BRUNSWICK, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage on Monday clarified the reasoning behind why he ordered an investigation into the Land for Maine’s Future program.
“Just rumors. When you hear a lot of chatter, look into it,” said LePage, speaking after an assembly at Brunswick Junior High School. “The rumors were about land being appraised as if it were all developed, when it’s forest land. So I’m looking into it.”
The decades-old land conservation program is caught in the middle of what has become a political staring contest between the governor and the Legislature.
LePage has said he wants support from the LMF program to expand logging on state land before he’ll approve $11 million in voter-approved bonds for land deals and other projects. LePage envisions money from the expanded timber harvest to support low-income Maine residents in upgrading their heating systems.
The Legislature would have to approve the timber harvest expansion. The bill that does that, LD 1397, has not yet been reported out of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, though Democrats and Republicans have voiced disagreement over it during the committee process.
In the meantime, about 30 projects that had been lined up to receive voter-approved LMF funding, including projects in Freeport and Harpswell, are left in the lurch.
On Friday, it was revealed that LePage in April requested that the Governor’s Office of Policy and Management conduct an internal investigation to see if the LMF bond process is being correctly followed.
Speaking Monday afternoon, Land for Maine’s Future Director Sarah Demers said she received no formal notification of a review by OPM.
“We’ve been in touch with the Office of Policy and Management off and on, we’ve been in communication for the last couple of months for sure, but there’s been no formal notice that there was an internal review,” Demers said.
Applicants for LMF money must conduct a specific, industry-standard land appraisal which is reviewed by an LMF subcommittee, according to Demers.
The appraiser determines the highest-valued and best use of the property, said Demers, and if the property is developable, the appraiser will value the property as such.
LePage framed his problem with the LMF in terms of a class struggle between rich people from out of state and taxpayers who need heating assistance.
LePage said the “problem” with the program is that “wealthy people come into the state and say, ‘we think we ought to protect all this land.’”
“We ask the taxpayer — which is not the rich people — to sell bonds and give it to the rich people so they can get these beautiful pieces of land conserved, and once you conserve it, you say to the poor people, ‘pay for it.’ So I’ve asked them to put up a little bit of money to help poor people, and they said ‘no.’ So I’m going to continue my quest to help the poor people in the state,” LePage said.
Asked if he had any plans on releasing LMF money, LePage responded: “That’s up to the Legislature.”
He continued: “Are they going to pass a bill to help people convert their heating systems to less-costly heating systems? That’s the magic question. If they do, the answer is ‘yes.’ If they don’t, the answer is ‘no.’ It’s that simple.”
Demers confirmed on Monday that the governor’s office has still not made any funding available.
In response to LePage’s actions, Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, has submitted a bill that would force LePage to issue the bonds immediately. Meanwhile, hashtags #protectLMF and #releasethebonds have begun circulating on Twitter.
The Freeport Conservation Trust had been relying on $105,000 of LMF funding to preserve 38 acres of the 45-acre horse farm Winterwood Farm.
“We’re in a quandary,” said the trust’s executive director, Katrina Van Dusen, noting that the LMF money was also being used to secure federal matching dollars.
“When you take one piece out, the whole thing starts to fall apart,” Van Dusen said. “We don’t have an extra $100,000 — or an extra $50,000 — to bail this project out.”
Winterwood’s owners, meanwhile, “are getting quite anxious,” said Van Dusen.
“The landowners might decide that it’s not worth the ordeal,” she warned.