By The BDN Editorial Board
Supporters of the Land for Maine’s Future program can breathe a sigh of relief. They can celebrate, but with cautious optimism.
We were pleased to see Gov. Paul LePage on Monday back down from his refusal to release $11.5 million in bonds voters authorized in 2010 and 2012 for a state conservation program that has set aside hundreds of thousands of acres for outdoor recreation, including hunting, fishing, timber harvesting, farmland preservation and waterfront access for commercial fishermen.
LePage’s intentions to release a $5 million bond for the program approved by voters in 2012 are now in writing. If lawmakers manage to reauthorize $6.47 million in bonds that voters approved in 2010 and that LePage allowed to lapse earlier this year, the governor informed Treasurer Terry Hayes that he would authorize their sale as well.
If LePage sticks to his word and quits interfering with a politically independent and popular program, the 30 Land for Maine’s Future conservation projects in waiting will get the greenlight and the transactions can be completed.
But now, it’s up to lawmakers and the public to hold LePage to his word, because there’s reason to suspect he won’t follow through. After all, the governor has pledged to release the Land for Maine’s Future bonds in question in the past and reneged.
In 2013, LePage said he would release all outstanding, voter-approved bonds — including the two Land for Maine’s Future bonds — after lawmakers approved his plan to pay off the state’s nearly $500 million debt to Maine’s hospitals. A Democratic Legislature acquiesced, but LePage didn’t hold up his end of the deal. Earlier this year, LePage returned to using the Land for Maine’s Future bonds as leverage in a bid to get something else he wanted — legislative approval for a legally suspect plan to increase the timber harvest from 400,000 acres of state-owned forests and direct the revenue to heating upgrades for low-income, rural households.
Although LePage has indicated in writing that he won’t stand in the way of selling conservation bonds, there are other ways for him to stand in the way of allowing Land for Maine’s Future to meet its obligations.
First, lawmakers have to act within two years to reauthorize the $6.47 million in bonds that expired in November due to LePage’s refusal to issue them. (In a letter to legislative leaders on Monday, LePage dishonestly assigned the blame to the Legislature.) There’s reauthorization legislation pending, but it’s unclear whether LePage will cooperate with the effort.
“We’ll see. We’ll see,” LePage told radio hosts Ric Tyler and George Hale on Tuesday morning when asked whether the bond reauthorization will happen.
Second, LePage could decide again at any moment — as he did earlier this year — to effectively bring Land for Maine’s Future operations to a halt. Earlier this year, for example, he denied the program access to more than $2 million in existing funding it had on hand. Even if the state treasurer’s office follows through with the sale of $11.47 million in Land for Maine’s Future bonds, LePage has the ability to again keep the program from accessing its voter-approved funding.
While LePage says he’ll issue Land for Maine’s Future bonds, the governor hasn’t dropped his vociferous objections to the conservation program — chiefly, his false contentions that the program primarily benefits the wealthy and that it’s a product of government corruption. He voiced these objections again last week during a town hall meeting in Portland, on Monday in a letter to legislative leaders, and during the Tuesday radio interview with Tyler and Hale.
It’s positive news that LePage has relented on the Land for Maine’s Future bond front. Given the governor’s track record, however, the conservation program could still have an uncertain future.