by Andy O’Brien & Christine Parrish
Free Press news story
As the July 16 Veto Day approaches, a bill to fund 36 land conservation projects appears to be losing Republican support, making it uncertain if the Legislature can override a LePage veto. LD 1378, sponsored by Sen. Roger Katz (R-Kennebec), would prevent the governor from holding voter-approved bonds hostage for political leverage, including the Land for Maine’s Future bonds, which were previously approved by 60 percent of Maine voters.
David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said that Republicans shouldn’t waver on their support for funding the Land for Maine’s Future, a program that he said allows public access for every Mainer on land that would otherwise be bought up by wealthy landowners and locked up behind gates.
“There is a lot of pressure being put on Republicans to support the governor, but this isn’t a partisan issue,” said Trahan. “It’s a case of the governor going far beyond his authority in holding up those bonds. It’s the responsibility of the entire Legislature to check that power. That’s why we have three branches of government and they need to do their job.”
Reneging on a Promise
LD 1378 was submitted in response to Gov. LePage’s attempts to force Democrats to support a bill to allow him to use revenue from timber harvesting on Maine’s Public Lands for low-income heating assistance by holding $11.5 million in voter-approved LMF bonds hostage. The timber-harvesting bill failed to gain support in the Legislature, but the governor has continued to oppose releasing the bonds, arguing that some of the projects would take land off local property-tax rolls.
The governor’s action puts 50,000 acres in jeopardy, as the LMF fund reportedly has only $2.2 million left to cover the 36 pending conservation projects. Those projects include forest, recreation and agricultural land. Most of them have secured private and federal matching funds with the understanding that the state LMF funding would become available. LePage held six of those 36 voter-approved bond projects hostage in 2013 until Democrats approved his initiative to pay back the state’s Medicaid debt to hospitals and promised he would then “prepare those bonds for my signature on an expedited basis.”
“The administration refuses to acknowledge that they promised to spend this money in an expedited fashion in 2013 when the hospitals were paid off,” said Maine Coast Heritage Trust Public Policy Coordinator Jeff Romano. “He’s reneging on that public promise he made.”
LD 1378, which originally passed the House 102-48 and 26-9 in the Senate, would prevent governors from ignoring the will of the voters unless the debt service on the bond would be greater than the amount budgeted; the bond would hurt the state’s credit rating; if waiting to issue them would provide a better interest rate; or if alternative funding for the projects become available.
In his four-page veto message, LePage argued that LD 1378 violates the “constitutional mandate” of executive powers and would redefine his authority in issuing bonds.
“How can a bicameral body comprised of 186 separate members be charged with the issuance of bonds, as dictated by this bill that strips all discretion from the Executive via a legislative enactment?,” wrote the governor.
Romano dismissed the governor’s argument and said the Maine Constitution is pretty clear that the Legislature has power to issue bonds and the voters have the power to ratify them.
“I think that the governor’s office is grasping for something that’s not there,” said Romano. “This seems to be his answer now when he doesn’t like the way something is going. He leans on the Constitution.”
Republicans Consider Changing Votes
But intense pressure is on at least six Republicans who initially supported Katz’s bill. Even LD 1378 co-sponsor Rep. Russell Black (R-Wilton) says he is reconsidering his earlier support of the measure due to worries that conservation projects in the vicinity of his district will be put in further jeopardy if the governor pursues a legal challenge to block the proposed law. Only three Republicans would need to change their votes to kill the bill, as a veto override needs a two-thirds vote.
“I’m a little bit concerned myself about what is going to happen if we override him,” said Black. “It’s pretty easy to tie something up in court, isn’t it? And he’s got three and a half more years in office.”
In late May, LePage announced that he planned to personally decide which of the LMF board-approved projects deserve funding and is “investigating” whether they’re “legitimate.”
Black says there might be a possibility of changing his vote on the measure in exchange for allowing the governor more discretion in funding specific board-approved projects. He noted that while the governor opposes some LMF projects that would take property off the tax rolls such as the wooded Howard Hill property behind the State House in Augusta (which happens to be in Sen. Katz’ district), he might approve other projects – such as the pending purchase of the Orbeton Stream conservation easement in the Carrabassett Valley region near Black’s district.
“If he had a plan how he was going to release some of [the bonds] I guess [it] would be a good consideration for me,” Black added. “I’ve got to sit down and do a little homework on that and really scrutinize the bonds. I’d love to have a chance to talk to the governor and see if there’s something to be worked out so we don’t have to jump through all of these hurdles.”
Black said he has not been lobbied by the governor’s office yet, but LePage ally Rep. Jeff Timberlake (R-Turner) says he believes Republicans have enough votes to sustain the governor’s veto. He said he tried to put a measure in the budget to require that land purchased with LMF bonds would be prohibited from being removed from the property tax rolls. He cited the Augusta project in Katz’ district specifically.
“I’m not as convinced as some that the project in Augusta ought to be funded and taken off the tax rolls of Augusta,” said Timberlake. “I don’t think that’s good business and that’s valuable land that could go into development that could turn into commercial property for Augusta.”
If a handful of Republican legislators do change their votes and kill the measure and LePage did then pick and choose which LMF projects to fund, Romano says the governor would be on very shaky legal grounds. He noted that while Maine statute gives the governor the authority to nominate LMF board members who approve funding for specific projects through a long and arduous vetting process, it does not give the governor the authority to override the board’s authority.
“The governor could choose to go down that path, but that would not be in concert with the way that LMF statutes are written,” said Romano. “And I think that would be a misuse of executive power.”
Trahan said he sees a vote to override the governor’s veto as critical to the survival of LMF.
“One of the questions I have for those Republicans who are considering sustaining the governor’s veto, is what plan do you have for the Land for Maine’s Future going forward? Because, right now, the LMF board is not approving any new projects and they are likely to lose one or two board members soon. If the governor doesn’t fill those seats, they won’t have a quorum to hold a vote. Then, you take away the funding by sustaining the veto. That means the whole LMF program is dead in the water and sinking fast.”
“That just gives the public the short end of the deal,” said Trahan. “I’ll tell you, when Land for Maine’s Future was started, I was totally opposed to it, but it evolved to increase public access for hunting, fishing, and other recreation. And I evolved. I am a complete supporter because everyone in Maine, from the top earner to the bottom, is being served by it.”