by Christopher Cousins, staff writer
Bangor Daily News news story
AUGUSTA, Maine — Approximately $6.5 million in voter-approved bonds for the Land for Maine’s Future program will expire later this year because of a decision by Gov. Paul LePage not to authorize them within the time frame allowed.
The revelation came during a meeting of the Land For Maine’s Future board on Tuesday in Augusta and was confirmed by Deputy State Treasurer Kristi Carlow. The bonds in question, which were approved by voters in 2010, will expire in November but the state sells bonds only in June.
“By the time the next bond issue rolls around in June, they will have officially expired,” said Carlow. “We have to go through an entire disclosure update, which results in an official statement for the state of Maine. That takes a few months. It hasn’t been a past practice to go to the market to issue bonds more than once a year.”
Jonathan LaBonte, who directs LePage’s Office of Policy and Management, was at Tuesday’s meeting to discuss how his office intends to participate in a review of the Land for Maine’s Future agency.
LaBonte would not comment about the expired bonds. LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett also did not respond to a request for comment.
LePage has refused to release about $11.5 million in Land for Maine’s Future conservation bonds that Mainers approved in multiple referendums since 2010.
The governor has said repeatedly that he will continue to withhold the bonds until the Legislature approves his plan to cut more timber on public land and use new revenue from the sale of that timber to pay for a heating assistance program. Thirty conservation projects across Maine, which were identified and contracted by the Land for Maine’s Future program, are in limbo.
The $6.5 million in apparently expired bonds is part of the $11.5 million that has been in question.
LePage first revealed that he had asked for an investigation of the Land for Maine’s Future program during a wide-ranging May 29 news conference at the Blaine House. At that time, he offered no details of the focus or scope of the investigation.
“The LMF bonds are under investigation. I’ve hired someone to look at them,” said LePage. “We’ll get a response and if they’re legitimate, we’ll have some debate over them.”
A LePage spokeswoman said after the news conference that LePage has asked the Office of Policy and Management and LaBonte to investigate whether the LMF bond process has been followed properly.
According to a June 4 memo from LaBonte to Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Commissioner Walt Whitcomb, the Office of Policy and Management’s investigation was to take place under the auspices of the Government Evaluation Act, which required Land for Maine’s Future to file a report with the Legislature every eight years.
Some board members asked about LePage’s long-term intentions.
“Is it safe to say that this program is in suspension until further notice?” asked William Vail, chairman of the committee. “People have traveled from around the state to be here and participate. … You are the only member of the administration here so I’m asking, are we in suspension?”
“At no time has the governor ever said to me that it’s his intention to make Land for Maine’s Future go away,” said LaBonte after being pressed on the question.
That exchange transpired after a lengthy discussion about the scope of the review, which preliminarily will include the following:
— A review of the laws surrounding the Land for Maine’s Future program, including how it has progressed over the years.
— The organizational structure of the agency, including changes since its origin.
— A detailed performance assessment of the programs run by the agency.
— A detailed review of finances, including the quality of matching funds.
— An accounting of past Land for Maine’s Future and LMF-related studies.
LMF board member Neil Piper said the review should look at LePage’s involvement.
“My biggest one is how to get the governor out of the process,” said Piper. “Let the people do the people’s business and let the Land for Maine’s Future board do the people’s business.”
Board member Ben Emory questioned why LePage — through LaBonte — should be involved in the review, which will be a first for the organization.
“However many of these reports have been done since 1987 [when Land for Maine’s Future was created], the Land for Maine’s future staff has taken the lead on all of those,” said Emory. “It kind of boggles my mind that the staff would not continue to do so.”
LaBonte stressed that though he would lead the process, the organization’s staff would be involved.
“We have the ability, independently, to do program review and evaluation,” he said.
Other committee members, including James Norris, questioned whether the presence of three of LePage’s Cabinet members on the LMF board constituted a conflict of interest. Those Cabinet members include Whitcomb; Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources; and Chandler Woodcock, commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
None of those commissioners was present at Tuesday’s meeting, which prevented the presence of a quorum and voting on several conservation projects. There was some speculation among board members that LePage ordered his commissioners to skip the meeting in an effort to thwart the board, but LaBonte and Bennett both rejected that notion.
“I would encourage you not to make assumptions about why commissioners are not here,” said LaBonte. “There are personal and professional things at play.”
Bennett also said the commissioners had unrelated personal and professional commitments on Tuesday afternoon.
“The governor did not tell the commissioners to be absent,” said Bennett.
It’s possible that the Legislature could force the release of the bonds, though it may be too late for the $6.5 million that have missed their window. LePage vetoed a bill, sponsored by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, that would strip the governor of authority to control when bonds are sold. The Legislature is scheduled to reconvene on Thursday to vote on that veto, among other matters.