In touting his income tax elimination plan, Gov. Paul LePage’s message is that the people should decide.
“You hold the true power — not me, and not the Legislature,” an email from the governor said in urging Mainers to contact their legislators and tell them they support eliminating the income tax.
But, when it comes to land conservation, it doesn’t matter that the people have already decided — supporting Land for Maine’s Future bonds in 2010 and 2012 with more votes than LePage received in 2014. On this one, LePage says he will decide what projects get funding.
A couple months ago, LePage said he would withhold bonds for the Land for Maine’s Future program until the Legislature considers (and presumably approves) his plan for increasing timber harvesting on state-owned public lands.
But while LePage allows Land for Maine’s Future funding for 30 conservation projects to hang in the balance, he has acted to ensure that another — larger — funding source for one of those 30 projects doesn’t fall by the wayside, according to reporting by the Portland Press Herald. LePage has accepted $1.7 million from the federal government to support the Gulf Hagas-Whitecap project, which would put a conservation easement on land owned by the Carrier family, owners of a number of trucking and logging companies in the state. The land would continue to be logged.
John Bott, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, which oversees Land for Maine’s Future, said the acceptance of the federal dollars doesn’t mean that LePage will free up the $500,000 in Land for Maine’s Future funding that has been allocated for the project. If that money is not forthcoming, the project would likely require more fundraising to meet the federal match requirement, he said. The Forest Society of Maine aims to raise the $1 million match, including the Land for Maine’s Future money, for the project.
The Gulf Hagas-Whitecap project, located within the 100-Mile Wilderness, was approved by the Land for Maine’s Future board as were 29 other projects awaiting funding. The Land for Maine’s Future board, which consists of LePage appointees and three of his commissioners, uses an extensive scoring system to determine what projects are approved for funding.
Bott said that the governor accepted the federal funding for the project — Gulf Hagas-Whitecap was the only Maine project to qualify for this federal funding — because it was about to expire. By this logic, signing off on the Land for Maine’s Future bonds also should be a priority as some of the bonds will expire later this year if they are not put out for sale.
This Land for Maine’s Future situation prompted Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, to sponsor a bill that requires the governor to issue bonds approved by voters except in extraordinary circumstances and it eliminates the requirement that the governor sign off on bond sales. It also would require the state treasurer to issue Land for Maine’s Future bonds approved by voters in 2010 and 2012, totalling about $11 million.
“When the people of Maine have spoken at the ballot box, no one person — even a governor — should be able to veto that decision,” Katz said in introducing his bill late last month, setting off a torrent of criticism from GOP leaders.
Katz’s bill offers a way for lawmakers to heed the will of the voters, as well as to put this sorry episode to rest.