For years, Gov. Paul LePage has blamed schools for being unwilling to control costs. Now, he says, it was the land trusts all along.

On the radio, in his State of the State address, and in a new report to legislators, the governor says it is the land trusts who are to blame for rising property taxes in Maine, as the land they protect is taken out of development and “off the rolls.”

He’s right about taxes have been rising, but despite the change in his target, he remains wrong about the reason.

In making his case, the governor keeps saying that Maine has more than $18 billion in tax-exempt property, equaling a total tax loss of more than $330 million a year.

But $11.8 billion worth is owned by federal, state and municipal governments, and no one is suggesting it be taxed.

Another $3 billion is owned by nonprofits like hospitals, and another $2 billion belongs to colleges and universities. LePage has tried to tax those two groups before; there are a number of good reasons not to, and he’s lost each time.

The rest is conservation land, but only some of it has been conserved through land trusts.

It’s that small piece that the governor blames for rising taxes, even though taxes are paid on some level on the vast majority of land conserved through trusts (and in other cases, land trusts make payments in lieu of taxes).

It’s not the same level of taxation that would be provided to a municipality if the land were fully developed, but that is a trade-off worth making in most cases. It’s hard to look at the working forestland conserved in recent years and say it would be better off as a housing development, or that the coastline preserved for use by all Mainers would be better off as an exclusive resort. It’s not like private development is being crowded out by conservation.

The governor may have a point that some communities are able to withstand that trade-off better than others. A recent report from the Maine Center for Investigative Reporting shows how conservation is felt more acutely in places like Lubec in Washington County, and how officials in those towns want more of a say in what land gets conserved.

But that’s a fix that requires a scalpel, not LePage’s usual hammer. And if the people of Lubec are worried about property taxes, they should look beyond land conservation and on to the State House and the governor’s office.

Property taxes have gone up in recent years, but they’ve gone up throughout the state, not just in the places where land has been conserved. In fact, the amount of tax-exempt property has not changed much in the last eight years, even as property taxes go up.

What has changed, however, is the amount of state aid to schools and municipalities.

According to the Maine Center for Economic Policy, the state has underfunded municipal revenue sharing by a total of $602 million from its traditional level since LePage took office. The percentage of school funding provided by the state has fallen too; if it had been held at 2010 levels, there would have been another $500 million helping to offset property taxes.

That’s far more money than conservation lands could have generated under any plausible scenario.

Guess it’s time for Gov. LePage to find a new scapegoat.

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