Gov. Paul LePage was easily re-elected in November and he will no doubt leave his mark on the state and its government. However, this doesn’t give him license to ignore existing state laws or policies.
Never mind that the projects have already been vetted against a lengthy list of criteria. Never mind that a board, mostly appointed by him, has already voted on the projects. Never mind that some projects involved years of negotiations, and agreements have been signed. Never mind that required matching funds (at least $1 for each $1 from LMF) have been raised or borrowed, in some cases contingent on the outcome of this very deliberate process. And never mind that state law gives the LMF board — and no other entity — the authority to sign off on such conservation projects.
Never mind all of that — LePage says he’ll make the final decisions.
We hope the governor doesn’t stay true to his word and that this, instead, is just some attention-getting stunt.
The Land for Maine’s Future program has been around since 1987, when voters approved a $35 million bond to purchase land of “state significance.” LMF’s purpose is well stated in its enabling legislation: “The Legislature declares that the future social and economic well-being of the citizens of this state depends upon maintaining the quality and availability of natural areas for recreation, hunting and fishing, conservation, wildlife habitat, vital ecologic functions and scenic beauty and that the state, as the public’s trustee, has a responsibility and a duty to pursue an aggressive and coordinated policy to assure that this Maine heritage is passed on to future generations.”
Most of the purchases using state bond money involve partnerships with other state agencies, municipalities, land trusts or others, which also secure money from other sources for this conservation work. Over the last two years, LMF has been involved in 18 projects worth nearly $12 million. LMF itself contributed a quarter of the money needed for this work, which preserved shore frontage, farmland and forestland.
On the state’s end, LMF’s conservation purchases — of land and easements — are funded with bond money. In voting to allow LMF to borrow funds to preserve land, the voting public has given the program its seal of approval.
This process — designed to apply regardless of who is governor — should not be undone by one petulant governor, lest Maine become a dictatorship.
State law specifically gives the LMF board the authority to determine how the bond money is spent, meaning LePage would be breaking the law to approve projects himself: “The Land for Maine’s Future Fund is available to state agencies and designated cooperating entities upon authorization of the board.” Further, the statute states that the board shall “receive and review funding requests from state agencies and cooperating entities for acquisition projects meeting state guidelines; [and] … authorize distribution of proceeds from the Land for Maine’s Future Fund and the Public Access to Maine Waters Fund for acquisitions of property or interests in property.”
In addition, LMF purchase agreements are business deals with families, corporations or others who want to preserve their land. Subjecting these entities to the whims of an impetuous governor who has shown he has no respect for institutions is unfair to them, but worse, it perpetuates the notion that Maine isn’t an honest broker when it comes to business dealings.
Maine can’t afford this reputation. Unfortunately, LePage is virtually cementing it.