AUGUSTA, Maine — Two environmental groups said Tuesday that Gov. Paul LePage is again withholding voter-approved bonds that are earmarked for conservation projects in the Land for Maine’s Future program.
The Maine Coast Heritage Trust and The Nature Conservancy issued a statement Tuesday in which they accused LePage of refusing to authorize borrowing $11.47 million from Land for Maine’s Future bonds that voters approved in 2010 and 2012.
The groups don’t appear to have much information about the situation other than a message transmitted late last month from a state official that read “at this time the LMF program is not able to make funds available to applicants.”
The conservation groups were joined in their criticism by the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and by Rep. Russell Black, R-Wilton, who said he was “disappointed” with LePage and warned that the delay in bond issuance will have a “chilling effect on conservation work across the state.”
Asked Tuesday by reporters to respond to criticism from lawmakers and conservation groups, LePage demurred, apparently unaware of the questions that had been raised.
“What else is new?” LePage said, when told there were concerns about his refusal to release bonds.”I don’t know, I haven’t looked into what they’re complaining about. I haven’t seen it. I’ve got bigger issues right now.”
In a written statement, Maine Coast Heritage Trust President Tim Glidden said the delay in bonding contradicted LePage’s pledge to release the bonds after holding them hostage in a fight with Democratic lawmakers over repayment of Medicaid debt to Maine’s hospitals. Once that deal was done, in summer 2013, LePage said he would release the bonds “on an expedited basis.”
“This approach erodes the trust between businesses, local community partners and state government, while resulting in lost opportunities to strengthen Maine’s vital tourism, farming, forestry and fishing economies,” said Glidden, who served for 10 years as director of the Land for Maine’s Future program before taking his current position.
The Land for Maine’s Future program has about $2.2 million on hand, which is insufficient to cover the cost of 36 active projects that the program is working to complete. The total cost of those projects is estimated to be $11.35 million. More than two-thirds of the funds approved by voters in 2010 — $6.47 million — will expire in November if LePage doesn’t issue the bonds before then.
The projects include 50,000 acres earmarked as conservation, recreation, forest and agricultural in three dozen communities and 13 counties in Maine.
David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said some of the money was designed to help Maine’s deer herd.
“Protection of critical wintering habitat to support Maine’s white tail deer population was a primary objective of the 2012 bond funds, which received strong bipartisan support in the Legislature and overwhelming endorsement by Maine voters,” said Trahan in a written statement.
If the bonds approved by voters in 2010, which total nearly $6.5 million, aren’t borrowed by November, their authorization could be canceled, according to the statement from Maine Coast Heritage Trust and The Nature Conservancy.
House Democratic Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said Tuesday that he had spoken with members of LePage’s administration within the last month about getting the LMF projects funded, but no one had offered any explanation for why the bonds had not been released.
“I don’t know what the treasurer knows as far as what’s out there and what the timeline is, but some of these are set to expire at the end of the year,” McCabe said. “Time is of the essence for these projects.”
While he claimed ignorance Tuesday about the plight of the LMF bonds, LePage has shown a willingness in the past to use his ability to stall bonds as a bargaining chip with legislators.
The assertion that bonds are again being delayed comes as LePage is pushing controversial proposals to move administration of public lands into the Department of Forestry and to cut forest ranger numbers by half while simultaneously removing their law enforcement role.
Both proposals have drawn skepticism from lawmakers.
Some of the projects awaiting funding are:
— Cold Stream Forest Project in Somerset County. This project will protect 8,153 acres, including 3,000 acres of deer wintering areas north of The Forks.
— Seboomook Expansion in Somerset County. This project would protect 10,215 acres northeast of Moosehead Lake, including 4,672 acres of deer wintering areas and 800 acres of maple syrup production area.
The funds also are aimed at numerous smaller projects.