AUGUSTA – A House Democratic leader is trying to thaw the political freeze on the Land for Maine’s Future program by proposing a bond package to fund both land conservation and the heating assistance sought by Gov. Paul LePage.

For nearly three months, more than 30 projects approved for funding through the Land for Maine’s Future program have been in limbo as LePage attempts to use the funding for them as leverage with lawmakers. But a legislative committee has recommended rejecting the bill that LePage insists must be passed if he is to release more than $11 million in voter-approved bonds for LMF projects.

On Wednesday, House Majority Leader Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, proposed a new bond package that would split $20 million between the two priorities. If placed on the ballot and approved by voters, LMF would receive $10 million while earmarking $10 million for an Efficiency Maine program to help low-income Mainers convert to more affordable heating systems.

McCabe had originally proposed that all $20 million in his bill, L.D. 1248, flow to LMF but amended it this week.

“I offer this amendment as an olive branch,” McCabe said in a statement. “Here’s a way to move Land for Maine’s Future bonds forward and for heating assistance programs to get the funds the governor seeks. I agree with the governor that we must keep low-income Mainers warm in the winter. I will not, however, agree to jeopardizing our public lands by allowing rampant timber harvesting on them or to the holding hostage of voter-approved bonds.”

LePage has been pushing to increase timber harvesting on state-owned lands and to use up to $5 million in logging revenues for home heating assistance programs.

In mid-March, it was revealed that the governor is withholding $11.4 million in bonds for the Land for Maine’s Future program and that the governor planned to select which projects already approved by the LMF board would receive funding. Last week, the LePage administration said the Office of Policy and Management was “investigating” the projects to determine whether they meet all of the requirements of the program.

But the governor’s decision to use the LMF bonds as leverage has angered members of the conservation community, sportsmen, landowners and business people who had spent years negotiating the deals. All LMF projects must match bond revenues dollar for dollar, at least, with private donations or other funds, and all projects must keep land open for public recreation.

More than 500,000 acres of land in Maine – including such popular recreation spots as Moosehead Lake’s Mount Kineo and the Nahmakana Public Reserved Lands – as well as farmlands and working waterfronts have been protected from development through LMF since 1987.

On Tuesday, representatives of The Nature Conservancy, Maine Coast Heritage Trust and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine all endorsed the compromise proposed by McCabe.

“The conservation community is at the table and prepared to negotiate a settlement to the current stalemate,” said Maine Coast Heritage Trust’s Jeff Romano.

Some of the most forceful comments came from the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine’s David Trahan, a former Republican lawmaker and longtime ally of LePage. Trahan bristled at recent comments by LePage portraying Land for Maine’s Future as a program that primarily benefits the rich. Instead, Trahan said he regularly participates in programs that allow veterans, disabled individuals and low-income people to enjoy the outdoors, often on land preserved through LMF.

“The credibility of the state is in jeopardy,” Trahan told members of the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee during a hearing on L.D. 1248. “Who in their right mind would want to deal with the state of Maine if funding can be pulled out from under them after their project is complete?”

Most previous LMF bond measures placed on the ballot have passed with more than 60 percent of the vote. It was unclear whether LePage would sign McCabe’s bill if it reached his desk, however.

LePage has vetoed some bond measures and allowed others to become law without his signature because he was opposed to the state taking on additional debt.

The Legislature typically considers the long list of bond bills after completing work on the state budget, which has yet to be finalized this year.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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