About 95% of the land is already on the tax rolls, and the fiscal impact of taxing the others would be negligible.
by Tim Glidden, David Trahan, and Kate Dempsey
Portland Press Herald op-ed
At the 11th hour and with state government teetering on the edge of a shutdown, the governor has stirred up a cloud of misinformation to distract the Legislature from its work. In his press statement from June 27 and again during a talk-radio appearance, Gov. LePage threatened legislators with a government shutdown unless they support his initiative to tax conservation land owned by land trusts.
Let’s look at the facts. Already this session, the Legislature overwhelmingly defeated two bills designed to remove tax-exempt status from land trusts. Both bills were unanimously rejected in the Senate. Why? Because most lands conserved by Maine land trusts – fully 95 percent – are already on the tax rolls.
Moreover, eliminating land trusts’ eligibility for a property tax exemption will have little or no impact in addressing property tax concerns in Maine and will not help state lawmakers arrive at a balanced budget. The governor’s proposal will also not get the state to 55 percent in education funding or allow elderly residents to keep their homes, as he has claimed in the past.
Interestingly, earlier this session the Legislature unanimously approved a bill introduced by the conservation community to allow land trusts to make voluntary tax payments to local governments to support land holdings in rural Maine. This proposal offered the governor a chance to support legislation to ease the property tax burden on Maine landowners. Yet this bill went into law without the governor’s signature after sitting on his desk for 10 days.
As for the governor’s current proposal, the latest bargaining tool in the state budget discussions, it would only affect fewer than 95,000 acres statewide, less than half of 1 percent of the state. And on roughly 20 percent of these acres the land trusts are already making payments in lieu of taxes. At the same time, the fiscal impact of eliminating the property tax exemption would be negligible.
For example, in legislative testimony in 2015, a licensed appraiser estimated that tax exemptions held by all the land trusts in Bath added roughly $1 per year to the property tax bill on a $300,000 home.
More importantly, the return on investment in land conservation greatly outweighs any costs.
There are examples in every corner of the state of land trusts benefiting their home communities. These conserved lands are an essential part of the foundation for Maine’s natural resource-based economy, our quality of life and the Maine brand. These lands guarantee access for commercial fishermen, protect working farms, ensure forests for forest products, create opportunities to hunt, fish, hike, swim, walk dogs, snowmobile and canoe, protect important wildlife habitat and serve as vital classrooms for students across the state.
Lastly, there is a growing understanding of the tax benefits generated by conservation land. The latest indication can be found in President Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposal, where the president indicates “evidence shows that (National Wildlife) Refuges often generate tax revenue for communities in excess of what was lost, by increasing property values and creating tourism opportunities for the American public to connect with nature.”
With the important role that trust-conserved lands play – providing access to hunters, hikers, birdwatchers, snowmobilers, anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts – one only needs to get out of Augusta’s Capitol complex to see businesses and communities enjoying similar economic benefits throughout the state.
Maine people love and support conservation lands. Through six overwhelming statewide votes in favor of the Land for Maine’s Future Program and generous private donations, Maine citizens have made these investments in the future of the state they cherish.
Conservation lands, including those held in land trusts, are a crucial component of our economy and a valued part of our Maine way of life. They deserve more respect than to be treated as an 11th-hour bargaining chip in budget negotiations that could lead to a government shutdown.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Tim Glidden is president of Maine Coast Heritage Trust, David Trahan is executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and Kate Dempsey is state director of The Nature Conservancy in Maine.