EDITORIALS

LePage is paralyzing a popular land protection program. How to stop him.

Posted July 14, 2015, at 6:26 p.m.

Gov. Paul LePage and his administration effectively are hobbling a popular and independently operated land conservation program that has become the target of the Republican governor’s ire.

Lawmakers have a chance Thursday to stand in the way of LePage’s efforts to keep Land for Maine’s Future from operating as it should and as voters would like. But even if they do their jobs this week, their work won’t be done.

Here’s what LePage and his administration are doing to paralyze Land for Maine’s Future.

Letting bonds languish

LePage has held up important Land for Maine’s Future operations by throwing 30 land conservation and waterfront preservation deals into doubt this year, because he has refused to issue nearly $11.5 million in bonds needed to fund the projects.

On Tuesday, Land for Maine’s Future director Sarah Demers said the window of opportunity for selling $6.5 million of that amount — the remaining sum from a $9.75 million bond authorized by voters in 2010 — had passed. Voters approved the other $5 million in November 2012.

The state treasurer has five years from the date of voter approval to sell bonds, but the treasurer can’t sell them without the governor’s signature. And although bonds approved by voters in November 2010 won’t technically expire until November of this year, the window for selling them passed last month, because the state treasurer’s office only sells bonds once per year — in June.

“We have to go through an entire disclosure update, which results in an official statement for the state of Maine. That takes a few months,” Deputy State Treasurer Kristi Carlow said. “With that process, as well as the cost to go to the market to issue bonds, it hasn’t been a past practice to go to the market to issue bonds more than once a year.”

When lawmakers meet Thursday, they’ll have the chance to override LePage’s veto of LD 1378, a bill sponsored by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, that would strike the legal requirement that the governor sign off on all bond sales. The bill would apply to currently pending bonds, allowing at least the remaining $5 million in Land for Maine’s Future bonds to be sold on schedule.

Lawmakers should ensure that LePage’s veto is overridden, that the voters’ will is respected and that neither LePage nor any future governor abuses his or her bond-issuing authority as LePage has.

Then, when the Legislature reconvenes in January, it needs to act to resurrect the $6.5 million in bonds that are set to expire in November. Under the Maine Constitution, the Legislature can extend the bond issue window by another five years as long as it acts within two years of the initial expiration.

Preventing normal operations

Whether deliberate or not, the LePage administration effectively stood in the way of regular Land for Maine’s Future operations Tuesday. That’s when three key members of the program’s nine-member board didn’t show up for a regularly scheduled business meeting — the three members of LePage’s cabinet who sit on the LMF board.

With the three commissioners no-shows, one other board member absent and one position vacant — which LePage hasn’t taken action to fill — the board didn’t have a quorum, meaning it couldn’t take action on a number of routine matters on its agenda.

A LePage spokeswoman said the governor didn’t request the three commissioners not show up, but it’s rare for all the LMF board’s cabinet members not to attend.

“During my tenure, it never occurred that all commissioners were absent and thus caused the program not to meet,” Tim Glidden, who served as director of Land for Maine’s Future for a decade until he became president of Maine Coast Heritage Trust in 2011, said. “I never came to a meeting to find that I didn’t have a quorum. It seems unlikely this is a coincidence.”

Undermining public confidence

LePage has interfered with Land for Maine’s Future operations by trying to raise doubt that the program is operating effectively and serving a valid purpose.

At the end of May, LePage said he had ordered an investigation into Land for Maine’s Future without specifying the reasons.

A spokeswoman later said LePage’s intent was to “ensure all guidelines pertaining to the LMF bond process have been followed.” Afterward, LePage also said he heard “rumors … about land being appraised as if it were all developed, when it’s forest land.” He also accused the program of mainly benefiting rich people.

The supposed wrongdoing LePage has alleged is easily rebutted — land values are supposed to be judged based on their “highest and best use” under state Board of Real Estate Appraisers requirements, and public access is a requirement for all Land for Maine’s Future projects.

In addition, the investigation the governor is ordering is largely redundant. A legislative committee is already looking into Land for Maine’s Future this year as part of a regularly scheduled review under the state’s Government Evaluation Act. Jonathan LaBonte, director of LePage’s Office of Policy and Management, says he intends to participate in that process.

LePage doesn’t have to raise legitimate concerns, and his office’s investigation doesn’t have to turn up substantial wrongdoing. Just mentioning rumors of wrongdoing and taking steps to investigate have the effect of thrusting Land for Maine’s Future into the spotlight for the wrong reasons, undermining public confidence in a popular program.

Put together, these examples show how the governor is abusing his authority and meddling in a program he doesn’t like. LePage must be stopped and challenged at every turn.

 

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