Article and photos by Ramona du Houx
Governor Paul LePage has reluctantly agreed to release $2.2 million for Land for Maine’s Future projects, but is still refusing to sell new voter approved bonds for the land conservation program.
LePage’s decision to free up the money will allow several projects that have been stalled for to move forward.
For months, LePage has been holding $11.5 million for the program hostage as he pushes lawmakers to divert revenues from timber harvesting on state-owned lands into a new program, apparently, to help low-income Mainers heat their homes.
“This is a first step, but we're right back where we were a month ago when we first learned the governor was trying to freeze LMF work entirely,” said Senate Democratic Leader Justin Alfond. “The governor is still holding $11.5 million of voter-approved bonds hostage in his outrageous attempt to extort concessions from the Legislature.”
The millions of dollars of bond funding is slated to support conservation projects in dozens of communities around the state. These projects protect recreational wildlife areas, working waterfronts and family farms.
LePage also had frozen $2.2 million left over from bond sales approved during the Baldacci administration, considered an outrageous deed of not acting in accordance to the wishes of the voters of Maine.
It is these $2.2 million worth of bonds that will go toward projects that already have been endorsed by the board and have been waiting for the release of the funds— for years. All projects must match the Land for Maine’s Future dollars with money from other sources, and the taxpayer money carries an additional requirement that the land must remain open to the public for recreation.
The Crooked River Forest project in Otisfield/Harrison and the Eagle Bluff project in Clifton will receive roughly $400,000 of the $1.6 million. A third project, which would protect a commercial fishing wharf in St. George, will receive $250,000. Another $199,600 is available for farmland preservation.
The remaining funds will not cover all eligible projects already lined up.
In addition lawmakers will have to reauthorize some bonds that expire because of LePage’s delaying tactics next month. When the Legislature returns in January, lawmakers will consider a bill to reauthorize $6.5 million in unsold bonds that will expire in November.
LePage has shown few signs that he will reverse course on selling new bonds without lawmakers agreeing to his hostage terms to funnel timber revenues into a home heating assistance program. Attorney General Janet Mills said courts would be skeptical of his plan because of the tight restrictions on how logging money can be spent.
According to the polling firms – one Republican and the other Democratic — 74 percent of respondents said LePage should release voter-approved bond funds.