Good afternoon Senator Woodsome, Representative Dion, and members of the Energy, Utilities, and Technology Committee. My name is Eliza Donoghue and I am the North Woods Policy Advocate for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. I am speaking to you today on behalf of our 16,000 members and supporters in strong opposition to LD 1397, An Act To Establish the Affordable Heating from Maine’s Forests Fund.
This bill raises major legal concerns by proposing to redirect funds that are dedicated to supporting Maine’s Public Lands by public trust doctrine. The bill would set a dangerous legislative precedent of channeling funds away from a dedicated funding account within Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry toward a completely unrelated purpose. And the bill would compromise the stewardship of Maine’s Public Reserved Lands, which have been carefully managed based on science, not politics.
The Bureau of Parks and Lands (BPL) manages 600,000 acres of Public Reserved Lands for multiple public uses, including outdoor recreation, wildlife habitat, and sustainable forestry. These lands are governed by laws dating back to Maine’s separation from Massachusetts. Under the Articles of Separation, and as stated by the Maine Supreme Court and the Maine Attorney General, revenue derived from timber harvesting and other activities on Public Reserved Lands is subject to a public trust. This trust limits the uses to which Public Reserved Lands can be put. Currently, harvesting revenues must be placed in a dedicated fund to manage these lands. We believe LD 1397’s proposal to use these funds for home heating programs violates this public trust obligation.
Beyond the substantial legal questions, we believe passage of this bill would set a dangerous precedent, potentially opening the door to all manner of efforts to raid other dedicated and special revenue funds for non-germane purposes. Revenue from harvesting on Public Reserved Lands is deposited into a dedicated account, to be used solely for the management of those lands—the program’s only funding stream. This bill proposes to take money from an account under the jurisdiction of the Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry (ACF) Committee and decide how to spend it for energy programs under the jurisdiction of this Committee. Imagine if the ACF Committee considered a bill that diverted Maine Yankee settlement funds to build hiking trails, or RGGI funds to finance Public Lands infrastructure investments that could face shortfalls if LD 1397 were to pass? LD 1397 pits committees, agencies, and legislators against each other, violates the disciplined structure of dedicated revenue accounts, and the orderly management of our state budget. It is not hard to imagine the precedent set by this bill coming back to haunt legislators as lawmakers looked at revenue streams outside their own jurisdiction in order to fund programs within their jurisdiction. The General Highway Fund, Workers’ Compensation Board Administrative Account, Loon License Plate Account – there’s a long list of funding streams that could suddenly become ripe for the picking if this bill were to set the precedent.
BPL depends on all of the funds in the Public Reserved Lands Management Account, and that’s where these funds need to be spent. Maine’s Public Reserved Lands program has been underfunded for most of the past decade. As a result, program expenditures have been curtailed or delayed. Money is needed for important, unmet on-going expenditures like forest protection, road construction, and building maintenance. Public Lands has a long list of important expenditures that are in line for funds from the logging revenue that would be diverted by LD 1397. These needs far exceed the existing fund balance and are essential to retaining the quality of these lands and their contribution to Maine’s nature-based tourism economy. This bill would institutionalize the underfunding of Maine’s Public Lands programs. And because the bill is written to transfer “at a minimum, $1 million from the Public Reserved Lands Management Fund” it creates pressure to cut Maine’s Public Reserved Lands much more aggressively than they are now, and this could have major consequences in terms of habitat loss, loss of some of Maine’s largest and oldest trees, and the value of these lands for recreation. These are not issues that this Committee addresses, but your actions could contribute to that outcome. These concerns led the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee to vote unanimously against efforts to increase timber harvesting on Public Reserved Lands, as advocated by the Administration and as embodied in LD 1397.
We also believe LD 1397 is a distraction from actions by the Administration that threaten existing energy efficiency programs that help reduce energy costs for Maine businesses and homeowners. This year’s Efficiency Maine budget includes over $9 million for its Home Energy Savings Program, as well as $5 million specifically for low-income programs. The Governor recently proposed over $10 million in cuts to Efficiency Maine (LDs 1398, 1400 and 1431) and has blocked efforts to prevent up to $38 million in cuts as a result of the missing “and.” These efforts to reduce energy efficiency can’t be squared with this sudden demand to overharvest Maine’s forestlands, divert funding from important Public Land purposes, all for the supposed purpose of addressing energy costs. The proposed diversion of funding called for in LD 1397 is not the way to address the important goal of helping reduce energy costs. Rather, we urge the legislature to pass LD 1215—restoring the work, leadership, and legislative intent that this Committee put forward with the Omnibus Energy Act of 2013—and reject further cuts to Efficiency Maine through recently proposed legislation.
For these reasons, we urge the Committee to vote Ought Not to Pass on LD 1397.