Gov. Paul LePage’s pledge to detach himself even further from the job of governing and indefinitely hold off on making appointments to a range of state boards and commissions is, no doubt, an abdication of the governor’s duties.
But it could be the best news yet for Land for Maine’s Future, the popular land conservation program that LePage has all but paralyzed this year.
The paralysis began with LePage’s refusal to release $11.5 million in bonds voters approved for Land for Maine’s Future in 2010 and 2012 that the program needs in order to complete dozens of land conservation transactions.
More recently, the governor has refused to sign off on financial orders allowing the program to spend money, and he is refusing to let Land for Maine’s Future access the cash it has on hand: That includes more than $2 million from previous bond issues and $37,000 in private donations. And the absence of LePage’s cabinet commissioners at recent Land for Maine’s Future board meetings has kept the board from having a quorum and being able to act on business.
Meanwhile, LePage this year has been besmirching the popular program’s reputation by suggesting an investigation into its operations is needed and falsely claiming Land for Maine’s Future benefits the wealthy at the expense of the poor.
Why is it good news that LePage might further hold up Land for Maine’s Future business by refusing to make appointments to the program’s board?
The Land for Maine’s Future board is made up of six members of the public appointed by the governor and three commissioners from LePage’s cabinet. A number of those public board members — there are currently five, all appointed by LePage, with one vacancy — have expressed their exasperation with the governor’s actions.
If LePage acted right now, he could make two appointments to the board (which the Senate would have to confirm) to fill the seats of members whose terms have expired. By the end of January 2016, three additional board members’ terms will have expired, according to Land for Maine’s Future director Sarah Demers.
That means LePage has the chance in the coming months to remake the Land for Maine’s Future board in his image. Based on LePage’s track record, that’s an obstructionist image that, if carried out, could undermine an independently functioning program that applies strict, technical criteria to all land conservation proposals through a transparent process that the public has a say in shaping.
If LePage doesn’t act, however, the current Land for Maine’s Future board members can remain in their positions until the governor makes new appointments and they are confirmed. Given the current board members’ track record of investment in the Land for Maine’s Future mission and their resistance to LePage’s political interference, the best foreseeable outcome for the conservation program would be to have the current board stay in place — even if LePage continues to throw up roadblocks that keeps it from taking meaningful action.
So, our plea to LePage is to follow through on his pledge of non-governance and not touch the Land for Maine’s Future board. Meanwhile, though the program’s operations will likely be at a standstill at least for the next several months, the five current board members can act as a check on LePage while he remains in office to ensure a well-regarded state program doesn’t lose integrity while the governor attempts to undermine it.