By Jeff McCabe, Special to the BDN
Bangor Daily News op-ed
I want to publicly thank Gov. Paul LePage for single-handedly raising the profile of Land for Maine’s Future. If he didn’t keep holding hostage its voter-approved bonds, there wouldn’t have been an occasion to look into just how much Mainers support this conservation program.
It’s clear: Land for Maine’s Future enjoys deep and broad support from Mainers across the political spectrum and across the state who know it benefits all the state’s residents, not just the wealthy.
A recent poll conducted jointly by a Republican firm and a Democratic one revealed how out of touch the governor is here. It also shows Republican House leadership and the 50 rank-and-file Republicans who in July sustained the governor’s veto of a bill to release the bonds that their support of the governor on this issue is badly misplaced.
While the governor keeps framing Land for Maine’s Future as an issue of rich versus poor, Mainers know better. Seventy-three percent of the 500 likely voters surveyed said all residents and visitors benefit from the program.
If the governor took the time to visit properties conserved with the program, he would quickly understand why.
What would he see? Clammers and fishermen accessing coastal waters. Loggers harvesting from working forests and sending logs to Maine mills. Tourists patronizing lodging businesses and restaurants while enjoying a weekend of leaf-peeping or moose watching. Farmers gathering crops for purchase by local families. Families and friends hunting, fishing, hiking, snowmobiling and otherwise enjoying the great outdoors.
Not everyone can afford a home on the coast of Maine. Not everyone has the means to escape to Florida or the Caribbean each year. Land for Maine’s Future is for regular hardworking Maine people and kids like my daughter and son as much as anyone else.
Protecting these lands can be a bargain. Landowners often sell their property for well below market value. On average, every $1 invested through Land for Maine’s Future leverages $3. In other words, Land for Maine’s Future bonds provide $250,000 on average for a $1 million property. Meanwhile, more than 60 percent of the 570,000 acres conserved through the program continue to pay property taxes.
This is not the first time the governor has used Land for Maine’s Future as a bargaining chip for unrelated political aims. The Legislature once agreed to repay the hospital debt on the governor’s terms after he sat on bonds, but he refused to hold up his end of the deal.
This time, the governor is linking Land for Maine’s Future to an unsustainable plan to increase timber harvesting on public lands. Even if lawmakers agreed, why should we expect the governor to act in good faith?
A commission looking into the management of public lands is uncovering information that further undermines the governor’s position of diverting funds intended for public lands.
It’s simply bad policy. Public lands are underutilized resources with tremendous potential to boost rural economies. They have a backlog of needs and investments — trails for residents with disabilities, water access, road maintenance and other infrastructure — that are underfunded.
And the public lands account has less money than the governor claims — about $4.5 million rather than the $8 million he’s asserted. We can’t overlook an important fact: The market for forest products is weak, meaning the state likely will have to reduce its harvest this year, see less revenue or both.
If the governor is serious about helping low-income Mainers with heat, I have a couple of options for him. He refused to discuss it earlier this year, but my bond proposal, LD 1248, would split $10 million equally between Efficiency Maine and Land for Maine’s Future. LR 2359, meanwhile, would provide heating assistance through liquor contract revenue, but it needs at least one Republican leader on the Legislative Council to change his or her vote on appeal so it can be considered by the full Legislature.
The governor has the opportunity to provide heating help without undermining our public lands and stopping our most effective land conservation program.
Mainers overwhelmingly supported Land for Maine’s Future investments at the ballot box in 2010 and 2012. They want those bonds to conserve forests, coastlines, wildlife habitat and other natural areas. They do not want these bonds used as a bargaining chip.
Bottom line: The people of Maine have spoken, and the governor must listen.
Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, is the House majority leader. He represents Skowhegan and part of Madison.