The financial future of a land conservation program popular with Mainers will be on the agenda this week as lawmakers begin discussing whether to seek voter approval for a bond package at a time when state borrowing remains a touchy issue.
In July 2011, a board distributed the final $9.25 million available for conservation and recreational projects through Land for Maine’s Future, a program that has worked with willing landowners to preserve more than 530,000 acres since 1987.
Lawmakers on the Legislature’s budget-writing committee will discuss two bond proposals on Wednesday that would replenish Land for Maine’s Future if voters continued their past support for the program at the polls.
But the two measures are among 10 bills seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in voter-approved bonds for transportation projects, research and development, education and energy efficiency.
And although support for a modest bond package among majority Republicans appears to have grown since last year, when no new borrowing proposals were sent to voters, it is unclear how land conservation will fare when competing against bonds proposals for roads, bridges and other critical infrastructure needs.
“I think there is clearly a sense in the caucuses that they would like to see a bond package, and at the top of that list would be a bond package for infrastructure,” said Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, a member of the budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee. “It might be tough to get a bipartisan consensus on LMF versus an infrastructure bond.”
Committee co-chairman Rep. Patrick Flood agreed, adding that he believes Land for Maine’s Future bonds likely fall in the “third tier” of urgency after infrastructure needs, education and research and development. But how the Legislature proceeds with bonds also will depend on party leadership and whether any proposal could muster the two-thirds vote needed to pass both the House and Senate.
Land for Maine’s Future bonds “I would say are on the bubble, more so than some of the others,” said Flood, R-Winthrop.
Republican Gov. Paul LePage, meanwhile, told Capitol News Service’s Mal Leary that any discussion on additional borrowing should wait until after the current budget is brought into balance. LePage also has been less supportive — at least in his public comments — of using public funds for land conservation.
The debate over bonds and Land for Maine’s Future funding also comes a time of administrative change in the program, or at least in the department that houses it.
Lawmakers recently approved LePage’s plan to dismantle the State Planning Office and redistribute the office’s responsibilities to other agencies. Beginning sometime next month, Land for Maine’s Future will be housed in the Maine Department of Conservation.
Pete Rogers, acting director of the State Planning Office, said the move should provide the program’s three staffers with easier access to resources and know-how within the Department of Conservation.
Other than that, Rogers said he does not anticipate many changes in the program. Land for Maine’s Future staff continue to work with landowners to implement past awards — often a multiyear process — as well as administer a much smaller pool of remaining funds for working waterfront protection and farmland preservation.
“LMF basically will have the same mission as they have had all along but they will fall under the Department of Conservation,” Rogers said.
Land for Maine’s Future was designed to help the state protect lands deemed as having “exceptional recreational or ecological value,” economically important commercial forests, farms threatened with development and working waterfront areas important to the fishing industry.
All program grants must be matched dollar for dollar with other funds secured by the project applicants. And in the case of recreational and conservation land, all projects must continue to allow public access.
Land for Maine’s Future funds have been used for dozens of projects, including Mount Kineo on Moosehead Lake, Cutler’s Bold Coast and the 329,000-acre West Branch of the Penobscot River project. The program also has acquired land or conservation easements on 1,000 miles of shorefront and 8,000 acres of farmland.
The program consistently has garnered strong support from voters, with many of the bond proposals receiving more than 60 percent support at the polls. The $9.75 million bond proposal was endorsed by 57 percent of voters in November 2010.
A recent economic analysis by The Trust for Public Land — a national conservation organization that has worked on several projects in Maine involving Land for Maine’s Future — estimated that the return on investment for the program was $11 for every $1 spent. The analysis calculated the economic value of goods and services from the lands protected through the program, including in the forest products industry and from nature-based tourism.
“It is the highest return on investment we calculated across the country,” said Jessica Sargent, the economist at The Trust for Public Land that conducted the analysis. Sargent said Land for Maine’s Future also has enabled Maine to receive substantial matching funds from private groups and federal agencies.
Even so, the two bills proposing $20 million and $36 million in bonds for Land for Maine’s Future are competing against bond proposals to patch deteriorating highways, repair bridges and help communities pay for wastewater and drinking water treatment plants. That discussion will occur against the backdrop of concerns about additional borrowing despite Maine’s high credit rating and comparatively low debt load.
Additionally, any talk about whether to send a bond package to voters could be overshadowed in the coming weeks by debate over filling another shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services and a renewal of debate over welfare spending.
“I would say it is fluid at this point,” Fredette, the Newport Republican, said about the likelihood of a bond package.
Conservation and sportsmen’s groups will be watching the debate closely.
David Trahan, who was a Republican senator before resigning in December to become executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, sponsored one of the LMF bond bills when he was still a lawmaker.
Trahan helped usher through changes to LMF policies that place more emphasis on using funds to preserve forest habitat needed by deer to survive Maine’s brutal winters. LePage supported those changes, a fact Trahan hopes will help an LMF bond measure eventually win the governor’s support.
“I just hope the [bond] package doesn’t get buried in the political wrangling” over DHHS and the budget, he said.
Jeff Romano, who handles public policy issues for Maine Coast Heritage Trust, the state’s largest coastal land conservation group, pointed out that numerous projects went unfunded during the last round of program funding.
Land for Maine’s Future supporters often claim there is enough demand to support $20 million in annual funding for the program.
“Obviously, with this economic situation, we recognize that is probably not likely,” Romano said. But he added: “It’s been an effective program and has been very popular with Maine voters.”