By Christopher Cousins, BDN Staff
Bangor Daily News news story
AUGUSTA, Maine — The Land for Maine’s Future board of directors convened another meeting Tuesday without a quorum and was unable to vote on projects that have been awaiting action for months.
Among those absent from Tuesday’s meeting were all three members of Gov. Paul LePage’s Cabinet who sit on the board. All three also failed to attend a board meeting in July.
Board member Neil Piper kicked off Tuesday’s meeting with a statement about how the board will operate — or not — in the future.
“The governor has elected to shut down the process for political and personal reasons,” said Piper. “Even if funds are eventually restored, many of the approved projects will be seriously delayed.”
Piper called for the board to suspend its meeting schedule for the foreseeable future, though it was unclear Tuesday whether that’s what will happen.
The organization apparently knew it would not have a board quorum; a preliminary agenda was revised Tuesday with the deletion of all action items.
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said in response to questions from the Bangor Daily News that the governor “did not tell anyone to be absent. Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher was in Rhode Island on business and Agriculture Commissioner Walter Whitcomb is attending a national conference.
“These absences were both known to the board in advance,” said Bennett.
Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Chandler Woodcock had to bow out of the meeting unexpectedly, according to Bennett.
The Land for Maine’s Future Program has been at a standstill for most of this year, since Gov. Paul LePage blocked the sale of conservation bonds that were approved by voters in 2010 and 2012, saying he would not authorize them unless the Legislature agreed to his plan to increase timber harvesting on public lands to fund a home heating program for senior citizens.
This wasn’t the first time LePage has used his authority to block or approve bonds as leverage during his tenure as governor. In 2013, he blocked the sale of up to $100 million in voter approved bonds after the Legislature turned back his attempt to eliminate municipal revenue sharing. In 2014, he again blocked bonds until his demand that the state’s rainy day fund be replenished with at least $60 million was met.
LePage is also blocking the Land for Maine’s Future program’s use of $2 million in cash on hand that comes from bonds that were previously sold, which means essentially that the organization can’t move at all on a range of projects that await funding.
The board’s original agenda shows that several conservation projects are up for votes on amendments or new spending, many of which couldn’t be acted on at a previous meeting because the board did not have a quorum present. The projects in focus today are the Roberts Farm/Noyes Mountain in Norway; the Bangor and Aroostook Rail Trail; Tide Mill Farms in Edmunds; Clapboard Island in Falmouth; Howard Hill in Augusta; and A&R Enterprises, a working waterfront project in St. George.
In addition to blocking the funding, LePage has ordered an investigation of the organization, which later morphed into members of his executive team intervening in the production of a periodic report Land for Maine’s Future generates for the Legislature. That report is due later this year. Part of LePage’s probe involves how land in the program is appraised before it is purchased.
LePage has said in some instances that his intention is not to kill the program, although he has also been very critical of the organization, saying its projects primarily benefit wealthy organizations and individuals while there are vulnerable Mainers with greater need for the state’s limited financial resources.
Environmental groups have pushed back aggressively at that argument.
Earlier this year, Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, introduced legislation to force LePage — and future governors — to sign bonds that are approved by voters. The bill passed through the Legislature but died after LePage vetoed it. The veto was sustained in the House of Representatives, mostly by Republicans.