An extensive inquiry by the LePage administration recommends minor fixes to the popular program but finds nothing to suggest that it is ‘corrupt.’
Of all the insults Gov. LePage has leveled at the Land for Maine’s Future program, the most damaging and accusatory is that it is “corrupt” – not a well-intentioned initiative that is nonetheless overused, or a laudable effort that still should be a lower priority, but an outright scam that gives sweetheart deals for overvalued land.
For months now, the governor has made this claim with some frequency, along with other, less inflammatory opinions on the popular program, often adding that an investigation by his office would show he was right to withhold voter-approved land bonds.
However, the report concluding that eight-month review, finished in December and presented last week to the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, does not show anything approaching malfeasance. In fact, it doesn’t support any of the governor’s claims, most of which have been debunked by the varied organizations and individuals that have come to the program’s defense.
The 194-page report, from the governor’s Office of Policy and Management, mostly describes the program’s origins and actions. It provides some valuable context on the scope of the program, and its few recommendations focus on minor updates and improvements.
Nowhere does it show that the deals made through the program involve inflated land values, nor does it prove that sales through the program benefit only “wealthy” conservation organizations and landowners, or that municipalities are unduly harmed when conservation land is taken off the tax rolls, two of LePage’s other points.
The fight over the land bonds has given LMF supporters plenty of time to show why the latter two claims are off base.
• First, it’s ridiculous to fault conservation groups for raising money to buy land. You can’t fault them either for dealing with wealthy landowners, who by definition own the valuable parcels of land that warrant conservation.
And once an easement is in place, the protected land benefits many Mainers, including but not limited to sportsmen and women who hunt, fish and hike.
Commercial fishermen use the 24 working waterfronts saved through the program. Deer-wintering yards, timberland and farms under pressure from development have also been saved, again benefiting old and important areas of the state economy.
Overall, every $1 spent by the program generates $11 worth of benefits and economic activity. There is no doubt that Maine’s landscape, both literal and economic, is in much better shape today because of the program.
• Second, conservation land has little effect on property tax rates.
More than 60 percent of the conserved lands remain on the tax rolls with no change.
Others, such as Mount Kineo, the West Branch of the Penobscot River, Machias River and Grafton Notch, are state-owned, and there is no doubt they should be. Many are located in the Unorganized Territories, and most of the land was previously enrolled in the Tree Growth or Open Space tax abatement programs.
In all of the above cases, the effect on the tax rolls is minimal or nonexistent.
These facts and the absence of any smoking gun in the governor’s report should put to rest the months-long debate over the land program.
LePage said recently that the debate over Land for Maine’s Future has been a distraction from the state’s real priorities.
But it was the governor who started all this, and forced so many people to spend so much time and energy defending the program against baseless claims.