AUGUSTA, Maine — Hamstrung by a governor who refuses to release voter-approved conservation bonds and who has now frozen their assets, members of the Land for Maine's Future board want lawmakers to provide a legislative solution to their funding problems.
Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves and Falmouth Sen. Cathy Breen say they're expecting bills in January to allow the conservation projects to move forward with or without the governor's approval.
Gov. Paul LePage is refusing to release more than $11 million in voter-approved land conservation bonds until the Legislature capitulates to his demand to allocate money from timber harvesting on public lands to home energy assistance programs.
Meanwhile, LePage has also frozen $2 million in bond money that the board had planned on drawing from for other conservation projects and is also blocking private donations for those purposes.
"As the result of all the recent events and the wishes of the governor to stop all Land for Maine's Future's funding of project activity, it would appear that further board meetings and actions at this time are fruitless," board member Neil Piper of Gorham says, speaking at a regularly scheduled meeting of the Land for Maine's Future board on Tuesday. "Until such time as the Legislature can make a firm stand to restore funding or the governor provides clear direction to this program, it appears that the work of this board will clearly not move the public agenda forward."
In fact, the board has not even been able to take a vote for months because the governor's commissioners of natural resource agencies required to provide a quorum for the board have not attended any meetings.
Although representatives of the commissioners were sent to the meetings to explain that prior commitments were preventing their attendance, Piper wasn't buying it.
"The LMF board is at a very disadvantaged position, with only five of six public positions — one that has been vacant since last January working and three commissioners who are acting — it appears on the wishes of the governor only — and in fact, the commissioners have voted against moving any project forward since May of this year and many of them have not attended a meeting since May," Piper says.
Board members say the LePage administration has informed about 30 applicants hoping to participate in the program that the money for their projects is no longer available.
The LMF fund has been the primary vehicle for land acquisition for conservation purposes in the state for nearly 30 years. Formerly administered through the now defunct State Planning Office, the responsibilities were shifted to the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
Still locked in a standoff with lawmakers over the use of state public lands harvesting revenues, LePage allowed $6.5 million in 2010 LMF bonds to lapse. Reauthorizing them will take legislative action next year.
The fate of $5 million in 2012 voter approved bonds also remains uncertain and Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves says lawmakers will respond.
"It's not good governing, it's bad for our economy, it's bad for our environment," Eves says. "He [LePage] has taken something that has traditionally been a very bipartisan, agreed-upon program that does great things for our environment and he's politicized it, and I would not at all be surprised if there were a number of bills that came forward to try and address the obstruction of the governor as it relates to the LMF program."
Democratic Sen. Cathy Breen of Falmouth, a member of the Legislature's Environment and Natural Resources Committee, says she agrees that lawmakers should address the LMF's funding crisis and says she finds it difficult to understand why governor is threatening such a popular bonding program.
"How one individual can simply put such a great program on the line and be so vindictive and so destructive is just mind boggling to me," Breen says.
Both lawmakers shared the concerns of acting LMF Board Chair Jim Norris, who said it was likely that there would be nothing left of the board by the end of the year because most of the public members' terms will expire.
"We could be down to one member in January in that regard, all the public members have spent inordinate amount of time trying to do our job," Norris says.
Meanwhile, Jonathan LaBonte, with the governor's Office of Policy and Management, told members of the panel that the results of an analysis of the Land for Maine's Future board's policies and acquisitions will be presented at an October meeting. What is less clear is how many members of the board will be there to hear it.