improve recreational opportunities on Maine’s public lands while strengthening legislative oversight of expenditures.

“I agree that heating assistance for low-income residents is absolutely a laudable goal, but I believe there are other ways to do that instead of using this fund,” said Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, co-chair of the commission as well as the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee. “I believe that if the Legislature is serious about doing that then we will find other ways to do it.”

LePage’s home heating proposal didn’t come up Tuesday when commission members tweaked the recommendations during their final, 2½-hour meeting, even though the debate over that plan led to the commission’s creation earlier this year. But the group’s reluctance to endorse the proposal could have political ramifications.

The governor has said he will not issue the more than $11 million in bonds that voters have approved for the Lands for Maine’s Future program unless lawmakers agreed to divert up to $5 million in timber revenues to help elderly and low-income Mainers convert to more affordable home heating systems. The Legislature is expected to vote early next year on whether to reauthorize those now-expired bonds.

PANEL DECLINES ‘SENSIBLE SOLUTION’

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett would not speculate on what the governor will do about the LMF bonds before the Legislature’s vote. But Bennett said there are currently $8 million in surplus funds sitting in the Public Reserved Lands Management Fund that could go toward more pressing needs.

“By refusing a sensible solution, today’s conclusion of the commission hurts low-income Mainers who would have benefited from millions of dollars to lower heating bills,” Bennett said in a written statement. “Instead, that money will only sit in an account.”

LePage’s proposal involving timber revenue would be in addition to heating assistance and energy efficiency programs already offered by the state and federal governments.

For instance, Maine is expected to receive at least $35 million in federal funds this fiscal year through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. The LePage administration received federal approval to use $3.8 million in LIHEAP funds to weatherize homes or convert them to more efficient heating systems. The Efficiency Maine program also helps homeowners weatherize their homes or make efficiency upgrades.

However, the LePage administration has seen Maine’s public lands as a potential source of additional funds.

LIMITS ON USE OF PUBLIC LANDS

Maine has roughly 600,000 acres of “public reserved lands,” which are distinct from state parks but include such popular attractions as the Cutler Bold Coast and Western Maine’s Bigelow Preserve.

The state manages 418,000 acres of the public lands for timber as well as for outdoor recreation and wildlife habitat. Logging revenues are funneled back into the public reserved lands fund to pay the salaries of Bureau of Parks and Lands staff – including foresters – and to manage the land for recreation and wildlife.

The LePage administration has argued that Maine should harvest more timber on public lots, both to increase the overall health of the forest and to provide revenues for his heating assistance program. But the Legislature has rejected those proposals twice. And Mills’ guidance sealed the issue with most commission members.

Writing to the commission in October, Mills said it is impossible to reach “firm conclusions” about the constitutionality of LePage’s plan, but that the Maine Supreme Judicial Court and other attorneys general have made clear there are limitations on the use of the public lots.

“While the purchase of heating equipment for low-income rural families is a laudable goal, as is public assistance for food, shelter and health care, it is not easy to draw a connection between these types of uses and the preservation of the public reserved lands,” Mills wrote. “Under the very limited language of the Opinion of the justices, this proposed use would likely meet great skepticism from the court.”

OTHER WAYS TO ALLOCATE FUNDS

But Bennett, LePage’s spokeswoman, countered Tuesday that Mills “did not say and cannot say” that the use of public reserved lands funds for heating assistance is conclusively unconstitutional.

“If someone wants to stand on principle rather than help Mainers who are struggling to stay warm during the winter, let them challenge this in court,” Bennett said.

Sen. Tom Saviello, a Wilton Republican who co-chaired the commission with Hickman, said he supports putting more money into home heating programs, but that Mills made strong constitutional arguments against such a diversion from public lands.

“There are ways we allocate that money working with the Legislature,” Saviello said.

The commission’s recommendations include:

• Requiring a minimum cash balance of $2.5 million in the public lands fund at the start of each fiscal year to cover unexpected costs.

• Conducting a detailed forest inventory of Maine’s public lots every five years.

• Continuing to allow Bureau of Parks and Lands staff to develop annual recommendations on the harvest level, which will be reviewed by the Legislature.

• Exploring ways to increase public access to state-owned lands, including for those with disabilities.

While the commission voted unanimously to endorse the report – with Maine Forest Service Director Doug Denico abstaining – debate over the issue is likely not over. The report will now go to the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, which will hold a public hearing on the issue.