AUGUSTA, Maine — Breaking from a position he held for months, Gov. Paul LePage said in a letter to legislative leaders on Monday that he will allow the issuance of $5 million in voter-approved Land for Maine’s Future bonds.
“I am writing to clarify my position and future intentions regarding bonding in 2016,” LePage wrote Monday in a letter to Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau and Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves. “I now have the authority to and will issue $5 million in Land for Maine’s Future bonds, which were ratified in 2012. Authority to issue another $6.47 million in LMF bonds was allowed to expire in November, due to legislative inaction.”
Until today, LePage had refused to allow more than $11 million in conservation bonds approved by Maine voters in ballot questions dating to 2010 to be sold until the Legislature agreed to his proposal to increase timber harvesting on public lands and use the revenues to fund a heating efficiency program for poor Mainers.
Legislators from both major parties rejected the plan on multiple fronts, including last month when a study panel drafted a recommendation against it because the Maine Constitution says money from timber harvests must be used to improve public lands.
State Treasurer Terry Hayes said Monday evening that she received instructions from LePage to sell the conservation bonds and has asked for clarification about the timing. She said the state is preparing to initiate internal borrowing in January — which means it will spend money from its cash pool now and replenish it later in the year with bond sales — to cover bonds that have been previously authorized but are not yet issued, including money for transportation projects.
“The least expensive money we can borrow is from ourselves,” said Hayes. “I’m just waiting to see if it was the governor’s intent that this $5 million [in conservation bonds] be included in that.”
Hayes said the state also plans to sell bonds in May or June of 2016.
In his letter, LePage blasted the Legislature for rejecting his energy proposal, arguing as he has for months that timber on public lands is under-harvested and could face a catastrophic infestation of spruce budworm. He also repeated his position that Land for Maine’s Future investments “cater to special interests so the rich can enjoy walking trails and scenic views funded by the taxes of the very people you refused to help.”
Some lawmakers signalled that though many of them don’t support using revenues from timber harvesting, they are open to finding funding to broaden heating assistance.
“Senate Republicans have repeatedly supported efforts to provide heating assistance to low-income Mainers and we will continue to work collaboratively to achieve that goal,” Thibodeau said in a written statement.
Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a bill that would have forced governors to sign voter-approved bonds, under certain conditions, but LePage vetoed it. The bill died in the House of Representatives when Republican members sided with LePage in the veto override vote.
In October, LePage allowed Land for Maine’s Future to use $2.2 million in donations and previously sold bonds after initially blocking it.
Roughly $6.5 million of the voter-approved bonds expired in November because it had been five years since they were approved by voters in November 2010. However, the Legislature has two years to reauthorize those bonds and will consider doing so when lawmakers return to Augusta in January.
“We will be working diligently to reauthorize the 2010 bonds in hopes that the governor will publicly support the extension of the 2010 bonds so we can finally put this issue to rest and move on with the important work of conserving Maine’s natural resources,” said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and former Republican senator who has been among LePage’s most strident opponents on this issue.
Another leading voice against LePage’s refusal to authorize bond sales has been Democratic House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan.
“This is long overdue, so long overdue that he allowed half of the bonds to expire and endangered conservation projects all over the state that would have benefited Mainers from all walks of life and all levels of income, from hunters to farmers, hikers and nearby small business owners,” said McCabe in a written statement.
Eves issued a terse statement, criticizing LePage’s past inaction.
“Finish the job, governor, and release all of the voter-approved bonds,” said Eves in a written statement. “These bonds should never have been delayed.”
Republican Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling of New Gloucester struck a different tone, applauding LePage for “bringing integrity and accountability to the bonding process.”
“The governor has always been committed to making sure taxpayer money is spent wisely,” she said in a prepared statement. “I look forward to this upcoming session when we can now have a clean bill dealing with just the reauthorization of the remaining bonds without including any of the other nonsense that has clouded this issue.”
Tom Abello, senior policy adviser for government affairs for The Nature Conservancy, said he has heard from Republicans and Democrats — including acting Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Avery Day — that there is support for reauthorizing and selling the 2010 bonds.
“We’re glad the governor has decided to honor the will of Maine voters and the commitments we’ve made in this state,” said Abello. “I suspect there are a lot of happy people all over the state.”