November 2014 file photo of farmers Maura Bannon and Seth Kroeck and their children, Griffin and Leila at the Crystal Spring Farm in Brunswick. The couple signed a 50-year lease with the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust to work the land. Credit: Peter L. McGuire | The Forecaster

In Tuesday’s State of the State speech, Gov. Paul LePage highlighted a serious problem that deserves attention in Augusta and beyond. Maine’s property taxes are too high, and they are rising.

LePage, however, identified the wrong source of the problem. The governor, a long-time critic of land conservation, blamed land trusts for “skyrocketing property taxes” that are pushing elderly Mainers out of their homes.

“The real culprit is the tremendous amount of land and property value we’ve allowed to be taken off our tax rolls, leaving homeowners to pick up the tab,” he said.

LePage then mixed and matched a lot of numbers as he tried to lay the blame on land trusts.

For example, he talked about “conservation land ownership” and in the next sentence said Maine’s property tax exemptions add up to $18 billion worth. Most of the state’s tax exempt land has nothing to do with land conservation. The state and federal government own most of Maine’s tax exempt land — about $10 billion worth. Another large chunk is owned by colleges, universities and hospitals. The amount of tax exempt land in Maine has dropped slightly in the last decade.

Land trusts own 600,000 acres and have helped conserve another 1.9 million acres, according to the Maine Land Trust Network. These lands offer 570 miles of snowmobile trails and 1,260 miles of hiking trails. More than 90 percent of the land is open to hunting.

The conserved land isn’t just about recreation. Much of it is working forest and farmland. And there are 60 access sites for commercial fishermen and harvesters on these conserved lands. Conserved land is also attractive to the young families that LePage says he wants to draw to Maine.

More than 94 percent of land trusts pay property taxes and 4 percent pay fees in lieu of taxes on the land they conserve, according Lisa Pohlmann, the executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

So, if LePage is serious about lowering property taxes, he should stop blaming land trusts and look at what actions his administration could take. First, he could restore cuts to municipal revenue sharing. LePage pushed for years to eliminate revenue sharing, which has instead been pared back by the Legislature. According to an analysis by the Maine Center for Economic Policy, payments to municipalities have been reduced by $602 million between 2011 and 2019 because of these cuts.

In addition, the state has cut its share of local education funding by more than $500 million since 2010 and the state is $1.3 billion short of meeting the 55 percent school funding level set by voters more than a decade ago, MECEP found.

On the other side of the ledger, the governor could restore property tax relief programs that he pushed to cut. LePage successfully pushed for the elimination of the Circuit Breaker, which provided partial property tax refunds to low income families, in 2013. Lawmakers replaced it with a less generous Property Tax Fairness Credit. Legislators also rejected LePage proposals to eliminate the Homestead Exemption and to limit it to only seniors.

“The truth is you don’t need to look at conserved land, nonprofits or publicly owned property to see why mil rates continue to rise across the state,” says MECEP Executive Director Garrett Martin. “Increases in property taxes can be explained easily by this one-two punch of cost shifting to municipalities and the diminishment or elimination of property tax relief efforts.”

Demonizing land trusts won’t lower Maine’s higher property taxes. Reversing policies that shift costs to municipalities and boosting tax relief programs would.

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