AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage has agreed to release $2.2 million in “cash on hand” for Land for Maine’s Future projects but still won’t sell new bonds for the land conservation program.

LePage’s decision to free up the money – which was relayed to the LMF board by one of his commissioners on Tuesday – will allow several projects that have been stalled for months to move forward. It also appeared to defuse some, but not all, of the tensions on the board charged with administering a popular program that has used voter-approved bonds to help conserve more than 500,000 acres.

“I don’t trust the governor not to change his mind again,” said Ben Emory, an LMF board member from Bar Harbor.

For months, LePage has been attempting to use funding for the LMF program as a bargaining chip as he pushes lawmakers to divert revenues from timber harvesting on state-owned lands into a new program to help low-income Mainers heat their homes. The governor has withheld selling $11.5 million in bonds approved by voters for LMF, delaying them to the point where lawmakers will have to reauthorize some bonds that expire in November.

But LePage also had frozen $2.2 million in LMF funds left over from earlier bond sales, further infuriating the backers of projects poised for completion.

On Tuesday, Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said the governor spoke with the applicants of one working waterfront project that has been in limbo. Keliher said that after discussing the funds with him, LePage agreed to free up the $2.2 million.

“He said, ‘OK, go ahead and utilize that money, but my position remains the same on selling new bonds and that we have got to resolve that issue,’” Keliher said.

The $2.2 million will go toward projects that already have been endorsed by the LMF board and are awaiting funding. All projects must match the LMF dollars with money from other sources, and the taxpayer money carries an additional requirement that the land must remain open to the public for recreation.

Program director Sarah Demers said two projects – the Crooked River Forest project in Otisfield/Harrison and the Eagle Bluff project in Clifton – are complete and will receive roughly $400,000 of the $1.6 million available for land conservation or recreation funding. A third project approved by the board Tuesday, which would protect a commercial fishing wharf in St. George, will receive $250,000 of $374,000 available for working waterfront projects. There is also $199,600 available for farmland preservation.

Demers said another eight to 10 projects already approved by the board are at a stage where they could be eligible for money, but the remaining funds will not cover all eligible projects.

When the Legislature returns in January, lawmakers will consider a bill to reauthorize $6.5 million in unsold bonds that will expire next month.

“Now it is up to the Legislature, but I think we have turned a corner,” said Bill Vail of Saco, chairman of the LMF board.

LePage has shown few signs of that he will reverse course on selling new bonds without lawmakers acquiescing to his request to funnel timber revenues into a home heating assistance program. The governor’s proposal took a hit on Monday whenAttorney General Janet Mills said courts would be skeptical of such an attempt given the tight restrictions on how logging money can be spent.

Several members of a task force charged with reviewing Maine’s Public Reserved Lands Management Fund said that, in their opinion, Mills’ guidance squashed any attempt to divert timber revenues to the home heating program.

David Trahan, the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and a member of the public lands task force, said LePage faced a “watershed moment.” The governor can either agree to sell the bonds, thereby ending the controversy over the popular LMF program, or risk inflicting additional political damage on the Republican party.

“I think the governor is beginning to see the writing on the wall that this is a killer for him and a killer for Republicans,” said Trahan, a former Republican state senator who was once a close LePage ally but is now a vocal critic. “This whole situation around LMF is crumbling around him. I think what he needs to do is release the bonds and allow this (board) to go back to doing its job.”

LMF bond proposals have consistently received the support of more than 60 percent of Maine voters when placed on the ballot. And a recent poll commissioned by the Land for Maine’s Future Coalition – a group of more than 200 communities, conservation groups, businesses and nonprofit organizations – suggests the LMF enjoys broad public support.

According to the polling firms – one Republican and the other Democratic – 74 percent of respondents said LePage should release voter-approved bond funds for LMF, versus only 16 percent opposed. Additionally, 79 percent of participants opposed withholding LMF funds because of a political debate on a separate issue.

The poll of 500 registered Maine voters – Democrats, Republicans and unenrolled in proportions roughly representative of Maine’s voter demographics – had a margin of error of 4.4 percent.

Jeff Romano with Maine Coast Heritage Trust called the release of the $2.2 million “a slight positive forward, but the will of the voters is still being undermined.”

It was obvious Tuesday that frustrations remain high among some public members of the LMF board.

LePage changed his mind on the $2.2 million after the applicants of the St. George working waterfront project expressed their frustration to him about the delays. That prompted Emory and several other board members to question whether the governor will renege on his pledge for the remaining funds after the St. George project is funded.

In response, Keliher and Commissioner Chandler Woodcock with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife accused the other board members of interjecting politics into the decision-making process after suggesting LePage was doing the same.

While the project was approved on a 5-1-1 vote, member James Gorman Jr. of Freeport voted against what he said was an otherwise strong project because he did not “like the way it arrived.” Gorman went on to say that he did not believe the board, which has struggled to get a quorum in recent months, would even be meeting if the waterfront project was not on the table.

“It appears this is the governor’s pet project and I think it smells bad,” Gorman said.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH

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