May 30, 2020
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LePage orders review of forestry tax break program that once benefited Poliquin

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Bruce Poliquin

Gov. Paul LePage issued an executive order on Monday scrutinizing a tax break aimed at preserving commercial woodlots, telling his forestry bureau to reach out to local assessors who administer it and submit a report to his office by December.

The Republican governor wants to tighten the Maine Tree Growth Tax program, which preserves commercial woodlots by giving property tax breaks to their owners. A 2009 state report said 11.1 million acres are enrolled, with 7.5 million in the Unorganized Territory.

That’s been relatively stable since the program was created in the early 1970s and most of the property is owned by families with plots of less than 100 acres. But assessors have long perceived problems with wealthy waterfront landowners using the program to avoid taxes.

Much of the state learned about the program during a 2012 controversy around then-State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin’s use of it to largely avoid paying taxes on 10 acres of a 12-acre property in Georgetown valued at more than $3 million, even though a deed restriction mostly prohibited timber harvesting there.

Poliquin, a Republican who now represents Maine’s 2nd U.S. House district, eventually left the program, but the 2009 report cited his property as an example of “problematic enrollment from the municipal perspective.”

Examples like this probably don’t violate the law, but many have argued that they violate the intent. Last year, LePage proposed a bill to bar parcels within 10 miles of the ocean or less than 25 acres from the program, but it went nowhere. The Legislature will consider a similar LePage bill next year and a committee has convened a working group to consider changes.

LePage has often criticized conservation projects for shifting property tax costs to homeowners. He used that “shift” language in the executive order, referencing the entire program.

The order tells the Bureau of Forestry to contact all local assessors to offer help reviewing forestry plans for properties, provide recommendations on how to handle them if asked and help bring non-compliant woodlot owners into compliance. A report is due to LePage on Dec. 15.

Tom Doak, the executive director of Maine Woodland Owners, said the order is in-step with state law and that his group welcomes the state taking a more active approach in helping municipalities to administer the program and there are “a very small number of problems.”

He said many of those can be chalked up to confusion and if that’s found to be a problem, “let’s straighten that out so there aren’t any plans in non-compliance.” But Doak took issue with the order’s “shift” language.

“They’re not demanding any services, so I wouldn’t characterize it that way,” Doak said.

This item was originally published in Daily Brief, a free political newsletter distributed Monday through Friday by the Bangor Daily News to inform dialogue about Maine politics and government. To read more of today’s Daily Brief, click here. To have the Daily Brief delivered daily to your inbox, click here.

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