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  • LePage releases a fraction of Land for Maine’s Future funds but still holds $11.5 million hostage

    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.

     

     

  • Maine House backs bill to require release of voter-approved bonds held hostage by LePage

     

    By Ramona du Houx

    The House on June 11, 2015 gave its initial approval to a bill that requires governors to issue voter-approved bonds, a measure prompted by Gov. Paul LePage’s holding hostage of Land for Maine’s Future bonds. The vote on LD 1378  was 102-48.

    “This governor has not done anything for sportsmen and sportswomen. He needs to respect the will of the voters and allow $20 million in voter-approved investment to flow across our state,” said House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan. “The governor is jeopardizing more than 30 projects. He is hurting landowners and Mainers who make their livelihoods in the outdoor economy, especially in rural Maine. I have offered him an olive branch. I am willing to meet him in the middle. I am willing to split my proposed $20 million LMF bond and have $10 million go toward heating assistance to low-income Mainers. I am still waiting to hear from him.”

    Maine voters have supported LMF bonds six times. The program has broad support from Mainers – rural and urban and from the northern, southern, western and eastern parts of the state.

    “I firmly believe Maine voters have spoken at the ballot. No one –  not even the governor – should be able to veto their decisions,” said Rep. Roland “Danny” Martin, D-Sinclair, House chair of the State and Local Government Committee, a former Inland Fisheries and Wildlife commissioner and a member of the Land for Maine’s Future board for eight years during the Baldacci administration. “Land for Maine’s Future matters for each of our state’s 16 counties, but it especially matters for rural Maine. LMF increases access to recreational pursuits like hunting, fishing, hiking, snowmobiling and camping. It’s an important economic driver for Mainers who make their livelihoods in the recreation economy and in related fields like hospitality.”

    Since it was created in 1987, LMF has protected 560,000 acres of conservation and recreation lands, 52 water access sites, 37 farms of more than 8,900 total acres and 20 commercial working waterfront properties. Its projects include Mount Kineo in Moosehead Lake, Nicatous and West Lakes in Hancock County and projects in the Kathadin Forest and along the Machias River.

    “It’s tempting for me to talk about the historic conservation opportunities before us now, or if you've ever pulled up to a favorite cover you've hunted since you were a kid only to find a gate and a Massachusetts plate, my concerns about working forest becoming kingdom lots,” said Rep. Martin Grohman, D-Biddeford. “But this is really about good governance. The bonding process provides a lot of opportunity for political input – by the Legislature, the executive and the voters – but now the voters have spoken, and it is time to release the bonds

    Winthrop’s Kennebec Land Trust’s proposed project on Howard Hill is among those now at risk. It

    would transfer to the city of Augusta 164 acres of privately owned  property running from Capitol Street in Augusta to the Hallowell city line, noted Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, the House chair of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee. In his floor speech, he quoted Theresa Kerchner, the land trust’s executive director, about the delay in receiving $338,000 in LMF funding.

    “‘Our business plan for the project is based on that award, so we’re very disappointed that we’re in the position we’re in, in terms of the LMF program,’” Hickman quoted. “’So we have to wait it out.’ Let’s cast a vote to help end that wait.”

    LD 1378 would prevent any governor from disregarding the will of voters when it comes to bonds. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, allows for five exceptions: when the debt service would be greater than the amount budgeted; when the issuance hurts the state’s credit rating; when the state treasurer determines a delay will result in a better interest rate; if project is no longer going forward; and when alternative funding is available.

    The bill faces further action in the Senate and House.