The structure of the popular conservation program should be changed so one person can’t stall it unilaterally.
By The Editorial Board
Portland Press Herald editorial
Members of the Land for Maine’s Future board have a right to be angry.
For years, the program has worked without a hitch.
A bond was approved by the Legislature and governor, and placed on a statewide ballot, where it was inevitably supported by a strong majority of Maine voters. Then the money from the bond would be used to fund projects put forward by local conservation groups and vetted thoroughly by the LMF board.
But Gov. LePage has put the program on hold by taking what was always considered a routine act – the final signature of the governor on the voter-approved bonds – and turning it into a hostage negotiation.
That says more about the governor’s style of governance than any weakness in the process itself. But still, it is reason enough to consider making Land for Maine’s Future more independent, and less vulnerable to whims of the executive office, perhaps by changing the makeup of the board of directors, or by altering how the program’s money is allocated after voters approve the bonds.
No governor should be able to bring such an effective and popular program to a halt all by himself, and with no good reason.
BONDS USED AS LEVERAGE
Since 1987, the Land for Maine’s Future program has helped conserve forests, lakes, ponds and streams, keeping space open throughout the state for people to hike, fish and hunt.
It’s saved snowmobile trails, working waterfronts and deer-wintering habitat, among other areas critical to Maine’s ecological and economic future.
But that work has stalled with Le-Page’s refusal to sign off on $11.5 million in bonds approved by voters in 2010 and 2012 and already earmarked for land acquisitions years in the making.
First, the governor said he would issue the bonds after the Legislature approved his plan to repay the state’s hospital debt.
Now, with that debt paid, LePage is still holding on to the bonds, using them again as leverage for another of his proposals.
He has also barred LMF staff from distributing funds used for administrative purposes, and even is restricting the use of privately donated money.
Finally, the governor – after arguing incorrectly that the program is only for “elites” and offering some vague allegations of mismanagement – has enlisted the Office of Policy and Management to review the already well-reviewed land projects. His three appointees to the LMF board have been absent from its last two meetings, leaving the board unable to conduct business and infuriating those present.
WISHES OF MAINE VOTERS IGNORED
There’s no proof that LePage has ordered his commissioners to skip the meetings – and if the governor did issue such an order, history suggests he would say that he had.
But taken together, his actions have effectively ended the Land for Maine’s Future program, against the clear wishes of the public and without much, if any, input from the Legislature.
Lawmakers could have put a stop to LePage’s obstruction last session, but they failed to override the governor’s veto of a bill that would have forced him to issue the bonds.
That bill was doomed by some legislators who felt, separate from the LMF dispute, that the measure interfered too much in executive power.
But there should be no such concerns about changing the structure of the LMF program so that one person cannot stall it unilaterally and without cause.
That’s how the program previously worked in practice. And that’s the way it should always work.