AUGUSTA, Maine — A plan by Gov. Paul LePage to fund residential heating cost reduction programs by increasing the amount of wood cut and sold from state land has failed to clear the first hurdle of the legislative process.
A bipartisan majority of the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee rejected the bill on Wednesday, citing concerns that the plan would undercut state conservation work by redirecting funds normally used for that purpose to Efficiency Maine. The bill would see that agency set up a new fund aimed at helping Mainers install more energy-efficient heat sources.
Will Harris, director of the Bureau of Parks and Lands — which manages the use of roughly 600,000 publicly owned acres — told the committee on Wednesday that the bureau had been operating in “reduced budget mode.”
When asked whether he felt the bureau could afford to see any extra revenue diverted to external purposes, Harris was diplomatic.
“We’re … mindful that we’re working in an administration that has policy objectives,” Harris said. “But if this were just me, and what I’d like to do, there are a bunch of things we’d like to do,” such as road maintenance and work to increase access to public lands.
Rep. Russell Black, R-Wilton, was one of two GOP committee members to join the six Democrats in rejecting the bill. He said he didn’t want to set a precedent of diverting revenue from the public land trust, which normally is invested directly back into the Bureau of Parks and Lands, for other purposes.
“The concept of the bill is a good one, but [the Bureau of Parks and Lands] has been doing a good job with management of the forests and I don’t want to set a precedent,” he said. “I felt very uncomfortable taking that money away from the bureau.”
The eight lawmakers who voted against the bill also worried the plan could expose the state to litigation because of a law regulating to what ends revenue from the sale of timber on public land can be used.
About 400,000 acres of Maine’s public land — roughly two thirds of all the land managed by the state’s Bureau of Parks and Lands — is used for timber harvest. The bureau oversees those efforts and other uses of the land, such as hunting and other outdoor recreation. Revenue from the sale of timber harvested from public land is held in trust, with one of the stipulations on that revenue being that it be used for “the public good.”
A lawyer from the Maine attorney general’s office said Tuesday that it’s unclear whether funding programs to subsidize heat pumps, pellet stoves and high-efficiency boilers would pass legal muster. Arguments could be made that any state expenditure is in the public good, he said, but clearly revenue from public land is meant to be held to a higher standard.
“There is precious little guidance,” said Jerry Reid, the natural resources division chief with the attorney general’s office. “There’s lots of room for argument and theorizing about what it means, but somewhere, somehow, a line would have to be drawn between general legislation and that standard applied to these funds.”
“That line has not been drawn yet,” he said.
LePage’s plan would slowly increase the public timber harvest from last year’s 115,000-cord ceiling to 180,000 cords. The new revenue would be given to bolster Efficiency Maine’s rebate programs, which would help Mainers install alternative heating sources.
Three Republican members of the committee — Sen. Roger Sherman of Houlton and Reps. Jeffrey Timberlake of Turner and Dean Cray of Palmyra — will put forward an amended version of the governor’s bill.
Their minority report will include new language that restricts new revenue from increased timber harvest be used to aid only low-income residents with energy efficiency upgrades. It also includes provisions to prioritize low-cost energy alternatives such as pellet and wood stoves over more expensive ones such as electric heat pumps.
Timberlake said he knew it would be an uphill battle, given a majority of the committee’s rejection of the bill and Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. But he said the bill wouldn’t’ die without a fight.
“This may not see the light of day, but I’m going to fight as hard as I can in the press and everywhere else to fight that my idea is a good one,” he said.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.