Gov. Paul LePage said this week that he plans to personally review and choose conservation and public easement projects before funding them with voter-approved bonds. His announcement has been met with dismay by land trusts and private landowners uncertain about what criteria LePage plans to use in judging projects that a state board already has approved.
LePage’s remarks are the latest twist in an increasingly political dispute in which his administration already has acknowledged that the governor is withholding $11.5 million for Land for Maine’s Future projects as a bargaining chip to advance his plan to increase timber harvesting on state-owned land to pay for residential energy-efficiency programs. Both tactics could have implications for dozens of land conservation projects across the state. It also raises questions about the future of LMF, a 28-year-old program designed to preserve public access to hunting, fishing and recreational areas that would be closed off without public funding.
LePage addressed those concerns during a public budget meeting Wednesday hosted by local legislators in Cumberland. He reiterated that his decision to withhold bonds approved by voters in 2010 and 2012 was designed to pressure lawmakers and conservation groups to support his plan to increase annual harvesting on state-owned lands from 141,500 cords to 180,000 cords and to divert about $5 million in harvesting revenue to home heating programs
“I’m absolutely willing to sell those bonds, but let’s help the poor along the way,” he said.
He then said he would evaluate the conservation projects personally to see which were worthy of funding.
“I’m going to look at them one by one,” he said. “Some will make it; some won’t.”
The LePage administration didn’t respond to requests to clarify what criteria the governor plans to use.
Regardless of the governor’s evaluation standard, Tim Glidden, the former director of the LMF program, said the governor’s interference is unnecessary and unprecedented.
The projects, 36 in total, already have been vetted and approved by the LMF board, which consists almost entirely of the governor’s appointees, as well as three members of his Cabinet.
Glidden, now the president of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, an organization with LMF projects in the pipeline, said LePage’s declaration is concerning.
“It’s a very comprehensive and thorough process,” he said. “All the considerations are right there on the table. … There shouldn’t be some other behind-the-curtain process. The fact that these questions are being raised — I like this project, I don’t like that one — is deeply troubling.”
Additionally, Glidden said, introducing a new, ambiguous and opaque set of standards to qualify for LMF funding creates uncertainty for landowners and runs counter to the program’s public process of evaluating projects.
That process can be exhaustive, according to a 149-page guidebook for LMF applicants. Not only do most projects have to satisfy the LMF mission of creating public access, but participants also are required to demonstrate that they have the financial capacity to match the public investment. Glidden said qualifying for funding is a lot like a business transaction and includes detailed financing and property appraisal data.
Projects are vetted for months, sometimes years before receiving final approval by the LMF board.
What additional scrutiny LePage plans to bring is unclear, but some worry that his decisions will be subject to his personal preference rather than the intent of the LMF law.
“The broader question is are we a government of laws, or are we a government of an individual?” he said. “There are laws that describe this process. Nobody has said those laws have not been followed.”
PROJECTS IN PERIL
Meanwhile, the future of the LMF projects in the pipeline is murky.
LMF’s $2.2 million cash reserve can fund only some of the projects already approved by the board. The others are now in jeopardy. Additionally, the $6.47 million that voters approved in 2010 will expire if LePage doesn’t authorize them before the end of the year.
In some instances, landowners who have secured financing to complete the LMF project will have to consider taking out bridge loans while waiting for the governor to authorize the bonds. Some may be unwilling to do so.
Glidden said that’s because many landowners were in an identical position in 2013. Two years ago, LePage promised to release all state bonds, including much of the LMF money currently on hold, if the Legislature ratified his plan to payback Maine hospitals for Medicaid debt. Lawmakers complied, and now LePage is leveraging the LMF bonds for a different policy initiative.
“Most of the money he is now holding up is exactly the same money that he held up once before,” Glidden said.
Established in 1987, the Land for Maine’s Future program has helped conserve more than 500,000 acres throughout the state. The program is popular with conservationists, hunting and fishing groups, and private landowners because it keeps land in private hands — and therefore on the tax rolls — but uses conservation easements to guarantee public access for hunting, fishing, hiking and other outdoor recreation.
Roughly 315,000 of the 500,000 acres were working forests, farmland and commercial waterfront.
Sarah Demers, the current LMF director, said last week that the program staff will continue to accept and evaluate funding requests.
During a contentious LMF board meeting last week, several leaders of conservation groups said they may have to try to renegotiate closing dates with landowners. Others expressed concerns about having to go back to donors who supported a project in part because it was part of the popular LMF program.
Steve Mistler — 620-7016