AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Attorney General Janet Mills is casting doubt on plans by Gov. Paul LePage to use revenues from timber harvesting on public lands to pay for heating assistance for the poor.
Citing past court opinions and restrictions in the Maine Constitution, Mills says the governor's plan runs afoul of the narrow scope of allowed uses for the money.
For several weeks, the Commission to Study the Public Reserved Lands Management Fund had been waiting to hear Mills' legal take on several questions, including whether $5 million in proceeds from harvesting on public lands could legally be used to fund heating assistance for the poor.
"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 reserve lands" says Rep. Craig Hickman, a Winthrop Democrat and co-chair of the commission, reading Mills' written response.
In other words, Mills wrote, it's probably not going to fly.
"Under the very limited language of the opinion of the justices, this proposed use would likely meet great skepticism from the court," Hickman says.
With a little more than $7 million in available funds generated by the harvesting of timber on the more than 400,000 acres the state holds in public trust, the commission members are pursuing various strategies for the best use of up to $2.5 million a year.
While Mills' interpretation is not a legal opinion, panel members say it's welcome advice as they attempt to craft recommendations for the next session of the Legislature.
LePage has been refusing to issue land conservation bonds until the Legislature agrees to his proposal for selling off the public lands timber. Lawmakers could accommodate him by changing the traditional uses of such funds, which include purchase of new lands or improvements to public parcels.
But the required two-thirds vote in both houses would be subject to judicial review, and opponents could take the issue to court.
Jym St. Pierre, Maine director of Restore: The North Woods, says there should be no confusion over the intended use of the harvesting money.
"I've been involved in these issues for about 40 years and I've always thought it was clear that the monies from the public lands are supposed to be invested in the public lands," St. Pierre says.
Commission member David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, says he hopes the overwhelming opposition to LePage's plan will convince the governor to back off from his original demand and release the millions of dollars in voter-approved bonds to protect several projects approved by the Land for Maine's Future Commission.
"The governor is inviting litigation, even if he were in successful in getting his way in getting this money transferred, it would be in court the next day — I think there's better ways to do this — ultimately the governor has to back down from his threats," Trahan says. "He has to do his research, take a look at the history and then I think he would realize that there might be a better path."
Mills also informed the panel that using the money to replace General Fund allocations to the Bureau of Parks and Public Lands would also pose a problem. She says the best course of action for the commission seems to be in the area of acquiring additional land, either as designated public reserved lands or simply as land that would serve similar uses.
Commission co-chair Sen. Tom Saviello, a Wilton Republican, says that's given him a new idea for the timber harvest funds.
"Her final thought which was really interesting was taking some of the money, we could buy some land and we could be some seed money to go out there and I personally, and I'm just talking to some of the committee members, would like to see us go after deer yards to take a more active role in taking control of some of those deer yards and manage them appropriately so we could bring some of that deer population back into place," Saviello says.
A spokeswoman for the LePage administration says the governor is attending a trade mission overseas and would review the attorney general's advice when he returns to Maine.