The governor has authorized the release of less than $1 million of $11.47 million approved by voters in 2010 and 2012, yet even that amount hasn’t been disbursed to the conservation projects.
By Steve Mistler, Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald news story
AUGUSTA — Conservation groups say Gov. Paul LePage has failed to deliver on his promise to authorize $11.47 million in voter-approved bonds designed to fund over two dozen projects that include hunting and fishing areas, as well as farms and recreation.
In a joint media release, state lawmakers, conservation groups and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, a hunting and fishing organization, said the governor’s decision to withhold funding on bonds approved by voters in 2010 and 2012 contradicts his statements last year that he would release the money. LePage made the assurances after originally refusing to release the funding in 2013 until the Legislature authorized his hospital debt payback plan. The plan was enacted, but the bond money has yet to flow to the projects.
“The Governor’s latest decision to withhold LMF (Land for Maine’s Future) funds contradicts his previous statements, including the good faith commitments his administration made affecting dozens of landowners in July of 2014,” said Maine Coast Heritage Trust President Tim Glidden, a former director of LMF, in a press statement. “This approach erodes the trust between businesses, local community partners and state government, while resulting in lost opportunities to strengthen Maine’s vital tourism, farming, forestry, and fishing economies.”
Asked Tuesday to respond to the groups’ criticism, LePage said, “I don’t know, I’d have to look into what they’re complaining about. I’ve got bigger issues right now.”
Supporters of the conservation projects provided a July 15 memo from the governor and Walter Whitcomb, the governor’s agriculture and conservation commissioner, which stated that the projects had been approved by the Land for Maine’s Future board. The board, which consists of members appointed by LePage, authorizes funding for bonding approved by voters. Conservation groups and landowners then apply for a share of the LMF funding to the board.
In this case, the LMF board approved 30 projects totaling more than $9.1 million and covering 50,000 acres of forest, recreation, conservation and agricultural land in 37 communities and 13 counties. All of the projects must provide access to the public for recreational activities, such as hiking, hunting or fishing.
One major project in Somerset County protects 8,153 acres, including over 3,000 acres of biological deer wintering area habitat, north of The Forks. It includes 30 miles of streams on a major tributary to the Kennebec River, and conserves more wild brook trout pond habitat than in the rest of northern New England. Another major project, also in Somerset county, conserves 10,215 acres northeast of Moosehead Lake, including 4,672 acres of biological deer wintering area and 800 acres of maple syrup production.
Closer to Portland, one project protects 215 acres in Cumberland and North Yarmouth, with frontage on Knight’s Pond and the summit of Blueberry Hill, from which Casco Bay is visible. The bond will also fund a conservation corridor in Falmouth and provide easements to protect working farms in North Berwick, Cumberland and Freeport.
Critics of LePage’s move said that LMF’s $2.2 million cash reserves can only fund some of the projects approved by the board. The others are now in jeopardy. Additionally, if the money is not borrowed by November, authorization for approximately $6.47 million that was approved by voters in 2010 could expire by the end of the year.
State Rep. Russell Black, R-Wilton, said the governor’s stalling on bonds could have a chilling effect on conservation efforts.
LePage, who must authorize state borrowing, has used voter-approved bonds as leverage in an array of political disputes. Last year he threatened to withhold bonds when the Legislature overwhelmingly approved a plan to add $40 million to a fund that sends money to municipalities for property tax relief. He made a similar threat in 2013 when he perceived that the Legislature was moving too slowly to enact his plan to pay back Maine’s hospitals.
This story will be updated.