The Land for Maine’s Future ship that Gov. Paul LePage tried to topple last year seems well on its way to being righted — at least in the interim.
LePage late last year said he would finally back down from his refusal to release $5 million in bonds voters approved for LMF in 2012. And last month, lawmakers in the House and Senate agreed unanimously to revive another $6.5 million in bond funding that had expired because of LePage’s refusal to sign off on the borrowing.
That means 30 projects that are in line for much of the money — and that have been on hold in a state of LePage-induced paralysis — should start coming to fruition. Those projects would conserve parcels of land for outdoor recreation, protect farmland and ensure public access to water bodies and working waterfronts.
Meanwhile, the results of a LePage-ordered review of the program are back, and — contrary to LePage’s rhetoric throughout the past year — it has turned up no significant problems.
In LePage’s tirades against Land for Maine’s Future over the past year, he repeatedly accused the program of serving wealthy people at the expense of poor Mainers, removing valuable land from local tax rolls and inflating the value of protected lands through flawed appraisals. He declared that Land for Maine’s Future was a tool of corruption.
It wasn’t clear whether LePage favored actual changes to program policies or operations. He never identified anything specific to change, nor did he identify program improvements as his goal. He simply said he had ordered an investigation into the program, then took every opportunity he had to trash it in public.
Members of the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee heard the results of this review last week.
The review — conducted by Jonathan LaBonte, director of LePage’s Office of Policy and Management, with some participation from the Land for Maine’s Future board — identified no flaws of the magnitude LePage described, but it did contain some constructive suggestions:
— Land for Maine’s Future should take steps to improve public awareness of LMF parcels so more people visit them.
— It should review the scoring process for land conservation proposals with an eye toward whether LMF projects are fulfilling statewide conservation goals.
— LMF should make more of its data publicly accessible and make more of its operations electronic instead of paper based.
These are suggestions that deserve to gain traction. If they do, that would stand in stark contrast to what LePage has gained from his continued, unjustified beratement of Land for Maine’s Future — a messy political fight he decisively has lost.
As for LePage’s specific accusations, the review methodically goes through program operations in a way that addresses — and debunks — all of them.
It identifies the various constituencies LMF serves, undermining LePage’s claim that the program exclusively serves the wealthy. The constituencies include those who depend on tourism for their livelihoods, commercial fishermen, hunters, outdoor enthusiasts and landowners.
It explains the provisions that keep LMF from removing large amounts of land from taxation. First, state law requires local officials’ approval for a conservation project that represents more than 1 percent of a town’s total land value. Over time, LMF has conserved more land through easements, which keep the land in private ownership and on the tax rolls, instead of direct purchases. Between 2005 and 2014, 74.2 percent of LMF land conservation happened via easement. Most LMF-conserved land remains subject to taxation.
As for LePage’s claims of artificially inflated land values, the review raised no issues with the appraisals LMF requires as part of each project. The program only accepts appraisals completed by Maine-licensed appraisers.
LePage’s attempts to undermine Land for Maine’s Future were perfectly illustrative of his style. He undermined the reputation of a popular state program without supporting facts, removed himself from anything resembling constructive dialogue on the issue and, in the end, got nothing except for a messy political battle that helped to undermine public confidence in government.
One effect of LePage’s actions? He has managed to solidify the program’s defenders against any future attempts to derail it.