CUMBERLAND, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage on Monday reiterated that he will not authorize roughly $11.5 million in voter-approved conservation bonds unless the Legislature approves a new plan to cut more timber on public land and use the new revenue to pay for heating assistance programs.
Details were limited, but in a memo sent to lawmakers on the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, LePage said he’d be proposing a bill in the coming days, through Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner.
“This is a modest proposal to help those fellow Mainers who are most in need,” LePage said. “The Maine people own this land, and they should benefit from increased timber revenue.”
The memo is the latest development in an ongoing fight involving LePage, conservationists and the Legislature. Lawmakers last year rejected the governor’s timber harvest-heat subsidy plan, with some citing concerns about whether public lands should be treated like commercial forests, and others fearing ecological consequences of increased cutting.
The saga took a turn last month, when LePage first revealed his refusal to release roughly $11.5 million in approved Land for Maine’s Future bonds for land preservation.
That refusal continues to stymie conservationists statewide, some of whom are left watching the clock run out as they try to save property from development. All told, 30 conservation projects around the state are in limbo as LePage holds the voter-approved bonds hostage in an attempt to gain leverage in his timber harvest fight.
Two ways out of the bond stalemate
The unfunded projects are all awaiting payments approved by voters and vetted by Lands for Maine’s Future, the independent state agency that funds the acquisition of land for preservation.
“I am not releasing the Land for Maine’s Future bonds and will not approve current projects in the Land for Maine’s Future ‘pipeline’ until this timber harvest legislation is sent to my desk,” the governor wrote Monday.
While LePage has said he’ll sign off on the Land for Maine’s Future bonds if the Legislature concedes the timber harvest fight, at least some lawmakers have a different, more direct, solution in mind.
On Monday, Senate Republicans announced that Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, would introduce a bipartisan effort to force LePage’s hand, requiring him to issue any bonds approved by voters.
Katz declined on Monday to give any additional information on the bill, citing a news conference about the bill scheduled for Tuesday. But with both Katz’s and LePage’s bills headed to the Legislature soon, the stage is set for a fight over just how — and when — the conservation funds will be released.
Democrats, who have long chafed at LePage’s willingness to use voter-approved bonds as bargaining chips, are likely to back Katz’s play. House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, thanked Katz in a written statement on Monday.
“The governor should not have the power to hold hostage these voter-approved bonds,” McCabe said in the statement. “Many of the projects relying on these bonds are time-sensitive, and the governor is jeopardizing them as he ignores the will of Maine citizens.”
Knight’s Pond: A case study
While the fight may be happening in Augusta, the stakes are elsewhere, such as at the 215-acre parcel straddling the line between Cumberland and North Yarmouth. The property includes Knight’s Pond and Blueberry Hill. For generations, a private landowner allowed the public to use the land’s trails and waters for hiking, ice skating and other activities.
But upon his death, the land went to his daughter, and onto the market. Developers were poised to divide the property, but a group spearheaded by local land trusts cut a deal with the landowner, giving them two years to raise the money to buy the property for public use.
Last summer, they won approval for $225,000 in state funding through the Land for Maine’s Future program and have since raised more than $850,000 on their own.
Alan Stearns, executive director of the Royal River Conservation Trust, one of the groups working to protect Knight’s Pond, said the group’s fundraising efforts were done with the Land for Maine’s Future funds in mind, and that he didn’t see why conservation efforts should be a pawn in LePage’s fight over the state timber harvest.
“We thought we had that money in the bank,” he said. “What do we know about timber harvest in northern Maine? It seems unfair to hold up this project for some other issue he has.”
With LePage refusing to release the bonds necessary to disburse the Land for Maine’s Future money, Stearns and others say the Knight’s Pond-Blueberry Hill deal could fall through entirely.
State Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, represents the area in the Legislature. During a news conference on Monday at Knight’s Pond, she said it was time for LePage to let go.
“All the heavy lifting has already been done by [Land for Maine’s Future] staff and the [Land for Maine’s Future] board, and they’ve chosen what they believe are the 30 best projects in the state, to issue those bonds for. This is one of them,” she said. “The executive branch just needs to pull the trigger and issue the bonds. Everything else is ready to go.”
Voters in 2012 approved a $5 million bond for Land for Maine’s Future. Another $6.5 million was approved in 2010. Much of that funding will be lost forever if the bonds are not released by November.
‘Now is the time to act’
The governor has used bonds as pawns in political battles before. In 2013, he achieved his goal of paying off Maine’s debt to the state’s hospitals in part by refusing to issue voter-approved infrastructure bonds until the Legislature bent to his will.
And on Monday, he said that while he’d be willing to sign off on the bonds if he gets his way, he makes no promises about future bond releases or Land for Maine’s Future projects.
“I continue to have concerns regarding the Land for Maine’s Future program,” he wrote. “By releasing these bonds and approving the projects in the pipeline, I am in no way relinquishing my right to scrutinize and reform this program.”
In the meantime, those who want to protect Knight’s Pond say they’re watching the clock until their option on the property expires this summer.
“Now is the time to act and protect it forever, for all to enjoy. We are fortunate to have a patient and willing landowner,” said Penny Asherman of the Chebeague and Cumberland Land Trust. “But we’re also working on contingency plans, that would include more fundraising efforts.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.