AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage has said it is not his intention to eliminate the Land for Maine’s Future program, but there’s a major gulf between what the governor says and what he’s doing.
The Land for Maine’s Future program relies on bond money approved by voters, who in six separate ballot questions since the project was created in 1987 have never failed to support the program.
On LePage’s orders, the program is currently at a full stop, and when or whether it will start again isn’t clear. Meanwhile, projects that have been under development for years hang in the balance.
So what’s the problem?
LePage is reluctant to use public funds for conservation projects. At an event in Brunswick in June, LePage said that the benefit of conservation projects is lost on many Mainers and that the projects are driven by “wealthy people [who] 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,’” LePage said.
The program’s proponents say there’s no logic to that argument, given that most of the Land for Maine’s Future projects include provisions that guarantee public access to land that in many cases would be sold for private development. Organizations that represent the state’s hunters and anglers tout the program as an asset to preserving their enjoyment of prime hunting and fishing areas.
LePage doesn’t trust Land for Maine’s Future’s process. In late May, during an hour-long news conference at the Blaine House, LePage announced that he had “hired” someone to investigate the Land for Maine’s Future program.
“The [Land for Maine’s Future] bonds are under investigation. I’ve hired someone to look at them. We’ll get a response, and if they’re legitimate, we’ll have some debate over them,” said LePage.
The governor’s office later said that what he meant was that he had asked members of his Office of Policy and Management to audit the program. It eventually became clear that the Office of Policy and Management would insert itself into the development of a report about the agency — which Land for Maine’s Future in the past has done on its own.
Though there have been hints that part of LePage’s concern has been around how land is appraised before it is purchased with Land for Maine’s Future’s help, it remains unclear what revelations, if any, could stem from the report, which is due later this year.
Why is LePage so focused on bonds?
Stonewalling voter-approved bond has proven to be a powerful tool at LePage’s disposal.
LePage has demonstrated many times that he will use any means available to advance his agenda. Withholding bonds — which state law says require his signature — has worked in the past. Early in his first term, LePage blocked the sale of tens of millions of dollars of voter-approved bonds because he said the state’s financial situation was too tenuous. Then he said in 2014 that he would sell the bonds if the Legislature would approve a $100 million revenue bond to build a new prison (that proposal was scuttled long ago) and agree to his plan to pay Maine hospitals old Medicaid debts (that proposal was successful).
Then in 2014, LePage used the blockage of bond sales to protest lawmakers’ restoration of some municipal revenue sharing funds and to force the Legislature to put at least $60 million in the state’s rainy day fund.
Now, LePage is blocking the conservation bonds — which he previously promised to release — because the Legislature won’t support his plan to increase timber harvests on publicly owned lands and use the revenue to fund a home-heating program. LePage’s bid to do that failed in 2014 in a bipartisan committee vote.
LePage has gone beyond blocking bonds with Land for Maine’s Future.
First, the governor refused to sign $11.5 million in conservation bonds that were approved by voters in 2010 and 2012. Then, he blocked the program from using about $2 million it has in previously sold bonds. And finally, it came to light last week that LePage also won’t let the program use about $37,000 it has in private donations.
Even if it had money, Land for Maine’s Future is paralyzed.
The Land for Maine’s Future board has been unable to attain a quorum — which means the legal minimum number of members needed to take votes — because of the absence of three LePage Cabinet members who serve on the board. LePage has told the Bangor Daily News on two occasions that the governor has not ordered the commissioners to be absent, but their collective absence hamstrings the board, preventing it from taken any action, including the exploration of the legality of LePage’s fiscal stranglehold.
Where is this battle being fought?
Within the Land for Maine’s Future board.
Land for Maine’s Future board members minced no words earlier this week about their anger at LePage. Some of the public members — who were appointed by LePage — said coming to meetings with no quorums is a waste of their time. They suggested that the board stop meeting. In light of the audit report that is underway with LePage’s Office of Policy and Management, it was decided that the board will meet at least one more time in October.
Some members of the board said this week that the agency should hire an attorney or consult with the attorney general’s office to determine whether LePage is overstepping his bounds, though no formal action in that direction has taken place.
“Maybe we should start pushing,” said board member Ben Emory. “We haven’t done much of a job of pushing back on this guy.”
In the Legislature.
Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a bill that would force governors to sell bonds that have been approved by voters — except in some situations involving extreme financial problems — but LePage vetoed the bill. The veto was sustained by House Republicans.
After it was revealed that $6.5 million in conservation bonds will expire in November unless they are sold, there were efforts to author bills in the waning days of this year’s legislative session to reauthorize them, but those bills went nowhere. The Legislature has up to five years to reauthorize the previously approved bonds.
The next development in this conflict will likely be the release of the Land for Maine’s Future report, at which time the ball will be squarely in LePage’s court. If he fails to act by the end of the year, expect the fate of the Land for Maine’s Future program to be at the top of the legislative agenda next year.
Democrats appear poised for a fight, as demonstrated by the party’s latest weekend radio address, in which Sen. Cathy Breen of Falmouth accused LePage of “scorched-earth politics” in the “[Land for Maine’s Future] fiasco.” Breen and Democrats are likely to find support from a long-time foe, former state Sen. David Trahan, who as leader of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine has been one of the harshest critics of LePage’s Land for Maine’s Future dealings.
That alliance sets up a scenario in which LePage will enter his next major legislative battle without the support of a key leader of the bloc of voters who turned out in 2014 to oppose a proposed bear-baiting ban and helped the Republican governor win re-election.