AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill unveiled Tuesday by Gov. Paul LePage is the second attempt in a year to allow land held for conservation to be taxed, and an official from a top conservation group said while it wouldn’t apply to a large share of land, it’s a “slap in the face of land trusts.”
It’s a longshot salvo in the Republican governor’s battle with conservation groups, who sparred publicly with the governor as LePage held back $11.5 million in voter-approved bonds under the Land for Maine’s Future program for much of the past year.
LePage eventually backed down on that, telling lawmakers in December that he’d issue $5 million of the bonds and backing a bill in January that revived the other $6.5 million. But he kept talking tough on land conservation, saying in a December letter to legislative leaders that tax-exempt, conserved properties increase the tax burden on Mainers, especially those who reside in less affluent communities.
His bill would change Maine law to effectively reverse a 2014 decision by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which held that land trusts using preserves for charitable purposes don’t have to pay property taxes in certain cases. The court ruled that land trusts’ tax-exempt status aligns with precedents dating to the 1880s and that more recent legislation, specifically the Farm and Open Space Tax Law, does not supersede that determination.
A similar bill was proposed last year, but it died after being unanimously rejected by a legislative committee.
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett issued a fact sheet on the bill, but she didn’t immediately respond to questions about the proposal, LD 1667, which was introduced in the House on Tuesday and sponsored by Rep. Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan.
The fact sheet says many of Maine’s 90 land trusts have millions of dollars in assets and directors who make more than $150,000, saying the bill “just asks land trusts to pay their fair share” of taxes.
The Maine Coast Heritage Trust, which has conserved more than 143,000 acres along the state’s coast, is the largest group mentioned by LePage’s office, which cited a 2014 tax form saying the trust has more than $165 million in assets and a president who is paid more than $156,000.
But Jeff Romano, the trust’s public policy manager, said the trust pays taxes or payments in lieu of taxes on all of the land it owns, and he said 96 percent of land held by land trusts is taxed by cities and towns.
He said “the administration needs to do more homework” when proposing legislation like this, calling it a “slap in the face of land trusts.”
“The idea that all this land is off the tax rolls is just not based in reality,” he said.