By George Smith
Bangor Daily News column
It is time for the Governor to realize he isn’t going to get his wish of diverting funding away from Maine’s public lands, and do the right thing: release those Land for Maine’s Future Bonds. Maine people strongly agree on this, and an opinion issued yesterday by Janet Mills, Maine’s Attorney General, should put this issue to rest.
By the huge margin of 74 percent to 16 percent, Maine people in a recent poll said the Governor should release voter-approved bond funds. Only 16% side with the idea that the Governor should not release LMF funds.
You must be aware that Governor Paul LePage wants to cut more of your trees and divert that money to causes outside of your lands. His inability to convince legislators to do this led to another tantrum and his refusal to sell the Land for Maine’s Future bonds jeopardized more than 30 land conservation projects. In September the Governor forbid the LMF Board and staff from spending any money on legal work on present projects, or any existing bond money to complete projects.
Today, a special commission organized by the legislature to study and report on these issues meets at 11 am to hear responses to their many questions and put together preliminary recommendations. They’ll meet one more time in November and then issue their findings and recommendations in early December.
Attorney General’s Opinion
In response to questions from the Public Lands Commission about the diversion of Public Lands money, the Attorney General reported yesterday that, “While the purchase of heating equipment for low-income rural families is a laudable goal, as is public assistance for food, shelter and health care, it is not easy to draw a connection between these types of uses and the preservation of the Public Reserved Lands. Under the very limited language of the Opinion of the Justices, this proposed use would likely meet great skepticism from the Court.”
Attorney General Mills was referring to a 1973 and 1992 Court decisions on the uses of Public Lands Funds. Her thoughtful three-page response to the Commission’s questions included a 1992 Attorney General’s opinion and a Constitutional amendment ratified by Maine voters in 1992. As she explains, “That provision narrowly restricts what can be done with the proceeds of the sale of any public lots and requires a 2/3 vote of each House for any proposal to reduce or substantially alter the uses of public lots. While Article IX Section 23 may not relate to the specific proposals under consideration by your Commission,” she wrote, “it provides a useful backdrop regarding the intent of the Legislature and of the Maine people regarding the preservation of these unique public lands and their current uses.”
She also noted that “income derived from the Public Reserved Lands is not interchangeable with General Fund revenue and may not be diverted to the General Fund for undifferentiated use.” That seems pretty definitive and clear to me. How about you?
Commission’s First Meeting
At the Public Lands Commission’s first meeting in September, I told them that public lands are very important to Maine sportsmen. Growing up in Winthrop, Dad and I could hunt anywhere. I don’t recall every seeing a No Trespassing sign. So well into adulthood, I didn’t think we needed a lot of public land. Boy, has that changed!
Today, lots of land is posted and one of my favorite places to hunt and fish is in the 6,000 acres of public land called the Kennebec Highlands, 10 minutes from my home. When I worked for the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, we supported a successful initiative by BPL’s Tom Morrison to open the undeveloped sections of state parks to hunting. We appreciated Tom’s effort and needed that.
It was great to see Tom, who retired last year as Acting Director of the Bureau of Parks and Lands, and Will Harris, his predecessor, at the Commission’s first meeting. Both made very informative presentations. Harris noted that our public lands, “are not the state’s woodlot.” Morrison reminded Commission members that while Public Lands “is in the best financial shape it’s ever been, it’s taken years and years and that bucket doesn’t quickly refill.” A good warning to not hastily move to divert BPL’s current surplus.
I chimed in, urging the Commission to focus some of its time on the great needs I’ve seen throughout our public lands for infrastructure and other improvements. Tom Morrison noted that most Mainers don’t even know where their public lands are located.
Not long ago we received news about a poll taken by the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies and the Democratic firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates. The poll found that Maine Democrats, Independents and Republicans from every part of the state overwhelmingly support the release of all voter-approved Land for Maine’s Future funds even when they hear a simulation of the debate that has been occurring on the issue.
Given a brief, neutral explanation of the two perspectives on LMF funding, 74% of Maine people say the Governor should release voter-approved bond funds. Only 16% side with the idea that the Governor should not release LMF funds. Those supporting the release of LMF funds include 91% of Democrats, 76% of independents and 54% of Republicans. More than 70% of Mainers in every region of the state agree: coastal Maine (75%), Northeast (76%), South (76%) and Central (72%)
By a margin of 79% to 16%, Mainers reject withholding LMF bonds until the Legislature approves an unrelated law to use revenue from timber harvests on state lands to fund a separate government program to help low-income Maine residents upgrade their heating systems. Seventy-nine percent chose, instead, to support the view that “once the people of Maine have spoken at the ballot box, no one individual – even the Governor – ought to have the right to veto that decision.”
By a margin of 73% to 12%, Mainers believe that LMF funds benefit all Mainers and visitors versus only benefiting “wealthy landowners.” Governor LePage insists that public lands only benefit the wealthy. It’s actually just the opposite. The rich have their own lands. The rest of us depend on public lands.
“This poll is the latest indication that Maine people, across the state and from all walks of life, are benefitting from and valuing the economic importance of Land for Maine’s Future investments,” shared Maine Coast Heritage Trust President Tim Glidden. “It is time policymakers empower this popular land conservation program, so that it can once again fulfill the wishes of Maine voters.”
“Understanding how valuable LMF investments are to strengthening our economy, especially in rural areas, I am not at all surprised by these numbers” added Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine Executive Director David Trahan. “Sportsmen and women and outdoor groups know that LMF benefits all Mainers, not the rich. We again ask the Governor and legislators to listen and release LMF funds now.”
“We have heard months of debate and suggestions that LMF only benefits the wealthy or that voter-approved bond funds can be used as political leverage,” said Tom Abello, Senior Policy Advisor at The Nature Conservancy in Maine. “What this poll tells us is that voters know better and are not buying any of it. We hope Legislators are listening.”
“We are not surprised to see such strong support for LMF regardless of political affiliation or region in Maine,” said Wolfe Tone of The Trust for Public Land. “Voters have overwhelmingly approved these bonds at the ballot box six times. With more than 30 projects in limbo across the state, Mainers understand how withholding LMF funds is hurting their own local economy. It is time to release LMF funding and allow these investments to move forward.”
I’ll be at today’s meeting of the Public Lands Commission and will have a report for you soon after.