Gov. Paul LePage declared to lawmakers in late April he will release no Land for Maine’s Future, or LMF, bonds nor approve any projects in the program’s pipeline until legislation he is proposing on public lands timber cutting is sent to his desk. In a letter dated April 27, 2015, …
Why the land conservation horse-trading in Augusta matters — a lot
Gov. Paul LePage declared to lawmakers in late April he will release no Land for Maine’s Future, or LMF, bonds nor approve any projects in the program’s pipeline until legislation he is proposing on public lands timber cutting is sent to his desk.
In a letter dated April 27, 2015, to the co-chairs of the Maine Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, the governor expressed specific concerns about the LMF program “taking land off Maine’s tax rolls, keeping our working forests working and the lack of local participation in the decision-making process.”
Finally, he asserted in the letter his “right to scrutinize and reform this program, so that future projects truly meet the needs of Mainers.”
Let’s review the record.
In 1986, Democratic Gov. Joseph Brennan created the Special Commission on Outdoor Recreation in Maine to examine its economic opportunities and challenges. The commission included such notables as Joan Benoit Samuelson of Olympic fame, Leon Gorman of L.L. Bean, outdoors columnist Bud Leavitt of the Bangor Daily News and now-U.S. Sen. Angus King. After numerous public meetings, they concluded sprawling development patterns and growing numbers of “no trespassing” signs threatened traditional public access to Maine’s rural landscape and to our quality of life.
The commission unanimously recommended creation of what would become the LMF, funding it with public bonds. In 1987, Republican Gov. John McKernan signed the LMF program into law and sent the voters a $35 million bond request to support its mission of “preserving the State’s high quality of life.” On that occasion and again in 1999, 2005, 2007, 2010 and 2012, Maine voters gave overwhelming support to these bond requests by at least a 58 percent margin.
Today, the LMF board is made up of state agency heads and private citizens appointed by the governor, all appointed by LePage at present. It reviews proposals from Maine residents, local towns and businesses, land trusts and state agencies and decides which of these will provide the greatest public benefit for the limited funds available. The benefits include public access for recreation, natural habitat for wildlife and protection of exceptional Maine farms, working forests and waterfronts, as well as natural and scenic resources. The board only undertakes projects with willing sellers, and each project requires at least a one-to-one match of private funds for every public dollar spent.
The LMF process. From the very start, local groups and governments and state agencies have submitted priority proposals for land conservation that far exceed the dollars available. To date, the LMF board has completed projects in all of Maine’s 16 counties, including 52 water access sites, 37 farms totaling nearly 9,000 acres, 20 commercial working waterfront properties, more than 1,200 miles of shorefront and 158 miles of former railroad corridors for recreational trails.
In all, this comes to some 560,000 acres of conservation and recreation lands, including 315,000 acres of working lands that remain in private ownership with permanent conservation agreements. The most common type of land protected from development is forest land, some 75 percent of the total. Over the past decade, the program’s focus has shifted from natural areas toward protection of these working farms, forests and waterfronts.
In accordance with their enabling statute, staff strongly encourage applicants to involve local citizens and officials in their applications; give widespread public notice before, during and after board votes on applications; and, when any application might affect more than 1 percent of a town’s valuation, require the town officially approve it before submission.
Economics and politics. A recent study by the Trust for Public Land, or TPL, finds LMF investments between 1998 and 2011 yielded real economic benefits for Maine people. In all, LMF’s investment of $76 million in today’s dollars provides $833 million in total economic value to Maine people through 2021. The natural goods and services provided by LMF lands — such as water quality protection, air pollution removal, wildlife habitat and flood control — yield an economic return of $11 for every dollar of public money spent.
In response to the governor’s recent letter, Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, and a bipartisan group of co-sponsors have submitted legislation that would compel issuance of voter-approved bonds even without the governor’s signature. The issue it brings before the Legislature is whether this or any future governor will be allowed to horse-trade the declared will of the people for an unrelated item on his or her political agenda — today, the increased cutting of timber on state-owned lands, but tomorrow, who knows what!
Horse-trading is as old as politics itself. That is to say, it goes back as far as human history. At any moment you may want this, I may want that, and together we agree to give each other some or all of what we need to keep things moving ahead. The district you represent in the Legislature seeks a state highway upgrade while I look for more General Assistance to help those in my district who are down on their luck. We agree to support each other’s request, so long as neither of us violates a higher principle or interest.
The issue becomes more urgent or problematic when such a principle is involved — for example, where the express intention of the citizenry is involved and you are the only person in power elected to represent all the voters and citizens. What is now your obligation to them? To abide by their express intent or to use this as leverage to advance your own agenda?
The stakes. Historically, there is nothing closer to the hearts of Maine people, nothing we hold more dear, than the right of each person to vote in private, to be heard and the supreme authority this confers. This is evident in the length to which we have gone to make the ballot accessible to every Maine person of voting age. It is evident in our voting record when compared to other states.
It was evident in the early 1990s, when a speaker of the Maine House was driven from office after an aide committed ballot tampering. It is evident today, in the reluctance of the Legislature to amend voter-initiated term limits on their office — even as term limits cause legislatures to lose some of their power to the executive and to lobbyists.
This, then, is a moment of truth for the Maine Legislature, one in which it will yield even greater authority to the executive branch if it does not act judiciously. What is at stake is the kind of government we wish to have in Maine, the standard of conduct we expect of our political leaders, the question of whose abiding will is to prevail in Maine politics — that of the citizenry and voters or that of a temporary occupant of the Blaine House? Governors learn from one another. If this is what we want and will allow, this is what we will get — only more of it down the road.
The first branch of democratic government is not the executive but the Legislature, the people’s branch. This is a watershed moment for Maine, for the Maine Legislature and for all Maine people.
Richard Barringer served in the administrations of three Maine governors, and he is editor of the recent publication “Politics Then and Now, in Maine and the Nation” at usm.maine.edu/muskie/politics-then-and-now. Sherry Huber is a former member of the Maine House of Representatives (1876-82) and the first woman to run in the Republican Party for governor of Maine (1982). She directs an environmental education nonprofit and is a volunteer board member of a Maine land trust and the national Land Trust Alliance.