AUGUSTA, Maine — A legislative commission won’t recommend Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to fund energy upgrades for low-income Mainers with revenue from increased timber harvesting on public land.
It wasn’t among suggestions in a draft of a report to be presented to a legislative committee this month by a panel formed to study the state’s Public Reserved Lands Management Fund, making LePage’s plan unlikely to advance in 2016.
The commission cited the opinion of Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, who has said that taking $5 million from the fund — which had a $7 million balance in July and contains money from sales of timber on state property — for that purpose may not hold up if challenged in court.
The Republican governor’s plan has loomed over Maine politics for the last year: LePage has held up more than $11 million in bonds under the Land for Maine’s Future program, saying he won’t issue them until lawmakers redirect $5 million from the timber fund for heating assistance.
But Mills’ office has said money from the fund must be used mainly to benefit public lands, citing the Maine Constitution and precedent. In an October letter, she told the commission that while she couldn’t draw “firm conclusions” on whether LePage’s plan is legal, “it is not easy to draw a connection” between energy upgrades and conservation.
Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, who co-chairs the commission made up of legislators and citizens charged with making recommendations to the forestry committee, said even though he supported LePage’s concept, Mills’ opinion took it off the table.
“As much as I want to get money to wood stoves, I can’t constitutionally get there,” Saviello said. “That’s the bottom line.”
The LePage administration has argued that the harvest limit — 160,000 cords per year — could be raised, citing an inventory from James W. Sewall Co. that pegged growth levels between 180,000 and 188,000 cords per year.
But the governor’s plan to increase harvests to pay for energy upgrades was rejected by the Legislature in 2014 amid concerns from environmentalists that increasing the limit would jeopardize the forestry program’s sustainability.
In a Monday email, LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said Mills “did not say and cannot say” that the plan is “conclusively unconstitutional.”
“To say that using these funds to help people struggling to heat their homes is not within the public benefit required by the trust limitations on these funds flies in the face of one of the essential roles of government,” Bennett said.
But David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and a commission member who has been pressing LePage to release the bonds, said while LePage would get support for heating assistance programs if it weren’t tied to bonds or harvest limits, there’s little appetite for the plan as it stands now.
“As far as I’m concerned, this subject is now dead,” Trahan said.